Pickup Purchasing Power

April 24, 2016

Relatively stagnant wages and income inequality have become a frequent theme on the campaign trail.  Let’s look at what I’ll call pickup purchasing power to understand the problem.  Sorry.  No graph from the Federal Reserve on this one.

A favorite vehicle among construction workers is the F-150 pickup, a reliable vehicle with room for a toolbox and a trip to the local lumberyard for supplies.  The MSRP of a standard bed 1998 model, available to the public in September 1997, was $14,835 (Source ) In 2016, the MSRP of that same model is $26,430 (Source), a 78% increase, about 3.2% per year.  There have certainly been improvements in that truck model in the past two decades but customers can not order the model without the improvements.  The basic model is the basic model.

Let’s look now at the wages needed to buy that pickup.  In May 1997, shortly before the 1998 F-150 was released to the public, the BLS survey reported average carpenters’ wages of $30,800.  At that time, wages and salaries were about 70.5% of total compensation, or about $43,700 (BLS report).  In the decade before that, wages as a percent of total compensation had declined from 73.3% in 1988 to 70.5% in 1997.  Rising insurance costs and other direct benefits to employees were slowly eating into the net compensation of the average carpenter.

In 2015, the average wage for carpenters was $43,530.  The BLS reported that wages were now 67.7% of the total employment cost, or about $64,300.  In that 18 year period, carpenters’ wages grew 41% but total compensation grew 47%, or 2.1% per year.  The price of that pickup truck, though, grew at 3.2% per year.  That seemingly small difference of 1% per year adds up to a big difference over the years.  That’s the sense of anger that underlies the current election season.  The growth in price of that pickup is only slightly above the average post WW2 inflation rate of 3%.  It is the wages that have fallen behind.

Trump blames the politicians who have given away American jobs with badly negotiated trade agreements that disadvantage Americans.  Trump’s promise to bring those manufacturing jobs back home wins him popular appeal in those communities impacted by the decline in manufacturing.  The loss of manufacturing jobs has left a larger pool of job applicants for construction jobs.  Some of those displaced workers did not have the carpentry skills needed but some were able to work in roles supervised by an experienced carpenter.  The more the supply of job applicants the less upward pressure on wages. If – a big if – some manufacturing jobs do come back to the U.S., it will help spur more growth in carpenter’s wages.

Bernie Sanders blames the fat cats and proposes taxing all but the poorest Americans to distribute income more evenly. His remedies to promote his programs of fairness are far ranging.  Employers who are currently providing health insurance for their employees will probably welcome a 6.2% payroll tax.  On a forty year old employee making $50,000 a year, the $3100 tax is far less cost than an HMO plan. Employers who do not provide such coverage will resent the imposition of more taxes but at least it will be across the board, affecting all competitors within an industry or local market.  Sanders’ healthcare plan also relies on 10% cuts in payments to doctors and hospitals, who are projected to save at least that much in reduced billing costs.

While Trump addresses a specific demographic, a particular segment of the labor market, Sanders proposes broad remedies to a number of problems.  Trump’s appeal will be to those who want a specific fix.  Bring back jobs to our community.  We’ll figure out the rest.  Sanders’ proposals will appeal to voters who have more confidence in government as a problem solver.


Oil Stocks

Readers who put some money to work in oil stocks (XLE, VDE for example) in late February, when I noted the historical bargain pricing, might have noticed the almost 20% increase in prices since then.  There are a number of reasons for the surge in price but the buying opportunity has faded with that surge.  Inventories are still high relative to demand.  Recent comprehensive market reports from the IEA require a subscription but last year’s report is available to those interested in a historical snapshot of the supply and demand trends throughout the world.  Until 2014, total demand had slightly exceeded supply.  A glance at the chart shows just how tightly coordinated supply and demand are in this global market. A “glut”in supply may be less than 1% of daily worldwide consumption and it is why prices can shift rather dramatically as traders try to guess both short and long term trends in demand and supply.


