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 are 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, Jerry 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 1936-7 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 roll out 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

Unauthorized Tax Revenue

September 1, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This might be a sensitive subject for some – the amount of taxes that unauthorized immigrants pay. Homeland Security uses the term “unauthorized” (Note #1). Some people prefer the adjective “undocumented” but many immigrants have adequate documentation. Some prefer to use the adjective “illegal” but the only illegal act is being in the country without proper authorization. If someone is speeding but is obeying all other traffic laws, are they an illegal driver? In most cases, they are a legal driver committing an illegal act.

 Those who defend immigrants point out that they pay taxes, so they are contributing to our society. I was curious as to how much because I have not heard an immigrant advocate offer any data. I told my trusty hunting dog, Google, to go find them facts and bring them on back to me.

First the big picture. The total Federal, State and local taxes paid in 2016 was $5,300 billion, or $5.3 trillion (Note #3). What was the share that unauthorized immigrants paid? The Institute on Taxation and Tax Policy recently estimated that they paid almost $12 billion dollars in state and local taxes. The IRS says they paid $9 billion in payroll taxes (FICA) and almost $1 billion in income taxes (Note #4). The total is $22 billion.

How do they report? They get Federal ID numbers called ITINs. To encourage compliance with our tax laws, the IRS says they do not share this information with the immigration and naturalization folks in Homeland Security. I was amazed that unauthorized immigrants would file tax returns. They are not eligible for social security benefits or earned income credits available to low income families. They are not eligible for TANF – what most people call welfare. The only benefits they are entitled to are those directed toward children – free public education and school meals, child medical care and SNAP (food stamps).

So why file? If you follow that IRS link, you’ll find that an unauthorized immigrant who shows “good moral behavior” may have their deportation proceedings waived or be eligible to apply for citizenship after ten years of residence. What is one sign of good moral behavior? Paying taxes. What is a sign of bad moral behavior and might get someone deported? Not paying taxes. Good incentive to pay taxes.

Homeland Security estimated 12 million unauthorized immigrants in 2015. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, unauthorized immigration grew by a small 70,000 per year (Note #5). In the 2000s, the influx was almost 500,000 per year, and that was a decline from the record 1.4 million apprehended at the southern border in 2000. In 2019, the number of border apprehensions will approach one million (Note #6).

Numbers like these cause Americans to disagree strongly about policy choices related to immigration. In the 1980s, in the late 1990s and again in the 2000s, the numbers were high and we argued. This time is no different. These numbers don’t include visa overstays which make up 40 – 50% of the unauthorized immigrant population (Note #7). Let’s guesstimate the population at 15 million, about 4.6% of the population. That 4.6% is paying less than 1/2% of total taxes.

We can go look at unauthorized immigrants and say that they are leveraging their taxes – paying a small amount of tax to receive proportionately more in benefit. But that is the case for all low-income people, unauthorized or not. Low-income people buy less stuff, so they pay less in sales tax. They live in lower-valued properties, so they pay less property tax. They make less money, so they pay less income tax. Those are the three primary sources of tax revenue in the U.S.

When President Trump said he wanted higher quality immigrants, he meant that he is not anti-immigrant. He is anti-poor-immigrant. Like Trump, some say we don’t need more poor people; we already have too many poor people.  Some people anticipate that their taxes will go up to provide benefits for the growing number of poor people, documented or not. Few want higher taxes to pay for services to people who just arrived in the country.

When my grandfather came to this country more than a 100 years ago, there was no income tax, no social security tax and property taxes were relatively low. The only benefit for immigrant families was public education. There were no school lunches, no food stamps, no medical care for children. Despite that, anti-immigrant sentiment was strong enough to pass a bill in 1924 that cut off legal immigration for all except northern Europeans. Our grandparents and great-grandparents were far less tolerant of immigrants than we are today.

Let’s keep some perspective. People who are concerned that they will have to pay higher taxes for benefits are not evil or uncaring. Low-income people who are worried about competition for their jobs in the construction industry are not moral slugs. Whatever your occupation, imagine that the number of people available to do that kind of work doubled in your community. How would you feel? The more the merrier? Probably not. Those workers will compete for your job and that competition will hamper any future salary increases you can expect.

