Fill ‘er up!

February 23, 2013

Most of us with cars have noticed the rather dramatic increase in gas prices since the beginning of the year.  I’ll use the all formulations series, which is about 8 – 10 cents cheaper than what a family might pay at the pump.

A reason given for the upsurge in prices is that this is a normal seasonal change as refineries shut down to make the change over from a winter gas formulation to a summer gas formulation.  Heavier volatile organic compounds are removed from gas during the summer months to reduce smog.  The resultant decrease in supply therefore leads to an increase in price.  It’s Econ 101.  If that were true, then the year-over-year percent change would be relatively minor at this time of year.  In one of those contradictory anomalies, this year is the only year that the refinery change-over explanation actually fits.  Price changes over the same months in 2012 have been minor.  Notice that in other years, price increases in the early months contradicted the theory.

The change has been particularly noticeable because gas prices decreased to near $3 a gallon toward the end of 2012.  In the Denver area, prices dropped below $3 a gallon, prompting comments in idle conversation.  The average driver uses about 10 gallons a week but out west, where driving distances are greater, that average gas consumption is probably closer to 15 – 17 gallons.  The difference between $3 gas and $4 gas can mean a weekly gas “tax” of $15 or more.  For those of us who use a vehicle for work, the difference can be $30 or more.

Since the recession began in 2007, our use of gasoline has decreased, ending a multi-decade rise in overall gasoline consumption (EIA Source)

However, since the late nineties average gas prices are rising and have become quite volatile.  So why?  Our gasoline use was increasing during the nineties but prices were flat at a little over a $1 a gallon. Why the big increase in the past 10 – 15 years?  If one were buying gasoline with gold, the price has fallen over the past two decades.

If our consumption has levelled off in the past few years and we are producing more oil in this country, why has the price of gasoline stayed pretty consistently above $3 a gallon?

The three main variations of crude oil are heavy (Venezuela, for example), medium (North Sea and MidEast) and light (Texas). The benchmark for medium grade is Brent Crude; for light grade it is West Texas Intermediate (WTI). The two benchmarks have traditionally moved in tandem with Brent Crude trading about $2 above WTI.  Over the past few years, the difference in price between the two benchmarks has widened considerably.  “Fracking” has led to an upsurge in domestic production; production in the North Sea has been steadily declining; tensions in the MidEast and North Africa have contributed a risk premium to medium crude produced in the region.

Refineries are set up to process a particular type. Most east coast refineries process Brent Crude; higher transportation costs of domestically produced crude oil over land made it more cost efficient for eastern refineries to import oil from overseas.  Since the majority of the U.S. population lives in the eastern U.S., the majority of the American people use imported gas.  Gas prices move in tandem with the spot price of Brent crude.

While U.S. oil consumption has declined, world consumption has been rising.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects  a slow, steady rise in oil consumption over the next two decades as the standard of living improves.

No magic wand will cause gas prices to decline.  Crude oil and its derivative products are a world commodity and can be shipped inexpensively in large tankers all around the world.

Last week I wrote about the long term trend in federal debt; that it was not a “New Normal” but a continuation of the same old normal of the past several decades.  The continued rise in oil prices is another trend that has become a fixture of our daily lives and will continue to eat at the dollars in our pocketbooks for the foreseeable future.

The Law of Averages

February 17th, 2013

The spending sequester, or sequestration, set to take effect March 1st is a series of automatic and indiscriminate spending cuts that was part of the “Grand Bargain” compromise between President Obama, together with a Democratically led Senate, and the House Republicans in the Budget Control Act of August 2011.  The agreeement was rather like a Sword of Damocles, a chopping of spending programs cherished by one party or the other.  The term “sequester” means that there will be some actual spending cuts, not the usual budget and appropriations gimmicks that Congress is fond of. The unpalatable cuts to both defense spending and social programs were supposed to be an incentive for both parties in Congress to come to an agreement on deficit reduction as a condition of raising the debt limit.  It was hoped that the 2012 election would decide which party’s priorities would take precedence and the dominant party could then pass legislation to avoid or modify the sequester.  Instead, the election left the balance of power unchanged.  Republicans had dismissed the probability of the Democrats winning a majority in the House.  There were just too many seats that the Democrats need to gain to accomplish that.  Hoping to take the Presidency and having a good chance of taking control of the Senate in the 2012 elections, Republican lawmakers agreed to the sequester. The 2010 post-census election had put Republicans in charge of crafting voting districts, which enabled them to retain a majority in the House despite losing the total popular vote for House seats in the 2012 election. Several key Senatorial races imploded when Republican candidates made ill-advised (to be charitable) remarks.  Instead of gaining control of the Senate, Republicans lost two Senate seats.  Despite the high unemployment rate and the poor to middling economy, President Obama won re-election.

