Less Bang For The Buck

June 17, 20918

by Steve Stofka

There are two types of inputs into production, human and non-human. Over a hundred years ago, Henry Ford realized that he had to invest in his human inputs as well as his equipment, land and factories. Once he started paying his employees a decent wage, they were able to buy the very cars they were producing on Ford’s assembly line.

The total return on our stock investments depends on two inputs: dividends and capital gains, which is the increase in the stock price. Both are dependent on profits. Dividends are a share of the profits that a company returns to its shareholders. Capital gains arise from the profits/savings of other investors who are willing to buy the shares we own (see end for explanation of mutual funds).

In the past three decades, a growing share of total return has come from capital gains. Because of that shift from dividend income to capital gains, market corrections are harsh and swift.

In the 1970s, stocks paid twice the dividend rate that they do today. It took an oil embargo and escalating oil prices, a continuing war in Vietnam, the impeachment of President Nixon, a long recession and growing inflation to sink the market by 50% beginning in early 1973 to the middle of 1974.

In 2000, the dividend rate or yield was a third of what it was in 1973. Total return was much more dependent on the willingness of other investors to buy stocks. In 2-1/2 years, the market lost 45% because of a lack of investor confidence in the new internet industry, a mild recession and 9-11. Dividends act as a safety net for falling stock prices and dividends were weak.

In 2008, the dividend yield was about the same as in 2000. In 1-1/2 years, the market again lost 45% of its value because of a lack of confidence brought on by a financial crisis and a long and deep recession.

Other bedrock shifts have occurred in the past three decades. Corporate debt is an input to production. In the post-WW2 period until 1980, corporate debt as a percent of GDP was a stable 10-15%. $1 of debt generated $7 to $10 of GDP. Following the back-to-back recessions of the early 1980s until the height of the dot-com boom in 2000, that percentage almost doubled to 27%. Each $1 of corporate debt generated less than $4 of GDP.

CorpDebtPctGDP

Today $1 of corporate debt generates just $3 of GDP. Debt is a liability pool. GDP is a flow. That pool of debt is generating less flow. It is less efficient. In 1973, $1 of corporate debt generated 46 cents in profit. Now it generates just 30 cents.

To hide that inefficiency and make their stocks appealing to investors, companies have used some of that debt to buy back their own stock. This reduces the P/E ratio many investors use to gauge value, and it increases the leverage of profit flows.

Here’s a simple example to show how a stock buyback influences the P/E ratio. If a company makes a $10 profit and has 10 shares of stock outstanding, the profit per share is $1. If the company’s stock is priced at $20, then Price-Earnings (P/E) ratio is $20/$1 or 20. If that company borrows money and buys back a share of stock, then a $10 profit is divided among 9 shares for a per-share profit of $1.11. The P/E ratio has declined to 18. When the company buys stock back from existing shareholders, that often drives up the price, and thus lowers the P/E ratio further.

The P/E ratio values a company based on the flow of annual profits. A company’s Price to Book (P/B) ratio values the company based on a pool of value, the equity or liquidation value of the firm. If we divide one by the other, we get an estimate of how much profit is generated by each $1 of a company’s equity, or Return On Equity (ROE).

1982 was the worst recession since the Great Depression. Stocks were out of favor with investors and were at a 13 year low. In 1983, $8.70 of equity generated $1 of profit for companies in the SP500. Seventeen years later, at the height of the dot-com boom in 2000, companies had become more efficient at generating profits. $6 of equity generated $1 in profit. In the last quarter of 2017, companies have become less efficient. $7.30 of equity generated $1 of profit.

Let’s look at another flow ratio, one based on the flow of dividends. It’s called the dividend yield, and the current yield is 1.80, about the same as a money market account. I can put my $100 in a money market account or savings account and earn $1.80. If I need that $100 a year from now, it will still be there. I could use that same $100 and buy a fraction of a share of SPY, an ETF that represents the SP500. I could earn the same $1.80. However, if I wanted my $100 back in a year, it might be worth $120 or $50. A stock’s value can be very volatile over a short time like a year, and the current dividend rate does not compensate me for that extra risk.

Why don’t investors demand more dividends? After the early 1980s, economists at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve noted (PDF) that, on a global scale, companies’ profits grew at a faster rate than the dividends they paid to shareholders. The dividend yield of the SP500 companies fell from 6% in the early 1980s to 1% in 2000 (chart).

Those extra profits are counted as corporate savings. The same paper showed that global corporate savings as a percent of global GDP increased from 10% in the early 1980s to 15% this decade. Each year companies were adding on debt at a faster pace than during the post-war decades, but undistributed profits were growing even faster. The net result was an increase of 5% in the rate of corporate saving. Companies around the world were able to shift dividends from the savings accounts of shareholders to the savings of the companies themselves.

From the early 1980s to the height of the dot-com boom, stock prices increased more than ten-fold. Investors that had depended on company dividends for income in previous decades now depended on other investors to keep buying stocks and driving up the price. The source of an investor’s income shifted slightly from the pocketbooks of corporations to the pocketbooks of other investors. Investors adopted a shorter time horizon and now look to other investors to read the mood of the market.

The bottom line? If investors rely on each other for a greater part of their total return, price corrections will be dramatic.

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Notes: Price to Book (P/B) ratio was 1.5 in 1983 (article).
P/B graph since 2000
When mutual funds sell some of their holdings, they assign any capital gains earned to their fund holders. This amount appears on the mutual fund statements and the yearly 1099-DIV tax form.

A November 2017 article on share buybacks at the accounting firm DeLoitte

 

Study Dollars

June 10, 2018

by Steve Stofka

In the past forty years, inflation-adjusted per student spending on higher education has increased by 40%. Despite this, the number of tenured professors has fallen by half. Two-thirds of instruction is now carried out by adjunct faculty with no job security and few benefits. State and federal dollars subsidize workers training for the banking and insurance industries, but not those entering the construction and manufacturing industries. No wonder people express their grievances at government for a lack of funding (Alternet article) . Where is the money going? Maybe the question is: who is the money going to?

In 1940, just 5% of Americans had a four-year college degree (NCES, Dept. of Ed).  In 2015, 75 years later, a third of Americans reported having a college degree.