We all need to admit that immigration presents complicated moral, political and economic choices. History has taught us that we don’t know how to solve this problem in a way that satisfies most of us. Each time we have to choose which side of the rope tug we are on. Each side hurls insults and curses at the other side. This is not the new normal. This is the old normal. How about if we try the new normal, sit down and hash out the difficult details of a compromise?

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Notes:

  1. Homeland Security uses “unauthorized” to refer to those in the country without proper authorization
  2. Tax Policy Center calculation of total taxes paid to governments at all levels  
  3. Estimate of taxes paid by unauthorized immigrants – PDF
  4. IRS data on payroll and income tax paid by unauthorized immigrants- PDF
  5. Estimate of unauthorized immigrants – PDF
  6. Apprehensions at the border – CBP
  7. Visa overstays – Potitifact

The Association – A Split

August 25, 2019

by Steve Stofka

A few things before I continue the saga of our mountain community. Bond yields have sunk to remarkable lows as the prices of those bonds climb higher in response to global demand for safe assets. Governments have borrowed trillions since the financial crisis, yet there is not enough debt to meet demand.

The private market created a huge supply of “safe” assets called Collateralized Debt Obligations, or CDOs, based on house mortgages. When the housing market imploded, it left a big hole in the market for safe assets. As countries around the world have adopted capitalistic market structures, the living standards of millions of people have improved and that has led to more savings in search of safe investments.

The U.S. still pays a positive interest rate on its debt and that is attracting a lot of foreign capital to our country – capital that is driving down the interest rates on our savings and pension assets. Unlike some other countries, capital moves freely across U.S. borders. It doesn’t wait in crowded spaces behind chain link fences.

Donald Trump’s family business relies heavily on borrowing, and most of that has come from a single source, the German firm Deutsche Bank. No other bank is willing to risk capital on a family business with a history of failure. The family’s business depends on the free movement of capital across national borders, yet Trump himself is adamantly opposed to the free movement of labor across borders.

Capital requires a legal framework of property rights protection, a robust banking system capable of servicing that capital, and a political system that protects the profits generated by investment from graft and corruption. Labor requires a social framework in addition to a legal system that enforces basic personal rights. Capital comes to this country because we spend a lot of money to nurture and protect it more than some other countries. Labor comes to this country for the same reasons – a higher return on their effort, an educational system that nurtures their families, a social and legal system that offers some protections.

“They’re taking our jobs!” some people complain of immigrant labor, yet few Americans are affected by an immigrant labor force that takes mostly lower paying jobs. The flow of capital into our country creates a competition that affects many more Americans – anyone who has a savings account, a pension fund, a 401K, an IRA. Where is the outcry against foreign capital?

Let us return to those dear souls who inhabited an abandoned mining town. In last week’s story, they had formed a homeowner’s association which created Money, Debt, and traded with another community called the Forners.

The board of the homeowners’ association complained often about the expense of handling the Money that it had created. The association decided that it would be more efficient to reduce the use of paper Money. It gave each homeowner a bank account and a Money shredder which scanned and tabulated the Money that each homeowner shredded. Homeowners didn’t have to go to the community center when they needed to pay another homeowner or the association. When they did receive Money, they deposited it in the shredder, which added the amount to their balance. When they wanted to pay someone, they tapped some buttons on their shredder and the amount went from their account to the other homeowner’s account. Paying their monthly homeowner fees was so much more convenient.

A homeowner called Mary decided to re-open the old restaurant, but she would need more Money than she had. What to do? The association could print the Money and loan it to her. Mary would put up 10% of what she needs, and the association would print the other 90%.  She would pay the money back over time with interest. One of the homeowners asked, “How will we be paid if we do work for Mary’s restaurant?” Someone answered, “With the same Money that you get paid when you work for the association.”

That was acceptable to everyone. With the extra Money earned by fixing up Mary’s restaurant, several other homeowners put down deposits and opened businesses with loans from the association (Note #1). The association held a mortgage on each business, but the business owner decided how to run the business and received the profits from the business.

When Stan’s business failed, the homeowners discussed what to do. Stan had spent the printed Money that the association had loaned him, so the Money had not disappeared. Like all the printed money, it was spread around the community. The effect of Stan’s business failure was the same as if the association had started the business, hired people to do work, paid them and then closed the business after a time. The printed Money went out into the community but never made it back to the association in the form of loan payments. Someone said, “There is extra Money in our community because Stan’s business loan won’t be paid back.”

