Healthcare Quicksand

July 2, 2017

Last week I looked at the ten year anniversary of the iPhone. This week I’ll take a brief holiday look at a five year anniversary.

In June 2012 the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of Obamacare. As expected, the vote was a close 5-4 decision. Many Republicans expected the five conservative justices to overturn the ACA on the grounds that the Federal government could not force people to buy insurance. John Roberts, the head justice on the court, sided with fellow conservative justices on this position at first, but the arguments of the liberal justices convinced Roberts that, regardless of the language in the ACA, the penalty for not having health insurance was a tax no matter what it was called. Roberts’ vote was the deciding vote in upholding the constitutionality of the act.

This interpretation was not without precedent. In 1937, the cout ruled that the Federal government could force people to pay Social Security insurance premiums. The reasoning was the same. Payments could be called an insurance premium or a penalty or an incentive. No matter the language that legislators used, the payments were a tax and well within the rights of the Federal government.

In 2012, Republicans released a position paper on healthcare legislation. The key features were: Affordable and accessible, no refusal of insurance based on pre-existing conditions, and allow people to keep the plan they have. Five years later, Republicans hold the Presidency, House and Senate, and are discovering the difficulties of implementing those simply stated principles.

Health care is almost 20% of the nation’s economy. There are many stakeholders. They are vocal and well funded. Because Republicans do not have a 60 vote majority in the Senate, the legislation must conform to budget rules that will permit a simple majority vote. In 2009, the Democrats had a 60 seat majority when they began the process of crafting the ACA and found that they had to make a lot of compromises. When Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy died in August 2009 and Republican Scott Brown won the special election to replace Kennedy, the Democrats lost their filibuster proof majority and had to make more compromises to get the ACA passed.

For seven years Republicans in both the Senate and House have run quite successfully on repealing Obamacare. Strong and principled opposition to the ACA has become less fervent.  Senators must appeal to a broader constituency than House members.  Some were reluctant to vote for legislation that could jeopardize the availability of health care for vulnerable seniors, children and low income families.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had set a deadline for a Senate vote before legislators went to their home districts for the July 4th holiday but could not assemble the votes needed to pass the legislation. McConnell is still committed to the joint task of repeal and replace. He has rejected calls from some in his party to pass a repeal bill now and continue to work on replacement legislation.

There remain more legislative hurdles in the next few months but the most pressing is the raising of the debt limit.  The Treasury is already doing a few accounting tricks to pay bills but has notified Congress that even those tricks will no longer suffice by October.  For now, the market continues to shrug.

Last week I finished up with a teaser and I hope to have that fully developed by next week. For now, Happy Independence Day!

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.

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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.

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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.

CWPI201702

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

EmpNewOrders201702

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Housing

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.

HouseStartsPctWorkPop201702

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.

MultiFamPctWorkPop201702

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%.

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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.

Subprime

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.

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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.

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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.

BetterWayTaxForm.png
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.

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AHCA

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.

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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!

Inauguration 2017

January 22, 2017

Mr. Trump’s inauguration marks the first time in almost a hundred years that a business person assumes the highest political position in the country.  His cabinet choices share that same characteristic. There will be an inevitable clash of cultures.  Many civil servants are lifers, drawn to the generous benefits of government service, and the stability of employment.  Some may be drawn to the work because it gives them a sense of self-worth.

Many have little experience in private industry and distrust the motives of business owners.  Former President Obama was one of these.  An inspirational figure to some, his antipathy to business interests of all sizes antagonized political foes who challenged him for most of his two terms.

Mr. Trump has a similar weakness – his antipathy to and unfamiliarity with the insular culture of civil servants who work in a massive bureaucracy characterized by a thicket of rules and a lack of transparency.

Work in the private sector is characterized by competition, a striving for efficiency, the changing winds of people’s preferences, and the quality of the services and products we provide.  Employment in the public sector requires patience with burdensome procedure, a tolerance of a heirarchy of both the competent and the undeserving, and a willingness to work in a system that relies less on merit and more on seniority.

What will happen when these two diametrically opposed cultures mix?  Stay tuned.

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Obamacare Kaput?

