Debt and Housing

March 18, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Republicans used to care about yearly budget deficits when Obama was President. Since Obama left office, the budget deficit is up 20%. As a percentage of GDP, 2017’s deficit was above the forty-year average of deficits (Treasury Dept press release).  At the end of the Obama term, the gross federal debt was 77% of GDP. In ten years, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that percentage will be over 90%. (Spreadsheet ) That estimate does not include the lower revenues from the tax cuts passed in December.

During the two Bush terms, Republican deficit hawks, genuinely concerned about budget deficits, were overruled by a majority of Republicans who paid only political lip service to common sense budgeting.

The Federal Government’s fiscal year runs from October to September. At the end of February, the fiscal year was five months old. According to the Treasury’s monthly budget statement, this fiscal year’s deficit has gone up 10%. Because of the tax cut passed in December, payroll tax collections are down. Because of higher interest rates, the government paid an extra $40 billion on the federal debt in the first five months of this fiscal year, which began October 2017. $40 billion is half of the food stamp program. Debt matters. The government is going into more debt to pay the interest on the existing debt.

The government paid $550 billion in interest last year and is estimated to pay over $600 billion this year. That is just a $100 billion less than the defense budget. Because interest rates are historically low, the interest as a percent of GDP is low. We cannot expect that they will remain low.


Interest rates were low in the 1950s. By 1970, they were over 7% and had climbed to 14% by 1980. Since the financial crisis ten years ago, central banks in China, Europe and the U.S. have been buying government debt. Central banks don’t demand higher interest. As their role diminishes, price-sensitive buyers like pension funds and households will demand higher interest rates (Bloomberg article). Recent Treasury debt auctions have been lightly subscribed, and the Fed is having to step in as a buyer to artificially make a market. Remember, the Fed is just another pants pocket of the Federal Government. In essence, the Federal Government is buying its own debt.   What can’t continue forever, won’t.



Have you gotten the impression that the housing market is going gangbusters? As a percent of GDP, housing investment is double what it was at the lows of the recession. The bad news is that current levels are near the historic lows of the post WW2 economy.


On the other hand, housing affordability has hit all time lows. A prudent rule of thumb is that a person or family should not spend more than 25% of their income on housing. A corollary of that rule is that a household should not buy a home that is more than 4 times their annual income. At 5.2, the current ratio is far above a prudent rule of thumb.


Government debt levels make the government, and us, vulnerable to any loss of confidence.  Low housing investment makes the economy less resilient.  High housing costs make it more difficult for families to save.  In a downturn, more families must turn to government for benefits.  Saddled with high debt levels and interest payments, government is less able and willing to extend benefits. The cycle turns vicious.


Spring Cleanup

March 11, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Today time springs forward. Tufts of grass turned green, and some trees are beginning to bud. It was still light after 6 P.M. even before the time change. Great flocks of cranes fly north. In the springtime evening we can hear the siren call of the booby headed tax deadline.  2017 IRA contributions are due by April 15th.

This is a good time to check our game plans. Are we saving enough? In the accumulation, or pre-retirement, phase, 10% or more of our income is a good savings goal. 5% is an absolute minimum. Savings should be used to pay down any debt that has an interest rate more than 5%. High interest rate loans are a weight we must drag around with us. Consider working part time for a while and using that money to pay down high interest rate debt.

New car loans now average over $30K with an average maturity (length of payment period) of 67 months. The average interest rate is 4.21% but anyone with less than a FICO score of 690 is paying 5% or more. This article has breakdowns by credit score, lending institution, length of loan, and other factors.

Of the money we have saved – any annual portfolio realignments to be done? This is a good time to not only think about it but to do it.

In the distribution phase of a portfolio, we begin to withdraw funds from the portfolio that we have accumulated through a lifetime of saving.  Using Portfolio Visualizer, I’ve compared two portfolios with a 60/40 mix – 60% stocks, 40% bonds and cash.  These backtests include an annual rebalancing that may be more difficult for funds in a taxable account because buying and selling may generate taxable capital gains.

Let’s pretend a person retired in May of 1998 at the age of 68 and just died last year. During this twenty years, there were two times when the stock market fell 50%. The beginning year 1998 is near a high point in the stock market. The ending year 2017 was the 8th year of the current bull market. The test begins and ends at strong points in the market cycle, a key feature of a test like this.  Beginning a backtest with a trough in the market cycle and ending with a peak only distorts the results.


At the time of retirement, our retiree had a $1 million portfolio, although the amount could have been $100,000 or $10 million.


Although the stock allocation is the same for both portfolios, Portfolio 2 is totally simple. Put all the money in Vanguard’s Total Stock Market fund and forget about it. Portfolio 1 manually diversifies the 60% stock portion of the portfolio among four classes: Large capitalization, mid cap, small cap value stocks in the U.S., and European large cap stocks. Think of Goldilocks sitting down to a table with four bowls of soup – big, medium, small and European.  If that person retired today, a diverse stock portfolio would include an emerging markets index fund like Vanguard’s VEIEX.  In 1998,  emerging markets were not part of a core portfolio as they are today.  For this test, I left out emerging markets.

The bond portion of the portfolio is an index fund of the total bond market. Both portfolios hold 10% in cash for emergencies and living expenses.