They agreed that this was so but what to do about it? They all had some extra Money because of Stan’s business loan. “What if more businesses fail?” someone asked. “What will we do with all the extra money the association has printed?”

“Prices will go up,” someone else said. “That’s what happened last time.”

“If more businesses failed, I would be more careful and buy less stuff,” another offered. Several heads nodded. “I’d deposit some extra Money in the shredder.”

“Well, that doesn’t make the Money go away,” someone argued. “The money is still in your bank account with the association.”

“But prices won’t go up because people are spending less Money, isn’t that right?” someone asked. That was the confusing part. The last time there was extra Money, prices went up. But in this case, prices were likely to go down if more businesses failed and there was extra Money.

Someone stood up and said, “I’ve got the answer. When we all worked fixing up Stan’s business, the Money was exchanged for our labor and supplies. Since the Money was exchanged for goods and services, there is no extra Money.”

Someone else countered, “What if we all started businesses, borrowed Money from the association and we all failed? There would be a lot of extra Money.”

The other person answered, “Yes, the amount of circulating Money would be suitable for a thriving community. Too many people with a lot of Money and nowhere to spend it would drive up prices. But just one or two business failures has such a small effect that it is negligible.”

They decided to continue printing and loaning money but formed a loan committee whose job was to review an applicant’s business plan before loaning the money.

Bob, the community’s propane dealer, bought his supplies from the Forners. One month, the Forners got very angry at the whole community and would not sell propane to Bob. He contracted with another community for propane but there wasn’t enough for everyone’s needs. Bob raised the price of propane then began rationing propane by selling only to those who were in line at his station at 6 A.M. After two hours, he shut off supplies until the next day. Some homeowners threatened Bob and so he had to hire a few people for extra security (Note #2).

Mary used a lot of propane for cooking, so she had to spend several hours each day buying propane. Naturally, she raised prices to account for the additional time and higher price of propane. Homeowners ate fewer meals at Mary’s and she had to let go of several employees.

As prices rose, some homeowners who had bought association debt at low interest rates began to complain. “We loaned the association money at 5% interest and prices are going up at 10% a year. We’re losing money!”

Everyone agreed that this wasn’t fair, but no one knew what to do about it. Should they cancel the old debt and reissue debt at higher interest rates? That would lead to higher homeowner fees for everyone. “You want us to pay extra so that your interest income will keep up with inflation? Why should I take money out of my pocket and put it in yours?”

Tempers flared. “I’m not loaning this association money ever again,” complained one homeowner and several stormed out of the clubhouse. True to their word, these homeowners would not renew their loans to the association unless it paid much higher interest rates. After several months, the Forners resumed propane deliveries but a vicious cycle of higher prices had started. Homeowners had to pay higher association fees and wanted more money for their labor to pay those higher fees. No one knew how to fix the situation.

“We need to charge high interest rates on the Money we print and loan to homeowners for their businesses and homes,” a board member said.

“Are you crazy?!” Several complained. “Rates are already too high. People can’t afford to start businesses or buy a home!”

“We need to raise them so high that it will hobble the economy for a while,” the board member said. “That’s the only way to bring prices down. It won’t take long.”

It took much longer than anyone anticipated, and the economy declined for almost two years. This period of higher prices followed by high interest rates caused a divide among the homeowners – between those who relied on the association for services and help during hard times, and those who formed a deep distrust of the association (Note #3). No one fully understood how deep the divide would grow.

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Notes:

  1. The process where loans generate income for others which generates more loans is called the Money Multiplier in economics.
  2. In the 1970s, two gas embargoes led to similar circumstances.

This is a retelling of the high inflation of the late 1970s, followed by nose-bleed interest rates that caused back-to-back recessions in the early 1980s. The recession of 1981-82 was the most severe since the 1930s Depression.  

The Homeowners’ Association

August 18, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Two quick asides before I get into this week’s topic. A cricket perched on the top of a 7′ fence. It drew up to the edge of the top rail, learned forward, raised its rear legs as though to jump, then settled back. It did this twice more before jumping 8′ out then down into a soft landing on some ground cover. How far can crickets see, how often do they injure a leg if they land incorrectly and do they get afraid?

The bulk of the personal savings in this country is held by the top 20% of incomes, and it is this income group that received the lion’s share of the 2017 tax cuts. It’s OK to bash the rich but that top 20% probably includes our doctor and dentist. Before you start drilling or cutting me, I want to make it perfectly clear that I was not criticizing you, Doc.

