The Bubble of Average

November 26, 2017

by Steve Stofka

December is the 10-year anniversary of the start of the recession that culminated in the Financial Crisis of 2008. Four years later, an investor finally broke even.

Since that breakeven point in early 2012, the total return of the SP500 has more than doubled.  The rising market and historically low volatility sparks predictions of a bubble and a crash. The Shiller CAPE ratio, an inflation adjusted measure of price-earnings, is not as high as the ratio of the dot-com boom but it is very high.  Stocks are expensive.

Let’s turn to some long-term returns for a different perspective. The 10-year annual return is only 8.13%, almost 2% less than the average for the past 90 years. The 20-year return is even worse – just 7%.

From July 2000 to August 2006 an investor made nothing. As a rule of thumb, savings needed in the next five years should not be invested in the stock market. Both downturns are good examples. The 2000-2006 downturn lasted six years. The 2007-2012 lasted more than four years.

Let’s turn to a 30-year period, 1988 to 2017. The period begins just after the October 1987 meltdown. All the froth has been taken out of the market. The 1990s included the historic run up of the dot-com boom. The 30-year return is above average but not by much – .6%.

The most disturbing truth about these averages is the average or below average returns of these periods.  Investor surveys regularly show that people disregard averages and overestimate future returns.  That fantasy is the true bubble.


Corporate Taxes

Next week the Senate will attempt to pass a tax cut bill. As I noted last week, both the Senate and House bills cut the corporate income tax to 20%. The administration and Republican lawmakers state that this tax cut will help working families the most. They must be too busy to read the analysis of their own Treasury department.

The Department periodically analyzes the distribution of the tax burden on various types of taxpayers. In their latest analysis, they estimate that labor income bears only 19% of the costs of corporate income taxes. Steve Mnuchin, the head of the department, claims that workers bear 2/3rds of the cost of the corporate tax. He uses this fantasy number to support a corporate tax cut.

Who will benefit most from a cut in the corporate income tax? The report states “the top 10 percent of families bears 72.5 percent of the burden” and will be the winners.

Over the decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations, the cost burden of labor has changed only slightly. Economists might argue the finer points, but the distribution is well understood. Mnuchin’s job is to sell the boss’s tax cuts. Facts be damned and full steam ahead.

Rocky Tax Road

November 19, 2017

The House passed a tax cut bill this week as the Senate Finance Committee passed a separate version that must still go to the full Senate for a vote. There’s a hard road ahead for this bill to reach the President’s desk.

The Process…

The full Senate will take up the bill after Thanksgiving. If the Senate passes the bill, there are still more steps. Bills submitted by Congress must have identical language from both the House and Senate.

The House passed its tax bill first, so the Senate could adopt the House version and approve it. Highly unlikely. If the Senate passes a bill, both bills will likely go to a House-Senate conference committee to resolve differences in the two bills and produce a unified bill. The Republicans will hold a majority on that committee and do not need Democratic votes.

If the committee can produce a unified bill, it will be sent to the House and Senate for a vote. If either body rejects the bill, it can be sent back to the joint committee, but that rarely happens. The bill would be effectively dead.

Republican leaders regard passage of the bill as critical to the 2018 Senate races. After the Republican majority failed to pass a health care bill earlier this year, big dollar donors have advised party leaders that they are closing their wallets if the party cannot pass a tax bill. Fundraising for the 2018 campaigns kicks off in a month.

The Provisions…for business

Both bills cut the corporate income tax to 20%. Both bills will tax pass-through and passive income at 25% or 32%.

Pass-through income consists of profits earned by businesses that flow to the business owner as personal income. Half of all pass-through income goes to the top 1% of incomes.

Passive income can be the profits from rental property, or dividends paid by an REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust). Under current law, such income is taxed at personal rates as high as 40%.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson opposes the bill as it came out of the Finance Committee. The bill gives an estimated $1.3 trillion in tax cuts to corporations, more than three times the $362 billion in tax cuts to taxpayers with pass-through income. Each sector currently pays half of the taxes on business profits. Small businesses and farmers get 25 cents of the tax cut dollar, while big corporations get 75 cents.

With only a two-person majority, Senate Republicans cannot afford to lose more than two votes and pass this bill. Susan Collins from Maine, a state dominated by small businesses, has echoed Johnson’s objections. Rand Paul from Kentucky says he will not vote for a bill that increases the deficit, which this bill does. Unless there are some key changes made to the Senate bill during the Thanksgiving break, the bill is unlikely to pass.

