Mandates

November 10, 2019

by Steve Stofka

All states require that automobiles be insured. Would you support a state law that stipulated that you had to provide proof of insurance in order to start your car? It might be a card reader or a fingerprint reader that interfaces with an electronic interlock system. An insurance card might be a small chip on a key ring. Insert the chip, the car verifies the insurance and is ready to start.

 Some states already mandate such interlock systems called IIDs for drivers convicted of DUI and DWI offenses (McCurley, n.d.). In their implementation just laws can become unjust. A New York Times investigation recently revealed that the breathalyzers used by police are unreliable (Cowley, Silver-Greenberg, 2019). Thousands of cases have been thrown out because the machines were not calibrated and gave high readings. Some states have ignored or tried to cover up the inaccuracy of their tests.

The federal government has mandatory Social Security payments that we must pay when we work. States have mandatory sales taxes that must be paid when buying many goods and some services. Mandates are part of our everyday lives and yet people vociferously protested the Obamacare mandate to buy health insurance. Why? Working and buying things are activities that have some voluntary component. Obamacare’s mandate was on the activity of breathing, on being alive.

Some people resent jury duty for the same reason. People are called every few years where I live. For those who are unemployed, the reimbursement is small (NCSC, n.d.). In some states, jurors are paid about the same as convict labor. However, there is some choice. I can choose to move out of the district and avoid the frequency of being called. On the other hand, how do I avoid an Obamacare mandate on simply being alive?

Should young people be subject to mandatory national service of some kind? When I hear that suggestion, it usually comes from an older person. Younger people, who don’t make as much money earlier in their careers, will vote for mandates that older people making more money should pay higher taxes so that the government will be able to afford more services for younger people.

Retired people want mandates for those who are working to pay more money into the Social Security system so that retirees can be assured of getting their full pension checks. It is part of the human condition that we like mandates imposed on other people more than we like them imposed on us. We want more prisons but not in my neighborhood because that might drive property values down. We want more housing for the homeless but not in my neighborhood. I want to be charitable, but I have an obligation to protect my property values more than the homeless. We want more money for the poor and unfortunate but don’t want to pay higher taxes because we’re already taxed enough. Can’t the government get the taxes from the rich guys and leave me alone? Elizabeth Warren thinks so.

This year’s election was held last Tuesday and now we have a year of election festivities before the Presidential election in 2020. Among the Democratic contenders, Ms. Warren speaks with greater ease and confidence on the stage. She has policies and plans to pay for those policies and it’s the rich guys who are going to pay. I like that. I pay enough already. Ms. Warren fights for middle class families but she fights just as hard for the idea of big beneficial government, a variation of the philosopher king who rules his people with temperance, strength and charity.

President Trump is now the spokesman and leader of the Radical Right. Mr. Trump believes he is the philosopher king, immune from all laws while he is president. So his lawyer argued last week to a dumbfounded courtroom. Republicans believe in a philosopher king of another sort – the free market. This king rules with the wisdom of crowds, the temperance of competing interests and the strength of competition. That’s the idea at least. In practice the free market is not free. Politicians pass legislation to protect market interests from competition both domestic and foreign.

This coming election will feature candidates who have captured the extremes of either party yet claim that they represent the center. It is the other side that is radical. That’s the rhetoric we have been hearing from a radical Republican, leader Kevin McCarthy. “We’re normal. They’re crazy.” Welcome to the crazy ward at Congress, whose job approval ratings are in the low 20s (Real Clear Politics, n.d.). Why is that? Well, it’s because those crazy Democrats are trying to impeach our President and not getting anything else done. That’s one sentiment. However, Congressional approval ratings have improved since the Republicans held the House last year.

Every time I hear a politician say the phrase “the American people,” I know that I am about to hear utter nonsense following that phrase. They often profess to know and speak the will of the American people but few of them have the slightest clue or their job approval ratings wouldn’t be so low.

230 years ago, a large multinational company like the East India Company needed a powerful government like England to protect its interests and profits. This country fought a war against England to check the dominance of the East India Company. Today, Republicans openly support corporate interests over much else. Democrats say they are for the little guy, but they supported large financial institutions, big corporations and big unions during the financial crisis. They believe in big government; they need the support of big corporations to enact their big plans with their big government. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, hails from New York City and helped soften laws and regulations designed to curb Wall Street’s abuses.

The Radical Republicans believe in a form of anarchy that they call small government. Small, however, does not include military spending or subsidies to their friends and constituents. When Republicans spend big, it’s small government. When Democrats spend big, it’s socialism. We’ll get plenty of this nonsense in the coming year.

 The Radical Democrats keep insisting that this country is a democracy. No, it’s not. Look it up. The country was specifically founded on the principle that this was not a democracy. It was a republic. Shortly after the Constitution was written, the French Revolution vindicated the founders’ antipathy toward democracy. Democracies lead to either pandemonium or paralysis. In a democracy, the majority rule and inevitably enslave the minority. James Madison pointed to the institution of slavery to prove his case (Feldman, 2017). A republic of competing sectional interests would provide a better balance between warring factions within the new nation.

The Radical Republicans run against wind and solar subsidies because they are serving the interests of the oil and gas industries who have received direct and indirect subsidies for more than a hundred years. Businesses which dominate market share in an industry generously support their friends in Congress. There was no free market 200 years ago, there is no free market today and there won’t be one 150 years ago.

Adam Smith published the Wealth of Nations the same year as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The free market was an ideal that Adam Smith proposed after detailing the corruption that people and governments bring to any market. He didn’t like the idea of a free market but saw no better alternative. In his day, mercantilism dominated the economic and political system. Governments competed to protect the industries in their country against competitive pressures from those same industries in other countries.

These are our choices for next election: two philosopher kings. The big benefits of a strong, wise and caring government vs a market that can be efficient, just and cruel, that rewards effort and innovation but leaves many of the unprotected in despair. Those who don’t like mandates will vote for the market because they reason that markets can’t pass laws and mandates. Not directly, that’s true. However, dominant businesses try to get government to pass mandates which protect their profits. In either case, we are going to get mandates.

