Interest Rate Ceiling

June 23, 2019

by Steve Stofka

After the Federal Reserve meeting this week, traders are betting on a cut in interest rates in July and the market hit all-time highs. Is a cut in interest rates warranted at this time? Such an action is usually taken in response to weak employment numbers, a decline in retail sales or sluggish GDP growth. Let’s review just how good the economy is.

Unemployment is at 50-year lows. The percent of people unemployed more than fifteen weeks is near the lows of the late 1990s. At almost 18 million vehicles, auto sales are near all-time highs. Real retail sales continue to grow more than 1% annually. In the first quarter of this year, real GDP growth was over 3%. Ongoing tariffs may cause real GDP to decline one percent but a growth rate above 2% is above average for this recovery after the financial crisis.

Corporate profits have been strong. In fact, that may account for the volatility of the past two decades. The chart below is after tax corporate profits (CP) as a percent of GDP. The multi-decade norm is in the range of 5-8% but the past twenty years have been above that trend except for the plunge in profits and GDP during the GFC.

Companies have paid part of those extra profits as dividends to shareholders who tend to be cautious pension funds or older, wealthier and more cautious individuals.  Some profits have been used to buy back shares and boost the return to existing shareholders.

Despite the above average profits, investors still have a strong thirst for lower yielding government debt. Why? The Federal Reserve has kept interest rates below a market equilibrium, which is currently about 3.8%, far above the current 2.4% federal funds rate (Note #1). As with any price ceiling, the below-market price creates a shortage. In this case, the shortage is in the capital investors want to supply to governments to meet the demand for capital. Consequently, investors have been searching for alternative substitutes or near-substitutes. That distortion is being reflected in stock market prices.

Despite a strong economy and corporate profits, the SP500 has gained less than 5% from its peak high in February 2018 after the passage of the 2017 tax cuts. Including dividends, the SP500 has gained just 5.7% in 16 months. If we turn the clock back a few weeks to the end of May, the total return of the SP500 during the past fifteen months was a big, flat zero. Those gains of the past sixteen months have come in the past three weeks on the hope and the hint of rate cuts.

An intermediate bond ETF like Vanguard’s BIV has returned 5.2% in the same period. On a scale of increasing risk 1-5, with 1 being a safe investment, BIV is rated a 2. The SP500 is rated a 4. Investors buying the broad stock market have not been rewarded for the additional risk they are taking.  How long will this situation persist? For as long as the Fed keeps a price ceiling on interest rates.

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Notes: A popular model of equilibrium interest rates is the Taylor rule proposed in 1993 by John B. Taylor, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors under three presidents. The Atlanta Fed has a utility that calculates the current rate and allows the reader to change the parameters. Click on the graph icon, accept the default parameters and the utility graphs the equilibrium rate and the historical Fed funds rate.

The Federal Risk Reserve

June 16, 2019

by Steve Stofka

What if the federal government offered competitive products that help individuals and businesses manage risk? Today, the government insures many Americans through a variety of programs and a potpourri of agencies. I am proposing that the government do more risk management through a separate and independent agency like the Federal Reserve.

Well, doesn’t the financial industry already act as a risk broker? It does – and it doesn’t. It picks the risks that it wants to broker – and leaves those it doesn’t want to the government. The 1986 S&L crisis, the 1987 stock market crash, the 1998 Asian financial crisis, the 2002 Enron crisis and the 2008 financial crisis indicate that Wall Street is not an efficient risk manager.

Let’s look at some common risks that the government already manages. The federal government insures mortgage risk through an umbrella agency called the Federal Housing Finance Agency, or FHFA (Note #1). Financial companies do not want the risk of loaning money to people for thirty years at a low fixed rate. Why? People’s circumstances and the housing market change over such a long period of time. Finance companies might prefer a shorter time period – say five years – so that they could renegotiate the terms of the mortgage. Many mortgages are bundled by banks and mortgage companies, then sold to investors with guarantees from the government.

The government manages the risk of poor asset management by its member banks. In the late 1920s, the onset of the Great Depression caused the failure of many banks and millions of people lost their life savings. Who would insure a bank against its own lack of judgment or improper management? The government became the insurer of last resort when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was created in 1933 (Note #2).

There were a lot of bank failures during the 2008 financial crisis. Through the FDIC, the federal government handled the transition of each one. No depositors lost money. California, Georgia, Florida, Illinois and Minnesota have each had more than twenty failures in the past decade (Note #3).

Bank failures since 2007

In many cases, the FDIC stepped into a failed bank at closing time on Friday evening, closed the institution and fired the management. Over the weekend they did a thorough accounting of the bank’s assets and liabilities, packaged and sold the bank’s performing loans to another bank which re-opened the following Monday under a new name. Nothing to worry about here, folks. Go on about your business. The FDIC has proved itself an efficient and prudent risk supervisor.

