U.S.S. Obamacare Sails On

In March 2000, I cursed myself as I watched the SP500 cross the 1500 mark for the first time. Almost a year earlier, I had given in to my conservative instincts and paid off the mortgage with some savings. In 1999, my choice had been partially driven by a suspicion that the stock market was a bit overvalued. In 2000, I could see I was wrong; that I just didn’t understand the new economy. Had I invested the money in the stock market, I would have made 15% in less than a year.

When I set the time machine to election day 2016, I see that the index stood at about 2130, 40% higher than the 2000 benchmark. But wait. An asset is only worth what I can trade it for. Year by year, inflation erodes the real value of that asset. When I compare real values (BLS inflation calculator), the SP500 index on election day was almost exactly what it was in March 2000.

As the year 2000 passed into 2001 and the stock market fell from its heights, my decision to invest in real estate exemplified a golden word in investing: diversify.

Since the election, the SP500 has risen about 10%, as investors speculated that Republicans will usher in a new era of de-regulation and lower taxes. By mid-March, banking stocks had shot up over 25%. This past Monday, the 20th, the Freedom Caucus confirmed that they had the “no” votes necessary to block Thursday’s scheduled House vote on the Republican health care bill, AHCA. Banking and financial stocks, thought to be the biggest beneficiaries of less regulation, higher interest rates, and infrastructure spending, lost 5% over several days.

The Freedom Caucus is a group of 30-40 Republican House members who came to office in 2010 on the Tea Party wave. Led by North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows, the Caucus adheres strongly to conservative principles as they define them. They are chiefly responsible for driving out the former House Speaker, John Boehner. While strict adherence to principle – “my way or no way” – worked well as an opposition movement when Obama was President, the Caucus’ unwillingness to compromise is problematic under the current one-party rule. Can Republicans govern?

Paul Ryan, the current Speaker of the House, delayed the vote until Friday. House leadership and the White House tried to come to some compromise that would bring the Freedom Caucus on board without alienating the more moderate Republican members. With no support from Democrats, the additional no votes from the Freedom Caucus meant that Ryan could not muster the majority needed to pass the bill. Shortly before the scheduled vote at 4 PM on Friday, Ryan called off the vote.

The stock market is a herd attempt to predict and price what the world will be like in six months. As events catch up with forecasts, stock prices correct. Passage of the bill was supposed to be a key step toward tax reform if the Republicans want to pass a tax bill using Reconciliation rules, which require only a majority in the Senate.

With more than a half hour left in the trading day, the market had time to sell off 2 – 3%. And? Nothing. Did the bulls and bears cancel each other out in a flurry of trading? Nope. There was no unusual surge of volume in stocks. Either the market had already priced in the defeat of the AHCA, or buyers and sellers were left undecided.

Investors take a “risk off” approach during periods of uncertainty, moving toward gold (GLD) and long dated treasuries (TLT). Both have risen a few percent in the past two weeks but each is short of their January and February highs. Since mid-March, the SP500 (SPY) has lost a few percent. This tells me that investors had already adopted a more cautious stance.

President Trump has indicated that he wants to move on to tax reform and an infrastructure bill as well as the building of some type of defense perimeter on the border with Mexico. Perhaps investors hope that the lack of cohesion among Republicans on the health care bill will not sidetrack them from passage of these other bills.
The defeat of this bill is sure to empower the Freedom Caucus on further legislation. They were a thorn in John Boehner’s side and will no doubt frustrate Paul Ryan as well.


Existing Home Sales

We had a warm February in most of the country. Realtors reported good foot traffic but, but, but…a lack of affordable housing has turned away many first time home buyers. Home prices have been rising at double the growth in wages. While Feb’s numbers declined from a strong January, YTD existing home sales are more than 5% ahead of last year’s pace.

Regional declines varied: the northeast at -14% and the midwest at -7% led the list. The decline in the west was almost -4% but cities in California and Colorado report the fastest turnaround times from listing to sale. The San Jose region reported an average of 23 days.