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Works Cited:

Cowley, S. and Silver-Greenberg, J. (2019, November 3). These Machines Can Put You in Jail. Don’t Trust Them. N.Y. Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

Feldman, N. (2017). Three Lives of James Madison: genius, partisan, president. [Print]. New York: Random House.

McCurley, J. (n.d.). Ignition Interlock Devices: Costs and Requirements. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://dui.drivinglaws.org/interlock.php

National Center for State Courts (NCSC). (n.d.). Jury Management: State Links. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.ncsc.org/Topics/Jury/Jury-Management/State-Links.aspx?cat=Juror%20Pay

Photo by Willian B. on Unsplash

Real Clear Politics. (n.d.). Congressional Job Approval. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/other/congressional_job_approval-903.html

What Hides Below

November 3, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Think the days of packaging subprime loans together is gone? Nope. They are called asset-backed securities, or ABS. The 60-day delinquency rate on subprime loans is now higher than it was during the financial crisis (Richter, 2019). The dollar amount of 90-day delinquencies has grown more than 60% above the high delinquencies during the financial crisis. Recently Santander U.S.A. was called out for the poor underwriting practices of its subprime loans. In this case, Santander must buy back loans that go into early default because of fraud and poor standards.

Credit card delinquencies issued by small banks have more than doubled since Mr. Trump took office (Boston, Rembert, 2019). Did a more relaxed regulatory environment encourage these banks to take on more risk to boost profits?

In the last century, geologists have developed new measuring and analytical tools to better understand the structure of the Earth. GPS technology can now detect movements of the earth’s crust as little as ¼” (USGS, n.d.). The same can’t be said for human foolishness. During the past half-century, financial analysts and academics have developed an amazing array of statistical and analytical tools to understand and measure risk. Despite that sophistication, the Federal Reserve has mismanaged interest rate policy (Hartcher, 2006). Government regulators have misunderstood risks in the banking and securities markets.

Earthquake threats happen deep underground. I suspect that the same is true about financial risks. To gain a competitive advantage, companies try to hide their strategies and the details of their financial products. On the last pages of quarterly and annual reports, we find a lot of mysterious details in the notes. After the Arthur Anderson accounting scandal in 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was passed to bring greater transparency and accountability to financial reporting. Six years later, the financial crisis demonstrated that there was a lot of risk still hiding in dark corners.

The financial crisis exposed a lot of malfeasance and foolishness. Some folks think that investors are now more alert. After the crisis, corporate board members and regulators are more active and aware of risk exposures. Are those risks behind us? I doubt it. Believing in the power of their risk models, underwriters, bankers and traders become victims of their own overconfidence (Lewis, 2015).

Each decade California experiences a quake that is more than 6.0 on the Richter scale. Following the quake come the warnings that California will split away from the North American continent. Still waiting. The recession was due to arrive eight years ago. We did experience a mini-recession in 2015-16, but it wasn’t labeled a recession. The slowdown wasn’t slow enough and long enough. Eventually we will have a recession, and all those people who predicted a recession in 2011 and subsequent years will claim they were right. In many areas of life, being right is all about timing. Few of us are that kind of right.

The data demonstrates the difficulty of financial fortune telling. The Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns shows the returns and rank of ten asset classes over the past two decades (Callan, 2019). An asset class that does well one year doesn’t fare as well the following year. An investor who can read the past doesn’t need to read the future. Does an investor need to diversify among all ten asset classes?  Many investors can achieve some reasonable balance between risk and reward with four to six index funds and leave their ouija boards in the closet.

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Notes:

Boston, C. and Rembert, E. (2019, October 28). Consumer Cracks Emerge as Banks Say Everything Looks Fine. Bloomberg. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-28/consumer-cracks-emerge-as-banks-say-everything-looks-fine

Callan. (2019). Periodic Table of Investment Returns. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.callan.com/periodic-table/

Hartcher, P. (2006). Bubble man: Alan Greenspan & the missing 7 trillion dollars. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Lewis, M. (2015). The Big Short. New York: Penguin Books.

Richter, W. (2019, October 25, 2019). Subprime auto loans blow up. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://wolfstreet.com/2019/10/25/subprime-auto-loans-blow-up-60-day-delinquencies-shoot-past-financial-crisis-peak

Szeglat, M. (n.d.) Photo of lava flow at Kalapana, HI, U.S. [Photo]. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/NysO5Rdn7Mc

USGS. (n.d.). About GPS. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://earthquake.usgs.gov/monitoring/gps/about.php

Calibrating the Narrative

October 27, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Mr. Z, the man himself, head of Facebook, showed up in Washington this week to testify before a House committee about privacy and money (C-Span, 2019). Congress is worried about Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to create a digital currency. Several committee members expressed their concern that a private company with a large global influence might wrest control of the world’s currency away from the American government.

Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution – the enumerated powers section – gave Congress the power “to coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin.” The United States has a powerful influence on the international payments system because 52% of transfers are in U.S. dollars (SWIFT, n.d.). The U.S. does not want to give up that global control to Facebook.

As I listened to the exchange between members of Congress and Mr. Zuckerberg, I was reminded that money itself is a narrative. Who gets to dominate that narrative? China and other countries would prefer that U.S. politics did not control the global financial market. When the British controlled the world’s dominant currency, the pound, more than a century ago, the U.S. didn’t like the influence that British leaders had on American lives. The sun never set on the British empire. Now its the U.S. that operates the world’s merry-go-round and the tickets are priced in dollars.

In the digital age Google and Facebook control many of the social and financial exchanges between people around the world. The U.S. government is the 800-pound gorilla in the room and doesn’t like challenges of its dominance. As Facebook and Google get larger and more influential, they become the 600-pound gorillas, but with one important difference. They don’t have an army and a court system like the U.S. does. When Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren campaigns on breaking up the digital giants because of their monopoly power, those giants pay attention. There is a mood change in Washington that reminds me of the attacks on Microsoft in the 1990s.