After navigating a mind numbing maze of previous law and baseline budget projections to arrive at actual spending reduction goals, the sequester will reduce defense spending by $55 billion and non-defense spending by $38 billion in 2013.  While this sounds like a lot of money, this is just 2.4% of the estimated $3.8 trillion in total federal spending in 2013 or a mere .6% of the estimated $16 trillion of this country’s GDP.  This past week the Democratically controlled Senate revealed a plan that would avoid the sequester for 2013.  The plan achieves deficit reduction goals with spending cuts and revenue increases but the revenue increases will probably be unwelcome to the Republican majority in the House.  Despite the rhetoric of calamity coming from either side of the aisle, both parties are anticipating that the sequester will probably take effect in two weeks.

Since mid November the SP500 has risen 12%; except for a sharp decline in the last week of the year in response to fears of the fiscal cliff, the market has climbed steadily.  The market has been largely ignoring the upcoming sequestration. 

More concerning to some is the slowdown in Europe, where the Eurozone economy has contracted for 4 quarters in a row.  Even Germany, the manufacturing and export stalwart of the Eurozone, saw a .6% contraction in the final quarter of 2012.

For many decades, the two prominent parties have been fighting an ideological battle over the role of the Federal government.  The Democratic Party regards the Federal government as largely beneficial and wants a greater role for the Federal government.  They have ushered in many social programs including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, programs that are largely on autopilot, beyond the reach of the Appropriations Committee in the House, where a select few can make the law by deciding which programs and federal agencies receive funding.  The philosophy of the Republican Party is that the Federal government is intrinsically a burden and therefore deserves a smaller role.  The Republican Party was out of power in the House for forty years until 1994; as a result, their role consisted largely of blocking or modifying Democratic Party ambitions.  Except for four years from 2007 – 2011, they have controlled the House since 1994 yet often conduct themselves as the opposition party that they were for much of the latter part of the 20th century.

In the tug of war between these two ideologies, the budget has suffered.  A recent report by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) contains a graph of Federal revenue and outlays and their long term averages which clearly pictures the “scrimmage” of ideologies between two yardlines, marked 18% and the 21%.  Republican politicians, together with conservative talk show hosts and commentators, speak of the “traditional” role of the Federal government at 18% of GDP.  This is simply the average of Federal revenues, not its role, for the past fifty years. Revenues have been, on average, 3% below that of Federal spending, which has averaged 21% of GDP.  The “traditional” role of the federal government, then, is to have an average annual deficit of about 3% of GDP.  In a $16 trillion economy, that average deficit is $500 billion.

Republicans simply can not say “no” to the Defense Dept; at times, they have forced spending programs on the Defense Dept that it doesn’t want.  The Democratic Party has become the champion of a hodge podge of Federal social welfare programs.  Neither party proposes taxes that will actually pay for the spending.  For all the Democratic rhetoric about taxing the rich, there simply aren’t enough rich people to pay for that average $500 billion deficit.  Large corporations continue to dominate both parties.  Campaign laws in most states as well as the federal government permit no fundraising in government buildings.  Almost every day, the members of the House and Senate must leave the government building where they work in order to do the daily drudgery of promising favorable legislation to corporations and associations in return for campaign contributions. 

We are still way above the 3% deficit average of the past fifty years.  The CBO projects that this year’s deficit will be 5.2% of GDP, almost half of the 10% deficit in 2009.