A portfolio is like snow in the Rocky Mountains that melts and flows toward the Pacific Ocean. Will the water make it to the ocean? Each year this retiree withdrew 4% of their portfolio balance for expenses. That percentage is considered safe during most twenty-year retirement periods. Note that some advisors are using a thirty-year retirement period to test a portfolio mix. As the years go by and the purchasing power of a $1 erodes, will 4% be enough to meet a retiree’s income needs? The more diverse portfolio allowed the retiree to withdraw a larger amount every year, and the annual withdrawal did keep up with inflation.  Secondly, the ending balance was about the same as the beginning balance after adjusting for inflation.



The more diverse Portfolio 1 (marked complex in graphic below) has a better return over this twenty-year period. See the Internal Rate of Return (IRR) column, which adjusts for the withdrawal amounts each year.

The drawdown, or greatest decline in value, in the time series is a critical test of a portfolio mix. The retiree needs that portfolio to generate a certain amount of income every year. If the portfolio falls to zero, the income stream has dried up. In the chart below, look at the dip in the portfolio value during the 2008 Financial Crisis. The more diverse Portfolio 1 (blue line) dipped below the starting $1 million figure, but not by much. The investor who was 100% invested in the stock market, the 500 Index portfolio (yellow line), fared the worst during most of the twenty-year period.  In a sign that the bull market has matured, the 500 Index has overtaken the simple 60/40 mix (red line) and is about to overtake the diversified 60/40 mix (blue line).

The diverse portfolio is not complex. There are no gold or commodity assets, no energy or natural resource funds, and no real estate REITs to manage.  If emerging markets were added to the Goldilocks mix, there would now be five equal bowls of soup, each of them taking 12% of the portfolio. This portfolio would have earned 4/10% better each year.


We could add a Pacific stock index like Vanguard’s VPACX to the mix, but when do we stop adding indexes? In this time period, that index had a slight negative effect on returns. As the number of indexes grow, we are less likely to adjust our allocation.

Our portfolios can get cluttered and too complicated to be effective and easily managed.  Can we simplify?  It’s worth a look see. In taxable accounts, de-cluttering and re-balancing can generate taxable capital gains, so it might not be advisable to make any changes.

Labor Languishes

March 4, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Next week, the White House intends to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. China subsidizes their core building industries. When global demand for China’s products wanes and inventories build, Chinese industries can sell at reduced costs, a practice known as “dumping.” Although the Commerce Dept. has warned China about dumping, the lower prices do benefit a range of U.S. industries but hurt U.S. steel manufacturers, who have endured both lower demand and unfair pricing competition from China.

Following the announcement, the Dow fell back 3%, wiping out Thursday morning’s gains. The prospect of tariff wars sent global stocks down later that night and the following morning. China’s stock index fell 6.5% for the week and Japan was down more than 4%. On Friday, the U.S. market experienced wide swings but settled nearly flat for the day and down 3% for the week.  Opinions vary on the long term consequences.

Let’s turn to a trend that has developed since China was admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. A year ago two BLS economists presented a historical estimate of labor’s share of yearly GDP since World War 2. If GDP is $100, how much went to the people who produced that output?

The authors describe it: “The labor share is the percentage of economic output that accrues to workers in the form of compensation. It is calculated by dividing the compensation earned during a certain period by the economic output produced over the same period.” The paper is intended for an academic audience, but I will extract some disturbing highlights. First of all, the graph.


Note the sharp decline after China was admitted into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. Some economists have concluded that half of the decline can be attributed to the mobility of computerized capital. Firms can produce a $100 of output with less labor and more of this mobile capital.

Labor in the U.S. is gradually being converted into capital. A business owner may be able to cut his labor costs by buying a machine. A rule of thumb in some industries is a two-year payback period for an investment of this type. Let’s say an owner can save $50,000 per year in labor costs with a machine. Using the two-year rule of thumb, they would not want to pay more than $100K for that machine.

During the past two decades, Asian factories have greatly improved their manufacture of such production machinery and the lower labor costs in Asian makes the machines cheaper. Quality up, costs down. It makes economic sense for more American business owners to replace some of their workers with machines. Before replacement: $100 output by the firm took $65 of labor and $20 of capital and included a profit of $15. After buying the machine, the figures might look like this initially: $100 of output by the firm costs $60 of labor, $25 capital, $15 profit. The $5 that used to go to an American worker now goes to a company in Japan and a bank in America that financed the purchase of the machine.

That laid off American worker bought stuff in their local community. Their sales and property taxes supported the services provided by the community. Although the machine may need maintenance and repairs, it doesn’t spend money regularly in the community, nor require community services like schools, police and medical care.

Donald Trump was elected President based on his claim that his administration would reverse this two decade trend.  The tariffs announced this week will have a small beneficial effect on workers in those industries because steel and aluminum manufacturing have become much more automated in the past twenty years.  The aluminum tariff will add about 1 penny to the cost of a can of beer. The tariffs are a symbolic nod to a campaign pledge that Trump made to those in the rust belt.

I applaud Trump for remembering his campaign pledges.  Professional politicians have long understood that campaign pledges are rhetoric that must fall to conflicting political alliances. Six months after taking office, most pledges have been broken or quietly slipped to the rear of an administration’s porfolio.  Trump has not forgotten the voters who put him in office, but he does have trouble maintaining a consistent stance on gun policy or immigration.  Keep those seat belts buckled.