We can expect that Facebook and Google will continue their heavy lobbying campaigns and trust in the paralysis of our system of government. The strength of that system lies in the checks and balances built into the Constitution. However, the past decade has shown that those same checks and balances stymie a lot of policy making in Washington. During the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it was difficult to enact fiscal policy because that requires legislation which requires consensus, compromise and maturity. Not much of that left in Congress these days.

The chief response to the crisis was handled by a small group of central bankers at the Federal Reserve whose reach is limited by law. Its monetary tools are designed to work with and for banks. Because of that, Wall Street got bailed out during the crisis but not Main Street. Mr. Trump got elected partially on a promise to remedy that situation, particularly in rural America. He was the rainmaker, a billionaire who could get things done that no politician could. No person – even the President of the U.S. – has that much power. Despite the low employment numbers, many communities throughout America have not fully recovered. Mr. Trump’s performance has been theatrical, to say the least. His popular twitter barrage dominates the Washington narrative every day.

And that brings us back to that august body where Mr. Zuckerberg appeared this week. His motives are good, he assured the House committee. A third of the world’s population is unbanked, he noted. Facebook’s promotion of the digital currency Libra and its integration within the Facebook app can help. Calibra is not live yet but the web site will give you a taste of the future (Calibra, n.d.). Concerned about the attention from Congress, large financial institutions like PayPal, Visa and Mastercard have dropped out of the Calibra consortium. Or did Mr. Zuckerberg call it a partnership?

Every criminal organization around the globe is hoping that Mr. Zuckerberg will succeed. Moving $100 bills around is so inconvenient. Mr. Zuckerberg has a solution to help government track down criminal transactions and prevent the digital currency from being used for illegal activities. Law abiding citizens can stay anonymous. How will he accomplish this? It’s a secret. He will tell us soon – very soon.

Even though Calibra will be headquartered in Switzerland, Mr. Zuckerberg promised several times that Facebook will not go through with these digital currency plans until it meets all the concerns of U.S. regulators. There are a lot of regulatory agencies in the U.S. and that very plethora of regulatory bodies contributed to the financial crisis. Investment firms played off one agency against another until they found an agency they liked. Will Mr. Zuckerberg do the same?

Who will control this narrative? The big guns of the U.S. government or the billions of dollars of profit to be had by Facebook if it can scrape just a few pennies per transaction off the trillions of dollars traded around the world each year? My bet is on Mr. Zuckerberg. He is sometimes inartful, but he stumbled on a way into the lives of a few billion people around the world and he has quite artfully capitalized on that.

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Notes:

C-Span. (2019, October 23). Facebook CEO Testimony before House Financial Services Committee. [Web page, Video]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?465293-1/facebook-ceo-testimony-house-financial-services-committee

Calibra. (n.d.). A connected wallet for a connected world. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://calibra.com/

Public Domain. (n.d.) Obverse of United States one dollar bill, series 2009. [Image]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23332139

SWIFT. (2015, December). Worldwide Currency Usage and Trends. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.swift.com/node/19186

Price Plateaus

October 20, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Occasionally the stock market plateaus for six to nine months. The competing market sentiments – positive and negative – that cause a price plateau usually turn in one direction or another. Rarely does this leveling period last for twelve months or more. When those indecisive conditions don’t resolve for a year, what happens next?

Let’s begin by looking at shorter duration plateaus which occur more frequently. The market gets a bit too exuberant or conflicting economic signals make it more difficult to predict the future. Some investors read the data and reach for risk; others read the same tea leaves and opt for safety.

In 1999, near the peak of the dot-com fever, prices plateaued for seven months before going onto new highs in 2000 . Again, the market paused for much of the year.  It was the end of the huge bull market of the 1990s.

In the beginning of 2004, investor indecision caused a leveling of price action after market sentiment had turned positive in 2003. The dot-com bust, the 2001 recession, the 9-11 tragedy, and the Enron and accounting scandals had combined to cut stock values in half by the spring of 2003. Investor optimism following the tax cut package of 2003 suffered when employment gains in late 2003 turned erratic. Investors were wary. Would this be a double-dip recession like the early 1980s? 

A relaxation of financial regulations helped spur more residential investment and the market continued upward. The erratic gains in employment were attributed to seasonal volatility in the construction industry. Many factors contributed to the complex international financial environment that spurred a boom in housing. In 2007, investors began to question market evaluations and prices plateaued for six months.

Two recent price stalls lasting more than twelve months seem to buck the trend of shorter-term plateaus. That there have been two in less than five years is concerning. In mid-2014, oil prices began a steep decline. Lower commodity input prices helped the profits of the broad market but by early 2015, investors grew worried that this decline was a reaction to a broad economic downturn. For 18 months, prices leveled. As voters went to the polls in early November 2016, prices were the same as in February 2015. Some voters chose an inexperienced Donald Trump as an alternative to Clinton 3.0 or Obama 3.0.

Shortly after the passage of tax reform in December 2017, investor optimism hit a peak and it has barely surpassed that high since then. The optimism of this year’s gains has only balanced the pessimism and losses of last year’s final quarter. What will happen after this? I don’t know. Investors need to think like fighters who stay balanced on their feet because they don’t know where the next punch is coming from.


Minority Control

October 13, 2019

by Steve Stofka

On September 15, 2008 the trading firm Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. A small number of outstanding shares traded on the stock market that day. The SP500 lost almost 5% of its value. New Yorkers gathered in Times Square to watch the ticker tape display. A small number of people controlled the direction of the market and constructed a reality that they sold to the rest of us.

In politics, a few key people control the direction and fate of legislation. In the Senate, the Majority Leader decides whether to bring legislation up for a vote. Even if a bill makes it out of a Senate committee, the Majority Leader can stop it from reaching the full Senate.  Unlike the Majority Leader in the House, his position is practically impregnable. Legislation vetoed by the President can be overridden by Congress. There is no recourse to a veto by the Senate Majority Leader.