The government manages the risk of natural disasters. Insurance companies are reluctant to cover damage from “acts of God.” Homeowner’s insurance does not cover flooding, for example (Note #4). If they did, it would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, the government insures flood damage through the National Flood Insurance Program (Note #5). Because the program is subject to much political influence, it lacks fiscal prudence. The program’s greatest expenses are recurrent repairs to structures in areas that are prone to flooding, but the program can not charge the premiums reflecting those increased risks. An independent agency with a long-term outlook would act less rashly.

Employee risks are managed by state and federal government agencies which deploy government funds to pay unemployment claims. For employees injured on the job, private insurers are reluctant to pay for replacement wages for an injured employee. Even after medical bills are paid, the employee may need retraining after the injury – an additional expense that private insurers want to avoid. Furthermore, employers wanted to avoid the risk of being sued by their employees for unsafe working conditions. Many states have Workmen’s Compensation programs that are either government agencies or independent agencies set up by law (Note #6).

The federal government manages health risks. It plays a large role in the health insurance market and in the health delivery market through the Medicare, Medicaid and tax subsidy programs. The federal government pays almost half of all health care costs in the U.S. through these programs (Note #7).  In 2017, this amounted to 8% of the entire GDP of the country.

In summary, the federal government is already heavily involved in insuring risk. Private industry has taken the gravy and dumped the risks that they don’t want to insure on the government. If the government assumed some of the lucrative insurance products, it would help offset the costs of these other risks. Let’s get government in the capitalism business. Let an independent government agency start offering some competitive financial insurance products and see if they can attract some market share.

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Notes:

  1. Federal Housing Finance Agency encloses several formerly independent government finance agencies
  2. History of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  3. The map of bank failures is from the FDIC site
  4. Homeowner’s insurance and the distinction between flooding caused by wind (may be insured) and that caused by rain (not insured). Allstate
  5. National Flood Insurance Program
  6. Workmen’s Compensation Insurance

The Voting Market

June 9, 2019

by Steve Stofka

One hundred years ago, Congress passed the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote (Note #1). Despite the ratification of the amendment, many African Americans and those from Asian countries faced barriers to voting (Note #2). During the 18th and 19th centuries, America and other developed nations denied women civil and legal rights through marriage and coverture laws (Note #3). Some Islamic nations like Saudi Arabia continue to exclude women from the rights enjoyed by men.

Two-hundred thirty years ago, the Declaration of Independence stated a natural right that all people are created equal.  Unlike our sentiments, 18th and 19th century Americans regarded natural rights as separate from legal and civil rights. When drafting the 14th Amendment following the Civil War, Republicans based their case for black citizenship on natural rights. Such a strategy, however, strengthened the claims of women who wanted the right to vote. Republican lawmakers added Section 2, which specified male persons (Note #4).    

Human societies have a long history of restricting the freedoms of some members of their society. Why? There’s a profitable payoff. The American Medical Society restricts the number of doctors who can be licensed. The result is that American general practitioners enjoy the highest earnings among all nations – double the average of developed countries (Note #5).

Established suppliers of a product or service enjoy less competition and greater profits if they can convince lawmakers to restrict entry into that market. Hundreds of occupational licensing laws reduce the threat of more competitive pricing and cost consumers billions of dollars (Note #6). Older people may remember the Blue Laws preventing the conduct of some business on Sunday (Note #7).  Most Blue Laws today concern the sale of alcohol on Sunday but some states, including Colorado and some Midwest states, prohibit the sale of automobiles on Sunday. Most banks are closed on Sunday, but some states have begun to relax those rules (Note #8). Post Office branches used to offer savings accounts, but these were discontinued in the 1960s (Note #9). To help those who are largely unbanked, post offices could start offering simple banking services again (Note #10).

Each vote is a lottery ticket to choose who has political power. Most votes cancel each other out so there is an incentive for those with similar voting preferences to join forces to make voting easier for their group and difficult for those with different preferences.  

The first debates between Democratic contenders for the 2020 election begin this month. In the coming year, watch for even more strategies designed to restrict or liberalize voting. The election officials in some counties will not operate enough polling places so that lines are long, and voting is inconvenient for some of its citizens, particularly for those who are likely to vote the Democratic ticket. Some states will have vigorous voter registration drives to draw in more voters for the Democratic ticket.

To counter these efforts, Republican lawmakers in some states have passed laws making it more difficult to validate last minute registrations (Note #11). They argue that the integrity of the vote is their only concern and they point out that many Republican led legislatures have implemented DMV registration to make registration easier. Several states are instituting registration at social agencies as well (Note # 12). Democratic organizations characterize any restrictions as voter suppression.