Since FDR began the custom, Presidents have signed executive orders on their first day in office to signify that they are on the job for that portion of the American electorate that put them in office.  One of the highlights of Mr. Trump’s campaign was the repeal of Obamacare.  Shortly after his inauguration President Trump signed an order stating his intention to repeal the ACA.  The order freezes any further promulgation of rules and regulations pertaining to the act.   I thought it would be appropriate to republish a blog I wrote in April 2011, a year before the Supreme Court ruled that most of the ACA was constitutional.  Like Social Security, ACA premiums and penalties were a tax.

The problems of providing health care and the insuring of that care have not gone away: rising costs, more sophisticated and expensive therapies, more demand for care from an aging population.  The problem is a knotty one:  how to distribute health care costs.  We all benefit from the availability of medical resources, yet these resources are very expensive.  The 24 hour care and equipment that stays idle in an urban hospital must be paid for with funds from other parts of the health care system.

It might surprise readers that more than 50% of the $3.5 trillion in Federal outlays is for Social Security benefits ($930B), Medicare ($600B) and Medicaid and Community health programs ($500B).  Eighty years ago, FDR initiated a new role for the Federal Government: an economic support system. To do that, FDR had to threaten and cajole a Supreme Court reluctant to stretch the meanings of several clauses in the Constitution.

Even FDR would be appalled to learn that the Federal Government has become an insurance company whose chief function is the collection of insurance premiums through taxes in order to pay insurance claims in the form of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid Benefits.

Readers who would like to read more on a pie chart breakdown of government spending can visit the Kaiser Family Foundation’s fact sheet. Dollar amounts are from the latest White House budget.

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MM Bash

I’m about to bash criticize some of the reporting in mainstream media (MM) publications, whose budgets rely on viewership.  When that audience was more predictable, flagship publications like the NY Times, Washington Post and Wall St. Journal could wait to verify facts before running a story.  In the current 24 hours news cycle and the rush to print, fact checking sometimes comes after the story is published online – if at all.

MM channels rested on their decades old reputations for thorough journalism and were willing to cut off at the knees any reporter compromising that reputation.  More than a decade ago, Dan Rather lost his anchor job with CBS for running with a story about George Bush that had not been properly vetted. News (fact-checked) and opinion (not checked) were clearly defined when they were in separate sections of the newspaper. In this new age when most information is delivered digitally, we are quoting blogs or other opinions that are not fact checked as reputable news sources without verifying the information.

A lie travels around the world by the time the truth gets its boots on. Something like  that.  In today’s lightning fast world of information flow, an apocalyptic news item that can move markets can be tweeted, webbed, facebooked, and retweeted.  “China fires on U.S. destroyer in South China sea!”  “N. Korean missle hits Alaska!” Sell, sell, sell, buy, buy, buy signals can flash instantly to world markets.

Later, it’s no, China didn’t fire on a U.S. destroyer.  China said it would fire if fired on by a U.S. vessel in the S. China Sea.  No, the North Koreans didn’t actually fire a missle.  Instead they said that they had a missle that could fire a nuclear payload on Alaska.  They’ve been saying that for several years.  Most defense analysts remain skeptical.  Oops, nevermind stock and bond markets.

We can not prevent this, nor can we hide our savings under a mattress.  We can prepare by making sure that we have some emergency funds in place.  Most financial advisors recommend six months replacement income.  Only after those funds are in place should we consider that boat we want on Craigslist or the down payment on that house we want to flip.  Don’t just plan to have a plan.  Have a plan.

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Household Net Worth Ratio

The zero interest rates for the past eight years are not natural and have created distortions in business and residential investment as well as stock market valuations. Let’s look at the residential side of the picture.  Below is a sixty year chart of the percentage of household net worth to disposable income.

The majority of the net worth of households is in their home.  The value of stocks and bonds comes second.  One or both of the two factors in that ratio is mispriced.  Perhaps disposable income has not grown to match the growth in asset valuations.  When reality doesn’t match predictions for a time, assets reprice.

What affects the pricing of these assets? The stock market rises on the prospect of sales and profit growth.   Salaries and wages rise as businesses compete for workers in a faster growing marketplace.  Disposable income rises.  Home prices rise on the prospect that more workers can afford to buy a home.

Now, what happens when disposable incomes, the divisor or bottom number in this ratio, don’t rise as much as predicted?  Yep, the ratio goes up, just as it did in 1999-2000 and 2006-2008, the peaks in the graph.