The current holder of the position is Sen. Mitch McConnell from Kentucky. He is up again for re-election next year. When Democrats held the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid ruled with a similar disregard for others in his own party as well as the minority.

In 2014, 800,000 voters chose McConnell. In effect, less than 1% of the country’s voters control the course of legislation in the U.S. Did the founders of this country intend that one person should control Congress? James Madison, the chief crafter of the Constitution, worried that a majority would overwhelm and take advantage of a minority (Feldman, 2017). Accordingly, the Constitution is structured so that a minority controls power. However, one person is a very small minority. What would the founders think of the current arrangement in Congress? If Americans wanted a king with veto-proof power, America would still be a colony of Britain.

Our method of electing a President is a 230-year-old compromise between republicanism and democracy. An electoral college composed of men not subject to the passions of the crowd would elect the leader of the country. It was an Enlightenment model of dispassionate rationality.

Even if they had Fox News and CNN on Election night at the time of the founding, all the thirteen states were in the same Eastern time zone. At a recent symposium on our election, former RNC chair Michael Steele pointed out the west coast states are mostly taken out of the Presidential election (C-Span.org, 2019). By 5 P.M. Pacific time, they are discouraged from voting because much of the action has already been called. The founders did not design a system for four time zones.

We have 50 states but the election for President takes place in eight to twelve battleground states. Most polling is done at the national level, not in the battleground states. Many polls do not accurately survey the sentiments of the critical minority of voters in the states that will decide the election.

A minority of people own and control much of the wealth of the world. They now pay a lower percentage of their income than the bottom 50%. That includes federal, state and local taxes. In the Triumph of Injustice, due to be released next week, authors Saez and Zucman (2019) tally up the tax bills for the rich and ultra-rich. The book is #1 bestseller at Amazon and it hasn’t been published yet.

In 1980, the top 1% paid 47% of their income in total taxes at all levels. Now they are down to 23% and below the rate paid by the bottom half of incomes. Two sets of rules – one set for the peasants and one for the castle royalty. The Constitution prohibits the granting of titles so the rich granted themselves the titles. This book is sure to get a lot of media attention. Like we need more controversy.

Notes:

Feldman, N. (2017). Three Lives of James Madison: genius, partisan, president. [Print]. New York: Random House.

C-Span.org. (2019, October 7). National Popular Vote Election, Part 2. [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?464997-2/national-popular-vote-election-part-2

Saez, E. & Zucman, G. (2019) Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. [Print]. Available for pre-order at https://www.amazon.com/Triumph-Injustice-Rich-Dodge-Taxes/dp/1324002727

Effective tax rates: If you make $100,000 and you pay $25,000 in federal, social security, state, sales and property tax, then your total effective tax rate is 25%.

Photo: WyrdLight.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bodiam-castle-10My8-1197.jpg

Portfolio Performance & Presidents

October 6, 2019

by Steve Stofka

The employment report released Friday was a Goldilocks gain of 136,000 jobs for the month of September. Why Goldilocks? Not as weak as some feared following news this week that manufacturing was getting hit hard in the trade war with China (Note #1). Not so strong that it ruled out the possibility of another rate cut from the Fed this year. Just weak enough to speculate on another rate cut by year’s end. After several days of big losses, the market rallied on Friday.

Although manufacturing has been contracting, a report on the rest of the economy was more encouraging, although a bit lackluster (Note #2). Service businesses are continuing to hire but the pace has slowed. New export orders have accelerated but new orders in total slowed significantly from August. Something to like, something not to like.

Billions of dollars around the world are traded as soon as the employment report is released each month. During Mr. Obama’s tenure private citizen Donald Trump accused Obama of fudging the employment numbers. Larry Kudlow, now Mr. Trump’s economic advisor, took him to task for that. Mr. Kudlow worked in the Reagan administration and knew well how sacrosanct the employment numbers were. The BLS is an independent agency working in the Department of Labor and its 2400 employees try to collect and publish the most accurate data it can accomplish. The agency’s Commissioner is the only political appointee in the BLS and once confirmed by the Senate, serves four years, the same as the head of the Federal Reserve (Note #3). According to Mr. Kudlow, the White House gets the number the night before only to prepare a press release when the report is released.

Mr. Trump’s reckless behavior helped him take out 16 other Republican presidential candidates in the 2016 election. He acts quickly and aggressively. That lack of caution has led to several bankruptcies, and because of that, no bank in the world will loan him money (Note #4). What if, on an impulse, Mr. Trump tweeted out the employment number shortly before its official release time? Some traders pay a lot of money so that the news will hit their trading desk a split second faster than a conventional news release. It’s that important. An early leak of the employment numbers would cost a lot of influential people big money around the world and would prompt a national if not a global crisis. Forget about the phone calls to foreign leaders to discredit Joe Biden. That would be an act of treason for sure – against the global financial community. Can’t happen? Won’t happen?

Mr. Trump knows no rules. His father protected him when his rash behavior got him into trouble as a child. The elder Trump sheltered Donald from his own mistakes in the real estate industry and his foolish foray into the Atlantic City gambling business. Now that Mr. Trump’s father is no longer there, he depends on others to protect him. He has enlisted a long line of people in that effort. They have come in the revolving door to the White House and left. The list is longer than I imagined (Note #5). John Bolton, the third National Security Advisor under Mr. Trump’s tenure, was the last high-profile team member to leave.

Mr. Trump has said that Americans would get tired of winning so much while he was President. To use a baseball analogy, when he takes the mound, the team doesn’t win very often. People who lose a lot either give up or blame everyone and everything else for their losses. They need to have an ideal environment or get lucky to win. Mr. Trump berates the independent Fed because he wants them to protect him. He needs every crutch he can get. He couldn’t succeed in a war or in the financial crisis because he is not disciplined or organized.

What does this mean for the average investor? Take a cautious approach and keep a balanced portfolio. Betting that Mr. Trump will pitch a good game is a poor bet.