Both bills keep the 1031 exchange clause which allows real estate owners to avoid capital gains taxes on the sale of a property when they reinvest the gains in a similar class property. Owners of equities do not enjoy this tax subsidy. An investor who sells a stock, mutual fund, or ETF must pay any capital gains even if the investor buys another equity with the gains.

The Provision…for individuals

The House bill promises to save a median income family $1182 in taxes. Not about $1200. $1182. The precision of that number indicates that it is more a selling tool than a reality. The Senate version will likely tout something similar.

Half of taxpayers will notice little change in either bill because they pay almost no income taxes. Both bills retain the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Lower income taxpayers will see no relief from the bite of FICA taxes.

The standard deduction is doubled but personal exemptions are eliminated and the child tax credit is increased by $600 per child but only for five years. Have you got that? Paul Ryan, the House Majority Leader, assured us that the tax bill would be simpler. Sound simple to you?

The Senate bill includes a repeal of Obamacare penalties for not having health insurance. Oddly enough, this saves the government $332 billion over ten years. Wait, how does that happen? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that many younger people who would be eligible for subsidies under Obamacare will simply forgo insurance if the penalty is eliminated. Republican leaders get two birds with one tax stone. Senators can register their disapproval of the most hated part of Obamacare and the savings enable the Senate bill to meet the deficit requirements under reconciliation rules.  These rules allow the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority.

As I noted two weeks ago, both bills eliminate or reduce the current deduction for state and local taxes (SALT). High tax states like California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts have no Republican Senators. If Republican leaders lose the votes of Johnson, Collins and Paul, they would have to reinstate a full SALT deduction to have any hope of gaining one or two Democratic votes.

The Senate eliminates the SALT deduction entirely and uses the tax money to continue the deductions for medical expenses, student loans, mortgage interest and charitable donations. The House bill eliminated these deductions but allowed some SALT deduction in order to appease Republican House members from high tax states.

The House bill simplifies the tax brackets from the current seven to four. The Senate version has seven brackets.

The Conclusion…

Imagine a rough dirt road after a lot of rain. The tax bill has just turned off the paved highway and onto the dirt road. Expect a lot of muttered cursing, pushing and digging to move a tax bill to its final destination, the desk of President Trump.


Phillips Curve

November 12, 2017

For the past 16 decades, there has been a least one recession per decade. Given that this bull market is eight years old without a recession, some investors may be concerned that their portfolio mix is a bit on the risky side. Here’s something that can help investors map the road ahead.

For several decades, the Federal Reserve has used the Phillips Curve to help guide monetary policy. The curve is an inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment. Picture a see saw. When unemployment is low, demand for labor and inflation are high. When unemployment is high, demand for labor and inflation are low (See wonky notes at end).

The monetary economist Milton Friedman said the relationship of the Phillips curve was weak, and economists continue to debate the validity of the curve. As we’ll see, the curve is valid until it’s not. The breakdown of the relationship between employment and inflation signals the onset of a recession.

Let’s compare the annual change in employment, the inverse of unemployment, and inflation. We should see these two series move in lockstep. As these series diverge, the onset of a recession draws near.

In a divergence, one series goes up while one series goes down.  The difference, or spread, between the two grows larger. Spread is a term usually associated with interest rates, so I’ll call this difference the GAP.

In the chart below, I have marked fully developed divergences with an arrow marked “PC”. Each is a recession. I’ll show both series first, so you can see the divergences develop. I’ll show a graph of the GAP at the end.


As you can see to the right of the graph, no divergences have formed since the financial crisis.

Shown in the chart below are the beginnings of divergences, marked with an orange square. I’ve also included a few convergences, when the series move toward each other. These usually precede a drop in the stock market but no recession.


Here’s a graph of the difference, or GAP, between the two series in the last 11 years.


Fundamental economic indicators like this one can help an investor avoid longer term meltdowns. Can investors avoid all the bear markets? No. Financial, not economic, causes lay behind the sharp downturns of the 1987 October meltdown and 1998 Asian financial crisis.

What about the 2008 financial crisis? A year earlier, in October 2007, this indicator had already signaled trouble ahead based on the high and steadily growing GAP.

What about the dot com crash? In February 2001, several months after the market’s height, the growing GAP warned of a rocky road ahead. A recession began a month later. The downturn in the market would last another two years.

Readers who want to check on this indicator themselves can follow this link.


Wonky Stuff

In Econ101, students become familiar with a graph of this curve. Readers who want to dive deeper can see this article from Dr. Econ at the Federal Reserve. There is also a Khan Academy video .