CollegeDegreePct

A few years after WW2 and the enactment of the GI Bill’s education benefits, 2.7 million were enrolled in a two or four-year degree granting institution. By 1959, enrollment had grown 33% to 3.6 million students (NCES). About 60% were enrolled in a public institution. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), total Federal, State and Local spending in 1959 was $12.4B, about $3400 per student in 2016 dollars.

In 2016, there were 20.2 million students enrolled in college, a third of them in two-year programs. They were sharing a pot of $241B federal and state dollars, about $12,000 per student. That’s inflation-adjusted dollars: apples to apples. Here is a chart covering the past 50 years.

EdSpendPerStudentReal

Confronted by escalating Medicaid costs and uncooperative taxpayers, the state portion of higher education spending has fallen over the past two decades.

StateLocalEdSpendPerStudent2016$

In Colorado, the taxpayer rebellion started in the 1990s when the Denver Post reported that a University of Colorado (UC) faculty member was retiring with an annual pension almost eight times the average yearly income in Colorado. The abuse has not stopped. Last year, the L.A. Times reported that UC continued to hand out generous pensions to faculty members.

In the 1990s, UC and other public and private universities planned that the future annual investment returns on their endowment funds would continue to be generous. They stopped making contributions to meet the future obligations of the equally generous pensions they promised to faculty. “Our accountants told us we would be all right,” was the lament of one city official in California. After a decade of rock bottom interest rates and single digit returns for college endowments, students, parents and taxpayers must now pick up the tab for the Polyanna thinking of politicians and college administrators.

In 1959, state and local governments spent 98% of higher education funding. In 2016, they spent less than 60%. Because public and private institutions are tax-exempt, state and local governments provide billions in forgone tax revenue that is not counted.

StateLocalPctEdSpend

About 9% of total spending goes to private for-profit institutions (NCES). Because the for-profit institutions grab headlines, some might think that they receive a greater percentage of education dollars than they do. I did.

Inflation-adjusted per student spending has risen 27% in the past twenty years. Where is all that money going? Not to today’s instructors. Less than a third of spending goes to instruction (NCES). About 40% goes to administration and student support.

Public and private non-profit institutions do not detail the expenses for maintenance and operation of their buildings and grounds, nor their interest and depreciation expenses. This gap is about 28-30% of spending, so we can conservatively estimate that they spend at least 25% of their budget on these items. As buildings continue to age, operations expenses will grow faster than the rate of inflation and eat up more education dollars. Each year, colleges and universities spend more time and dollars in their outreach to a growing cohort of “non-traditional” students.

An educational system designed for the children of the landed elite in the 19th century is trying to catch up to the needs of a diverse student population in the 21st century. That earlier system wasn’t much good to start with. That’s a topic for another time.  Entrenched political and financial interests now hinder any substantive changes in these institutions as they prepare the students of today for the world of tomorrow.

About 3 million students are graduating high school this year. Two thirds of those graduates are enrolled in a two or four-year college (BLS), and the majority are female. Out of every 100 college students, 56 are female (NCES). There are not enough state or federal educational programs to meet the skills training for the million students who will not go on to college this year, or the million who may drop out before getting a degree.

Discrimination – Education policy in this country subsidizes the training of workers employed by a large bank like J.P. Morgan Chase, but has little support for the workers in the construction and manufacturing industries. The subsidized workers at Chase are more likely to lose their jobs to automation than the unsubsidized workers at a large homebuilder like Pulte.

Fifteen percent of all employees are in the BLS category of Professional and Business Services. This percentage has grown from 8% of the work force in 1980. Employees work for private companies and government, enjoy lower unemployment rates and much higher incomes. (BLS profile ) The great majority have college degrees. College enrollees are attracted by these numbers, but the numbers are changing. The growth of this category in the 1990s lessened during the 2000s and has lessened again since the Great Recession. I’ve highlighted the trend changes in the graph above.

ProfBusSvcPctPayems

In the past year growth is relatively flat. The number of institutions with job growth has offset those with declining job growth.

ProfBusSvcEstablish
The world is changing rapidly, and for some the changes are too much and too quick. That reaction against change underlies the support for Donald Trump in the rust belt states.

Current college enrollees and graduates may find that they have prepared for a world that existed a decade ago, and will be materially changed a decade hence. The college debt is permanent but not the state of the job market. Be versatile, be flexible, be prepared.

 

Building A Peak

June 3, 2018

by Steve Stofka

First I will look at May’s employment report before expanding the scope to include some decades long trends that are great and potentially destructive at the same time. In the plains states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, summer rain clouds are a welcome sign of needed moisture for crops. That’s the good. As those clouds get heavy and dark and temperatures peak, that’s bad. Destruction is near.

May’s employment survey was better than expected. The average of the BLS and ADP employment surveys was 203K job gains. The headline unemployment rate fell to an 18 year low. African-American unemployment is the lowest recorded since the BLS started including that metric in their surveys more than thirty years ago. As a percent of employment, new unemployment claims were near a 50-year low when Obama left office and are now setting records each month.

During Obama’s tenure, Mr. Trump routinely called the headline unemployment rate “fake.” It’s one of many rates, each with its own methodology. Now that Mr. Trump is President, he takes credit for the very statistic that he formerly called fake. The contradiction, so typical of a veteran politician, shows that Mr. Trump has innate political instincts. A President has little influence on the economy but the public likes to keep things simple, and pins the praise or blame on the President’s head.

The wider U-6 unemployment rate includes discouraged and other marginally attached workers who are not included in the headline unemployment rate. Included also are involuntary part-time workers who would like a full-time job but can’t find one. Mr. Trump can be proud that this rate is now better than at the height of the housing boom. Only the 2000 peak of the dot com boom had a better rate.

Let’s look at a key ratio whose current value is both terrific and portentous, like a summer’s rain clouds. First, some terms. The Civilian Labor Force includes those who are working and those who are actively seeking work. The adult Civilian Population are those that can legally work. This would include an 89-year old retiree and a 17-year old high school student. Both could work if they wanted and could find a job, so they are part of the Civilian Population, but are not counted in the Labor Force because they are not actively seeking a job. The Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate is the ratio of the Civilian Labor Force to the Civilian Population. Out of every 100 people in this country, almost 63 are in the Labor Force.