Or is it? At an event on Friday, he claimed that the stock market has gone up 50% since he was elected. Not quite but it is up 42% since the day after he was elected (Note #6). It’s been about 35 months. That’s pretty good. A 60-40 stock-bond portfolio has gone up 30% in that time. Under Obama’s tenure the market only went up 27%. A balanced portfolio went up almost 40% and he had to deal with the worst recession since the Great Depression. The budget battles with Republicans put a big dampener on investor enthusiasm during Obama’s first term.

35 months after the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to George Bush, the market was down 25% but a balanced portfolio was up 21%. Even Mr. Clinton could not best Mr. Trump, although he comes close. 35 months after the 1992 election the market was up 38%. A balanced portfolio was up 40%. The winner? A balanced portfolio.

What might an investor expect? At today’s low interest rates and inflation, a break-even return might be 5% a year, for a total gain of 22% in four years. Will Mr. Trump’s first four years be one of his few wins? Check back in a year. It’s bound to be a tumultuous year.

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Notes:

  1. Institute for Supply Management (ISM). (2019, October 3). September 2019 Manufacturing ISM Report on Business. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.instituteforsupplymanagement.org/ISMReport/MfgROB.cfm
  2. Institute for Supply Management (ISM). (2019, October 3). September 2019 Non-Manufacturing ISM Report on Business. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.instituteforsupplymanagement.org/ISMReport/NonMfgROB.cfm?navItemNumber=28857&SSO=1
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). About the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/bls/infohome.htm
  4. Business Insider. (2019, August 28). The world is talking about Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/trump-tax-returns-deutsche-bank-relationship-drawing-intense-scrutiny-2019-8-1028482268#why-it-matters2
  5. Wikipedia. (n.d.). List of Trump administration dismissals and resignations. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Trump_administration_dismissals_and_resignations
  6. Prices are SPY, the leading ETF that tracks the SP500. Clinton: 42 to 58 (approximately) – up 38%. Bush: 138 to 103 – down 25%. Obama: 91 to 116 – up 27%. Trump: 208 to 295 – up 42%. Balanced portfolio returns from Portfolio Visualizer calculated using a mix of 60% U.S. stock market, and 40% of an evenly balanced mix of intermediate term government and corporate bonds. Dividends were reinvested and the portfolio re-balanced annually.

The Shark in Washington

September 29, 2019

By Steve Stofka

Before I get into a historical perspective on this week’s goings on in Washington, let’s look at a troubling indicator in the latest consumer confidence survey. September’s survey from the Conference Board indicated a high negative gap between consumers’ expectations and their current conditions (Note #1). This gap is measured by subtracting consumer responses about their current conditions from their expectations of the near future. If I am doing well now but worried about my job in the next six months to a year, that loss of confidence in the future will show up as a negative gap between current conditions and expectations in the survey.

The level of negativity is higher than it was at the start of the recession in late-2007 or the latter part of 2001 when the tragedy of 9-11 occurred. Not only do poor expectations precede a recession, they help create that very recession in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As the economy recovers from a recession, the gap reverses and turns positive; i.e. expectations are higher than current conditions. A person may be out of a job but some of their friends are finding work, so they expect to soon find work. The gap turned positive in 1990 after that recession, again in 2002 and in 2009.

Let’s turn to the events that dominated the news this week. An impeachment inquiry will certainly draw the attention of the White House from trade negotiations with China and may dampen any bullish sentiment in the stock market. What lessons can we learn from history?

A brief recap. In a July 25th, 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, President Trump asked him to investigate Joe Biden and his son in connection with a Ukrainian gas company. Joe Biden is a former Vice-President and potential Democratic presidential rival in the 2020 election. In an apparent cover-up, the record of the call was kept in a top-secret classified directory. A formal complaint filed by a whistleblower in early August was not acted on until a leak brought the whole affair to light. Is this an impeachable offense? You be the judge. Depends on which side of the political aisle you sit on.

There is an odd similarity between the presidency of Donald Trump and the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Clinton’s first two years 1993-4 were punctuated with various financial and sexual scandals from his time as governor of Arkansas. The political arena is a shark tank, but the sharks don’t attack until they smell blood in the water.

Republicans attacked Clinton for his lack of character just as Democrats attack Trump now. Both men give good cause. If you’re a Democrat you’ll say, “Oh no, Clinton was nowhere as bad as Trump.” If you’re a Republican, you think the opposite. We can dispute the degree of shadiness, but both are shady dealers.

In 1994, after 40 years in the political desert, Republicans won control of the House in a sweeping change of voter sentiment. In 2018, Democrats did the same. In the 1996 election, Republicans put up Bob Dole against Clinton’s re-election campaign. Dole was a military veteran, a long-time member of the House and the majority leader in the Senate for a decade (Note #2). Character and experience can only take a candidate so far in the eyes of voters.

Until the candidacy of Donald Trump, Republicans touted the character of their presidential candidates. Trump flaunted his lack of character and his bloodthirsty negotiating skills. He bragged that if he got conservative judges appointed to the Supreme Court and the lower courts, he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in NYC and Republicans would still vote for him. Oh, that Donald, partisans said. He sure is different. Trump was the big shark that could take on the corrupt Clintons. Republican voters understood that Trump was a NYC real estate boss who didn’t play by the rules. They were sick of Washington’s rules. They did not “send in the clowns,” the 16 candidates with much more experience and character than Trump. They voted for the shark.

Democrats still don’t get this. “Look at the big bad shark!” they shout as they point at Trump. Republican voters smile.

Trump said he would get judges appointed. He has. He said he would get tax cuts done. He has. Most of the cuts went to the top incomes. A $1 trillion annual subsidy to wealthy people. Republicans believe in trickle down economics. Farmers and others in rural America are waiting for that subsidy to trickle down.

Trump promised to bring jobs back to America. There are more jobs now but not in rural America where his constituency is strongest. Farmers and rural communities have been the chief losers in Trump’s fight against China.

