The coming boom
Our collective record of predicting what the economy will do next is dreadful. Twelve years ago, few worried about terrorism, many worried about Y2K, and the thought of 3 per cent interest rates was preposterous. Not a single person knows what the future holds, and so what I'm about to write isn't so much a prediction, but an observation of potential.
After five years of global collapse and stagnation, we could be on the cusp of a new economic boom.
Especially in this "Clayton's recession", where the only thing holding us back is ourselves. We're waiting for confidence to return - the feeling that it's okay to start spending again.
It's all about confidence
And despite what economists and vested interests tell us, it's not the official interest rate cuts that will make a difference, but the point at which we stop worrying about the spectre of economic collapse, and realise that we really do have it good - and that it will get even better.
Part of that recovery of confidence will come from a global recovery, specifically in the US, which is still the world's largest consumer market. It also is on the crest of boom.
A US return to growth will likely be driven by three things: a rebound in housing construction, the rise in energy production, and the end of consumer debt deleveraging. They're also factors that will be drivers of growth in Australia.
If you come, they will build it
Start with housing. From 2002 to 2007, a net average of 1.3 million American households were created every year. During that time, almost 2 million new homes were built annually. Today, it's the other way around. In the last year, 1.1 million new households were formed, but just 700,000 new homes were built.
Just as the overbuilding of homes during the housing bubble was unsustainable, today's level of home construction cannot last - it's just far too low to meet demand. Harvard's Joint Centre for Housing Studies estimates that household formation will average 1.5 million from 2010 to 2020. New home construction needs to more than double from current levels to meet those projections.
Outgoing Stockland (ASX: SGP) CEO Matthew Quinn described the current Australian housing market as the worst in 20 years.
We know that home construction is an economic "multiplier" - every new home creating two or three new jobs. More jobs mean more spending and higher economic activity. That's great news for consumer confidence, too.
Oiling the wheels of progress
Next is energy. US oil production declined nearly every year from 1986 to 2008. It has since risen consistently for the first time in three decades, now up more than 30 per cent in the past four years. The US produced more oil in July than in any other month since 1998. And growth in America's energy output since 2008 has surpassed any other country in the world.
The boom in natural gas production is even more impressive. Thanks to new fracking technologies, and a push to find new supplies after the 2008 energy shock, domestic natural gas production hit an all-time high in January, 35 per cent above where it was five years before.
If this trend continues, which seems likely, it could be a transformational boost to the economy. Home improvement retailer Lowes CEO James Tisch says that every billion cubic feet per day of natural production gas generates between 7000 and 10,000 new jobs.
While we don't have quite the energy revolution here in Australia, the LNG and coal seam gas industries are going from strength to strength.
Taking back control
Finally, households have been shedding the debt burden over the past five years or so - a so-called "deleveraging". US progress has been nothing short of remarkable: As a percentage of disposable income, household debt payments are now at the lowest level since 1993.
A McKinsey & Co report from January estimated US household deleveraging could be complete by the middle of next year. It may already be over. Total household debt has stopped declining, and is now roughly flat year over year.
Again, like our North American cousins, Australians have been busily repairing household balance sheets. The joke - which like most jokes is just a reflection of reality - goes that the barbecue conversation has moved from talking about how much we paid for our houses to how small our mortgages are.
When deleveraging ends, we'll have more flexibility to buy a car, take a holiday, or repair a roof - things we've probably been putting off for years. Household deleveraging has likely been the single biggest weight on the economy in recent years. The tailwind that comes from its completion shouldn't be underestimated.
The US experience both mirrors our own and also serves to add impetus to the local economy. The "Clayton's' recession" - the recession you have when you're not having a recession, to steal a line from the old advertising - was largely foisted on us from overseas. It was the "what if it happens here?" factor. Once we see a combination of local spending and US prosperity, the momentum will likely snowball.
Anything can happen going forward - recessions, banking collapses, wars, you name it. But we are in a nearly opposite position compared with five years ago. Back then, the economic reality was much bleaker than perception. Today, I have a feeling it's the other way around. That's why Foolish (with a capital F!) investors invest for tomorrow - not yesterday.
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Scott Phillips is a Motley Fool investment analyst. You can follow Scott on Twitter @TMFGilla. The Motley Fool's purpose is to educate, amuse and enrich investors. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691).