Prominent economists get away — sort of — at Grand Lake Stream lodge

Posted Aug. 05, 2011, at 9:58 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 06, 2011, at 10:54 a.m.

GRAND LAKE STREAM, Maine — The clear, cold and trout-filled waters of Grand Lake Stream are seemingly as far both geographically and philosophically from the bustle of Wall Street as one can get and still remain on the East Coast.

Around here, winners and losers are measured in the number and size of fish caught, not profits, and the only market to speak of is the town general store.

Even so, the 40-plus prominent economists from around the globe gathered Friday evening at Leen’s Lodge — a traditional Maine sporting camp — couldn’t help keeping one eye on the turbulent financial markets and dizzying news reports from Washington, New York and Europe.

And their opinions on the state of the global market were about as varied as their luck with the fish.

“I think things over time are going to get worse and I would not be in an index fund in the stock market right now,” said John Mauldin, author of several best-selling books and a weekly economic newsletter, “Thoughts from the Frontline,” with more than 1 million readers.

“I’m a terrified optimist because I think we have resolved a few basic things,” said David Kotok, chairman and CEO of Cumberland Advisors of Sarasota, Fla., and organizer of the annual Maine retreat for some of the most influential economic minds and voices today.

Kotok has been coming to Grand Lake Stream for more than 20 years and soon began bringing fellow economists along to this place “where we can go and hide.” This year’s annual gathering at scenic, lakefront Leen’s Lodge is the biggest yet, but no one seemed interested in hiding from the financial news.

After Thursday’s precipitous drop in the stock markets, the national talk was whether the nation was headed toward a “double-dip” recession. Friday’s stronger-than-expected figure of 117,000 new jobs in July and a slight dip in the unemployment rate seemed to buoy spirits on Wall Street a bit.

But many among the crowd gathered at Grand Lake Stream said regardless of what latest numbers say, they believe the U.S. — and the world, for that matter — still have a ways to go before the economy is humming again.

“It would be nice to offer words of comfort that everything is going to get better, but that would be false,” said Martin Barnes, chief economist at BCA Research in Montreal.

Barnes said he doesn’t believe economists should even be talking about whether we’re headed into a double-dip recession, which he argues is a rather meaningless technical term. Instead, the important question is whether the economy is going to grow.

“And at the moment, it is looking touch and go,” said Barnes.

Jim Bianco, president of Bianco Research, an investment advisory firm in Chicago, takes a slightly more pessimistic view and believes the odds of another recession are high considering the financial debt crisis in Europe and turbulence at home.

But Bianco said the situation is not nearly as dire as in the fall of 2008, when banks and financial firms were sitting on enormous debts bound to collapse. That is not the case now, he said.

So what should the Obama administration, Congress or government do to help the economy grow?

“How about nothing,” Bianco said. “Let the economy sort itself out and try not to get in the way.”

Mauldin, from his admittedly gloom-and-doom perspective, argued that the days of cheap borrowing for the U.S. and all nations have ended and now the global economy should be “embracing the deficit and embracing austerity” and accepting slow economic growth.

“And that is not fun,” Mauldin said. “But we made a number of bad choices years ago and we have to live with the consequences.”

The influence of the crowd gathered for fishing and money talk was evident by the media that filtered through Leen’s Lodge. Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio and other national outlets all sent teams to Grand Lake Stream.

Kotok pointed out — only half-jokingly — that the Dow Jones market fell 200 points after Mauldin offered his gloomy assessment live on Bloomberg on Friday morning. It later rebounded when he and another economist shared more optimistic views.

For his part, Kotok believes the ratio between the nation’s deficit and the gross domestic product has peaked and now will decline. The anti-tax movement will provide businesses predictability and government is shrinking — all positive signs, he said.

“I think we are going through a major inflection point in the U.S,” he said while seated in the lodge’s dining hall. “Trends are changing and when that happens, there are shocks.”

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