In a recent Gallup Town Hall, Jeffrey Rosen pointed out that Donald Trump is part of an ongoing 4th Constitutional battle since the founding of our country (Note #3). Rosen is the president of the National Constitution Center, a non-partisan organization chartered by Congress to promote and educate the public about the Constitution.

Beginning in the 1980s, Republicans have tried to undo the radical changes to the meaning of the Constitution instituted by FDR. In 1936-37 he threatened to pack the court if they did not approve his New Deal programs. Key members of the court reversed their earlier opinions and found greater powers for the Federal government in the Commerce and general welfare clauses of the Constitution.

In 1987, Democrats in the Senate blocked the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. That appointment would have shifted the weight of opinion on the court toward those justices who preferred a more temperate role for the Federal government as understood by courts before the FDR administration and the Great Depression.

In the past eighty years, Congress has largely abdicated their lawmaking responsibilities to executive agencies whose career employees develop thousands of rules that citizens and companies are expected to follow. This type of rulemaking creates a gap in the checks and balances originally built into the Constitution.

Has Congress delegated too much administrative power to the President? Since President Trump was elected, Democrats have become aware of the dangers of a country run by executive order and rule making agencies. FDR’s cabinet was 6 people. Now it is 23 people under whom millions of people work for the executive branch (Note #5). Is it too big, too ungovernable? Many think so.

Financial regulators stumbled over themselves and failed to understand, report on or curtail the risks that the banks and investment companies were assuming before the financial crisis. The rollout of the health care exchanges under Obamacare was an embarrassment of mismanagement and poor execution. There are numerous other examples of poor agency management and overreach but that’s the subject for another time.

If you think the job of the federal government is to fix things, you will be disappointed over the course of the next year. Congress will accomplish little legislation. If you prefer a minimalist role for the federal government, you are probably thrilled with this prospect. Remember, though, that while you sleep, federal agencies are promulgating new rules and new penalties for non-compliance.  

Almost half of the voters in this country wanted Donald Trump to break things in Washington. He is doing a good job of that so far. If consumer expectations were dropping before this week’s events, they will only be dampened further as the controversies in Washington continue. Already on the decline, investment spending will contract as companies put plans on hold while politicians in Washington play the blame game.

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Notes:

1. The Conference Board. (2019, September 24). Consumer Confidence Survey. [Web page] Retrieved from https://www.conference-board.org/data/consumerconfidence.cfm

2. Wikipedia. (n.d.). Bob Dole. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Dole

3. National Constitution Center. (2019, September 25). The Battle for the Constitution. [Web page, audiocast]. Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/debate/past-programs/the-battle-for-the-constitution. An overview of the four constitutional battles is from approximately 30:00 to 45:00 in the podcast.

4. Wikipedia. (n.d.). Robert Bork. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Bork

5. Wikipedia. (n.d.). Cabinet of the United States. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_of_the_United_States

Reaching Consensus

September 22, 2019

by Steve Stofka

In the early 1980s, scientists at NASA raised the alarm that much of the protective ozone layer over Antarctica was missing. Newspapers and TV carried images of the “ozone hole” (Note #1). In 1987, countries around the world enacted the Montreal Protocol and banned the use of aerosols and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). There were some arguments and a few AM radio talk show hosts called the ozone hole a scientific hoax. However, most of the world reached consensus. There will always be crackpots who ride backwards on their horse and claim that everyone is lying about what lies ahead.

Compare those days of yesteryear with today. We have a wide array of media and information outlets. People who can’t make change are self-proclaimed experts on climate change. The Decider-in-Chief can’t reach consensus with himself for more than a day. A slight breeze changes his opinion. Intentionally or not, he has become the Anarchist-in-Chief.

The younger generation is quite upset because they will have to live with the consequences of climate change. The fat cats who make their money proclaiming climate change is a hoax will be dead. Next week there’s a climate summit at U.N. headquarters in NYC. A lot of young people demonstrated in cities around the world this past Friday to let the world know that they are concerned. That’s consensus.

What happened to us in the past thirty years? It’s tougher for us to reach consensus about guns, immigration, climate change, women’s rights, and health care to name a few. Let’s turn to a group of people whose job it is to craft a consensus. In a recent Town Hall Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed out that the nine justices reach unanimous consensus on 40% of the 70 cases that they decide each year. Only the most contentious cases make it to the Supreme Court. 40% unanimity means they agree on many principles. 25-33% of their cases result in a 5-4 decision. Those are the ones that get all the attention. The nine justices who currently sit on the Court were appointed by five different Presidents over the past 25 years. Despite the changing composition of the Court over the past seventy years, those percentages of unanimous decisions and split decisions have remained the same.

Let’s turn to another issue concerning consensus – money. Specifically, digital money like Bitcoin. Some very smart people believe in the future of Bitcoin and the distributed ledger concept that underlies digital money. In this podcast, a fellow with the moniker of Plan B discusses some of the econometrics and mathematics behind Bitcoin (Note #3). However, I think that pricing Bitcoin like a commodity is a mistake.

I take my cue from Adam Smith, the father of economics, who lived during a time and in a country with commodity-based money like gold and silver. Unlike today, paper money was redeemable in precious metal. However, Smith did not regard gold or silver as money. To Smith, the distinguishing feature of money is that it could be used for nothing else but trade between people. Money’s value depends exclusively on consensus, either by voluntary agreement or by the force of government. Using this reasoning, Bitcoin and other digital currencies are money. They have no other use. We can’t make jewelry with Bitcoin, or fill teeth, or plate dishes as we can with gold and silver. The additional uses for gold and silver give it an anchoring value. Bitcoin has an anchoring value of zero.

When people lose confidence in money, they lose consensus over its value. Previous episodes of a loss of confidence in a country’s money include Zimbabwe in the last decade, Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the sight of people pushing wheelbarrows of money in Germany during the late 1920s.

Like gold, Bitcoin must be mined, a process that takes a lot of electricity and supercomputers but does not give it any value. Ownership in a stock gives the owner a claim on the assets of a company and some legal recourse. Ownership of a digital currency bestows no such rights.