April 17, 2016

In a 1996 article in Mother Jones magazine economist Paul Krugman (now a N.Y. Times editorial writer) explored the possible causes for growing income inequality.  Yes, twenty years ago income inequality was a “thing.”  A more recent study using hard granular data contradicts a widely held belief that income inequality has grown substantially in the past four decades.

I’ll look first at the older piece by Krugman.  I should note that Krugman was writing for a popular magazine, not an academic journal.  As with his weekly column for the N. Y. Times, Krugman’s goal is to sell his audience a story, to stir up the pot.  Critics who judge an editorial column with the same rigor as an academic paper should be forced to write “I will be kinder to my fellow human beings” one thousand times with a #2 Ticonderoga pencil till they get little pencil indentations in the pads of their fingertips.

Some, including a few contenders in the current Presidential campaign, sound the alarm.  “We’re shipping jobs overseas!”  Well, Krugman considered imports to be a possible cause for inequality but found that imports of goods from third world countries, where wages are markedly lower than the U.S., were only 2% of national income.  Stopping imports from those countries would have but a small effect on workers’ wages.

What about technology? Krugman asked.  As an example of technology, Krugman noted that the educational level of schoolteachers and corporate CEOs are approximately the same yet there is a wide chasm between the compensation of those in these two professions.  If Krugman were my brother-in-law at a Thanksgiving dinner, I’d have argued with him on this one.  “Hey, Paul, whaddayatawkin?!” I would have said, “CEOs are managing way more employees and capital than any teacher!”  Paul would have agreed with me, of course, and apologized for the error of his ways and I would have passed him the cranberry sauce.

 A 2013 study by Faleye, et. al., published in the Journal of Banking and Finance, used a systematic analysis of a salary and pay database to calculate the ratio of CEO pay to the average pay of an employee in the ranks of the company.  They identified and ranked a number of factors to explain the Pay Ratio, as I’ll call it. They found that three factors, ranked in effect, were most important, and by a wide margin:
1) size of the firm, or market cap;
2) tenure of the CEO;
3) return on assets, or profitability of the firm in a given year (Table 3).
Of those three factors, the first two factors, size and longevity, influenced the Pay Ratio far more – three times – than the third factor, the return on assets.

Let’s look at the first factor: the size of the firm.  We’ll use the stock market capitalization (CAP) as an indicator of size.  In the post war period from 1957 to 1980, 23 years, the CAP in the U.S. increased by 2.5 times.  In the subsequent 35 years since 1980, that CAP shot upwards over 13 times, even after two severe market downturns!!

So, CEOs are being paid to be responsible for the deployment of a lot of capital.  Remember, the return on assets (#3 factor) was much less important, so CEOs are being paid even if they don’t do particularly well with that capital in a given year.  Factor #2 was longevity so we can guess that CEOs who do perform well stay in the post.  Those who don’t get the proverbial boot.

Let’s turn to “Fee for service” financial advisors for a comparison.  Advisors typically charge 1 – 2% to manage money for their clients.  Naturally, an advisor – or CEO – who manages a combined $100 million will make more than one who manages $10 million.  The workers at each firm may earn approximately the same but the CEO of the larger firm should make more money and greatly increase the Pay Ratio.

What else can skew the ratio upward?  Using a mean, or average, rather than the median, the halfway number in a data set. The authors of this study found that average CEO pay was almost twice the median CEO pay, indicating that a relatively small number of very well paid CEOs skewed the average upward.  Krugman and other economists (Robert Reich, for example) touting inequality in the popular press use average, not median, CEO pay simply because the average shows a higher ratio than the median. “Whaddayadoin?!” I’d have to challenge Paul at the dinner table.   “In this case, an average gives a distorted view of the data,” I would protest.  Paul might smirk knowingly and grab the last helping of mashed potatoes while I was protesting his dirty, no good argumentative trick.