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Notes:

  1. Background on 19th Amendment
  2. Citizenship and voting restrictions in the first half of the 20th century
  3. Marriage and coverture laws denying women the right to own property separate from their husbands
  4. Drafting the 14th Amendment
  5. Comparison of doctors’ earnings
  6. Occupational Licensing laws
  7. Blue Laws
  8. Banks open on Sunday
  9. US Postal Service savings accounts
  10. Proposals to have postal service offer banking services
  11. Laws to restrict voter registration
  12. 36 states are taking steps to modernize voter registration

Budget Perspective

June 2, 2019

by Steve Stofka

How does your spending compare with others in your age group? Working age readers may compare their budgets with widely published averages that are misleading because they include seniors as well as those who are still living at home with their parents or are going to college. Let’s look at spending patterns classified by working age consumers 25-65 and seniors whose spending patterns change once they retire.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data on consumer behavior by conducting regular surveys of household spending (Note #1). These surveys provide the underlying data for the computation of the CPI, the Consumer Price Index. Social Security checks and some labor contracts are indexed to this measure of inflation.

The BLS also provides an analysis of consumer purchasing by household characteristics, including age, race, education, type of family, and location (Note #2). Spending and income patterns by age contained some surprises (Note #3). The average income of 130,000 people surveyed in 2017 was $73K. Seniors averaged $25K in Social Security income. Younger workers aged 25-34, the mid-to-late Millennials, earned $69K, near the average of all who were surveyed. Following the Great Financial Crisis, this age group – what were then the early Millennials in 2010 – earned only $58K, so the growing economy has lifted incomes for this age group by 20% in seven years.

Home ownership is around 62% for the whole population, but far above that average for older consumers. 78-80% of people 55 and older own their own homes. More than 50% of those have no mortgage but too many seniors do not have enough savings. In many states, property taxes are the chief source of K-12 education funding and older consumers have the fewest children in school. Older consumers on fixed budgets resist higher property taxes to fund local schools and they vote in local elections at much higher rates than younger people. Since 2000, per pupil spending has grown more than 20% but most of that gain came in the 2000s.  In the past twelve years, real per pupil spending has barely increased (Note #4). Below is a chart from the Dept. of Education showing per pupil inflation adjusted spending.

Graph link: https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=66

Saving is an expense and working age consumers aged 25-65 are saving 9-12% of their after-tax income, twice as much as the 5.6% average. Wait – isn’t saving the process of not spending money? How can it be an expense?  Call it the imaginary expense, as fundamental to our life cycle as i, the imaginary square root of -1, is to the mathematics of cyclic phenomena. Let’s compare today’s savings percentage with the panic years of 2009-10 just after the financial crisis. Workers in the 25-34 age group – who should have been spending money on furniture and cars and eating out – were saving 20% of their after-tax income (Note #5). That age group will probably carry the lessons – and caution – learned as they began their working career after the financial crisis.

Workers 25-65 spend 28-32% of their after-tax income on housing. Until they are 65, people spend a consistent 12% of their income on food, both at and away from home. Seniors spend less on food but most of that change is because they spend less money eating out at restaurants. Working age consumers spend more on transportation than they do on food – a consistent 15% of after-tax income.

People 65 and older are entitled to Medicare but they spend more on health insurance than working people and the dollar amount of their spending on health care rises by 50%. As a percent of after-tax income, seniors spend 15% while people of working age spend about 6%. Ouch. I’m sure many seniors are not prepared for those additional expenses.

Those of working age should compare their budget averages to other workers, not to the national averages, which include older people and those under 25. Summing up the major expense categories: workers are averaging 30% for housing, 15% for transportation, 12% for food, 11% for personal insurance, pensions and Social Security contributions, 10% for savings and 6% for healthcare.

As Joey on the hit TV show Friends would often say, “So how you doin’?”

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Notes:

  1. Explanation of Consumer Expenditure Survey
  2. Consumption patterns – list Table 1300
  3. The most recent detailed analyses available are for 2017.
  4. Dept of Ed data
  5. Spending and income levels for those aged 25-34 2009-2010.

Tax Reform Winners and Losers

May 26, 2019

by Steve Stofka

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Did your head just explode? That’s how the tax code appears to many of us. This spring, many taxpayers sat down with their tax accountants and were informed that they were among the losers created by the tax reform act that went into effect for the 2018 tax year. Among the losers were employees who claim business expenses. In the western states, many in the construction trades may take a temporary job that is located a few hours from home. Instead of driving home every day, they share hotel rooms or live in campers during the work week and travel home on weekends to be with their family. Some employers pay per-diem expenses, but many smaller employers don’t. Under the old tax laws, an employee could deduct meals, lodging and ordinary living expenses away from home. Under the new law, employee business expenses are subject to a threshold that equals 2% of gross income (Note #1).