In 2016, the top quintile – the top 20% – earned 2/3rds of the interest and dividend income (Note #1). Due to falling interest rates over the past three decades, real interest and dividend income has not changed. Real capital has doubled and yes, much of it went to those at the top, but the income from that capital has not changed. That is a huge cost – a hidden tax that gets little press. The real value of the public debt of the Federal Government has quadrupled since 1990, but it pays only 20% more in real interest than it did in 1990 (Note #2). Here’s a graph of personal interest and dividend income adjusted to constant 2012 dollars. Thirty years of flat.

Ok, now on to a story. Economists build mathematical models of an economy. I wanted to construct a story that builds an economy that gradually grows in complexity and maybe it would help clarify the relationships of money, institutions and people.

Let’s imagine a group of people who move into an isolated mining town abandoned several years earlier. The houses and infrastructure need some repairs but are serviceable and the community will be self-sufficient for now. The homeowners form an association to coordinate common needs.

The association needs to hire lawn, maintenance and bookkeeping services, and security guards to police the area and keep the owners safe.  How does the association pay for the services?  They assess each homeowner a monthly fee based on the size of the home. How do the homeowners pay the monthly fee?  Each homeowner does some of the services needed. Some clean out the gutters, others fix the plumbing, some keep the books and some patrol the area at night. They work off the monthly fee.

How do they keep track of how much each homeowner has worked? The association keeps a ledger that records each owner’s fee and the amount worked off. The residents sometimes trade among themselves, but it is rare because barter requires a coincidence of wants, as economists call it. Mary, an owner, needs some wood for a project and Jack has some extra wood. They could trade but Mary doesn’t have anything that Jack wants. He tells Mary to go down to the association office and take some of her time worked off her ledger and credit it to Jack’s monthly fee. Mary does this and they are both happy (Note #3).

As other owners learn of this idea and start trading work credits, the association realizes it needs a new system. It prints little pieces of paper as a substitute for work credits and hands them out to owners who perform services for the association. These pieces of paper are called Money (Note #4).

The money represents the association’s accounts receivable, the fees owed and accruing to the association, and the pay that the association owes the owners for the work they have done. Then the association notices that there are some owners who are not doing as well as others. It assesses an extra fee each month from those with larger homes and gives that money to needy homeowners.  These are called transfers because the owners who receive the money do not trade any real goods or services to the association. In this case the association acts as a broker between two people. Let’s call these passive transfers. We can lump these transfers together with exchanges of goods and services.

Then some people from outside the area start stealing stuff from the homeowners. The association needs to hire more security guards, but homeowners don’t want to pay a special one-time assessment to pay for the extra guards.

Instead of printing more Money, the association prints pieces of paper called Debt. Homeowners who have saved some of their money can trade it in for Debt and the association will pay them interest. Homeowners like that idea because Money earns no interest and Debt does. The association uses the Money to pay for the extra security guards.

But there are not enough people who want to trade in their Money for Debt, so the association prints more Money to pay the extra security guards.

Let’s pause our story here to reflect on what the words inflation and deflation mean. Inflation is an increase in overall prices in an economy; deflation is a decrease (Note #5). Inflation occurs when the supply of money fuels a demand for goods and services that is greater than the supply of goods and services. Ok, back to our story.

So far so good. All the Money that the association has printed equals a trade or a passive transfer. Let’s say that the association needs more security guards and no one else wants to work as a security guard because they can make more Money doing jobs for other homeowners. The association makes a rule called a Draft. Homeowners of a certain age and sex who do not want to work as security guards will be locked up in the storage room of the community center.

Now there’s a problem. Because the association has taken some homeowners out of the customary work force, those people are not available for doing jobs for other homeowners, who must pay more to contract services. This is one of several paths that leads to inflation. To combat that, the association sets price controls and limits the goods that homeowners can purchase. After a while, the outsiders are driven off and the size of the security force returns to its former levels.

Now all the extra Money that the association printed to pay for the security force has to be destroyed. As homeowners pay their dues, the association retires some of the money and shrinks the Money supply. However, there is a time lag, and prices rise sharply (Note #6).