While that is often regarded as a key ratio, I’m looking at a ratio of two rates mentioned above: the Labor Force Participation Rate divided by the U-3, or headline, Unemployment Rate. That ratio is the 3rd highest since the Korean War more, ranking with the peak years of 1969 and 2000. That is terrific. Let’s look at the chart of this ratio to understand the portentous part.

CLFUIRatio
Whenever this ratio gets this high, the labor economy is very imbalanced. Let’s look at some previous peaks. After the 1969 peak, the stock market endured what is called a secular bear market for 13 years. The price finally crossed above its 1969 beginning peak in 1982. In inflation-adjusted prices, the bear market lasted till 1992 (SP500 prices). Imagine retiring at 65 in 1969 and the purchasing power of your stock funds never recovers for the rest of your life. Let’s think more pleasant thoughts!

For those in the accumulation phase of their lives, who are saving for retirement, a secular bear market of steadily lower  asset prices is a boon. Unfortunately, bear markets are accompanied by higher unemployment rates. The loss of a job may force some savers to cash in part of their retirement funds to support themselves and their families. Boy, I’m just full of cheery thoughts this week!

After the 2000 peak, stock market prices recovered in 2007, thanks to low interest rates, mortgage and securities fraud. Just as soon as the price rose to the 2000 peak, it fell precipitously during the 2008 Financial Crisis. Finally, in the first months of 2013, stock market prices broke out of the 13-year bear market.

We have seen two peaks, followed by two secular bear markets that lasted thirteen years. The economy is still in the process of building a third peak. Will history repeat itself? Let’s hope not.

May’s annual growth of wages was 2.7%, strengthening but still below the desirable rate of 3%. The work force, and the economy, is only as strong as the core work force aged 25-54. This age group raises families, starts companies, and buys homes. For most of 2017, annual employment growth of the core fell below 1%. It crossed above that level in November 2017 and continues to stay above that benchmark.

Overall, this was a strong report with job gains spread broadly across most sectors of the economy. Mr. Trump, go ahead and take your bow, but put your MAGA hat on first so you don’t mess up your hair.

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Executive Clemency

This week President Trump pardoned the filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, serving a five-year probation after a 2014 conviction for breaking election finance laws. He helped fund a friend’s 2012 Senate campaign by using “straw” contributions. D’Souza complains that he was targeted by then President Obama and General Attorney Holder for being critical of the administration. A judge found no evidence for the claim but if he didn’t see the conspiracy against D’Souza, then he was part of the conspiracy, no doubt. I reviewed the 2016 movie in which D’Souza unveiled the perfidious history of the Democratic Party and its high priestess, Hillary Clinton.

Grandma’s Kids

May 27, 2018

by Steve Stofka

The birth rate has touched a 30-year low, repeating a cycle of generational boom and bust since World War 2. The first boom was the Boomer generation born in the years 1946-1964 (approx). They were followed by the baby bust Generation X, born 1964-1982. The Millennials, sometimes called Generation Y and born 1982 – 2001, surpassed even the Boomers in numbers. Based on the latest census data, Generation Z, born 2002- 2020, will be another low birth rate cohort.

These numbers matter. They form the population tide that keeps the entitlement system afloat. Social Security and Medicare are “pay as you go” systems. Older generations who receive the benefits depend on taxes from younger generations for those benefits. As the population surge of Boomers draws benefits, the surge of Millennials is entering their peak earning years.

To maintain a steady population level, each woman needs to average 2.1 births. During the Great Recession, the birth rate for native-born Hispanic and Black women fell below that replacement level. White and Asian women fell below that level during the recession following the dot-com boom in the early 2000s. Foreign born Hispanic and Black women are averaging a bit more than 2-1/2 births. The average of foreign born White and Asian women is just about replacement rate.

Around the world, birth rates are falling. Social welfare programs depend on inter-generational transfers of income. When a smaller and younger generation must pay for a larger and older cohort, there is an inevitable stress.

I will distinguish between social welfare programs and socialist welfare programs with one rule: the former require that a person pay into the program before being entitled to the benefits from the program. In this regard, they are like insurance programs except that private insurance policies are funded by asset reserves held by an insurance company. Government “insurance” programs are “pay as you go” systems. Current taxes pay for current benefits. The Social Security “reserve” is an accounting fiction that the Federal government uses to track how much it has borrowed from itself.

Examples of social welfare programs that require the previous payment of dues are: Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment and Workmen’s Compensation Insurance. Although the latter two are paid directly by employers, they are effectively taken out of an employee’s pay by reducing the wage or salary that the employer pays the employee. Employers who fail to understand this go out of business early in the life of the business. I have known some.

Examples of socialist welfare programs that are based on income, or need: Medicaid, TANF (Welfare), WIC, Food Stamps, Housing and Education Subsidies. There is no requirement that a person pays “dues” into a specific program before receiving benefits.

Health care in America is primarily a social welfare program with socialist elements. The Federal government does subsidize all employer provided health insurance and most private insurance through the tax system or the Affordable Care Act. However, most beneficiaries must pay some kind of insurance to access benefits. Under the 1986 EMTALA act, emergency rooms are notable exceptions to this policy. They are required to treat, or medically stabilize, all patients insured or not.

As Grandma begins to draw benefits from Social Security and Medicare, she relies on the earnings of her kids who form the core work force aged 25 – 54. Grandma has paid a lifetime of dues into the social welfare programs and wants her benefits. Grandma votes.

Her grandkids want government subsidies for educational needs and job training. They depend on socialist welfare programs with no dues. The grandkids don’t vote.

The kids are caught in a generational squeeze.  Their taxes are paying for both their parent’s benefits and their kid’s benefits.

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Housing Trends

In the spring of 2008, there was an eleven month supply of existing homes on the market.
2010 – 8-1/2 months
2012 – 6-1/2 months
2014 – 5-1/2 months
2016 – 4-1/2 months
2018 – 4 months

In some cities, a median priced home stays on the market less than 24 hours.