Ten Year Review

January 15, 2016

10 Year Review

Before I begin a performance review, I’ll refer to an article  on the errors of comparing our real world portfolio returns to the optimized returns of a benchmark index.  An index stays fully invested, has no trading costs, taxes or fees.  An index has survivor bias; companies that go out of business or don’t meet the capitalization benchmark of the index are effortlessly replaced, so there is no risk.  Share buybacks benefit an index but not our portfolio.

The article contains some prudent and realistic recommendations: the importance of preserving our savings, a balance of risk and return that will meet our goals, AND our time frame.  As we review the performance of the following portfolio allocations, keep those caveats in mind.  If a model portfolio earned 8% per year, use that as a rough guideline only.

A 60/40 stock/bond portfolio returned an annual 6.3% over the past ten years with a maximum drawdown (MDD) of 30%.
A  50/50 mix returned 6% with an MDD of 25%.
A 40/60 mix returned 5.75% with a MDD of 20%.

A difference of 10% in allocation equalled a .3% in annual return, and a 5% change in MDD.  Let’s put that .3% difference in dollars and cents.  Over a ten year period, a $100,000 portfolio earning .3% extra return per year equalled about $43 extra per month, or about $1.40 per day.  Why is this important?  For whatever reason, some people worry more than others and may be willing to accept a lower return in order to sleep better at night.

Not all ten year periods will have the same response to various allocations.  The majority of ten year periods will include a recession, but this past ten years included the Great Recession. Let’s look at the historical effect of portfolio allocation during the past ten years.  In the chart below you can see the annual returns of various balanced allocation mixes shown in the left column.  At the end of 2009, the 10 year results show the results of two downturns: the 2001 – 2003 swoon and the 2007 – 2009 crash.

Note that the more aggressive 60/40 allocation has a lower return than the cautious 40/60 allocation during the years 2009-2011.  As we move forward in time, the effects of the 2001-2003 swoon diminish and, starting in 2012, the more aggressive allocation earns a better return.

Not shown in the chart are the results of a 100% allocation to stocks during the ten year period 2000-2009, the first column in the chart above.  A 40/60 allocation had a return of 3.8%.  A 100% allocation to large cap stocks had a LOSS OF 1% per year.

During the 10 year period 2007-2016, a 100% allocation to stocks returned 6.8% annually, a 1/2% higher return than the 60/40 mix, but the drawdown was 51%, far more than the 30% drawdown of the 60/40 portfolio.

High Winds or Hurricane?

A person who spends twenty years in retirement can count on at least two market downturns during that time.  Here’s how MDD, or drawdown, can affect a person’s portfolio.  I’ll present a more extreme example to illustrate the point.  Imagine an 80 year old retiree with a portfolio devoted 100% to stocks.  For several years, she had been withdrawing $40,000 from a portfolio that had a balance of $600,000 in the fall of 2007.  Projecting that her portfolio could earn a reasonable return of at least 7% per year, or $42,000, the balance looked secure.

But by March 2009, a period of only 18 months, the high winds had turned to a hurricane.  Her portfolio, her shelter in the storm, had lost 50% of its value, an MDD or drawdown of approximately $300,000.  During those 18 months, she had also withdrawn $60,000 for living expenses, leaving her with a balance of about $240,000 in the spring of 2009, the low point of the stock market.

Only 18 months earlier she had projected that she could maintain a minimum portfolio balance of $600,000. She had gnawed her nails raw as the market lost 20% by the summer of 2008, then sank in September when Lehman Bros. went bankrupt, then continued to lose value during the winter of 2008-09.  When would it end?

In March 2009, she had only 6 years of income left before her savings were gone.  Unable to stand the loss of any more value, she sold her stocks for $240,000 – at exactly the wrong time, as it turned out.  Her $240,000 earned little in a money market, forcing her to: 1) cut back the amount of money she withdrew from her portfolio to about $24,000 per year, and 2) hope she died before she ran out of money.

Of course, most advisors would NOT recommend that an 80 year old devote 100% of their savings to stocks.  BUT, some retirees might – and have – adopted a risky strategy to “whip” a portfolio to get more income or capital appreciation the way a jockey might do with a tired horse.  On the other hand, some 80 year olds with a very low tolerance for any kind of risk might have all of their savings in cash and CDs, a 0/100 allocation.