An employee with business expenses who has a family of four has discovered that they are the losers this tax filing season, the first one under the new tax law. Under the old law, that family of four used to get $12K standard deduction and $16K in personal exemptions. Now they get a $24K standard deduction and no personal exemption (Note #2). If they have employee business expenses that meet the threshold test, it may not be enough to exceed the new higher standard deduction. Some tax accountants report that their clients are shocked when they learn how much they owe in this first tax year under the new law.

In the future, some workers may be able to negotiate higher pay on these away jobs. Some will have to turn down such jobs.   

Corporate America was a big winner in the tax reform bill. In addition to lowered tax rates, low interest rates during the past decade have helped many publicly held companies buy back their own stock. The stock buybacks have accelerated this past year, with a record 25% of companies in the SP500 buying back their own stock, according to a Wall St. Journal analysis published this week. 

Don’t companies have a better use for the money? Apparently not. When companies buy back stock, they reduce the number of shares outstanding and increase the profit per share reported. In the first quarter of 2019, these buybacks lifted per-share profits by 4%. The share buybacks have distracted investors from the fact that corporate profits have flatlined since 2012.

Corporate profits flatlined during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Investors bid up stocks on the promise that trickle-down policies and tax reform would break the cycle. Before profits did start to rise again, stock prices shook off their speculative pricing on Black Monday in October 1987. Let’s hope we don’t have a similar phenomenon this time.  

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Notes:

  1. Workplace expense deductions
  2. Tax law winners and losers.

The Pace of Growth

May 19, 2019

by Steve Stofka

We are living in an economy that is fundamentally different than the ones our parents and grandparents grew up in. Some of us want a return to those days. More goods were made in the U.S.A. Each family spent more on food, clothing, furniture and the other necessities of life but the money circulated in our economy, not among the workers of Asia. Union membership was stronger but there were crippling strikes that affected the daily lives of many families. In 2016, the current President promised a return to those days of stronger but more erratic growth. Almost half of voters bet on him to undo the changes of the past several decades. Let’s look at some data that forms the bedrock of consumer confidence.

GDP is the most frequently used measure of the nation’s economic activity. Another measure, Final Sales of Domestic Product excludes changes in business inventories. In the graph below is a chart of the annual change in Final Sales after adjusting for inflation (Note #1). Compare the right and left rectangles. The economy of post-WW2 America was more erratic than the economy of the past thirty-five years (Note #2).

The two paces of growth

In the first 35 years following WW2, growth averaged 3.6%. Since the Financial Crisis there have only been five quarters with growth above 3%. Let’s include the annual change in disposable personal income (Note #3). That’s our income after taxes. Much of the time, the two series move in lockstep and the volatility in each series is similar.

However, sometimes the change in personal income holds steady while the larger economy drops into recession. A moderate recession in 1970 is a good example of this pattern.

1982 was the worst recession since the 1930s Great Depression. Unemployment soared to more than 10% but personal incomes remained relatively steady during the downturn.

In the 1990, 2000 and 2008 recessions, personal incomes did not fall as much as the larger economy. Here’s the 2008 recession. While the economy declined almost 3%, personal income growth barely dipped below zero.

In the last 35 years, annual growth in Final Sales has averaged only 2.8%, far below the 3.6% average of the first 35-year period. After the recession, the growth of the larger economy stabilized but the change in personal incomes became very erratic. In the past eight years, income growth has been 2.5 times more volatile than economic growth (Note #4). Usually the two series have similar volatility. In the space of one year – 2013 – income growth fell from 5% to -2.5%, a spread of 7.5%. In the past sixty years, only the oil crisis and recession of 1974 had a greater swing in income growth during a year! (Note #5)

When income growth is erratic, people grow cautious about starting new businesses. Banks are reluctant to lend. Despite the rise in home prices in many cities, home equity loans – a popular source of start-up capital for small businesses – are about half of what they were at the end of the financial crisis (Note #6). The Census Bureau tracks several data series for new business applications. One of these tracks business start-ups which are planning to become job creators and pay wages. That number has been flat after falling during the Great Recession (Note #7).

Census Bureau – see Link in Notes

Businesses borrow to increase their capacity to meet expected demand. Since the beginning of 2016, banks have reported lackluster demand for loans from large and medium businesses as well as small firms (Note #8). For a few quarters in 2018, small firms showed stronger loan demand but that has turned negative this year. This indicates that business owners are not betting on growth. Here’s a survey of bank loan officers who report strong demand for loans from mid-size and larger firms. While few economists predicted the last two recessions, the lack of demand for business loans forecast the coming downturns.