Here is another generational shift.  Grandma and Grandpa now own 40% percent of home equity, up from 24% in 2006. Their kids, the age cohort 45 – 60, own 45%. Those under 45 have only 14% of home equity, down from 24% in 2006.

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Brave New World

E-Commerce is now 9.5% of all retail sales, almost triple the percentage ten years ago. (Fed Reserve series ECOMPCTSA). In 2000, the percentage was less than 1%.

The Big Picture

May 19, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Here is a simple and elegant animation model of the economy in a thirty-minute video from Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund. The video illustrates the spending – income – credit cycle in easy to understand terms. The video includes an insight first noted eighty years ago by the economist John Maynard Keynes, who pointed out that one person’s spending is another person’s income. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?  I spend money on a pizza which increases the income of the pizza store.

When Keynes explored this simple idea, he revealed a glitch in the traditional model of savings and investment. In a simplified version, money not spent is saved in a bank. The bank loans out those savings to a business.  A business invests that loan into production for future spending. When economists model the whole economy, Savings = Investment. It is an accounting identity like a mathematical definition. The financial industry transforms one into the other.

During the Depression, something was obviously broken, and economists debated various aspects of their models. Keynes asked a question: what happens to the merchant where the money was not spent? Let’s say the Jones family decides not to buy a new TV and puts the money in a savings account at the Acme Bank.  The local Bigg TV store sells one less TV and has a corresponding decline in its income. Because Bigg had less income, they must withdraw money from their Acme Bank savings account to meet payroll. The money that the family saves is withdrawn by the business. The money Saved never makes it to the Investment side of the equation.  There is no increase in investment.

Most of the time, those who are saving and those who are spending funds from saving balances out. But there were times, Keynes proposed, when everyone is saving. Keynes attributed the phenomenon to “animal spirits.” As incomes fall, people start using up their savings to make up for the lost income.

During a crisis like this, Keynes proposed that government increase its spending, even if it needed to borrow, to boost incomes and break the vicious cycle. When the crisis was over, the government could raise taxes to pay back the money it borrowed. In Keynes’ model, government spending acted as a balancing force to the animal spirits of the capitalist economy. In the real world, politicians win votes by spending money but find that raising taxes does not win them favor with voters. Without legislative debt controls, government borrowing to counterbalance declines in income only produces greater government debt.

Turning from government debt to personal debt, the average credit card rate has risen to 15.3%, an eighteen year record. As an economy continues to expand and credit is extended to those with marginal creditworthiness, the default rate grows. The percent of credit card balances that have been charged off in default has risen from 1.5% several years ago to 3.6% in the 4th quarter of 2017.

Mortgage rates have risen to about 4.9% on thirty-year loans, and about a half percent less on fifteen-year loans. That half percent difference is close to the average for the past twenty-five years and adds up to an extra $1.60 in interest paid during the life of the loan on every $100 of mortgage principal. The graph below shows the difference between the two rates.

MortRatesDiff

Because shorter-term mortgages require higher monthly payments, they are more feasible for those with stable financial situations and above average incomes. When the difference in rates is less than average, there is a smaller advantage to getting a short-term mortgage.  At such times, the mortgage industry is reaching out to expand home ownership to lower income homeowners. When the difference is more than average, as it has been since the recession, the finance industry is cautious and not actively reaching out to lower income families.

Mortgages are secured by a physical asset, the house. U.S. Treasury bonds are secured by an intangible asset, the full faith and credit of the country. Just like us, the Treasury usually pays a higher interest rate for a longer-term loan.

A benchmark is the difference between a 10-year Treasury bond and a 2-year bond. As this difference declines toward zero, economists call it a “flattening of the yield curve.” At zero, there is no reward for loaning the government money for a longer term. Knowing only that, a casual investor would sense that something is wrong, and they are right. Periods when this difference falls below zero usually occur about a year before a recession starts. In the graph below, I’ve shaded in pink those negative periods. In gray are the ensuing recessions.

10YRLess2Yr

Before that negative pink period comes another phenomenon. Above was the 10 year – 2 year difference in interest rates. Let’s call that the medium difference. There’s also the difference between two long term periods, the 20-year minus 10-year difference. I’ll call that the long difference. When we subtract the medium difference from the long, we get a difference in long term outlook. In a healthy economy, that difference should be positive, meaning that investors are being paid for taking risks over a longer period. When that difference turns negative, it shows that there are underlying distortions in the risks and rewards of loaning money. That distortion will show first before the flattening of the yield curve.

DiffRates1995-2018

As you can see, the difference today is positive, a welcome sign that a recession is not likely within the year.

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Tidbits

The actuaries for Social Security and Medicare use an assumption that our average life expectancy will increase .77% per year (Reuters article)  If you are expected to live till 85 this year, then that expectation will grow to 85 years and eight months next year. That’s a nice birthday present!

U.S. lumber mills can supply only two-thirds of the lumber needed by homebuilders. The other third comes from Canada. Recent import tariffs now add about $6300 to the price of a new home (Albuquerque Journal).

Optical Illusions

May 12, 2018

by Steve Stofka

I have long enjoyed optical illusions. Is that a picture of a rabbit or a duck? Which way is the cube facing, right or left? (Some examples) Is that two people facing each other, or a vase? (Image page) These can be even more fun when shared with a friend or sibling. Can’t you see the rabbit? No, it’s a duck!!!

Moving images present a selective attention deception. When asked to count the number of basketball passes, we may not see the gorilla that walks across our field of view. (Video)

These examples excite our curiosity and fascination as children and carry important lessons for us as adults. We sometimes misinterpret the data our senses receive. Those with a strong ideological bent may focus narrowly on only that data that supports their view of the world, or that makes them feel comfortable.

Let’s look at an example. Real (inflation-adjusted) median (middle of the pack) household income peaked in 1999 at $58,665. In 2016, income climbed to $59,039. However, personal income did not peak till 2007, at $30,821. Like household income, personal income finally rose above that peak in 2016.

PersVsHouseholdIncome

In the household series, the past twenty years have been especially tough. In the personal series, only the past ten years have been that difficult. What accounts for the difference in the two series? Households have grown faster than the population. Population Income / Households will be lower when households increase.