Now let’s imagine that our retiree had a cautious 40/60 balanced mix.  She would have had a drawdown of 20%, or $120,000, during the Great Recession.  After withdrawals for living expenses, she still had a balance of about $420,000 in March 2009. At a conservative estimate of a 5.5% annual return, she could have prudently drawn down her portfolio $25,000 – $30,000 for a year and waited. This is important for seniors: an allocation that allows some temporary flexibility in the withdrawal amount from a portfolio.

By the end of 2009, her portfolio had gained about 24%.  After living expenses of about $22,000 taken from the portfolio during the last 9 months of 2009, she had a balance of more than $500,000.  Her balanced allocation allowed her to wait longer for the market to recover.

In 2010, she could once again take her $40,000 living expense withdrawal and still have a $530,000 portfolio balance by the end of that year.  She has weathered the worst of the storm. At the end of 2016, she continued to take out $40,000 (adjusted upward for inflation) and still has a portfolio balance of $486,000.

Finally, her 40/60 allocation mix kept to a rule I have mentioned from time to time: the five year rule. If she wanted to take approximately $40,000 from the portfolio each year, she should have a minimum of 5 years, or $200,000 in bonds and cash – the “60” in the 40/60 allocation mix.  In the fall of 2007, she had $360,000 (60% of $600,000) in less erratic value investments.  This rule helped her withstand the storm winds of the Great Recession.

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Seniors at Risk

Although the number of loans to those 65+ are less than 7% of the total of student loans, a shocking 40% of these loans are in default.  Most of these loans were cosigned by seniors for their children or grandchildren. The law allows the Federal Government to garnish or lien Social Security and other federal payments to cure the loan defaults.  Readers with a WSJ subscription can read the article here or Google the topic.

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Hot Housing Markets

In a recent analysis, western cities rule Zillow’s top 10 housing markets for valuation increases.

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Take this job and shove it!

The latest JOLTS report from the Labor Dept. shows the highest quits rate in private industry since the housing boom in 2006. Employees confident of finding another job are more willing to voluntarily leave their job, and have driven the rate up to 2.4% from a low of 1.4% in the 2nd half of 2009.

Statista compiles data from around the world, including this revealing tidbit: 26% of jobs in the U.S. are unfilled after 60 days, the highest percentage in the developed world. Germany ranks 2nd at 20%, and our neighbor to the north, Canada, comes in at nearly 19%.

What lies behind this data is a mismatch.  Employers may be requiring skills that job applicants don’t have.  Job applicants may want more money or other benefits than employers are willing to pay.

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Obamacare Repeal

The Committe for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) – yep, it’s a mouthful – has projected costs to repeal Obamacare in whole and in part.  Using both conventional, or static, budget scoring and dynamic scoring (google it if you’re interested), they guesstimate a 10 year cost of $150 to $350 billion for full repeal of the ACA.

Repeal of ACA’s insurance coverage would actually save a lot of money, more than $1.5 trillion. The net effect is a cost, not a savings, because of the $2 trillion in tax revenue on higher incomes that is built into the ACA law.

CRFB analysts have put a lot of work into these projections, including a breakdown of repealing just parts of Obamacare or delaying repeal of certain ACA provisions.  Since the Republican Congress is likely to keep some provisions, readers who are interested might want to come back to this link in the coming weeks as the discussion of this issue unfolds.

Retail, Housing, The Fed And More

Last week I pointed to several contradictory outlooks for sales in the upcoming holiday season.  Bill McBride at Calculated Risk has several charts on the import and export volume at the port of Los Angeles.  The import data indicates that businesses were buying goods in late summer and the fall in anticipation of a good holiday season.  Both Home Depot and Best Buy reported better than expected earnings on Tuesday but Best Buy’s sales were less than expected.  The company cited increasing pressure from online retailers.  E-Commerce continues to take an ever increasing share of the retail sales market.

Amazon is now making more money selling other vendors’ products than it does its own.  Vendors typically turn over much of the sales, shipping and billing process to Amazon.  Businesses, including mine, are increasingly turning to Amazon for parts or supplies.  Why?  Amazon has become an easy to search portal for so many vendors and the prices are competitive.  Why spend time searching the web for long discontinued parts when Amazon has already done that?  What is even more surprising is the enormous volume of third party items that Amazon now stocks and, surprisingly, the items are received from Amazon, not the vendor.