There is an upside to slow growth – less chance of a recession. Periods of strong growth promote excess investment into one sector of the economy. In the early 2000s, the economy took several years to recover from the money poured into the internet sector. The Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and the recession of 2007-2009 was a reaction to over-investment and lax underwriting in the housing sector. On the other hand, weak growth can leave our economy vulnerable to a shock like the heightening of the trade war with China, or a military conflict with Iran.

Can a President, a party or the Federal Reserve undo several decades of slow to moderate growth? None of us want a return to the crippling inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s, but we may long for certain aspects of those yesteryears. An older gentleman from North Carolina called into C-Span’s Washington Journal and lamented the shuttering of the furniture and textile plants in that area many decades ago (Note #9). Many of those areas have still not recovered. Another caller commented that the Democratic Party long ago stopped caring about the jobs of rural folks in the south. Contrast those sentiments about the lack of opportunity in rural America with those who live in crowded urban corridors and struggle to keep up with the feverish pace and high costs of urban housing, insurance and other necessities.  Two different realities but a similar human struggle.

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Notes:

  1. Real Final Sales of Domestic Product FRED series A190RO1Q156NBEA
  2. Standard Deviation of first 35 years was 2.44. In the second 35-year period it was only 1.56.
  3. Real Disposable Personal Income FRED series DPIC96
  4. Since 2010, the standard deviation of economic growth has been .7 vs 1.75 for income growth.
  5. In the decade following WW2, people had similar large swings in income growth as the country and the Federal Reserve adjusted to an economy dominated by domestic consumption.
  6. Home Equity Loans FRED series RHEACBW027SBOG totaled $610 billion in the spring of 2009. It was $341 billion in the spring of 2019, ten years later
  7. Census Bureau data on new business start-ups
  8. Senior Loan Officer Surveys: Large and medium sized businesses FRED series DRSDCILM. Small businesses FRED series DRSDCIS.
  9. C-Span’s Washington Journal. C-Span also has a smartphone app.

Country Roads and the Election

May 12, 2019

by Steve Stofka

I spent the past week traveling with my sister to a family reunion near Dallas, Texas. In our travels, we passed through rural counties in southeast Colorado, western Oklahoma, and northwest and central Texas. In contrast to the signs of a brisk economy in the larger cities, some rural communities show signs of stress. Some roads leading off the main route need repair; some houses could use a fresh coat of paint; some stores have delayed maintenance. In some small towns most of the stores remain boarded up ten years after the financial crisis.

Candidates for the 2020 Presidential election must speak to the two Americas. The Americans who produce the food we eat and the power that lights our businesses and homes are not doing as well as those in the urban corridors. Young people in rural America leave for the larger cities to find a job or pursue an education. Older people with medical needs must move to larger cities with hospital facilities available in an emergency.

Let’s turn to a proposal on the list of issues for the 2020 election – an increase in the Federal minimum wage. A person making a minimum wage of $15 an hour in Los Angeles earns a bit more than half of L.A.’s median household income (MHI). She may work 2-1/2 weeks to pay the rent on a one-bedroom apartment (Note #1). The MHI in rural America is about 20% less than the national average. In Limon, Colorado (population less than 1500), the MHI is about half of the national average (Note #2). $15 an hour in Limon is the MHI.

In 2009 and 2010, the Democrats controlled the Presidency, the House and had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. They could have enacted a federal minimum wage that was indexed to the living costs in each county or state. Why didn’t they fix the problem then? Because Democrats use the minimum wage as an issue to help win elections. If Congress passes a minimum wage of $15 an hour this year, they will have something new to run on in five years – a raise in the minimum wage to $17 an hour. Voters must begin asking their elected representatives for practical and flexible solutions, not political banners like a federal mandated one-size-fits-all $15 minimum wage.

For decades after World War 2, Democratic Party politicians who controlled the House refused to allow legislation that would index tax rates to inflation. This resulted in “bracket creep” where cost of living wage increases put working people in higher tax brackets automatically (Note #3). The problem became acute during the high inflation decade of the 1970s and the issue helped Ronald Reagan take the White House on a promise to fix the problem.

A week ago, I heard a Democratic Senator running for President say that they knew all along that Obamacare was just a start. The program was poorly drafted and poorly implemented and now we learn that Democrats knew all along that it was bad legislation? Will Medicare For All also be built on poor foundations and require a constant stream of legislative and agency fixes? This provides a lot of work for the folks in Washington who draft a lot of agency rules that require a lot of administrative cost to implement. Democrats are fond of federal solutions but show little expertise in managing the inevitable bloated bureaucracy that such solutions entail.