Over the ensuing decades, there are other emergencies – flooding after several days of rain, a sinkhole that formed under one of the roadways, and a sewer system that needed to be dug up and replaced. The association printed more Debt to cover some of the costs, but it had to print more Money to pay for the balance of repairs. Because the rise in the supply of Money was a trade for goods and services, inflation remained tame.

There didn’t seem to be any negatives to printing more Money, so the homeowners passed a resolution requiring that the association print and pay Money to homeowners who were down on their luck. These were active transfers – payments to homeowners without a trade in goods and services and without some offsetting payment by the other homeowners.

So far in our story we have several elements that correspond with the real world: currency, taxes, social insurance, the creation of money and debt and the need to pay for defense and catastrophic events. Let’s continue the story.

With the newly printed Money, those poorer homeowners could now buy more goods and services. The increased demand caused prices to rise and all the homeowners began to complain. Realizing their mistake, they voted on an austerity program of higher homeowner fees and lower active transfers to poorer homeowners.

Because homeowners had to pay higher fees, they didn’t have enough extra Money to hire other services. Some residents approached the association and offered to repair fences and other maintenance jobs, but the association said no; it was on an austerity program and cutting expenses. Some residents simply couldn’t pay their fees and the problem grew. The association now found that it received less Money than before the higher fees and Austerity program. It cut expenses even more, but this only aggravated the problem.

Finally, the association ended their Austerity program. They printed more Money and hired homeowners to make repairs. Several homeowners came up with a different idea. There is another housing development called the Forners a few miles away. They are poorer and produce some goods for a lower price. The homeowners can buy stuff from the Forners and save money. There are three advantages to this program:

  1. Things bought from the Forners are cheaper.
  2. Because the homeowners will not be using local resources, there will be less upward pressure on prices.
  3. The homeowners will pay the association for the goods bought from the Forners and the association will pay the Forners community with Debt, not Money. Since it is the creation of Money that led to higher prices, this arrangement will help keep inflation stable.

As the homeowners buy more and more stuff from the Forners, the money supply remains stable or decreases. After several years, homeowners are buying too much stuff from the Forners and there is less work available in the community. As homeowners cannot find work, they again fall behind in paying their monthly fees.

Several of those in the association realize that they don’t have enough Money to go around in the community. There is a lot to do, and the homeowners draw up a wish list: repairs to the roads and helping older homeowners with shopping or repairs around their home are suggested first. A person who is out of work offers to lead tours and explain the biology of trees for schoolchildren. The common lot near the clubhouse could use some flowers, another homeowner suggests. I could use a babysitter more often, one suggests, and everyone nods in agreement. I could teach a personal finance class, a homeowner offers. Another offers to read to homeowners with bad eyesight and be a walking companion to those who want to get more exercise.

Everyone who contributes to the welfare of the community gets paid with Money that is created by the association. What should we call the program? One person suggests “The Paid Volunteer Program,” and some people like that. Another suggests, “The Job Guarantee Program” and everyone likes that name so that’s what they called it (Note #7).

So far in this story we have two key elements of an organized society:

  1. Money – a paper currency created by the homeowner association.
  2. Debt – the amount the association owes to homeowners (domestic) and the Forners (international).

Next week I hope to continue this story with a transition to a digital currency, banks and loans.

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Notes:

  1. In 2016, the top 20% of incomes with more than $200K in income, earned more than 2/3rds of the total interest and dividends. IRS data, Table 1.4
  2. In 2018 dollars, the publicly held debt of the Federal government was $4 trillion in 1990, and $16 trillion now. In 2018 dollars, interest expense was $500B in 1990, and is $600B now.
  3. In David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, there is no record of any early societies that had a barter system. They had a ledger or money system from the start.
  4. In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith – the “father” of economics – defined money as that which has no other value than to be exchanged for a good. This essential characteristic makes money unique and differentiates paper money from other mediums of exchange like gold and silver.
  5. An easy memory trick to distinguish inflation from deflation. INflation  = Increase in prices. DEflation = DEcrease.
  6. The account of the increased force of security guards – and its effect on prices and regulations – is the simple story of money and inflation during WW2 and the years immediately following. The process of rebalancing the money supply by the central bank is difficult. Monetary policy during the 1950s was a chief contributor to four recessions in less than 15 years following the war.
  7. A Job Guarantee program is a key aspect of Modern Monetary Theory.