On Wednesday, the monthly report of retail sales showed a .4% month on month gain, causing analysts at Morgan Stanley to reverse their earlier dour opinion of the coming holiday season.  The year over year gain is at 4% but retailers that target lower income consumers are experiencing some difficulties.  J.C. Penney reported sales and earnings that were disappointing.  After an earlier upbeat report from the home improvement chain Home Depot, Lowe’s reported strong sales and earnings, confirming the continuing strength in this sector.  Later in the week, Target issued a disappointing earnings report.  Will the ongoing decline in gas prices leave working class families with enough extra cash in their wallets this Christmas season?  Wal-Mart, Target and J. C. Penney hope so.

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[Revised to clarify the two separate housing indexes below]

 October’s housing market index reading of 54 from the National Assoc of Homebuilders indicated continuing strength in the new home market.  This index is a composite of factors, including sales, inventory, builder expectations and traffic.  The series, like the industrial reports, is indexed so that 50 is the neutral mark, indicating no net growth.  Although the overall index has declined from the summer peak, both sales and expectations are in the strong to robust growth.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency tracks an index of home prices (only).  Major markets on both the east and west coasts are still below the bubble peaks of 2005 – 2006.

From 1983 to 1999, the average house cost 13 to 15 years worth of rent.  This baseline is a good rule of thumb when pricing out houses.  In 2006, at the height of the housing bubble, houses were selling for 25 years worth of the average monthly rental.  Los Angeles experienced a much greater price inflation during the 2000s than either SF or NYC.  Although the nationwide economy is growing steadily but slowly, Los Angeles has responded to the strong growth in manufacturing throughout the country. Asking rents for industrial properties in L.A. are rocketing upward this year, accelerating from the strong three year growth and exceeding the price levels of 2007.

http://www.loopnet.com/xNet/MainSite/Tools/WidgetHTML.aspx?WidgetType=50&CountryCode=US&StateCode=CA&State=California&CityName=Los+Angeles&SiteID=1&TrendTypeID=2&PropertyTypeID=40&ListingType=LEASE&PropertyType=Industrial&TrendType=Asking%20Rent Available Office and Industrial property in the LA area is at multi-year lows.

http://www.loopnet.com/xNet/MainSite/Tools/WidgetHTML.aspx?WidgetType=50&CountryCode=US&StateCode=CA&State=California&CityName=Los+Angeles&SiteID=1&TrendTypeID=5&PropertyTypeID=80&ListingType=LEASE&PropertyType=Office&TrendType=No.%20of%20Spaces

Los Angeles, CA Market Trends

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http://www.loopnet.com/xNet/MainSite/Tools/WidgetHTML.aspx?WidgetType=50&CountryCode=US&StateCode=CA&State=California&CityName=Los+Angeles&SiteID=1&TrendTypeID=5&PropertyTypeID=40&ListingType=LEASE&PropertyType=Industrial&TrendType=No.%20of%20Spaces
The Consumer Price Index released Wednesday showed a tiny decrease in inflation for the month.  The year over year change was 1.7%, indicating that demand at many levels is positive but weak so that there is little pressure on prices.  On Thursday, the Producer Price Index (PPI) confirmed that the supply chain is experiencing very low upward pressure.

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The PMI Flash Index, a preview of the upcoming report on the manufacturing sector, confirmed the continuing growth in the manufacturing sector.

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The Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) by the BLS was released on Friday.  Unlike the timeliness of the monthly Employment report, this one lags by a month but does provide a more comprehensive analysis of the growth or decline in the labor market.  The BLS surveys employers at the end of the month, September in this case, for job openings and layoffs.  A job opening can be full time, part time, seasonal or temporary so the data can be skewed by seasonality factors.  The longer term trend, though, is apparent.

It may be several more years before job openings reach the level attained during the tech boom of the late ’90s.  Like the gold fever of the mid-19th century, investors poured money into a lot of ventures with little more than a napkin sized business plan.  This pattern of bubble and bust is fairly typical when game changing technologies emerge.  The spread of the telegraph and railroads led to horrific recessions in the late 19th century, culminating in the depression of 1893-94.  The rise of radio in the 1920s prompted speculative fever that contributed mightily to the crash of 1929, setting the stage for the bad monetary policy and haphazaard fiscal policies that fed the depression of the 1930s.  In the 1960s, a rush of investment in airlines and war funding helped fuel a frenzy of speculation that crashed in 1970.