But what is income? Household income is money income received and does not include employer-provided benefits and retirement contributions (Census Bureau Defs). The BLS does track total compensation costs which do include these benefits, and those costs are 67% higher today than they were in 2001.

Benefits

If an employer gave an employee $500 a month for health care expenses and the employee sent the money to the health insurance company, that would be counted as income in the data. But because the employer sends the money directly to the insurance company, that income is not counted. Because of World War 2 wage and price controls, and to avoid being taxed under the income tax system, most employee benefits never touch the employee’s pocket, and are not counted as income. This becomes important when something not counted, benefits, grows much quicker than the income that is counted, or money received.

Since 1970, real hourly wages have grown only 3%. Bernie Sanders and other Democrats use a similar figure to press for more social welfare programs. Total hourly compensation has grown 60% (Fed Reserve blog) and most of that is not included in household income.

HourlyWagesVsTotalComp

Is it a rabbit or a duck?

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Do Millennials have it worse than Boomers did at this age?

I’ll call them the Mills and the Booms, so I don’t wear out my fingers. The Mills were born about 1982-2001 so they are 17 – 36 years old today.  A decade after the worst recession since the Great Depression, home and apartment prices are rising fast in many urban areas.  Mills are now the largest generation alive and are at an age when a majority of  them are independent and increasing the demand for housing.

Some Mills are trying to provide shelter for their families when the competition for housing puts constant upward pressure on prices. Some Mills are paying off student loans, while paying $800 to $1000, or more in California, to share a 3 bedroom house with  two other people. It is stressful.

The Booms were born approximately 1946 – 1964. The youngest are 54; the oldest are 72. When the Booms were 17-36, the year was 1982, and oh, what a year it was. The Booms had just endured a decade of double-digit inflation rates (it is now less than 2%), four recessions, mortgage rates that were considered a “bargain” at 9% (4% today), and high housing and apartment prices because there was so much demand for living space from this post war baby boom.

Oh, and tax increases. Tax rates were not indexed for inflation till 1985, so higher wages each year to keep up with that double-digit inflation meant that many workers were kicked up into a higher tax bracket each year. One of Ronald Reagan’s campaign promises was to stop the sneaky practice of dipping deeper into worker’s pockets every year. He got elected President, beating President Jimmy Carter who had told workers to turn the heat down and put a sweater on.

How do today’s monthly debt payments compare? Household Debt Service Payments as a percent of disposable personal income are 5.8% today compared to 5.6% in 1982. The 37-year average is 5.7% (Federal Reserve).

What are those average debt service payments buying? Better cars, more education, more square footage of housing space per person, and computers and electronics that didn’t exist in the 1980s. People are paying more for housing but are enjoying 30% more square footage per person (Bloomberg). In 1982, 17% of the population 25 years and older had a college degree. Today, it is double that percentage (Census Bureau table A-1), an achievement that the Mills can be proud of.

The Mills do have it better than the Booms, who had it better than the generations before them. That “good old days” talk that we heard from Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail are based on some foggy memories. The reality was way tougher than Sanders remembers or talks about because his perception is clouded by his ideology. He only sees the data that tells him it’s a rabbit. He doesn’t see the duck.

Could Trump Be Right On Trade?

May 6, 2018

by Steve Stofka

On Tuesday morning I had an epiphany. Some background first. I disagree with Donald Trump about many things. One of them is his fundamental tenet of international trade: it creates winners and losers. This violates an established principle of economics: comparative advantage. Trade between countries benefits the people of both countries, or a win-win. That is Principle #5 in Greg Mankiw’s Principles of Economics taught in many colleges and universities. From the textbook (6th Ed): “Trade allows countries to specialize in what they do best and to enjoy a greater variety of goods and services.”

Here’s Professor Trump on trade with the Japanese during their boom years in the late 1980s: “First [the Japanese] take all our money with their consumer goods, then they put it back in buying all of Manhattan. So either way, we lose.” (1990 Playboy interview quoted in National Review).

As I put my dishes in the dishwasher, a memory from a 1989 Christmas party in Los Angeles flashed through my mind. I was visiting from Colorado, doing more listening than talking. At the party were several people in real estate, construction and software development.

One guy complained that the Japanese were buying up chunks of California and there should be a law limiting their ownership. The comment began a spirited discussion and I sensed the resentment in the group. I asked if the Japanese owned that much California real estate. They were able to name landmark office buildings and vineyards.

As was my habit, I made a note to find out how much California real estate the Japanese did own. The Japanese had bought a few headline grabbing commercial properties, but they owned less than 1/10th of 1% of California real estate. The number of Japanese investors who bought homes did affect ordinary Californians, however. The percentage of homes bought was small but helped drive up prices, and fueled resentment of the Japanese.

The principle of comparative advantage is modeled on trade in goods. Real estate is different. That’s the point that I missed at the Christmas Party almost thirty years ago. Real estate is an investment whose present value is based on an estimate of future cash flows. A common refrain is “location, location, location.” Unlike an investment in a plant or machinery, real estate often consists of two types of asset: 1) a building, which has a limited, depreciable life; and 2) la location that has an unlimited, and appreciable, life. The first part is like a bond. The second part is like a stock. Real estate is a hybrid product of both asset types.

Let’s go to the first part of Trump’s statement: “First [the Japanese] take all our money with their consumer goods.” Let’s follow the money with an example. A company called Taro has a factory in Japan (not financed with U.S. dollars) that makes computers which it sells to U.S. consumers. Because Taro is making so many of these computers, people and peripheral businesses move near the factory.  This drives up the value of the factory’s real estate in Japan.

Taro’s capital is better deployed at making computers, so it sells the factory and land to a private equity firm, from which it leases back the factory. Taro then invests the U.S. dollars it has accumulated from computer sales, plus part of the proceeds from the sale of its real estate in Japan, to buy an office building on 5th Ave in Manhattan, that I’ll call Fifth.