Some Democratic Party candidates are promising to fix the harsh sentencing guidelines that they themselves passed in the 1990s, which fixed sentencing guidelines enacted 25 years earlier by Democratic politicians in the 1960s and 1970s. This party’s platform consists of fixing its earlier mistakes.

According to a Washington Post analysis of election issues (Note #4), some candidates are concerned about corporate power. A Democratic president would have to work with the Senate’s Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer whose main support comes from large financial corporations based in his home state, New York. While a President Elizabeth Warren might propose regulatory curbs on corporate power, Mr. Schumer would be gathering campaign donations from the large banks who needed protection from those same regulations.

Large scale industrial power production has a significant effect on the climate. The few blue states that supported a Democratic candidate for President in the 2016 election also consume most of the final product of that power production. Have any candidates proposed solutions that lower the demand for power? Temperature control systems in commercial buildings could be set to a few degrees warmer in the summer and a few degrees cooler in the winter. That would have a significant impact on carbon production. Some candidates propose solutions that regulate the production and supply of power – not the demand for power. Most of that production occurs in states that supported a Republican candidate in the 2016 election. Proposals to install wind and wave generating stations in Democratic leaning coastal states in the northeast and northwest have been met with local resistance. Voters in the blue states want green solutions to be implemented in the red states, but not inconvenience residents of the blue states. Voters in the red states see through that hypocrisy.

A viable Democratic candidate must convince independent voters who are wary of political solutions from either party.  Donald Trump won the Presidency without visiting rural folks on their home turf. He landed his plane near a staged rally and the folks came from miles around to hear him. Compare that approach with former Republican candidate Rick Santorum who visited many small towns in Iowa in the months before the 2012 Iowa primary. In small restaurants and rural post offices, Santorum listened to the concerns of voters. Trump’s approach was successful. Santorum was not. Go figure.

Trump convinced rural folks that he was going to go to Washington and drain the swamp. This in turn would help the economy in small town America so that those folks could get themselves a new roof, or a new pickup truck, fix the fence or get a few potholes patched. From what I saw, those folks are still waiting. Some rural folks may run out of patience with Trump by next year. The success of any Democratic candidate depends on that.

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Notes:

  1. One week’s take home pay of $550 x 2.5 weeks = $1375. A 1 BR in L.A. averages $1350 L.A. Curbed
  2. Areavibes.Com assessment of Limon, Colorado.
  3. Tax indexing
  4. Washington Post article on various election issues

Making Stuff

May 5, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This week I’ll review several decades of trends in productivity. How much output do we get out of labor, land, and capital inputs? Capital can include new equipment, computers, buildings, etc. In the graph below, the blue line is real GDP (output) per person. The red line is disposable (after-tax) income per person. That’s the labor share of that output after taxes.

As you can see, labor is the majority input. In the following graph is the share of real GDP going to disposable income.  In the past two decades, labor has been getting a larger share.

That might look good but it’s not. Since 2000, the economy has shifted toward service industries where labor does not produce as much GDP per hour. The chart below shows the efficiency of labor, or how much GDP is being produced by labor.

If labor were being underpaid, the amount of GDP produced per dollar of disposable income would be higher, not lower. On average, service jobs do not have as much leverage as manufacturing jobs.

A century ago, agricultural jobs were inefficient in comparison to manufacturing jobs. The share of labor to total output was high. In the past seventy years, the agricultural industry has transformed. Today’s farms resemble large outdoor manufacturing plants without walls and productivity continues to grow. In the past five years, steep price declines in the prices of many agricultural products have put extraordinary pressures on today’s smaller farmers. The increased productivity of larger farms has allowed them to maintain real net farm income at the same level as twenty years ago (Note #1). Here’s a graph from the USDA.

Although agriculture related industries contribute more than 5% of the nation’s GDP, farm output is only 1% of the nation’s total output. The productivity gains in agriculture have not been shared by the rest of the economy. Labor productivity has plunged from 2.8% annual growth in the years 2000-2007 to 1.3% in the past eleven years (Note #2).  Here’s an earlier report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with a chart that illustrates the trends (Note #3). The report notes “Sluggish productivity growth has implications for worker compensation. As stated earlier, real hourly compensation growth depends upon gains in labor productivity.”

Productivity growth in this past decade is comparable to the two years of deep recession, high unemployment and sky-high interest rates in the early 1980s. The report notes “although both hours and output grew at below-average rates during this cycle [2008 through 2016], the fact that output grew notably slower than its historical average is what yields the historically low labor productivity growth.” Today we have low unemployment and very low interest rates – the exact opposite of that earlier period. Why do the two periods have similar productivity gains? It’s a head scratcher.