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In Washington this week, the Senate voted to change the rules for Senate confirmation of most executive and judicial appointments, the so called “nuclear option” that requires only a majority vote for confirmation.  This modification of the filibuster rule should have been done ten years ago when then Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle led filibusters to block many of George Bush’s appointments.  Since then, the Senate has grown ever more dysfunctional, incapable of even ordering pizza.  Under the elitist filibuster rules, each Senator could act like a despot or one of the “Knights who say ‘Nee’!” in the comic movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”  A Senator representing 300,000 people in Wyoming could nix or delay an executive appointment – this in a country of over 300 million. Sounds a bit like England in the 1770s. A lot of people died in the Revolutionary War so that America would not be a country ruled by a despot, be it a king or a Senator.

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The rule change makes the confirmation of Janet Yellen as the next chair of the Federal Reserve a near certainty. In a speech at the Cato Institute’s Annual Monetary Conference, Charles Plosser, President of the Philadelphia branch of the Federal Reserve, made a good case for some restraint by the Federal Reserve – not in the amount of debt the Fed purchases but the type of debt:

“[The Federal Reserve’s] purchase [of] specific (non-Treasury) assets amounted to a form of credit allocation, which targets specific industries, sectors, or firms. These credit policies cross the boundary from monetary policy and venture into the realm of fiscal policy.”

Mr. Plosser would rather see politicians, not central bankers, decide which industries to favor through bailouts or loan purchases.  In a democratic republic like ours, if the politicians in Washington want to bailout banks or the housing sector, they can do so by issuing general debt obligations, Treasuries, which the Federal Reserve can buy.  Gridlock in Washington has prevented them from reaching any consensus about these policies, leaving it up to the Federal Reserve to act in their place, to make political decisions which compromises the neutral stance that a central bank should have.

Now, we might say that the result is the same so what’s the big deal?  Knowing that Fed chairman Ben Bernanke would come to the rescue has allowed politicians to not make difficult compromises.  Why should they?   If Congress does less, the Fed does more.  Because it can be so difficult to enact their agenda through the political process, Presidents and political parties turn to the Fed as the fourth branch of government.

Plosser also questions the dual target of both inflation and unemployment that the Fed has assumed as its mandate.  The law states that the Fed should enact monetary policy that is “commensurate” with the “long run potential to increase production.”  Since the recession began in 2008, the Fed has adopted a series of “QE” short term measures designed to decrease unemployment and Plosser’s view is that these are not part of the job description.  Plosser will be a voting member in 2014.  His vote of restraint is unlikely to hold much sway with Janet Yellen, who is ready to keep the cornucopia money machine flowing.

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In the Wall St. Journal’s Washwire Blog, Elizabeth Williamson writes that the White House is conducting a self-assessment in the wake of the health-law launch, “recognizing that administration officials missed warning signs and put too much trust in their management practices.”   What on earth has given this administration any reason to trust their management practices?  Was it their management of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012?  Or perhaps the “red line” that President Obama drew with Syria, promising a military response if Syria used chemical weapons against its own people?  Or the terribly mismanaged mortgage relief program, HAMP, that former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner put in place?

This is only a partial list of the persistently poor management practices that have marked this administration.  It began with the poor preparation in advance of the March 2009 meeting with the nation’s largest banks, leading Obama and Geithner to offer generous terms to the banks when the banks would have accepted any terms in order to stay alive.  The crafting of the stimulus bill was an example of indecisive leadership and management at one of those rare times in history when both houses of Congress were controlled by the President’s party.  Using a basketball analogy, the administration blew a layup.

Now comes the news that the Obama administration wants to exempt some union health care plans from a “reinsurance tax” – about $63 per person per year – that all plans under the ACA health care law pay.  How will they do this?  By a carefully worded exemption that applies only to self-administered health plans.  A little background.  Many big companies self-insure and hire an administrator like Blue Cross to take care of the details.  Under the Taft-Hartley act passed after World War 2, employers often in the same industry may collectively construct or join what is essentially a health insurance trust, offering their employees insurance through the trust.  These plans are called “Taft-Hartley Multi-employer Health and Welfare Plans” and are really a benefit in the construction trade because they enable smaller employers to offer employees – usually these are unionized employees – a health plan at more affordable rates, taking advantage of the larger pool of insured offered by the trust.  It also enables employees to move from one company to another and retain their health insurance.  The plans are defined as self-administered even though the trust may contract out the details of daily management to a third party.   So here is a plan that fills a need and offers a benefit to both employers and employees.  Labor unions, like everyone else, want special treatment, of course, so they have been lobbying for an exemption from this rather small tax.  In September the Huffington Post reported that the unions were having little success in lobbying for another exemption – the ability of these plans to qualify for subsidies as though they were individual health care plans.