To buy Fifth, Taro must outbid another buyer for the property, a U.S. investor I’ll call Bulldog. The higher price that Taro pays implies that the future cash flows from Fifth will be more than Bulldog’s estimate. If those future cash flows are mis-estimated by Taro, then Taro has introduced a form of bad money into the economic system of New York real estate. Gresham’s law states that bad money tends to drive good money out of circulation. We’ll see that the principle applies here.

There are two parts to Taro’s equity in Fifth. The first is the profits in U.S. dollars from selling computers to U.S. customers, a re-bundling of U.S. dollars. The second part is the profits from the real estate frenzy in Japan. What fueled the lofty sales price in Japan? Rosy estimates of future economic activity, robust cash flows, and a limited supply of property in desirable areas of Japan. Taro has transferred that frenzy, and risk, from a property in Japan to a property in the U.S.

Banks and other credit institutions, both U.S. and foreign, fund the rest of the sale. Because Taro has more equity to put into the property than Bulldog, the ratio of financed principle to Taro’s equity may be nearly the same as Bulldog’s proposal (the numbers are at the end below).  The rosy estimates that drove the Japanese valuation now influence, or infect, the wider international finance community as well.

Because the U.S. is not in a boom, Bulldog may not have access to the same funds and credit that Taro does.  This puts Bulldog at a disadvantage. Bulldog does not buy the building. No big deal, right? He’ll just buy another property with a more reasonable evaluation. But, wait. At any one time, only a fixed amount of credit money is available at a particular interest rate. The money that a bank lent to Taro for its acquisition is no longer available to Bulldog at the same interest rate for his buy of another property. Taro’s purchase, fueled by speculation in Japan and agressive estimates of cash flow in New York, will cost Bulldog money.

Economic models of comparative advantage tend to ignore the financing aspect for two reasons. Money is regarded as neutral in economic models, and the machinations of international finance are difficult to model.  The competition for credit is global and fierce, fought by vast private and public pools of capital and policy.  Those who buy and sell premium real estate in markets like New York City are regularly reminded of the fact.  They put their textbooks down and come out fighting.

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The numbers:  For every $100 in price that Bulldog offers, Taro offers $110. To finance Bulldog’s offer, he can put up $20 for every $100, or 20%. Taro can put in $27.50 for every $110 of its offer. In Bulldog’s case, $80 is financed. In Taro’s offer, $82.50 is financed. Taro has a leverage of 4-1 ($110 / $27.50), compared to Bulldog’s leverage of 5–1 ($100 / $20). Taro’s leverage looks safer. Its future cash flow estimates are 10% higher, but the finance ratio on the deal is only 3.1% higher ($82.50 / $80). If Taro’s cash flow projections are 5% too high, a lender calculates that Taro can still make payments.

Our Legacies

April 29, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Each generation bequeaths the benefits and costs of legislative programs to the following generations.  In the past one hundred years, Democrats have secured a dominant majority in the Congress three times. A dominant majority is one where one party controls the Presidency and both houses of Congress with a filibuster proof majority of sixty in the Senate (History of Shifting Political Power).

Each time, the Democrats have created an entitlement program, a legacy structured so that it would be difficult to undo when Democrats were out of power.  Under FDR in the 1930s, the Democrats created Social Security. Like all entitlement programs, coverage and benefits were expanded in the first ten years after creation of the program.

In the 1960s, LBJ and the Democrats created Medicare and Medicaid. Before these programs, the Federal government paid 11 cents of every health care dollar. In 2013, that 11 cents had grown to 26 cents (CMS history PDF).  As with Social Security, coverage and benefits were greatly expanded the first decade after creation. In 1960, the U.S. spent 5.1 cents for every $1 of GDP. OECD countries spent only 3.7 cents. By 2013, Americans spent 16.4 cents of each $1 of GDP, twice as much as the 8.7 cents spent by OECD countries.

For fifty years, the annual growth of health care spending was 50% more than the growth rate of the economy.  With a dominant majority after 45 years, Obama and the Democrats tried to pass single payer health care in 2009. Democratic politicians in conservative leaning districts balked at the idea. Obamacare was a compromise solution that has been compared by opponents and advocates alike to a Frankenstein contraption of legislation that needs to be fixed. Expansion was embedded in the legislation from the start through the Medicaid program.

When the BLS and Census Bureau compute the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a measure of inflation, they consider the shifting patterns of consumer spending. Since 2000, the Medical spending component of the CPI has doubled its share of the index to about 17%. Increased medical spending is affecting most American families. Regardless of one’s opinion of the solution, Obamacare was a compromised attempt to deal with this trend.

The American health care system is like the 50-year old cars in Cuba that have been patched together with duct tape and ingenuity. The system runs on policy payoffs to stakeholder groups and it will fail most of us because it cannot adapt to the extraordinary advancements in medical care. As technological changes accelerate in the coming decades, this cobbled together system born of World War 2 wage and price controls will grow ever more unwieldy.

Entitlement programs invariably cost a lot more than the designers calculate. Program benefits are easier to sell to voters than raising the funds to pay for them. Following December’s tax reform bill, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office revised their ten year budget and deficit estimates.

For the past fifty years, the Federal government has collected an average of $17.40 for every $100 of GDP.  The CBO projects Fed revenue will be over $18.00. Here’s the problem: the Federal government has been spending $20.30, almost $3 more than it collects. That’s how the country has run up a debt of $20 trillion. It’s about to get worse. Because of increased Medicare and Medicaid spending, the CBO projects spending will increase to $22.40 for every $100 of GDP. A $3 shortage will soon turn to a $4 shortage. The interest on that steadily increasing debt? By 2023, almost $3, a sixth of what the government collects and more than the defense budget.

Nations can not declare bankruptcy.  Instead, they become failed states and descend into anarchy.  Venezuela has become a failed state and its people are fleeing the country.  Most of the institutions have failed.  Most of the daily necessities of life are in short supply. The government claims that it doesn’t even have the paper to print exit Visas.  Under the Maduro government, truth was the first to abandon the country.

The economy is strong yet Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings have reached the same level as April 2011 when there was talk of another recession. That year, the unemployment rate was still above 9% and housing starts remained at all-time lows. Then-President Obama and Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner battled over a budget compromise and the stock market dropped nearly 20%. In a strong economy like today, we should have lower levels of bankruptcy.