Over the next two decades, that 3% budget deficit average is about to grow larger.  For the past fifty years, the demographic bulge known as the Boomers have been paying into Social Security.  Those taxes have exceeded payments in most years, reducing overall Federal government deficits by .6% of GDP each year (Table 1.2 OMB historical tables, 2013 Budget).  Those surpluses have masked the reality that average annual Federal deficits, excluding Social Security, have been about 3.6% of GDP.  In a $16 trillion economy, that is close to $600 billion.  As the Boomers retire over the next twenty years and are collecting Social Security payments, add in another $100 billion a year as the Boomers draw down the $2.7 trillion dollar Social Security surplus they have built up.

We’re now up to a $700 billion annual deficit based on revenue and spending patterns over the past fifty years.  As the total Federal debt grows, so will the interest costs on that debt.  Over the past seventy years, interest costs have averaged 1.8% of GDP, almost 30% higher than the 1.4% of the past few years (Table 3.1 OMB 2013 Budget)  Ballooning debt levels and rising interest rates could easily add another $100 billion to annual deficits.  We’re now up to $800 billion and growing, based on historical averages.

Republicans will continue to call for spending cuts – it’s their brand.  Democrats will call for more programs and more taxes – but not on the poor and middle class – that’s their brand.  The political and economic tug of war will continue, meaning that uncertainty will be the new normal.  Uncertainty usually leads to lower economic growth which exacerbates social and political tensions which leads to more uncertainty until eventually there will be another crisis. 

In preparation for a cycle of uncertainty and crisis, the prudent investor might ask “What’s my backup plan?”  If you are lucky enough to have a defined benefit pension plan with the company you work for, what is your backup plan if that “defined” benefit is “redefined.”  Well, you might be thinking, my company is so large and dominant in its market that such a possibility is unlikely.  Tell that to the employees of United Airlines, a dominant player in its industry, who lost part, or in some cases, more than half of their benefits when United Airlines shed part of its pension obligations in bankruptcy court.

In the mid nineties, IBM converted its defined benefit plan to a “cash balance” plan, effectively lowering the pension amounts due older workers.  After seven years, a contested lower court decision and a victorious appeal, IBM won their right to do this.  IBM and other large companies have lots of lawyers and accountants trying to figure out legal ways to reduce their liabilities.  How many lawyers and accountants do you have? 

A March 6, 2012 article in the Wall St. Journal reported that “Business groups are urging Congress to let employers put less money into their pension funds, saying that exceptionally low interest rates are forcing them to set aside too much cash.”  I’ll bet your company has more lobbyists in Washington than you do.

These past few years have been a wake up call for those who worked, diligently saved and invested, planning on a certain retirement income based on historical returns of various investments in the stock, bond and CD markets.  Too many people discovered that their backup plan was either to keep working or go back to work, a fact supported by the monthly household survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Many retirees built CD “ladders” in federally insured certificates of deposit that paid 4 – 5% interest or more, offering them the safety of their principal and a steady income.  With interest rates for CDs at 1% or less, many retirees have either had to find more risky investments or simply spend less or – there’s that backup plan again – go back to work to make up the difference.

Then there are the folks who planned on selling their home, downsizing and using the difference as an income stream in their retirement years.  Now they wait, hoping that housing values will return to the lofty levels of the mid-2000s or – backup plan again – keep working.

Some people think that the past few years have been an aberration and are waiting for things to get back to normal, or average.  What I’ve tried to show is what those averages have been for the past fifty years and that those averages are better than what we can plan on for the next twenty years.  We certainly can not plan on a vague hope that the folks in Washington will find either a solution or a compromise to a problem that has remained unresolved for the past half century and will continue to worsen in the next two decades.

GDP, Profits and Labor

Feb. 2nd, 2013

A lot to cover this week – the monthly labor report and the Dow Industrial Average breaks the psychological mark of 14,000.  Let’s cover the stock market rise because that will give us some context for the labor report.

The stock market rises and falls on the prospect for the rise and fall in corporate profits.  For the past year, profits have been healthy, increasing year over year by 15-20%.

The stock market is a compilation of attempts to anticipate these profit changes by six months or so. Sometimes it guesses wrong, sometimes it guesses right but the market loosely follows the trend in profits.

As a percent of GDP, corporate profits have reached a record high and this growing share of the economy is largely responsible for the doubling of the SP500 in the past three years.