In an age when we cannot reach consensus on ideas like protecting our children at school or the rights a woman has to her own body, we seek consensus with others on more material things like Bitcoin. We seek out information outlets which can provide us with facts shaped to our perspective. When facts don’t fit our model of the way things should be, we bend the facts the way water bends light.

John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, died recently. He was an advocate of investing in the consensus of value about stocks and bonds. Now we call it index investing. That’s all an index is – a consensus of millions of buyers and sellers about the value of a financial instrument. There are several million owners of Bitcoin – a small consensus. There are several thousand million owners of SP500 stocks. That is a very large consensus, and like a large ship, turns slowly in its course. A small ship, on the other hand, can zip and zig and zag. That’s all well if you need to zig and zag. Many casual investors don’t like too much of that, though. They prefer a steadier ship.

I do hope we can move toward a consensus about the bigger issues, but I honestly don’t know how we get there. In 2008, former President Obama called out “Si, se puede!” but quickly lost his super-consensus in Congress. “No, you can’t!” called out the new majority of House Republicans in 2010. We’ve gotten more divisive since then. Journalist Bill Bishop’s 2008 book “The Big Sort” explained what we were doing to ourselves (Note #4). Maybe he has an answer.

In the next year we are going to spend billions of dollars gloving up, getting on our end of the electoral rope and pulling hard. Our first President, George Washington, was reluctant to serve a second term. Hadn’t he given enough already? In our times, each President looks to a second term as a validation of his leadership during his first term. There’s that word again – consensus.

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Notes:

  1. Images, video of the ozone hole in 1979 and 2018 from NASA.
  2. We the People podcast from the National Constitution Center
  3. Discussion of bitcoin on this podcast
  4. The Big Sort by Bill Bishop

Jobs Affect Elections

September 15, 2019

By Steve Stofka

“It’s the economy, stupid,” James Carville posted in the headquarters of Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign. The campaign stayed focused on the concerns of middle and working- class people who were still recovering from the 1990 recession. Jobs can make or break a Presidential campaign.

Each month the BLS reports the net gain or loss in jobs and the unemployment rate for the previous month. These numbers are widely reported. Weeks later the BLS releases the JOLTS report for that same month – a survey of job openings available and the number of employees voluntarily quitting their jobs. When there are a lot of openings, employees have more confidence in finding another job and are more likely to quit one job for another. When job openings are down, employees stick with their jobs and quits go down as well.

President Bush began and ended his eight-year tenure with a loss in job openings. Throughout his two terms, he never achieved the levels during the Clinton years. Here’s a chart of the annual percent gains and losses in job openings.

As job losses mounted in 2007, voter affections turned away from the Republican hands-off style of government. They elected Democrats to the House in the 2006 election, then gave the party all the reins of power after the financial crisis.

As the 2012 election approached, the year-over-year increase in job openings slowed to almost zero and the Obama administration was concerned that a downturn would hurt his chances for re-election. As a former head of the investment firm Bain Capital, Republican candidate Mitt Romney promised to bring his experience, business sense and structure to help a fumbling economic recovery. The Obama team did not diminish Romney’s experience; they used it against him, claiming that Romney’s success had come at the expense of workers. The story line went like this: Bain Capital destroyed other people’s lives by buying companies, laying off a lot of hard-working people and turning all the profits over to Bain’s fat cat clients. The implication was that a Romney presidency would follow the same pattern. Perception matters.

In the nine months before the 2016 election, the number of job openings began to decline. That put additional economic pressure on families whose finances had still not recovered following the financial crisis and eight years of an Obama presidency. Surely that led some working-class voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to question whether another eight years of a Democratic presidency was good for them. What about this wealthy, inexperienced loudmouth Trump? He didn’t sound like a Republican or Democrat. Yeah, why not? Maybe it will shake things up a bit.  Enough voters pulled the lever in the voting booth and that swung the victory to Trump.

In the past months the growth in job openings has declined. Having gained a victory based partially on economic dissatisfaction, Trump is alert to changes that will affect his support among this disaffected group. As a long-time commentator on CNBC, Trump’s economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, is aware that the JOLTS data reveals the underlying mood of the job market. Job openings matter.

Unable to get action from a divided Congress, Trump wants Fed chairman to lower interest rates. There have been few recessions that began in an election year because they are political dynamite. The recession that began in 1948 almost cost Truman the election. The 1960 recession certainly hurt Vice-President Nixon’s bid for the White House in a close race with the back-bench senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.

In his bid to unseat President Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked whether voters were better off than they were four years earlier. The recession that began that year helped voters decide in favor of Reagan.

Although the 2001 recession started a few months after the election, the implosion of the dot-com boom during 2000 certainly did not help Vice-President Al Gore’s run for the White House. It took a Supreme Court decision and a few hundred votes in Florida to put Bush in the White House.

As I noted earlier, George Bush began and ended his eight years in the White House with significant job losses. Those in 2008 were so large that it convinced voters that Democrats needed a clear mandate to fix the country’s economic problems. After the dust settled, the Dems had retained the house, won a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and captured the Presidency. Jobs matter.

The 2020 race will mark the 19th Presidential election after World War 2. Recessions have marked only four elections – call it five, if we include the 2000 election.  An election occurs every four years, so it is not surprising that recessions occurred in only 25% of the past twenty elections, right? It’s not just the occurrence of a recession; it’s the start of one that matters.

Presidents and their parties act to fend off economic downturns with fiscal policy or pressure the Fed to enact favorable monetary policy that will delay downturns during an election. Trump’s method of persuasion is not to cajole, but to criticize and denigrate anyone who doesn’t give him what he wants, including the Fed chairman. To Trump, life is a tag-team wrestling match. Chairman Powell can expect more vitriolic tweets in the months to come. Trump will issue more executive orders to give an impression that his administration is doing something. The stock market will probably go up. It usually does in a Presidential election year.