 

Prejudice and Jobs

April 22, 2018

by Steve Stofka

America is built on prejudice and the passionate denial that we are a country built on prejudice.

Investors who understand the role of prejudice in the economics of this society can recognize a few early signs of a coming recession. A strong economy, like a bull stock market, raises all boats, including those at the margins who are easily stranded.  During the financial crisis, they were the first to be discarded.  As the current strength of the economy is finally able to lift the fortunes of the more vulnerable, countervailing forces will undermine that strength.

From the country’s founding, broken and forced land treaties, enforced by superior military power, have sidelined those with red skin.  Like the thoroughbred horses in the upcoming Kentucky Derby, Americans with black or brown skin must carry an extra weight during the race of life. I’ll show one data sign of this weight. White people must bear their own burden: privilege. Centuries of discrimination blocked those with black skin from many housing and job choices to give those with white skin a better chance at success. The prejudice against those with brown skin is less strong but has intensified when Candidate Trump used the issue of illegal immigration to taint those with brown skin or Hispanic surnames, regardless of their citizenship.

America has a shorter history of isolating and persecuting immigrants of white skin. First it was the Irish who immigrated to America after the potato blight devastated Ireland’s staple crop in the mid-19th century. Newspapers and periodicals portrayed the Irish as ignorant, shiftless criminals. In a country dominated by Republicans, many Irish were Catholic and suspected of being more loyal to the pope in Rome than democratically elected leaders in America.

As the century turned, Italians and southern Europeans became the target of American prejudice (History). Like the Irish, many Italians were Catholic and not to be trusted. To this day, no Italian has been elected President. JFK was the first successful Irish Catholic candidate for the Presidency, and he had to overcome objections that he would turn to the Pope for advice on national policy.

As discriminatory as Protestants have been to Catholics, they have been especially unkind to those of other Protestant sects. As more Catholics migrated to America, many Protestants in America deflected their prejudices from other Protestants to the Catholics as easy targets of discrimination.

In America, Jews encountered less discrimination than in Europe but housing, job and social discrimination were prevalent in the first half of the 20th Century. In the 19th Century, those of the Mormon faith were driven out of Ohio, then Missouri, and Illinois by Protestant sects who regarded Mormons as non-Christians. The abandoned farms and businesses were auctioned off to the Christian righteous who remained. Mormons escaped across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains to settle in a valley in Utah. Following the Holocaust during World War 2, there was a proposal to settle many European Jews in Utah, but Mormons nixed the idea. Even those who suffer persecution for their religious beliefs are not immune to bias.

From Europe, Protestant settlers brought their prejudices with them. Those Protestants who immigrated to America because of religious persecution were often fleeing long standing animosities with other Protestant sects. Eight of the thirteen colonies established churches of a particular denomination and only those citizens belonging to that denomination were allowed to hold office. Each Protestant sect was convinced that the other sects had strayed from the message and meaning of the Bible. To counter such discrimination, Virginia adopted an amendment to protect religious freedom even before the founding of the United States. Mindful of these bedrock prejudices, the Founding Fathers based the language of the First Amendment on the laws of several states protecting religious freedom.

Jobs and their compensation reflect the value that a society places on an individual’s labor. The graph below is a sign of prejudice in America. The unemployment rate for blacks is always higher than the rate for whites. If this were a chart from the year 1890, the persistently higher unemployment rate could be labeled Irish or Italian.  A disadvantaged class of worker is more willing to do unpleasant jobs for less money.

UnemployBlackWhite

Under Obama, the unemployment rate for black men dropped from 18% in the spring of 2010 to 7.7% in November 2016. Since Trump’s election to the Presidency in November 2016, that rate has fallen another 20%. At 6.1% this rate is the lowest since the early 1970s. There are black grandfathers who thought they might die before seeing a younger generation enjoying an unemployment rate this low.

Still, the current rate for black men is 2.8% higher than the 3.3% rate for white men. Over the past forty years, the average difference between the two unemployment rates is close to 6%. This is the burden of being black in America. In the past half century, there have been few times when the difference in rates is this low: 1) during the Vietnam War when many black and white men were removed from the labor force; 2) 1999, near the height of the dot-com boom; and 3) several months this past year.

UnemplRatesDiff

It’s not just skin color, religion and nationality that drives prejudice in America. Five years after the end of the Civil War in 1865, the 15th Amendment gave black males the right to vote. Women suffragettes lobbied hard to be included in the Amendment and win their right to vote. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were prominent leaders of this movement. The idea was just too crazy, they were told. Women were too guided by their emotions, and too irrational, particularly during their menses, to be trusted with the vote.

In 1920, exactly fifty years later, the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. The Suffragette movement had allied with the Prohibition movement to press each of their causes in a joint effort. The Volstead Act, the implementation of the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquor, was passed a few months before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. They were a package. Had women been granted the right to vote in 1870, the Prohibition movement would have lacked a critical partner to win passage of the Amendment. Without Prohibition, the rise of organized crime might not have occurred.

Whenever there is a war, or any act of aggression with another country, Americans single out those nationalities or races for discrimination. In the 19th Century, those of Mexican descent were vilified after the Mexican-American War.

Many Germans were denied jobs and housing following the start of WW1. Historical prejudices were resurrected. German soldiers, known as Hessians, had fought with the British against American colonists in the War for Independence. Americans began to see that there was something wrong with the German character. Political cartoons pictured Germans as Huns, a mongrel and violent race of uncivilized people always lusting for battle.

Following Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were forced to sell their homes and businesses at below market value, then were moved to internment camps away from the west coast.

The most recent assault on U.S. territory was the 9-11 attack by multiple suicide squads. Most hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, but we did not single out Saudi nationals in the U.S. Unlike the targets of previous war discrimination, Saudis have no unique language. Instead we singled out all Muslims, and all Arab speakers as potential threats.

Prejudice based on sex, on religion, on skin color, and on nationality have formed our country. America is built on prejudice and the passionate denial that we are a country built on prejudice. We can’t do the work of healing until we admit the reality.