There can be too much of  a good thing and this may be it.  An economy becomes unstable as one segment of the economy accumulates a greater share of the pie.

Facts are the nemesis of partisan hacks who simply disregard any information that does not fit with their model of how the universe works.  Data on government spending and investment contradict those who complain that government has too much of a share of the economy; it is now at historic lows.

This includes government at all levels: federal, state and local.  Reductions in government spending continue to act as a drag on both GDP and employment growth. What gives some people the sense that government spending is a larger percentage of the economy are transfer payments, like Social Security.  Neither the calculation of GDP or government spending includes these transfer payments, so the percent of government spending in relation to GDP as shown in the chart above is a truer picture of government’s role in the economy. 

Speaking of GDP – this past week came the first estimate of GDP growth for the fourth quarter of 2012.  The headline number was negative growth of 1/10th of a percent on an annualized basis.

Two quarters of negative growth usually mark the beginning of a recession.  Concern over this negative growth led to small losses in the stock market at mid-week as investors grew concerned about the January labor report, which was released Friday.  The negative growth was largely due to a severe reduction in defense spending and exports.  As a whole, the private economy grew at an annualized rate of 3.6%, a strength that helped moderate any market declines in mid week.

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics released their monthly labor report this past Friday, the headline job increase of 157,000+ and an unemployment rate stuck at 7.9% did not calm investors’ fears.  The year over year percent change in unemployment is still in positive territory.

The numbers of long term unemployed as a percent of total unemployment ticked down but remains stubbornly high at about 38% (seasonally adjusted)

What prompted Friday’s relief rally in the market were the revisions in the previous months’ employment gains.  As more data comes in, the BLS revises previous months’ estimates.  This month also included end of the year population control adjustments.

November’s gains were revised from +161,000 to +247,000; December’s gains were raised from +155,000 to +196,000.  For all of 2012, the revisions added up to additional job gains of 336,000, raising average monthly job gains for 2012 to 181,000 – near the benchmark of 200,000 needed to make a dent in the unemployment rate.  Previous decreases in the unemployment rate have been largely the result of too many people giving up looking for work and simply not being counted as unemployed.

Overall, the labor report put the kibosh on any fears of recession and the stock market responded with a rally of just over 1%.  Construction jobs continued their recent gains but employment levels are one million jobs fewer than the post-recession lows of 2003 and two million jobs less than the 2006 peak of the housing bubble.

The core work force aged 25-54 continues to struggle along.

The older work force has garnered much of the gains in the past year but this month was flat.

The larger group of workers counted as unemployed or underemployed, what is called the U-6 Rate, remained unchanged as did the year over year percent change. 

As the stock market continues to rise, retail investors have reversed course and have started to put more money into the stock market.  Sluggish but steady GDP and employment growth has prompted the Federal Reserve to continue its program of buying bonds every month, which tends to push up stock market values.  The Fed can continue this program as long as the sluggish pace keeps inflation in check and below the Fed’s target rate of 2.5%. 

In the short run, it is a good idea to follow the maxim of “Don’t Fight the Fed.”  What is of some concern is the long term picture.  Below is a 30 year chart of the SP500 index, marked in 10 year periods with two trend lines based on the first decade, one trend line (with the arrow) a bit more positive than the other. 

The market has changed in the past two decades.  The bottoms in 2002, 2003, 2010, 2011 were simply a return to trend, a return to sanity.  The downturn of late 2008 – early 2009 was the only downturn that broke below trend; truly, an overcorrection. Among the changes of the past two decades is a Federal Reserve that, some say, has helped drive these erratic asset bubbles by making aggessive interest rate moves, then keeping interest rates at low levels for a prolonged period of time.  Whether and how much the Fed’s interest rate policies contribute to stock market valuations is a matter of much vigorous discussion.  Whatever the causes are, it is important to recognize that over two decades the market has shifted into a jagged, cyclic investment.  The long term investor who has a ten year time frame before they might need some of the money invested in the stock market can be reasonably certain that they will be able to get most of their money back if not make a healthy profit.  For those with a shorter time horizon like five years, they will need to monitor the financial and economic markets a bit more closely or hire someone to do it for them.  This is especially true when one is buying at current market levels which are above trend.