Simple answers? No, but hats off to Donald Trump who has called attention to the need for a greater shift to manufacturing in the U.S. economy. He and then Wisconsin governor Scott Walker negotiated with FoxConn Chairman Terry Gou to get a huge factory built in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin to manufacture LCD displays, but progress has slowed. An article this week in the Wall St. Journal exposed the tensions that erupt among residents of an area which has made a major commitment to economic growth (Note #4).

If we don’t shift toward more manufacturing, American economic growth will slow to match that of the Eurozone. Along with that will come negative interest rates from the central bank and little or no interest on CDs and savings accounts. We already had a taste of that for several years after the recession. No thanks. Low interest rates are a hidden tax on savers. They lower the amount of interest the government pays at the expense of individuals who are saving for education or retirement. Interest income not received is a reduction in disposable income and has the same effect as a tax. Low interest rates encourage an unhealthy growth in corporate debt and drive up both stock and housing prices.

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Note:

  1. USDA summary of agricultural industry
  2. BLS report on multi-factor productivity
  3. BLS report on declining labor productivity
  4. FoxConn LCD factory (March article – no paywall). Also, a recent article from WSJ (paywall) – Foxconn Tore Up a Small Town to Build a Big Factory—Then Retreated

Marching Forward

April 28, 2019

by Steve Stofka

When former President Obama took the oath of office, the economy was in the worst shape since the Great Depression 75 years earlier. Tax receipts plunged and benefit claims soared. Millions of homes and thousands of businesses fell into the black hole created by the Financial Crisis. In sixteen years of the Bush and Obama presidencies, the country added $16 trillion to the public federal debt, more than tripling the sum at the time Clinton left office in early 2001.

Although growth has remained slow since the financial crisis (see my blog last week), the economy has not gone into recession. Despite the fears of some, a recession in the next year does not look likely. The chart below charts the annual percent change in real GDP (green) against a ratio called the M1 money multiplier, the red line (Note #1). Notice that when the change in GDP dips below the money multiplier for two quarters we have been in recession.

The money multiplier seems to act like a growth boundary. While some economy watchers have warned of an impending recession, GDP growth has been above 2.5% for more than a year and is rising. In 2018, real disposable personal income grew nearly 3%. This is not the weak economic growth of 2011 or the winter of 2015/16 when concerns of recession were well founded.

The number of people voluntarily quitting their job is near the 1999 and 2006 highs. Employees are either transferring to other jobs or they feel confident that they can quickly get another job. An even more important sign is that this metric has shown no decline since the low point in August 2009.

In 2013, the Social Security disability fund was in crisis and predicted to run out of money within a decade. As the economy has improved, disability claims have plunged to all-time lows and the Social Security administration recently extended the life of the fund until 2052 (Note #2).

Approximately 1 in 6 (62 million) Americans receive Social Security benefits and that number is expected to grow to 78 million in a decade. However, the ratio of workers to the entire population is near all time highs. The number of Millennials (1982-1996) has surpassed the number of Boomers. This year the population of iGen, those born after 1996, will surpass the Millennial generation (Note #3). Just as a lot of seniors are leaving the work force, a lot of younger workers are entering. The ratio of worker to non-worker may reach 1 to 1. 45 years ago, one worker supported two non-workers.

As the presidential cycle gets into gear, we will hear claims that there are not enough workers to pay promised benefits. Those claims are based on the Civilian Employment Participation Rate, which is the ratio of workers to adults. While the number of seniors is growing, the number of children has been declining. To grasp the total public burden on each worker, we want to look at the ratio of workers to the total population. As I noted before, that is at an all time high and that is a positive.

Raising a child is expensive. The average cost of public education per child is almost $12K (Note #4).  Public costs for housing, food and medical care can push average per child public cost to over $20K annually.

Let’s compare to public costs for seniors. The average person on Social Security receives $15,600 in benefits (Note #5). In 2018, the Medicare program cost an average of $10,000 per retiree (Note #6). The public cost for seniors is not a great deal more than those for children.

As a society, we can do this.

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Notes:

  1. The M1 money multiplier is the ratio of cash and checking accounts to the amount of reserves held at the Federal Reserve.
  2. SSDI solvency now extended to 2052. Here’s a highlight presentation of the trustee’s report.
  3. Generation Z will surpass the numbers of Millennials in 2019. Report
  4. Public education costs per pupil
  5. Social Security costs
  6. Medicare program cost $583 billion. There are approximately 60 million on the program. CMS

Slow Growth

April 21, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Happy Passover and Happy Easter. Now that tax day is past, let’s raise our heads and look at long-term growth trends of real, or inflation-adjusted, GDP. For the past seventy years real GDP has averaged about 3% annual growth. In the chart below, I’ve charted the annual percent change in a ten-year average of GDP (GDP10, I’ll call it). As you can see on the right side of the graph, growth has been below average for the past decade.