Numbers and Feelings

November 5, 2017

How do numbers feel to us? Numbers are hard like rocks. Feelings are squishy. Numbers are left-brained. Feelings are right-brained. Deep in the vaults of our brains, tiny elves translate one into another. Here’s an example.

This past week, House Republicans released an initial proposal of tax reform. A feature of the plan is the limitation of state and local tax deductions (SALT) to $10,000. Under current tax law, taxpayers have been able to deduct state and local taxes without limit.

This will hurt taxpayers in high-tax blue states which are overwhelmingly Democratic. Wisconsin, a purple state, is the lone exception among the top ten states (Forbes ranking of state tax burden).

Expecting no votes from Democrats in passing a tax reform/cut bill, Republicans included few provisions in the bill that would pacify voters in Blue Democratic states. Republican congresspersons in those states are faced with a dilemma. One Republican congressperson in New Jersey, one of the top high tax states, claimed that the average SALT deduction in his district was $21,000, more than double the allowance in the tax reform proposal.

Knowing that the SALT limitation will hurt their constituents, do Republican House members vote with their party or in the interests of their constituents? Numbers can make politicians anxious.

For some taxpayers in those states, the feeling is anger. “I don’t want to pay taxes on my taxes,” one New Jersey resident growled.

That same N.J. congressperson claimed that incomes less than $200,000 were middle-class. According to this calculator based on the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, an income of $200K is in the 97th percentile of all incomes. Less than 3% of households have incomes greater than $200K. Hardly middle-class.

What is middle class? Some studies use the 25th – 75th percentile. Some use the 30th – 80th percentile. Using the latter definition, 2016 incomes from $24,000 to $75,000 were considered middle-class. These classifications use national data. Many coastal states have far higher incomes and living costs.

People living in some east and west coastal states feel middle class even though the income numbers do not classify them as such. Take for example, a household in Silicon Valley, where the median household income is almost $100K,  $40K more than the national median. They are rich, right?

Not so fast. The median price of a home in Santa Clara County (San Jose) is almost $1.2 million (See here ). Spending $40,000 annually for housing on an income of $95,000 feels middle class. The percentage of housing cost to income, 42%, is far higher than the 30% HUD guideline, and is more typical of poor working-class families.

Californians have counties with the highest incomes in the U.S. – and some of the poorest. The state has a median household income that is 12% higher than the national average.


But that’s not how it feels. That extra income is eaten up by higher housing costs, high car insurance premiums, and higher taxes at all levels. California sends about 12% more taxes to Washington than it gets back in various national programs. The additional federal taxes paid by higher income coastal states helps pay for benefits to those in lower income states, particularly those in southern states. Blue states subsidize Red states.

The Red states control the national agenda in Washington. The Republican tax proposal in its current form takes tax pebbles from the Red scale and puts them on the Blue scale. That feels spiteful.  Voters in those Blue states feel angry.

Interest groups around the country feel angry. The National Association of Home Builders claims that the SALT limit will lower home valuations, particularly in coastal states. They have promised a considerable effort and expense to defeat this version of the tax proposal.

When I recalculated my family’s 2016 taxes using the new proposal, we saved $752, a bit less than the $1200 average savings for a family of four. The monthly tax savings – the numbers – are relatively small. I feel neither angry or joyful. Those of us who are little affected by the proposal are unlikely to raise our voices in protest or support.

Angry people act. They call, they shout, they organize.

Joyful people – the CEOs of large corporations who will benefit greatly from this proposal – are not shouting. They calmly make claims that lower taxes will create more jobs, although the evidence is rather weak. They are organizing. They are calling talk shows. But most of all they are donating.

Political donations can speak more loudly than the shouts of angry people. In the political game of Rock, Scissors, Paper, cash covers a rock thrown in anger. Angry people must take up the more precise and patient tool of the scissors if they hope to best cash in a contest.

Lastly, this tax proposal further divides earners into groups. Income earners above the median will learn that this $1 is not the same as that $1 to the taxman.  According to an analysis done for the Wall St. Journal,
The $1 earned in wages and salary will be taxed more than
The $1 earned by the small manufacturer, which will be taxed more than
The $1 earned by the real estate investor, which will be taxed more than
The $1 earned by a stock or bond investor, which will be taxed more than
The $1 paid to an inheritor, who will pay $0.

Republicans criticize the identity politics practiced by Democrats. With this tax proposal, Republicans have stamped identities on the very $$$$ we earn. Those numbers don’t feel good.