Here’s February’s report from the National Assn of Realtors

Caution: Strong Growth Ahead

This week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released their estimate of the fiscal impact of the AHCA, the draft version of the Republican health care reform plan. I’ll take a look at the CBO methodology later in this post. For those who may be tiring of the almost constant focus on the AHCA, let’s turn our attention to some economic indicators.


CWPI (Constant Weighted Purchasing Index)

February’s survey of purchasing managers (PMI) indicated a broad base of confidence among purchasing managers in most industries. New orders in manufacturing are surging, an expansion more typical in the early stages of recovery after recession. Regardless of how one feels about Trump, there is a sense of renewal in the business community. Consumer Confidence is at record highs. Confident of finding another job, the number of employees who are quitting their jobs is at a 16 year high.

The CWPI is a composite of both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing PMI surveys and is weighted toward the two strongest indicators of future growth, employment and new orders. Since October, the composite has been rising from mild to strong growth.


For most of 2016, new orders and employment were below their five year average.  Since October, they have been above that average.




The Housing Market Index released by the National Assn of Homebuilders just set a multi-year record. Housing starts are strong and single family homes under construction are the best in ten years. A popular ETF of homebuilders, XHB, is nearing a recovery high set in August 2015. 58,000 construction employees found work during a particularly warm February. Now the big picture. As a percent of the working age population, housing starts are still at multi-decade lows.


There has been an upshift toward multi-family units in some cities but, in a broad historical context, these are also near all time lows as a percent of the working age population.


A primary driver of new housing construction, both single and multi-family, is the growth in new households, which is still soft. In 2016, households grew by 1%, below the 30 year average of 1.2%, and far below the 70 year average of 1.7%.


Consumer Credit

Here’s an interesting data series from the FRED database at the Federal Reserve: the percent of people with subprime credit in each county. Click on the link and zoom in to see the data for a particular county. In New York City, Manhattan has a 16% subprime rate, less than half the 35% rate of the nearby Bronx. Give the link a few seconds to load the data and display the map.


On July 1st, the credit rating agencies will remove tax liens and judgments from their records if liens do not include the full name, address, SSN or date of birth of the debtor. This will raise the credit scores of hundreds of thousands of subprime consumers.


Real Estate Pricing Tool

Trulia has a heat map, by zip code, of the median home price per square foot. I will include this handy tool on the tool page.


IRS Data

Of the 145 million returns filed, 46 million itemized deductions. Under the Republican draft of tax reform (PDF), almost all deductions would be eliminated in favor of a standard deduction that is almost twice as large as current law, $12,000 vs. $6300. (Deductions, Child Credits ). Half of capital gains, interest and dividends would not be taxed. For most filers, the dreaded 1040 tax form is only 14 lines. Publishers of tax software like Intuit are sure to lobby against such simplicity.

Health insurance reform is the prerequisite to tax reform.  If House Speaker Paul Ryan encounters strong resistance in his own party to health insurance reform, his tax reform plan will be stymied as well.



This past Monday, the Congressional Budget Office released their “score” (summary report and full PDF report) of the American Health Care Act, or AHCA. Score is a euphemism for the 10 year cost estimate that the CBO customarily gives on proposed legislation.

The CBO was careful to stress the uncertainty of their estimate. A critical component is the human response to changing incentives and the tentativeness of future state legislation. With most major legislation, the CBO estimates the macroeconomic effects. They did not include such an analysis in this report and note that fact. In short, the CBO is saying “take this estimate with a grain of salt.”

The headline number was the amount of people estimated to lose their health insurance over the next ten years – a whopping 24 million. Democrats used this ballpark estimate as a defining fact as they bludgeoned the plan. How did the CBO come up with their numbers?

Medicaid is the health insurance program for low income families and individuals.  When the program was introduced in 1965, enrollment was 1/4 million.  Today, 74 million are on the program.  The federal government and states share the costs of the program; the federal share averages 57%. Under the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, low income individuals younger than 65 without children could enroll.  An increase in the income threshold enabled more people to qualify for the program.  The federal share was guaranteed to not fall below 90% of those individuals enrolled under the expansion guidelines.

