Capital and Consumer Spending

If I hit my thumb with a hammer, maybe it won’t hurt this time.  Not likely.  Last week I noted a warning sign in non-defense new orders for capital goods, excluding aircraft.  As I noted previously, aircraft orders are volatile; they may be up 30% one month and down 30% a few months later because orders for planes are placed in rather large blocks with the actual delivery of the aircraft occurring over many months.

A few days ago the most recent durable goods report came out for September, showing a continued decline in the year-over-year gains for new orders.  Declines like this have preceded the past two recessions.

We like to think that this time may be different. Our imagination is capable of soaring the heights of creativity in art and science.  In the economics of our personal lives, it can lead to fanciful thinking.  Fanciful notions led many to buy houses with little money down at the height of the housing boom, thinking that somehow they would refinance when mortgage payments escalated after a certain period.  Magical thinking induced many to increase their credit balances far beyond their means to pay, thinking that they could pay down their credit balances by refinancing their homes.  No matter how much homes went up in value, housing prices would continue to rise.  Then they didn’t.

The chart below shows the housing inflation.  Recessions in the latter part of the past century had caused housing starts to decline to 400,000 before recovering.  In the 2001 recession, easy money and loose standards for mortgage securitization curbed the natural decline.  The bill eventually came due in 2008.

Single family homes create jobs; the market has shown life recently but is still very weak.

The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence index rose 9 points to 70 in September and is about the same level as this past February, when confidence started sliding to a summer low point of 60.   The new consumer survey is due to be released next week and analysts are predicting another increase of 3 to 4 points. Consumers are feeling upbeat but the decline in new orders shows that businesses continue to be cautious as the prospect of rising taxes and budget cuts next year dampens any optimistic planning.  The slowdown in Europe and Asia contributes to the gloomy reading of Moody’s Business Confidence survey.  Rising consumer confidence before the critical Christmas shopping season may alleviate the pessimism of businesses if consumers actually open up their wallets and spend but retailers have not been building inventory ahead of the shopping season.

While these two forces tug at each other, a prudent investor might exercise some caution.

New Orders

No, this is not about the New Order, the conspiracist’s nemesis.  This is about New Orders of Capital Goods.  When companies forecast sales growth ahead, they place orders for capital equipment to meet the projected increase in demand.  One version of the monthly report on new orders excludes aircraft orders which are volatile; fulfilling the order – the delivery of the new aircraft – are structured over time.

Below is a chart of the year-over-year percentage in new orders excluding both aircraft and defense spending.  I have used quarterly averages to smooth and show the trend. (Click to enlarge in separate tab)

As you can see, there are warning signs of recession or very low economic activity as the quarterly change is close to zero. The most recent monthly change has, in fact, dropped below zero.

The value of new orders has a fairly strong correlation with the S&P500 stock index, adjusted to scale.

Some have suggested that business plans are on hold till after the election and the coming negotiations over budget sequestration, or the “fiscal cliff.”  If so, this may be a temporary drop. The stock index usually either anticipates or is concurrent with the drop in the dollar amount of new orders.  Further gains in the index may be minimal unless this new order indicator of business sentiment turns upward.

Obligations and Entitlements

“Social Security and Medicare are the two largest federal programs, accounting for 36 percent of federal expenditures in fiscal year 2011.”  (Trustee’s annual report)

So how did we get here?

When Social Security was enacted in 1935, President Roosevelt promoted it as an insurance program for the old, widowed and orphaned. The language of the law called the employee portion of the tax an “income tax”, and the employer portion an “excise tax,” not an insurance program. Regardless of the language, Social Security has acted both as an annuity for retired workers and an insurance program for disabled workers and survivors of workers.

Several challenges to the law were brought before the Supreme Court, which issued several decisions in 1937 that confirmed that various components of the Social Security tax were valid. By law, the Social Security reserve fund could invest only in the debt of the U.S., either through marketable Treasury bonds or through special bonds which could not be sold. (A history of the financing of Social Security)  Since 1960, the Social Security funds are “invested” in these special bonds, which are little more than promises that the federal government will pay Social Security benefits. 1960 is also the last year that the federal government ran a budget surplus except for the years 1999 and 2000; in two years out of 52, the federal government has been able to balance its books. In overwhelming numbers, voters send lawyers to Washington; most of them have little if any business experience or education.  We reap what we sow.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates the total number of workers at 135 million.  More than 55 million people are currently receiving some form of benefit under the Social Security program, a ratio of about 2.5 workers per beneficiary.  In 2011, 2.6 million applied for retirement benefits while one million applied for disability benefits.  In the past 40 years, the number of retirees receiving benefits has doubled, the number of disabled has more than doubled.  Both disabled and retiree claims have declined since 2010.  (Fast Facts

There is a demonstrated increase in disability applications when the unemployment rate rises.  As one guy with a bad back explained to me, “I’d rather be working scheduling service calls.  I worked in the heating and cooling business for almost 30 years.  After looking for a year, I gave up.  Who’s gonna hire a 60 year old guy with a bad back in this economy?”