This study included 447 firms whose total revenues averaged almost $2 billion.  Apple had $600B in revenue last year so the study included both mega firms and large firms.  They found that the median Pay Ratio was 52, not 331 as the AFL-CIO claims, or 150 times, as Krugman claimed in this 1996 article.  Why are there so many different CEO ratios?  The mega companies like Apple, GE and Microsoft will naturally have the highest CEO ratios.  Organizations like the AFL-CIO who want to promote the idea of inequality might use only the pay data from the SP100, the top companies in the world.  In a popular magazine article, the writer doesn’t have to share the characteristics of the data set as one would do in an academic paper so it is relatively easy to convince readers of a particular point of view by careful selection of the data.

As companies have grown in size over the past three decades, the number of named executive officers (NEOs) in each of these large companies have grown.  As companies get bigger, the duties of these NEOs begins to approach that of the CEOs of yesteryear. To compare apples to apples, then, we would do better to compare the salaries of today’s NEOs with the CEOs of 1970. The 2013 study found that the NEO ratio was 23 times the average worker pay, much less than the Pay Ratio of 35 in 1970.  If we average the Pay Ratio (CEO) of 52 in this study and the NEO ratio of 23, we get an average of 37, just about the same as in 1970.

Regardless of the data, most of us are either convinced or not convinced that the Pay Ratio has increased dramatically in the past fifty years.  Our convictions are similar to our tastes – white meat or dark – in turkey.  We can only agree to disagree and know deep down in our hearts that we are, of course, right.

The Weathervane of Growth

April 10, 2016

CWPI (Constant Weighted Purchasing Index)

March’s survey of Purchasing Managers showed a big upsurge in new orders for the manufacturing (MFR) sector. Export orders were up 5.5% in both the manufacturing and services (SVC) sectors and overall output increased 2% or more.  After contracting for several months, MFR employment may have found a bottom.  The total of new orders and employment is still growing but below five year averages.

The broader CWPI is still expanding but at a slightly slower pace for the past seven months.  The cyclic pattern of declining growth followed by a renewal of activity has changed. While there is no cause to make any strategic changes to allocation, it does bear watching in the months ahead.


IRA Standard of Care

Financial agents – investment advisors, stock brokers and insurance agents – have had different standards of care when they deal with their clients.  The first and highest standard is fiduciary: the agent should operate with the best interests of the client in mind.  Registered Investment Advisors (RIA) are registered with the SEC and follow this strict standard. The second and more lax standard is suitability: the agent should not sell the client anything that is not suitable for the client based on what the client has told them about their circumstances.  Here’s a short paper on the difference between the two standards.

This week the Obama administration issued new guidelines for agents servicing IRA account holders, requiring agents to maintain the higher fiduciary standard starting in 2017.  This requirement was left out of the Dodd-Frank finance reform bill because many in the investment industry lobbied against it.  Here is the first rule proposal in February.

Opponents will criticize the Obama administration for this “new” set of regulations but this policy has been recommended by some in the industry, on both sides of the political aisle, for at least 25 years.  During the 1980s Congress made several changes that made IRA accounts available to a wide swath of savers, most of whom were unfamiliar with the marketplace of financial products now available to them.

Some in the insurance and investment industries fought against the imposition of a stricter fudiciary standard because it would require more training and would likely reduce the sales commissions of agents.  The growing volume of tax deferred employee retirement plans has generated a steady stream of fees for those in the financial industry.

Keep in mind that the new policy only applies to retirement accounts.



Banks are in the business of loaning money, meaning that they must loan money to stay in business.  Most of the time some part of the economy wants to borrow money.  Borrowers come in three types:  Household, Corporate and Government.  If households cut back on their borrowing, corporations may increase theirs.

A historical look at total debt as a percent of GDP shows several trends.  Keep in mind the leveling of debt since the financial crisis.  We’ll come back to that later.

In the thirty years following World War 2, debt levels remained fairly consistent with the pace of economic activity.  The three types of borrowers offset each other.  Households and corporations increased their borrowing while government, particularly the Federal government, paid down the high debt incurred to fight WW2.

In 1980 the Reagan administration and a Democratic House began running big deficits, contributing to a spike in the the total level of debt.  By 1993, when President Clinton took office, Federal and State Debt as a percent of GDP was about the same as it was at the end of WW2.