With a history of spineless leadership from an Obama administration that can’t say no but can’t say yes either, unions will continue to press for special treatment.  Finally, even they may get disgusted with an administration that can’t take a stand.

Like the Durango-Silverton narrow gauge train, the stock market chugs up the hill.  Production, sales and employment reports are either strong or not too bad or neutral but not bad.  Short, mid and long term volatility measures are subdued.  Gold has been drifting steadily down, nearing the lows of July.  Of course, some say that the time to get worried is when no one is worried.

The biggest worry for many in the coming week may be a dry turkey, or a heated discussion about politics.  Do pass the sweet potatoes if asked even if that so-and-so relative of yours is dumber than the potato.  Happy Turkey Day!

Trends and Bubbles

November 17, 2013

This week the department store Macy’s reported sales growth that was above forecast.  Same store sales rose 3.5%, about 50% better growth than expected.  Macy’s attracts a higher income customer than Target, J.C. Penney or Wal-Mart.  On Thursday, Wal-Mart announced that their sales had declined for a third quarter in a row.  The holiday season depends on lower and middle working class folks, the kind who shop at Wal-Mart, to open their pockets.  Investment firm Morgan Stanley expects this retail season to be the worst since 2008 when the country was deep in recession. (Source)
What can we learn from a bird’s eye view of the growth in consumer credit?  At 5.6% year over year, it is stable.

Note the response time lag in this series.  The growth in consumer credit did not decline below 5% till months after the recession started.  Despite the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the beginning of 2008, this net job loss represented less than 1% of the work force in mid-2008.  The job loss would mount into the millions but jobs are “sticky,” meaning that a downturn in the economy has a minor effect on most people most of the time.  After the fact, it is easy for us to point at some chart, arch our eyebrows in a knowing glance, and say “We can see the breakdown of the economy beginning here.”

On a long term chart, we can see a reduction in growth swings over the past thirty years.  Relatively flat income growth for a majority of workers has dampened the swings.  While good for household balance sheets, it means that we can expect less economic volatility but also muted growth for the next decade.

Expectations for the holiday season are not reflected in the price of retail stocks.  A basket of retail companies has grown about 40% this year and is up about 70% over two years.  It may be time to take a bit off the table in this sector.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was created a few years ago to act as a watchdog over the credit practices of the largest banks.  On Tuesday, Richard Cordray, Director of the agency appeared before a Senate committee.  He confirmed that the agency collects a lot of anonymized data on 900 million credit card accounts each month as part of its supervisory role.  Questions should be raised whenever any government agency collects data on us.  How is the data protected?  Who has access to the data?  What about my privacy?

Mr. Cordray noted that several other agencies as well as private industry collect this data.  Because the data is anonymized, we are little more than a number to  the agency, but there are several concerns.  Federal agencies have a great deal of legal power, enabling them to get a warrant to access  the data on anyone.  Cordray repeatedly assured the committee that no one at the agency is interested in our personal data but left off one adverb – “now.”  In the aftermath of 9-11, anti-war protestors found themselves turned away at airports or flagged for additional screening.  How did federal agencies know the travel plans of many protestors?  It does not take a team of FBI agents to trace the activities of any citizen when several federal agencies have our monthly financial activity at their fingertips.  Secondly, there is the matter of security.  How many parties does our data go through on its way to the agency?  Where and at what stage in the process of data aggregation is the anonymizing done?  Is our personal credit card info transmitted first to a separate third party anonymizer before being transmitted to the various agencies?  Is the raw data being transmitted to an agency which then anonymizes the data using a third party program or process?  In any case, it was clear that our monthly card transactions are making the rounds in both private industry and various government agencies.

The stock market continues to rise, prompting talk of a bubble.  If you have access, try to read “Is This A Bubble” by Joe Light in this weekend’s edition of the Wall St. Journal.   It is both informative and measured in its assessment.

