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.

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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.

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