A combination of higher tax rates and cost cutting by a Republican House elected in 1994 led to a reduction in government spending as household and corporations increased their spending.  Total debt levels flattened during the late 1990s.

Following the 9/11 tragedy and a recession, government debt levels increased but now there was no offset in household borrowing as mortgage debt climbed.  Helping to curb the pronounced rise in total debt levels, a Democratic House at odds with a Republican president dampened the growth of government borrowing in the two years before the financial crisis.

Arguably the most severe crisis in eighty years, the financial crisis caused both households and corporations to cut back on their borrowing.  Offsetting this negative borrowing, the Federal government assumed an often overlooked role – the Borrower of Last Resort.  We are accustomed to the role of the Federal Reserve Bank as the Lender of Last Resort, but we might not be aware that some part of the economy has to be the Borrower.  That role can only be filled by the Federal government because the states and local governments are prohibited from running budget deficits.

Look again at the second chart showing the huge spike in government borrowing following the financial crisis.  Now remember the leveling off of total debt shown in the first graph.  The Federal government has increased its debt level by more than $10 trillion.  Almost $4 trillion of that has come from the lender of last resort, the Fed, but the rest of that borrowing has offset a significant deleveraging by corporations and households.  Had the Federal government not borrowed as much as it did, many banks would have experienced significant declines in profits to the point of going out of business.

There is a potential bombshell waiting in the $2 trillion in corporate profits that businesses have parked overseas to delay taxes on the income.  If Congress and the President were to lower tax rates so that corporations could “repratriate” these dollars, two things would happen: 1) corporations could lower their debt levels, using the cash to pay back the rolling short term loans they use to fund daily operations; and 2) the Federal government would lower its debt levels as the corporations paid taxes on those repatriated profits.

Great.  Lower debt is good, right?  Unless households were to step up their borrowing, total debt could fall significantly, causing another banking crisis.  Although politicians on both sides like to talk about bringing profits home, such a move will have to be done slowly so that the economy and the banking system can adjust in slow increments.

Partisans cheer when candidates express strong sentiments in rousing words, but cold caution must quench hot spirits. We can only trust that candidates for public office will temper their campaign rhetoric with prudence if entrusted with the office.

Home Sweet Asset

April 3, 2016

Normally we do not include the value of our home in our portfolio.  A few weeks ago I suggested an alternative: including a home value based on it’s imputed cash flows.  Let’s look again at the implied income and expense flows from owning a home as a way of building a budget.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau take that flow approach, called Owner Equivalent Rent (OER), when constructing the CPI, and homeowners are well advised to adopt this perspective.  Why?

1) By regarding the house as an asset generating flows, it may provide some emotional detachment from the house, a sometimes difficult chore when a couple has lived in the home a long time, perhaps raised a family, etc.

2) It focuses a homeowner on the monthly income and rent expense connected with their home ownership.  It asks a homeowner to visualize themselves separately as asset owner and home renter. It is easy for homeowners to think of a mortgage free home as an almost free place to live. It’s not.

3) Provides realistic budgeting for older people on fixed incomes.  Some financial planners recommend spending no more than 25% of income on housing in order to leave room for rising medical expenses.  Some use a 33% figure if most of the income is net and not taxed.  For this article, I’ll compromise and use 30% as a recommended housing share of the budget.

A fully paid for home that would rent for $2000 is an investment that generates an implied $1400 in income per month, using a 70% net multiplier as I did in my previous post. Our net expense of $600 a month includes home insurance, property taxes, maintenance and minor repairs, as well as an allowance for periodic repairs like a new roof, and capital improvements.

Using the 30% rule, some people might think that their housing expense was within prudent budget guidelines as long as their income was more than $2000 a month.  $600 / $2000 is 30%.

However, let’s separate the roles involved in home ownership.  The renter pays $2000 a month, implying that this renter needs $6700 a month in income to stay within the recommended 30% share of the budget for housing expense.  The owner receives $1400 in net income a month, leaving a balance of $5300 in income needed to stay within the 30% budget recommendation. $6700 – $1400 = $5300.  Some readers may be scratching their heads.  Using the first method – actual expenses – a homeowner would need only $2000 per month income to stay within recommended guidelines.  Using the second method of separating the owner and renter roles, a homeowner would need $5300 a month income. A huge difference!