Medicaid (CMS) reports that 16.3 million people were added to Medicaid under the ACA expansion program and represent almost 75% of all enrollment under ACA. California has 12% of the U.S. population, but accounts for more than 25% of additional enrollees under Medicaid expansion. (State-by-state Medicaid enrollment ) Only 31 states adopted Medicaid expansion. The CBO estimates that those 16.3 million are 50% of the total pool of individuals that would be eligible if all states adopted the expansion program. So the CBO estimate of the total pool is almost 33 million.

Undere current law, the CBO estimates that additional states will adopt expansion so that 80% of the estimated total pool, or 26.4 million, will be enrolled under Medicaid expansion by 2026.  Under the AHCA, the CBO estimates that only 30% of that eligible population of 33 million, about 10 million, will be enrolled as of 2026. 26.4 million (under ACA) – 10 million (under AHCA) equals 16 million whom the CBO estimates will lose coverage under Medicaid. Note that this is a lot of blue sky math.

To summarize the ten year loss estimate under the rollback of Medicaid expansion: 6 million current enrollees and 10 million anticipated enrollees.

Medicaid expansion accounts for 16 million fewer enrollees. Where are the remaining 8 million missing? In the non-group private market. Currently, there are 11.5 – 12 million enrolled in these individual plans, an increase of about 5 million over the 6.6 million enrollees in 2007 (Health and Human Services brief) . The CBO estimates that, in 2018 and 2019, 2 million additional enrollees would take advantage of the ACA subsidies to buy policies. That results in a potential pool of about 14 million. Under the AHCA, the CBO estimates that the non-group private insurance market will return to its former level of 6 – 7 million, a loss of about 8 million.

Voila! 16 million under Medicaid expansion + 8 million in non-group private insurance = 24 million loss.


Side Note

How do people get their health insurance?
74 million people, about 25% of the population, are enrolled in Medicaid. Half of Medicaid enrollees are children.
55 million, about 16% of the population, are on Medicare.
Over 150 million, or 50% of the population, are enrolled in an employer group plan (Kaiser Family Foundation).
Approximately 27 million, or 9% of the population, are uninsured.

Before the ACA, almost 50 million, or 16% of the population, were classified as uninsured. About 6 million of these uninsured had high deductible insurance plans called catastrophic plans. Offered by large insurance companies, they contained exclusions for pre-existing conditions, did not cover pregnancy, or mental disease, but were adequate for many self-employed tradespeople, contractors, consultants and farmers. (Info) In late 2013, the ACA redefined catastrophic plans by specifying the minimum benefits that a catastrophic plan must offer and, in 2014, began offering these plans through the state health care exchanges.

Replace, Beta Version

This week Republicans released their preliminary version of the replacement for the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Preliminary is the key word. The debate has started. The bill still needs to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, which will estimate the total cost over the next decade. If the CBO estimate is high, we can expect major revisions in an attempt to rein in the costs.

Democrats and conservative Republicans have both criticized the bill, which is emerging from two committees in the House of Representatives.  The bill will pass through several steps of bargaining before it is voted on in the House. The Senate will have a different version of the bill but will contain some of the same elements. The Republicans have only a three vote majority in the Senate so the bill is likely to undergo revisions if it is to make it through the higher body.

If it does pass the Senate, that po’ little bill will be exhausted, but it will then have to pass through a committee that will reconcile differences in the House and Senate versions. Finally, it will head to the White House for President Trump’s signature.

The Republican version is AHCA.  Obamacare was ACA. We’ll hear these abbreviations a lot in the coming weeks.   People with employer group insurance will see few changes.  About 11 million people pay for their own insurance under a non-group private plan. Lower income enrollees receive subsidies under Obamacare. Many complained of rapidly escalating premiums, and insurance companies have been dropping out of the market, particularly in rural areas. 14.5 million people with really low incomes were added to the insurance rolls via Medicaid expansion under Obamacare (Politifact).