The Skittish Market

August 11, 2019

by Steve Stofka

I had some whole hazelnuts left over and left them out for the squirrels. They smelled them, tried to bite them, gave up and buried them in the ground. No surprise there. Squirrels bury food. But that got me to wondering. Do hazelnuts soften after a few weeks in the ground? If so, then that might be an indication that squirrels have some primitive notion of future time. I buried a few hazelnuts in the garden and dug them up this week. Still as hard as they were when I put them in there.  Maybe two weeks is not long enough.

We bury money, not nuts. We put it in banks and other institutions called “financial intermediaries” and hope that our savings grow into a big money tree over time. Our bank, mutual or pension fund sends us statements every month or quarter and tells us how big our tree has grown. Financial advisors caution us not to go out and look at our money tree every day. Why? Because sometimes the wind comes and breaks a few branches.

This past Monday was a bit windy. In response to escalating trade tensions, the Chinese yuan weakened in the global money market, and the Chinese central bank did not intervene as the exchange rate dipped below a key number of 7 yuan to the dollar. President Trump accused the Chinese of manipulating their currency because they had taken a free market approach much like the U.S. does. That’s the upside down world we live in now. If the Chinese don’t manipulate their currency, they are guilty of manipulating their currency.

The popular Dow Jones index dropped 3%.  How much is that? A little perspective might help. The financial crisis began when investment firm Lehman Brothers went bankrupt on September 15th, 2008. The stock market dropped 4.4%. A dip below a key number in the money exchange rate between China and the US was all it took to drive the market down a remarkable 3%. In short, the market is extremely sensitive right now to information. Don’t look at your money tree. Some of the branches have been broken.

How do the banks and pension funds grow our money trees? They loan the money out to people and businesses who need it. Unlike nuts and seeds, money doesn’t grow when left in the ground. Growth during the past decade of recovery has been slow but unemployment is at 50-year lows so demand for consumer credit is high – credit card rates are the highest in 25 years – over 17% (Note #1).

Here’s a graph showing credit card rates (the blue dots) and the prime rate (red line), the rate that banks charge their best business customers.

Here’s a chart of the spread or difference between the two rates. Notice that the spread decreases a few years before a recession actually occurs or banks get increasingly worried about a recession. Banks were already telegraphing their fears two years in advance of the 2008-09 recession.

As you can see, the current spread is increasing, not decreasing. Banks are not worried about getting paid because the economy is strong, and people are working. Credit card defaults are near all-time lows (Note #2). Interest rates are the price of money – the price of time. Banks are confident that they can raise their prices for people who want to borrow money.

Less than two weeks ago, the Fed cut interest rates for the first time in a decade. Chairman Powell cited concerns about global growth and warned that the market should not expect further cuts unless data justified such action. He called the ¼% rate cut a mid-course correction.

Conflicting signals – the “yes, buts” – drive market volatility higher. The economy is good. Yes, but the global economy is weakening.

Wage growth is slow. Yes, but unemployment and delinquencies are very low. Housing costs are through the roof and people won’t be able to keep up their payments. Yes, but annual increases in housing costs for the whole country are only 2-1/2 to 3%, the same as they were for most of the 90s and early 2000s (Note #3).

The yield curve recently inverted, meaning that short term rates are higher than long term rates. Yes, but workers in the retail industry are particularly vulnerable and their real weekly earnings are still rising (Note #4). The yes, buts.

As children we were told to go to sleep and we may have said, “yes, but I saw a spider on the ceiling, and I don’t want it to eat me while I’m sleeping.” It’s just a trick of the light, now go to sleep. “Yes, but I heard a mouse under the bed. What happens if it gets under the covers?” That’s just the wind outside, now go to sleep.

Not once did we worry before going to sleep, “Yes, but what about my piggy bank?” That’s what some of us do as adults. “Yes, but what if the financial crisis comes again and uproots my money tree and carries it up into the sky?” we ask. Close your eyes, now. Don’t listen to the market noise. It’s only the wind. Don’t look under your financial statement every minute for mice and bugs.

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Notes:

  1. Highest credit card rate in 25 years
  2. Credit card delinquency, FRED series DRCCLACBS
  3. Housing costs, FRED series CPIHOSNS
  4. After adjusting for inflation, median weekly earnings of full-time retail workers have risen 10% since the end of the recession. Annual earnings of $33,000 (in 2018 dollars) are far below the median $45,000 for all workers.