(SSA Source)

The number of retirees has doubled but the population has grown only 50%.  The growth of women in the workforce has contributed to the growth in retirees and in disability claims.

Most people receiving Social Security benefits of one type or another feel as though they entered a contract with the federal government.  In return for their Social Security taxes, retirees and the disabled are owed promised benefits from the federal government, just as one would expect from an insurance company. Likewise, veterans also feel that they entered a contract with the federal government when they risked their lives in defense of the country. In exchange for their service, the federal government made promises of benefits to veterans.  Too many Republican politicians are fond of lumping Social Security beneficiaries and veterans under the umbrella term of “entitlement” programs when the more proper term is one of obligation.  When someone buys a Treasury bond, they expect to be paid the value of the bond when it matures.  Is that person part of an “entitlement” program?  No.  The bond is a contractual obligation between the bondholder and the federal government.  Why should a bondholder be treated with any more or less respect than a person who has “lent” the government money throughout their working years through their Social Security taxes?  Neither Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney understand that, to many of us, an obligation is an obligation.  Period.

So I want to distinguish between obligation programs like Social Security, and entitlement programs.

What are more properly called entitlement programs are those programs for the unfortunate and the vulnerable, whose financial circumstances qualify them for some kind of income assistance program.  Many have paid little in income taxes over the years for any number of reasons.  Some are children, some don’t or can’t work, some work but make so little that they owe no taxes.  Some may have paid a good share of income taxes in the past but found themselves in a bad way in recent times.  There are a lot of programs: SNAP(food stamps), SSI (Supplementary Security Income), and TANF (traditionally called welfare), to name but a few.

Let’s look at one program: SSI, an income assistance program for the blind, disabled and aged, whose beneficiaries comprise a mere 2.5% of the population.  The SSI program is paid out of general revenues, not Social Security taxes. In 2011, blind and disabled recipients made up 86% of the total of about 8 million. (Source)  The average monthly benefit is about $500. The cost of the program is about $50 billion, or 1.4% of total Federal expenditures. 2% of the cost of the SSI program includes vocational training and other back to work programs. When some politicians talk about reforms to “entitlement” programs, they know that some of these programs are small but they cite examples of abuse, of someone gaming the system, because they hope that you don’t know that the programs are small.  Vote them into office and what they really want to chop are the big obligation programs, Social Security and Medicare.

However, there are some legitimate concerns in these small programs; the number of SSI recipients has grown 33% in the past 17 years.

The number of disabled, aged 18 – 64, receiving income assistance under the SSI program has tripled in the past forty years, a growth rate six times that of the overall population. 

The SSI program also helps low income retirees, who have declined in real numbers by 15% in the past 16 years.

The percentage decline is explained partially by the explosive growth of the disabled who are younger than 65.  The number of women receiving SSI payments has also increased dramatically. 

Let’s look at another entitlement program that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have targeted in their stump speeches: SNAP or Food Stamps.  “45 million people on food stamps!” is the cry of either of these candidates to illustrate the runaway spending in entitlements and the poor economy.  What neither will tell you is that the program cost $78 billion in 2011 (CBO source).  That is 2.2% of Federal spending.  Whatever reforms these guys propose to this program will save a very small percentage of the budget.  In that same report, the CBO summarized the characteristics of those on the program: “three out of four SNAP households included a child, a person age 60 or older, or a disabled person. Most people who received SNAP benefits lived in households with very low income, about $8,800 per year on average in [2010].”  I can excuse Mitt Romney because he may not be aware of the numbers.  There is no excuse for Paul Ryan, who is the “budget-meister” and certainly knows that any savings to a program this small is chump change in a budget of $3600 billion. 

What both of them are counting on it that you don’t know that.  Their ultimate goal is to reform the big guy, Social Security, so that they can short change one type of federal obligation, Social Security recipients, to pay another obligation, the buyers of Treasury bonds.  Many of the large institutions that buy Treasury bonds are not suckers so Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan turn to those with the least information – suckers who will vote for them.

Labor Report and Debate

A less than forceful President Obama appeared in Denver this past Wednesday at the first of three debates in the closing weeks before the November elections. (The Secret Service was rather more forceful, mandating a shut down of the main north-south highway through town during the debate.)  Republican contender Mitt Romney showed more preparation and assertiveness but unfortunately left some of the facts behind in his hotel room.  Neither candidate can look the truth in the face.  Mr. Obama’s repeated claim that his economic plan saves $4 trillion uses many discredited (even by his sympathizers) gimmicks to arrive at that figure and yet he continues to trot out the assertion.  Mr. Romney really wants us to believe that Congress is going to jeopardize their jobs by taking away popular tax deductions in order to pass his 20% rate cuts.  Congress will pass the rate cuts, which are good for re-election.  Take away the mortgage interest deduction?  We’re not betting on it, Mr. Romney.  The end result of his tax plan and his pledge to increase military spending would be a $2 trillion deficit, double the annual deficit we are currently running.