Here is a brief synopsis of what is proposed so far.  Popular provisions of Obamacare will remain. Parents can keep a child on their health care policy till the child is 26. Insurers can not refuse a policy because of a pre-existing condition.

Gone are the penalties for not buying insurance. Gone is the employer mandate to provide insurance and the individual mandate to have insurance. Gone are the formulas that employers must use to determine the number of full-time employees.  Gone are the subsidies for lower income working people, gone is the tax on tanning beds and medical equipment.

Instead of government subsidies based primarily on income, tax credits will be based on age first, and will phase out slowly for individuals with incomes above $75K. The credits are refundable, so that they are available to everyone whether they pay any Federal tax or not. This is similar to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low income working families. (This provision has raised objections from the Freedom Caucus, a coalition of conservative Republicans.)

The proposed bill blocks any federal funding for Planned Parenthood, whose revenues consists mostly of Medicaid claims for non-controversial medical procedures. This provision will generate a number of discrimination lawsuits should it remain in the bill.

Medicaid funding will be based on each state’s at risk population – the elderly, the poor, the disabled. Each state can decide how to administer the funds. Several governors, including Republicans, are concerned about this provision. Under the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, hundreds of thousands of people were added onto the program. Governors worry that they will be stuck with some hard decisions in the case of a recession, when many more people lose their jobs, including their employer insurance, and qualify for Medicaid. The federal government can legally borrow money to fund promises when tax revenues are insufficient. States must run balanced budgets.

We can be sure that there will be a flurry of unsubstantiated assertions from politicians and surrogates on both sides of the aisle. We will be bombarded with catch phrases. Each politician hopes that their pithy phrase will make it into the 24 hours news cycle.

Here are just two examples from the floor of the Senate this past Tuesday. Each Senator has some good points but they drown those points in partisan drivel.  Both of these Senators are regarded as moderate voices within their party.

From John Cornyn, Texas Senator and Majority Whip, comes a phrase that all Republicans are required to use to describe Obamacare: “unmitigated disaster.”  Republicans didn’t feel that invading Iraq was an unmitigated disaster. Only Obamacare qualifies for that epithet. Republicans have learned that repeating a phrase over and over and over and over again makes it so. Politics reduced to a slogan, like the Wendy’s commercial “Where’s the beef?” (Here are a few excerpts of the speech. Cornyn’s staff doesn’t provide a full transcript.)

How much of an unmitigated disaster is Obamacare?  The Republican version keeps a number of key features of Obamacare so we can be reasonably certain that this is radical rhetoric, typical of what we hear from either party.

Cornyn uses the phrase “broken promise” to describe Obamacare. Over on the other side of the aisle, Washington Senator Patty Murray uses the same phrase to describe the Republican replacement. Maybe they both share the same speech writers.

Murray declared that millions of people will lose health care under the proposed legislation, which returns control of health care to the states. Here’s what passes for math in the Democratic Party, whose estimates of Obamacare enrollment have been  way above actual enrollment. The big  increase in enrollees have come from the Medicaid expansion, not the appeal of private market Obamacare plans.  Democrats could have passed a 100 page Medicaid expansion Act and have achieved the same results.

So, how does Murray justify the statement that millions will lose health care?    It’s not current enrollees, but future enrollees who will lose health care.  Got that?  These are invisible millions. Based on wildly optimistic estimates of future enrollments if Obamacare was left in place, Democrats then estimated that those exuberant estimates will not be met under the new proposal.  In past years, when enrollment figures did not meet projections, Democrats did not lament the fact that “millions” lost health care.  Democratic politicians only use their special math on programs from the other side.  And yes, Republicans do this as well.  (Murray’s staff made a transcript of the whole speech available.)