In 2008, growth in the GDP10 crossed below 3%. Was this due to the Financial Crisis (GFC) and the housing bust? No. The GFC barely figured into the computation of the ten-year average. The housing market had been running hot and heavy for four to five years, but this longer-term view now puts the housing boom in a new perspective: it was like lipstick on an ugly pig. Without the housing boom, the economy had been faltering at below average growth since the 1990s tech boom.

The stock market responds to trends – the past – of past output (GDP) and the estimation of future output. Let’s add a series of SP500 prices adjusted to 2012 dollars (Note #1).

For three decades, from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, the real prices of the SP500 had no net change. The go-go years of the 1960s raised nominal, but not real, prices. Investors shied away from stocks, as high inflation in the 1970s hobbled the ability of companies to make real profit growth that rewarded an investor’s risk exposure. From the 2nd quarter of 1973 to the 2nd quarter of 1975, real private domestic investment lost 27% (Note #2). In less than a decade, investment fell again by a crushing 21% in the years 1979 through 1982.

In the mid-1980s, investors grew more confident that the Federal Reserve understood and could control inflation and interest rates. During the next decade, investors bid up real stock prices until they doubled. In 1996, then Fed chairman Alan Greenspan noted an “irrational exuberance” in stock prices (Note #3). The “land rush” of the dot-com boom was on and, within the next five years, prices would get a lot more exuberant.

The exuberance was well deserved. With the Fed’s steady hand on the tiller of money policy, the ten-year average of GDP growth rose steadily above its century-long average of 3%. A new age of prosperity had begun. In the 1920s, investment dollars flowed into the new radio and advertising industries. In the 1990s, money flowed into the internet industry. Construction workers quit their jobs to day trade stocks. Anything less than 25% revenue growth was the “old” economy. The fledgling Amazon was born in this age and has matured into the powerhouse of many an internet investor’s dream. Thousands of other companies flamed out. Billions of investment dollars were burned.

The peak of growth in the ten-year average of GDP output came in the 1st quarter of 2001. By that time, stock prices had already begun to ease. In the next two years, real stock prices fell almost 50%, but investment fell only 12% because it was shifting to another boom in residential housing. As new homes were built and house prices rose in the 2000s, long-term output growth began to climb again.

From the first quarter of 2006 to the 3rd quarter of 2009, investment fell by a third, the greatest loss of the post-war period. In the first quarter of 2008, growth in the GDP10 fell below 3%. In mid-2009, it fell below 2%. Ten years later, it is still below 2%.

The Federal Reserve has had difficulty hitting its target of 2% inflation with the limited tools of monetary policy. There simply isn’t enough long-term growth to put upward pressure on prices.  Despite the low growth, real stock prices are up 150% since the 2009 lows.  A prudent investor might ask – based on what?

The supply side believers in the Trump administration and Republican Party thought that tax cuts would spur growth. In the first term of the Obama administration, believers in Keynesian counter-cyclical stimulus thought government spending would kick growth into gear. Faced with continued slow growth, each side has doubled down on their position. We need more tax cuts and less regulation, say Republicans. No, we need more infrastructure spending, Democrats counter. Neither side will give up and, in a divided Congress, there is little likelihood of forging a compromise in the next two years. The stock market may be waiting for the cavalry to ride to the rescue but there is no sign of dust on the horizon.

Economists are just as dug in their ideological foxholes. The Phillips curve, the correlation between employment and inflation, has broken down. The correlation between the money supply and inflation has also broken down. High employment but slow output growth and low inflation. Larry Summers has called it secular stagnation, a nice label with only a vague understanding of the underlying mechanism. If an economist tells you they know what’s going on, shake their hand, congratulate them and move to the other side of the room. Economists are still arguing over the underlying causes of the stagflation of the 1970s.

A year ago, I suggested a cautious stance for older investors if they needed to tap their assets for income in the next five years. The Shiller CAPE ratio, a long-term evaluation of stock prices, is at the same level as 1929. At current prices in a low growth environment, stock returns may  struggle to average more than 5-6% annually over the next five years.

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Notes:

  1. Adjusted for inflation by the Federal Reserve’s preferred method, the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index (FRED series PCEPI). Prices do not include dividends
  2. Real Gross Private Domestic Investment – FRED Series GPDIC1.
  3. A video of the 1996 “irrational exuberance” speech