 In February 2012, I mentioned the Golden Cross which had occurred in late January.  This long term indicator of market sentiment is a crossing of the 50 day moving average of stock market prices above the 200 day average.

Since then the market has risen about 40%.  Man, if I had only taken my own advice and moved all my investments and money into the stock market!  As the market continues to rise, more and more investors catch the “if only” disease and start moving money from safer investments into stocks.  This is why many of us tend to buy high and sell low.  Instead we should stay with the fundamentals of diversify, diversify, and lastly – diversify.  A long term indicator like the Golden Cross is not a signal to dump all of our savings into stocks – unless we are in our 30s and have lots of time before we need the money.  A more sensible approach is to adjust allocation upwards towards stocks and this depends on a person’s age, needs, and fears.  If a person has a 50% stock allocation, with the remaining 50% in bonds and cash (I’ll leave alternate investments out for right now), that indicates a moderate tolerance for risk.  They might shift the allocation to 55% stocks or 60% when they see a Golden Cross.   A person who has a 70% allocation to stocks, indicating a high tolerance for risk, might start adjusting to an 85% to 90% allocation.  Using this more moderate approach, a person would have lightened up their stock allocation in December 2007 when a reverse Golden Cross happened.

So what if someone has been very scared of the stock market and has only 10% of their savings in stocks?  Should they move some money into the market now?  That depends.  If the thought of making even a slight change leads a person to lose sleep, then no.  Should someone change their allocation of stocks from 10% to 50% now?  That is a major allocation change and should be done using dollar cost averaging.  This is a process where one takes money from one investment basket every month and puts it in another investment basket. There is also a psychological advantage to this approach.  As a person’s allocation percentage becomes a bit riskier, they can adjust to the additional risk in a measured way.

Tolerance for risk is a composite of several components:  psychological or emotional, future liquidity needs, age, and assets as well as income sources.  Too often, people think of tolerance for risk as an emotional response only.  While it is true that our emotions can cloud our measured response to risk, it is important to keep in mind that it is only one of the components.

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In answer to calls from his own party members, President Obama announced an administrative change to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that allows those with policies in the individual health care market to retain their policies even if the policies don’t meet the minimum standards of the ACA.  Politicians, pronouncements and podiums – stir them together and voila!  The President’s pronouncement was little more than political cover at this late stage in the transition to Obamacare.  Only if the states allow it and companies decide to offer the plans will an individual policy holder be able to “keep their plan,”  as the President promised on numerous occasions in the past few years.

On Friday, the Energy and Commerce Committee released emails subpoenaed from CMS, the agency that administers Medicare and the ACA.   The emails contradict previous testimony by both CMS head administrator Marilyn Tavenner and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius that only routine problems with the healthcare.gov web site were anticipated before the launch of the web site.  Ms. Tavenner testified that there were enough problems that they decided to delay the implementation of the small business plans on the web site but it appears that the problems went much further and top officials were alerted.

Henry Chao, the deputy CIO at CMS, was made aware of many major security, transactional and design problems with the web site during the summer but decided – or was pressured to decide – that the site would go live on October 1st regardless.  President Obama’s repeated selling point has been what he calls “smart” government. The rollout of the federal health care website has  revealed – once again – that the government in Washington has become too big and too top down to be smart, or effective.  To keep their campaign coffers filled, too many in Washington must placate those companies which fund those coffers, including special favors and bailouts for the elite on Wall Street.  To get the votes, they must placate the poor with programs and promises.

A conflict of interests and a clash of incentives makes most of the Washington crowd ineffective.  Turn on C-Span and watch the faces of the House and Senate Budget Conference (House and Senate).  These are intelligent, committed people who feel the pull of these different puppet masters, those political interests that keep them in their respective seats.   Each one of them earnestly wants to fix the problem – and that is the problem.  Much of the time, they are fixing the previous fixes they implemented.  This approach makes Congress feel important. I would suggest that they do little more than enact incentives and let their constituents craft the solutions.  Sure, the solutions will not be crafted with the superior technical expertise that Washington promises. Instead, they will emerge in a stumbling, hodge-podge way that will disenchant those who believe in the romantic notion of omniscient experts who engineer elegant solutions to social and economic problems.  I hope that one day the Washington elite will let Main St. try to figure out the solutions to some of these problems. We can do better.