Job Threats

September 8, 2019

by Steve Stofka

The greater threat to your job – automation or other workers? For thousands of years people have stored their human capital in writing. In some cultures, only a privileged few were allowed access to these “secrets.” The invention of the printing press in the 15th century caused massive unemployment among monks and scribes who copied treasured books by hand.

No, that didn’t happen. Demand for books, particularly the Bible, added many jobs. A symbiosis of knowledge exploded through Europe and parts of Asia. In the network of knowledge, the sciences flourished. The mathematics of chance and the development of calculus spawned the birth of modern physics in Newton’s Principia Mathematica. In the following centuries came the understanding of air and other gases, the physics of fire, electromagnetism and the very structure of stuff. All this human capital was written down in words and equations written in a single language called mathematics.

Books could hold and display the knowledge but couldn’t make the calculations. All that changed when the computer was invented in the mid-20th century. Dancing on pathways etched on silicon circuit boards, electrons simulated the calculations that the human brain had learned.

After defeat by IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer in 1996 (he won the first game), Garry Kasparov realized that computers could become human partners. Crude mechanical computers had automated some tasks during the the 19th and 20th centuries. Now they were ready for some of the tasks of knowledge workers like lawyers (Note #1). Some clerical tasks in the practice of law have been automated but there is still much that relies on judgment gained through experience and “je ne sais quoi” – the subtle weighing of multiple factors that are difficult to write algorithms for.

Thirty years ago, a grocery clerk had to be good at arithmetic – able to multiply four apples times 89 cents per apple and punch in the total on older cash registers. Clerks who could do those calculations quickly and accurately were paid good money.

An accounting clerk in a finance office had to know what calculations to do to get a loan payoff, or to calculate how much credit to extend to a customer. Today a clerk with much less knowledge and training can tab from box to box on a screen and enters the data that the program asks for. Natural language processing is rapidly making even that obsolete. A clerk will simply be able to ask a program a question and it will compute the answer or ask for more information if needed. We used to have to give Google the formula to compute the volume of a sphere. No longer. Ask “what is the volume of a sphere with a radius of 2?” Each year more human capital is being transformed into technology capital.

Some are concerned about the number of jobs that will be lost to automation. The development of the Cotton Gin in the early years of the nineteenth century reduced the number of workers needed to harvest an acre of cotton. Did plantation owners tell their slaves “I don’t need your services any longer?” No. They devoted more acres to the growing of cotton and the demand for slave labor increased.

A few years earlier before the cotton gin, the invention of the Loom greatly improved the efficiency of garment workers. Manufacturers reduced prices of some finished goods, the demand for silk and cotton soared, and employment in the industry grew.

The invention of primitive computers in the middle of the 20th century should have put arithmeticians out of business. Instead the demand increased for people who could do the more difficult or time-consuming computations. Careful but relatively unskilled people could punch in data on a punch card and the computer would tabulate the results. In the 1960s, the demand for business data dramatically increased.

Those in technical professions like lawyers and doctors lobby to protect their jobs not from automation but from other people who could do portions of their job.  In some states, a dental technician cannot fill a cavity. In some states, routine tasks can be performed by a paralegal with less training. They also command lower salaries. In other states, those tasks have to be carried out by a lawyer or with the active supervision of a lawyer.

Some areas of the country are based on a monoculture, an industry that dominates the local economy. The leaders in those industries exert a lot of political influence. A fundamental shift happens when one monoculture competes with another. Many coal workers may be convinced that former President Obama killed the coal industry with burdensome regulations. In 1979, the rock group The Buggles sang “Video Killed the Radio Star;” a similar shift has happened to the coal industry. The surge in lower cost natural gas supplies killed the coal industry. North Dakota against West Virginia and Wyoming. The coal industry’s leaders had less political influence and could not push back against the regulators.

In the 1990s, checkers at Albertson’s went on strike to protest the adoption of scanning technology and UPC codes that were first developed in the 1970s. They were concerned that the store chain would begin hiring lower-paid workers who simply had to pass a grocery item over a scanning screen.

Technological change displaces one type of worker with another type. Millions of workers are doing jobs today that didn’t exist 50 years ago because of technological change. I was at a get-together a few months ago and spoke with a woman who was a social media manager. That’s a job. As the growth of social media has exploded around the world, thousands of new jobs have been created. In the past two decades, programmers have automated some coding. Programmers who could not adapt did lose their jobs but many more jobs were created for those with different or more complicated skills.

What can’t be automated -so far – is people taking care of people. The fact that these are some of the lowest paid professions speaks to the values of our society. Companies pay paltry wages to the people who take care of our parents and grandparents. Those jobs cannot be automated to any great degree. It’s possible that some company will develop a robot that can help an older person into a bathtub or shower, but the process requires many delicate decisions, patience and empathy.

In monoculture economies around the country, some worry that unauthorized immigrants will take lower paying jobs from Americans. Immigrants are more willing to move for a job than Americans. In a county dominated by oil, gas, coal, mining, agricultural or car manufacturing industries, there isn’t much variety in employment and native residents of those towns and cities have something to worry about.

For the whole country, there will not be enough people to fill many lower paying jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs for home health and personal care aides will grow by 36% – rising to almost five million workers. Difficult to keep up with a growth rate far above the 7% average growth of all occupations. Employment for in-facility nursing assistants and orderlies are expected to grow by 9%. Even taking care of our pets will be more difficult – job opportunities for vet assistants are expected to grow by 19%.

If only Congress could set up an immigration program to help our hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities and home aide programs fill these positions. If only. The H-2B visa program is for temporary jobs only and there are far too few permits issued each year (Note #3). Most of the demand for health care services comes from urban and suburban areas, whose votes have less influence in a rural state where the legislature heeds the wishes of the extractive and “ag” industries. We are not fighting the machines. We are fighting each other.

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 Notes:

  1. Kasparov recounts that match with Deep Blue in the TED talk (transcript)
  2. BLS estimates of employment growth for health care aides
  3. 1H-2B visa program