Low unemployment rates among minority groups means that the economy is especially strong. Low levels of unemployment for black, brown and white men usually precede a recession. For white men, the benchmark is 4%. For black men, it’s 7%. For Hispanic men, 5%. Below those benchmarks, the Fed has coincidentally seen what they consider to be inflationary pressures.

In a strong economy with low unemployment, confidence and spending increase. This puts some upward pressure on prices. Central bankers jump at the slightest hint of rising prices. Inflation and employment models like the Phillips curve are imperfect. Despite mountains of surveys, equations and data, inflation is difficult to measure, and many factors influence its rise and fall.  Building a model is made more difficult because each high inflation period has had its own unique features. Among economists, fears of an awakening of the inflation beast has persisted since the recovery in 2009.  Economists had begun to worry why the beast has not awoken.  The models said the beast should be awake! Finally, the Fed is seeing some consistent signs that inflation is growing toward their 2% mark. It has begun to lift interest rates to curb inflationary pressures.

I’ve added the Federal Funds rate to a chart of the unemployment rate for white men to show the pattern. I’ve left off the series for black males that I showed earlier so that the chart was not too cluttered.

UnemplVsFedFundsRate

Economists joke that it’s the Fed’s job to remove the punch bowl just when the party is getting going. Want to know what’s ailing the stock market lately? One of them is the greater likelihood of four rate hikes by the Fed this year. At the start of the year, investors put the chances of four rate hikes at 15%. This week it stands at 45%.

To those on the edges of our society and labor force, and to those just entering the job market, the easier job market that others have enjoyed for several years is just opening to them. If there has been a party, they have been left out. As their prospects brighten, the Fed’s raising of interest rates is a cruel joke.

As interest rates go higher, fewer people can afford to buy homes, cars and furniture. Many companies run on borrowed money to meet short term funding needs and long-term investment. As money becomes more expensive, companies tighten their belts and hiring slows. The most vulnerable are the recently hired and they are often the first to be let go. Like marine life that lives in the tidepools at the ocean’s edge, some are left high and dry when the tide of easy money ebbs.

 

Personal Debt

April 15, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Until the financial crisis, I thought that other people’s debt was their problem. In 2008, debt became a nation’s problem and a national conversation with two aspects – the moral and the practical. Moral conversations are not confined to church; they drive our politics and policy. Many laws contain some language to contain moral hazard, which is the danger that language loopholes in a law or policy promote the opposite of the intended effect of the law. This is particularly true of many entitlement policies. Let’s leave the moral conversation for another day and turn to the practical aspects of current policy.

Bankers learned their lesson during the financial crisis, didn’t they? Maybe not. A decade of absurdly low interest rates has starved those who depend on the income earned by owning debt. Even a savings account is money loaned to a bank, a debt that the bank must pay to the account holder. In their hunger for income, investors have turned to less prudent debt products. So long as the economy remains strong, no worries.

A fifth of conventional mortgages are going to people whose total debt load, including the mortgage, is more than 45% of their pre-tax income. By comparison, at the market’s exuberant peak in late 2007, 35% of conventional mortgages were going to such households, who were especially vulnerable when monthly job gains turned negative in early 2008.

The real estate analytics firm Core Logic also reports that Fannie Mae has started backing mortgages to those with total debt loads up to 50%. FICA, federal, state and local income taxes can amount to 25% of a paycheck (Princeton Study). Add in 45% of that gross pay for mortgage and debt payments, and there is only 30% left for food, gas, home repairs and utilities, child care, etc.

I’ll convert these percentages to dollars to illustrate the point. A couple grossing $80,000 might have a take home pay of $60,000. The couple has $36,000 in mortgage and other debt payments (45% of $80,000). They have $24,000, or $2000 a month for everything else. This couple is vulnerable to a change in their circumstances: a layoff or a cut back in hours, some unexpected expense or injury.

For those who get a conventional loan despite their heavy debt load, where is the money coming from? Banks suffered huge losses during the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve tightened capital requirements for banks’ loan portfolios, forcing them to improve the overall quality of their debt. As a result, banks turned away from their most lucrative customers – subprime borrowers and those with heavy debt loads who must pay higher interest on their loans. Profits in the financial industry fell dramatically. A broad composite of financial stocks (XLF) has still not regained the price levels of 2007.

The banking industry employs some very smart people. What solution did they create? The big banks now loan money to non-financial companies who loan the money to subprime borrowers. After bundling the consumer loans into securities, the non-financial companies use the proceeds to pay the big banks back. In seven years this kind of borrowing has expanded seven times to $350 billion. Doesn’t this look like the kind of behavior that almost took down the financial system in 2008? The banks say that this system isolates them from exposure to subprime borrowers. If large scale job losses cause a lot of loan defaults, it is the investors who will bear the pain, not the banks. Same song, different lyrics.

The 2008 financial crisis is best summed up with a chart from the Federal Reserve. In the post WW2 economy, the weekly earnings of British workers rose steadily. The growth is especially strong when compared to the earlier decades of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2008, earnings peaked.
WeeklyEarnUK

Developed countries depend on the steady growth of tax receipts generated by weekly earnings. An assumption of 3% real GDP growth underlies the health and continuation of post-war social welfare policies. For more than a decade, the U.S. and U.K. have had less than 2% GDP growth.  Both governments have had to borrow heavily to fund their social support programs.  How long can they increase their debt at such a rapid pace?

I am reminded of a time more than 40 years ago when New York City held a regularly scheduled auction to sell  bonds to fund their already swollen debt load.  None of the banks showed up to bid for the bonds.  The city is the financial center of the world.  The lack of interest stunned city officials.  To avoid a messy bankruptcy, the city turned to the Federal government for a loan (NY Times).

The Federal government is not a city or state, of course. It has extraordinary legal and monetary power, and its bonds are a safe haven around the world.  But there could come a time when investors demand higher interest for those bonds and the rising annual interest on the debt squeezes spending on other domestic programs.

Debt causes stress.  Stress causes anxiety.  Anxiety weakens confidence in the future and causes investment to shrink. Falling investment leads to slower job growth. That causes profits and weekly earnings to fall which reduces tax receipts to the government.  That increases debt further, and the cycle continues.  Other people’s debt is everyone’s problem after all.