Mr. Obama continues to pledge his support for the middle class, many of whom continue to slide down from the middle middle class to the lower middle class on their way to upper lower class and downright poverty.  Mr. Obama spent much of the debate consulting his notes on supporting the middle class as though he were teaching a class on the subject.  Note to Mr. Obama: you are no longer in the classroom.  This is the real world.

There are any number of fact checks on claims by both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama during the debate.  Here is a fairly short summary from several Associated Press writers.

Then Friday morning, the heavens parted and the voice of – no, not God – the Bureau of Labor Statistics issued forth in their monthly pronouncement on the state of the job market: “The unemployment rate decreased to 7.8 percent in September”.

Throughout the country millions of pundits, economists and average Joes and Bettys stopped in disbelief and reached for their ear trumpets.  Had they heard right, they wondered?  Tweet, tweet, tweet went the twittersphere.  Blah, blah, blah went the blogosphere.  Lies, lies, lies went the right wing cons over at Fox and dance, dance, dance went the lefties at MSNBC.  For the first time in his presidency, Mr. Obama has seen the unemployment rate drop below 8%.

Had a large number of people simply given up and left the work force, causing them not to be counted as unemployed?  This has been a characteristic of the decline in the unemployment rate earlier in the year.  But not this month. 

Was the number of jobs created particularly strong?  Not this month.  At 114,000, job growth was not strong or weak and probably not enough to keep up with population growth.  A third of that job growth was in the health care sector.  A nation that continues to show its greatest growth in taking care of an aging and poorer population is not building a foundation for sound long term economic growth.

Many of the unemployed simply did the best they could do – get a part time job.  The number of involuntary part timers increased by more than a half million this past month. From the BLS Employment Release:

“The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes
referred to as involuntary part-time workers) rose from 8.0 million in August
to 8.6 million in September. These individuals were working part time because
their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time

There are good and bad trends that cause the unemployment rate to fall.  The two most problematic of the bad trends are 1) unemployed people simply giving up, and 2) involuntary part timers.  We have now seen both of these trends this year.

The steep drop in discouraged workers contributed to the decline in the unemployment rate.

“Among the marginally attached, there were 802,000 discouraged workers in
September, a decline of 235,000 from a year earlier. (These data are not
seasonally adjusted.) Discouraged workers are persons not currently looking
for work because they believe no jobs are available for them.”

Below is a 10 year graph showing the level of discouraged workers. (Click to enlarge in separate tab)

Another contributing factor was the revision in the number of net jobs gained in the two previous months.

“The change in total nonfarm payroll employment for July was revised from
+141,000 to +181,000, and the change for August was revised from +96,000 to
+142,000.”  Last month, many were scratching their heads when the BLS released their August report showing a dramatically lower number of jobs gained than reported by the payroll processing company ADP. It seems that some companies may have been too busy hiring to fill out and turn in their August BLS survey form.

Discouraged workers comprise part of a larger total of 6.4 million people who want a job but have not actively looked for one in the past 4 weeks.  A year ago, in Sept. 2011, the figure was 5.9 million.

Homebuilder stocks have been on a tear this year but construction employment, at 5.5 million, has barely budged in the past 3 years.

The core work force, those aged 25 – 54, continue to show some improvement but still have not reached the post-recession level of late 2009.

In the larger work force, aged 25 and up, the number of employed has risen almost to pre-recession levels, indicating that there are more older people continuing to work when they can – at full or part time jobs. 

As the population ages, so too does the work force – a natural demographic change.  But older workers are not stepping aside for young workers just entering the work force.  Those who can work do so to compensate for the lackluster growth or decline of retirement funds and declining property values, the two chief sources of wealth that a person builds over a lifetime of work. Below is a graph of workers aged 55 and older.

The number of hours worked per week edged up slightly – a good sign.  But – “over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have risen by 1.8 percent, ” the BLS report notes, indicating that family earnings are just not keeping up with inflation.

On the bright side, we are doing better than much of Europe which is probably already in recession.  Returning to the topic of debates, did we hear either candidate offer a recovery plan for … not this past recession but the one that will probably occur during the next Presidential term.  “What!!!???” you say, “we haven’t even gotten out of this past recession!”  The law of averages, like the law of gravity, is a pesky, problematic force of nature.  The 1960s and the 1990s are the only two decades in the past century where we did not witness a recession within an eight year period (Source), yet few Presidential candidates dare to discuss the eventuality of such a thing.  Even the Congressional Budget Office does not factor in recessions to their ten year budget projections unless the recession is ongoing.  As the Presidential contender, Mr. Romney must play the part of the man with a plan.  After four years, Mr. Obama probably understands that “hope and change” is little more than rousing rhetoric; that the President must steer the raft through dangerous currents without capsizing or losing any passengers, while the other political party rocks the raft enough to make his task even more difficult.  Should Mr. Romney win the Presidency, he will discover the same sobering truth.