Like Cornyn, Murray reaches into her box of assertions, pulls out a few and repeats them. Only Obamacare can protect women’s health. 62% of white women, and 42% of all women, voted for Trump and his promise to repeal Obamacare because they wanted to damage their health? Does Murray think those women are stupid, or suicidal?  Maybe a lot of these women are the deplorables, as Hillary Clinton called them.

Like most Democrats, Murray can not understand that people resent the dictates of the Washington crowd and want more local control of their lives, even if it is only an opportunity to make their own mistakes. Politicians in Washington, those of both parties, have made a lot of mistakes. Voters in many states think that their legislatures and governors can’t do any worse.

Whenever we talk health care reform in the U.S., the discussion inevitably turns toward the single payer option, similar to the Canadian and British systems. One of the arguments against single payer systems is that the government rations care with long waiting times for appointments, particularly those for specialists, operations and hospital beds. Proponents of the U.S. system argue that the U.S. is far more responsive to the needs of patients.

Is that true? Several researchers studied {PDF} the waiting time statistics provided by governments in developed countries and found that comparisons of wait times are largely invalid. Why? Because different countries use different start times. From the paper:

“Current national waiting time statistics are of limited use for comparing health care availability among the various countries due to the differences in measurements and data collection.”

In some countries, the wait time to see a specialist might not start till the specialist makes an appointment with the patient. In other countries, the clock starts when the primary care physician writes the referral order that the patient needs to see a specialist. Some start the clock when the specialist receives the referral. Some countries distinguish between ongoing and completed care, while others don’t. The lack of consistency explains the contradictory results when comparisons of wait times are taken at face value.

After six years of stamping their feet and saying “No, no, no, no, no” like a four year old, Republicans have finally put some ideas on the table. We hope for some rational discussion of principles and likely outcomes, but, as each party has drifted to the extremes in the last two to three decades, the voices of moderation have been drowned out by impassioned pleas and slogans.  Moderation is a difficult political position to defend because it requires more than a catch phrase and a belligerent tone.

In the 24 hour media circus, politicians must posture and polemicize for the camera, for their constituents, and most importantly, for their contributors. Have your shovels ready for we shall soon be buried in the muck of debate!

Border Adjustment Tax

March 5, 2017

Gary Cohn,  President Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor, says that the Border Adjustment Tax (BAT) is off the table. This is a key revenue raiser, a hidden tax, in the Republican scheme to lower corporate taxes. We will continue to hear about BAT as the fight over tax reform heats up. What is it and how will it affect American families?

First, a bit of context. Most other developed countries have a VAT, or Value Added Tax, on purchased goods and services. In the EU most VAT taxes range from 20-25%. In America, we have state and local sales taxes that might add as much as 8 – 10% to the cost of a good. A VAT is like a Federal sales tax of 20%.

Unlike a VAT tax that affects most goods and services, the BAT will affect only imported goods. Here’s an example of the BAT tax using Big-Box as an example of a large merchandiser similar to Wal-Mart.

Big-Box imports a DVD Player for $80 (Cost of Goods Sold) and sells it for $100, making $20 gross profit. It has $5 other costs which are deducted from gross profit to reach a taxable profit of $15. Let’s say that Big-Box’s effective Federal tax rate is 30% (27.1% per Congressional Research Service). $15 taxable profit x 30% = $5 (rounded) Federal Tax.  Big-Box has a net after-tax profit of $10, or 10% of the retail price.  Remember that.  Current law = 10%.

Under the BAT proposal, Big-Box could not deduct the $80 it paid for the good because it is an import. Big-Box’s gross profit is now $100. Subtracting the $5 other costs, the taxable profit is $95. Multiply that by a lower 20% corporate tax rate and the Federal tax is now  about $19, far more than the $5 using the current tax system. Big-Box paid $80 cost + $19 in tax = $99, leaving them a gain of $1, or 1%.  Current law = 10% profit.  Proposed law = 1% profit.