Let’s say that a couple is getting $5000 a month from Social Security, pension and other investment income.  Using the second method, this couple is $300 below the prudent budget recommendation of 30% for housing expense.  That couple may make no changes but now they understand that they have chosen to spend a bit more on their housing needs each month.  If – or when – rising medical expenses prompt them to revisit their budget choices, they can do so in the full understanding that their housing expenses have been over the recommended budget share.

This second method may prompt us to look anew at our choices.  Depending on our needs and changing circumstances, do we want to spend $2000 a month for a house to live in?  Perhaps we no longer need as much space.  Perhaps we could get a suitable apartment or townhome for $1400?  Should we move?  Perhaps yes, perhaps no.  Separating the dual roles of owner and renter involved in owning a home, we can make ourselves more aware of the implied cost of our decision to stay in the house.  A house may be a treasure house of memories but it is also an asset.  Assets must generate cash flows which cover living expenses that grow with the passage of time.


The Thrivers and Strugglers

“Bravo to MacKenzie. When she was born, she chose married, white, well-educated parents who live in an affluent, mostly white neighborhood with great public schools.”

In a recent report published by the Federal Reserve Bank at St. Louis, the authors found that four demographic characteristics were the chief factors for financial wealth and security:  1) age; 2) birth year; 3) education; 4) race/ethnicity.

While it is no surpise that our wealth grows as we age, readers might be puzzled to learn that the year of our birth has an important influence on our accumulation of wealth.  Those who came of age during the depression had a harder time building wealth than those who reached adulthood in the 1980s.

Ingenuity, dedication, persistence and effort are determinants of wealth but we should not forget that the leading causes of wealth accumulation in a large population are mostly accidental.  It is a humbling realization that should make all of us hate statistics!  We want to believe that success is all due to our hard work, genius and determination.



March’s job gains of 215K met expectations, while the unemployment rate ticked up a notch, an encouraging sign.  Those on the margins are feeling more confident about finding a job and have started actively searching for work.  The number of discouraged workers has declined 20% in the past 12 months.

Employers continue to add construction jobs, but as a percent of the workforce there is more healing still to be done.

The y-o-y growth in the core workforce, aged 25-54, continues to edge up toward 1.5%, a healthly level it last cleared in  the spring of last year.

The Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) maintained by the Federal Reserve is a composite of about 20 employment indicators that the Fed uses to gauge the overall strength and direction of the labor market.  The March reading won’t be available for a couple of weeks, but the February reading was -2.4%.

Inflation is below the Fed’s 2% target, wage gains have been minimal, and although employment gains remain relatively strong, there is little evidence to compel Chairwoman Yellen and the rate setting committee (FOMC) to maintain a hard line on raising interest rates in the coming months.  I’m sure Ms. Yellen would like to get Fed Funds rate to at least a .5% (.62% actual) level so that the Fed has some ability to lower them again if the economy shows signs of weakening.  Earlier this year the goal was to have at least a 1% rate by the end of 2016 but the data has lessened the urgency in reaching that goal.

ISM will release the rest of their Purchasing Manager’s Index next week and I will update the CWPI in my next blog.  I will be looking for an uptick in new orders and employment.  Manufacturing lost almost 30,000 jobs this past month – most of that loss in durable goods.  Let’s see if the services sector can offset that weakness.


Company Earnings

Quarterly earnings season is soon upon us and Fact Set reports that earnings for the first quarter are estimated to be down almost 10% from this quarter a year ago.  The ten year chart of forward earnings estimates and the price of the SP500 indicates that prices overestimated earnings growth and has traded in a range for the past year.  March’s closing price was still below the close of February 2015.  Falling oil prices have taken a shark bite out of earnings for the big oil giants like Exxon and Chevron and this has dragged down earnings growth for the entire SP500 index.