For Big-Box to make the $10 after-tax profit it has under the current tax system, it would  need to raise the price of the DVD player about $15.  After paying a 20% tax ($3) on the additional revenue, it will net an additional $12. So the customer now pays $115 for a DVD player that used to be $100.  No change in quality.  Just an extra $15 out of the consumer’s pocket for an imported CD player.

What if Big-Box buys the DVD player from an American supplier for $100?  Under BAT, the $100 direct cost of the DVD player would be deducted from the sale amount, giving Big-Box a tax CREDIT of $20 ($20%).  The after-tax cost of the player is now $80 direct and the same $5 indirect cost = $85. To make a $12 net profit as under the current system, Big-Box could sell the DVD player for $97 and undercut another vendor selling the same DVD player for $115.

In theory, customers would rush to the vendor selling American DVD players. BUT, there is only one DVD manufacturer in the U.S. (Ayre Acoustics) and we don’t know how many parts of their product are imported.  The transition could take years and consumers will pay more for many household goods during that time.

Some products can only be imported.  Most of the lumber used to build homes is imported from Canada.  This hidden tax will be added onto the prices of homes and remodels.  Most diamonds are imported and will bear this hidden tax.  Businesses will lobby to have their product excluded where there is no alternative to an import.  This will be a boon for lobbying firms.

Businesses, particularly durable goods manufacturers, anticipate a complexity in this new tax. Planes, cars, boats, sporting goods and appliances are made with parts from a variety of countries, including the United States. Assessing the component value of imports and exports may require a judgment call by the company, and that is subject to dispute with the IRS. This is sure to become a headache.

Should the BAT become law, customers who have benefitted from the lower prices of imported goods are sure to complain loudly at the higher prices. Retailers have opposed the scheme. Republicans are promising tax cuts for middle class households but the tax reduction won’t offset the extra cost of many household goods.

Republicans have long resisted tax increases in their effort to shrink the size of the government yoke on American families. Many have signed a pledge not to raise taxes. To avoid any appearance of raising taxes, Republican lawmakers had to hide the tax and this was the best they could do.

Side Note: Why not just add the extra $20 as an import tax, or duty? Import taxes are paid to the government by the importing company of record when the goods are received in the country. Even if an item sits in a warehouse as inventory, the import duty has been paid, creating a cash flow problem for companies. With both VAT and BAT taxes, the tax is not charged until the good or service is sold.


IRA Contributions

Did you put off making your IRA contribution for 2016? In May 2011, I compared several “timing” scenarios of investing in an IRA for the years 1993-2009.The choices were making a contribution on:
1) July 1st, the middle of the tax year;
2) January 31st following the tax year;
3) April 15th following the tax year

The 1st option had a 2.5% advantage over the 2nd option because of the longer time frame invested. An even greater advantage was an option not on this list. Contributing an equal amount every month produced a 4% greater gain over the first option.


Stand up or Sit Down

The Bureau of Labor Statistics published a study  of  the time workers spend standing/walking or sitting. The average worker spends 3/5th of their time standing or walking.


Education in the 21st Century

“Education technology is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…”

That’s just one quote from this TechCrunch article on the investments needed in K-12 and higher education. The author feels that the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education will break up a coalition of interests that has stymied the adoption of technology in classrooms.

Readers who do not support Ms. DeVos may still find themselves in agreement with the author’s comment that “in both K-12 and higher education, technology remains supplemental to chalk-and-talk practices as old as the hills, and not much more effective from a pedagogical standpoint.”

Those who are sympathetic to teacher’s unions will bristle at this comment: “In K-12, the most promising applications of technology have been found most consistently in private and charter schools — freed from the strictures of teachers unions.”

The author discusses a new “10/90” proposal to give higher education institutions some “skin in the game.” Under an Income Share Agreement (ISA), higher education schools would contribute 10% of the amount of every federal loan. After graduation, students would make loan payments based on a fixed percentage of their income for a fixed number of years, with a clear cap on the total amount paid. The schools would recap their money ONLY if students graduated and would thus be more invested in the future of their students.