Work

April 1, 2018

by Steve Stofka

This week I’ll look at several aspects of work, from cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, to the minimum wage.

What is work? In general science or physics, the subject of “work” pictured a horse hitched to a pulley lifting a weight (an example). In one minute, the horse could lift so many pounds a foot in the air and that equaled so much horsepower. Thus we could reduce our definition of work to three components: weight, distance and time.

Even this mechanical definition of work illustrates a problem. If the horse lifted the weight, then let it down again, how would we know that the horse did any work? Should we give the horse a few cups of oats, or have we got a lazy horse?

A variation on that problem – I cut my lawn. My neighbor looks at my lawn and sees that work was done. In a week or two the grass has grown and time has erased any sign that I did work.

Thus, we need a way of recording work done. The product of the work performed may serve as a record. A big pyramid sitting on a desert is a permanent record that work was done. If workers dig holes in the ground, then fill the holes, how do we know any work was done? If they have dug up gold from those holes.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies (crypto) are assets like gold. They recognize that some work was done. Equipment, technology and workers were needed to dig up gold. Likewise, electricity was an important resource needed to generate a bitcoin, and even more electricity will be needed to generate a replacement bitcoin if one were lost.

This Politico article is an account of a crypto mining boom in a rural area in Washington state. The electricity consumed is enormous. The mighty Columbia River nearby provides electricity at a fifth of the average cost in the country. By the end of this year, there will be enough electrical capacity in this small area to power the equivalent of a tenth of the homes in Los Angeles. Shipping containers house computer servers which generate so much heat that the exhausted air melts the snow around the containers. As gold records the digging of dirt, a bitcoin records the expenditure of some quantity of electricity.

Assets can represent past work, future work, or a combination of the two. Precious metals, jewels, books and artistic works represent work done in the past. On the other hand, a machine represents future work. Other assets include stocks and bonds, both of which are claims on future work. A bond is a fixed limit claim on a company’s assets. In contrast, a share of stock is an undying claim on a portion of a company’s assets.

The blockchain algorithm behind crypto requires agreement among many parties to confirm a property right to the crypto. The recording of property rights might seem rather ordinary to a reader in the U.S. In some countries, however, property deeds are more easily altered by those in power. In contrast, a blockchain system of recording property rights prevents forgery and alteration.

As a record of work done, money relies on a relatively stable value. High inflation damages the money record of work done. Consequently, high inflation can fracture the social bonds among people. As an example, I cut someone’s lawn on Saturday and am paid. When I spend the money on Sunday, it is worth half the amount. In effect, the money has only recorded that I cut half a lawn. Examples of this hyper-inflation are Zimbabwe in the 2000s, and Yugoslavia in the 1990s (Wikipedia article). Look no further than Venezuela for a current example of the destruction that inflationary policies can have on a society.

Let’s turn from the recording of work done to the doing of it. New unemployment claims are at a 45 year low. A decade ago, job seekers despaired. In contrast, employees today are confident they will quickly find new employment. To illustrate, the quit rate is at the same pace as the mid-2000s, at the height of the housing boom. As a percent of the labor force, new unemployment claims are the lowest ever recorded. Last week’s numbers broke the record set in April 2000 at the height of the dot-com boom.

Equally important to the strength of a job market is the fate of marginal workers who are most vulnerable to the shifting tides of the economy. This includes disabled people who want to work. During the recession, the unemployment rate for disabled men of working age reached almost 20%. Today it is half that.

Let’s turn to another disadvantaged sector of the job market – those who work for minimum wage. The 1930s depression put many employers at an advantage in the job market. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) enacted a wage floor, but many workers were not subject to the new law. In 1955, almost twenty years after passage of the law, “retail workers, service workers, agricultural workers, and construction workers were still not required to be paid at least the minimum wage” (article).

The minimum wage affects many lower paid workers who are making more than minimum wage. In some union jobs, starting wages for helpers are set by contract at a percentage above minimum wage. The understanding may be non-written in some cases. In 1966, the rate was increased from $1.25 per hour to $1.60 per hour. Non-union clerks at a NYC hospital who had been making $1.70 per hour now complained that they were making minimum wage. As a result of their pressure on management, they got a raise within a few months.

Here’s a chart showing the annual increases in the minimum wage for each period since 1950.

MinWagePctInc

In the three decades after World War 2, annual increases in the minimum wage exceeded inflation. Since 1977, the minimum wage standard has not kept pace with inflation.

MinWageLessCPI

If Congress truly represented all of their constituents, they would make the minimum wage adjust automatically with inflation. On the contrary, Congress represents only a small portion of their constituents, and the minimum wage is used as a political football.

Finally, there is the destruction of the record of past work by war. Every minute of every day, living requires calories, another measure of work. Therefore, each of us is a record of work done.  War destroys too many human records, and the unliving records of work like buildings, roads and bridges. Perhaps one day we will fight our battles in video games and stop destroying all those work records.

The Poor and the Not Poor

October 15, 2017

No worries. Among the 25 OECD countries, Americans have historically had the lowest percentage of their financial assets in cash and savings deposits. After the financial crisis, we became the second lowest, just ahead of Chile. The percentage for the most recent available year (2015) was 13.5%.

In the heady optimism of the dot-com boom in 1999-2000, Americans had less than 10% of their assets in cash and savings. In the long downturn from 2000 – 2003, Americans bumped up their percentage in safe assets to almost 13%. As the economy recovered, that need for safety declined slightly but not to the levels of the 1990s. The financial crisis in 2008 caused Americans to reach for safety. Safe assets rose to 14.3% of total financial assets and we have still not recovered the level of confidence we once had.

You can click on this OECD link to see a comparison of current percentages. On the bottom right below the chart you can drag the year slider and look at some historical data.

Below the chart on the left is a category labeled “Perspectives.” Select “Total” to see total financial assets, which does not include home equity. Americans have the second highest total, just below Switzerland.

On the other hand, the U.S. has a comparatively high poverty rate of 17.5% using the OECD standard,  a simple measure that an economist would use.The poverty threshold is half the median income.

The U.S. publishes a poverty rate that is several percent lower because it uses a complex definition first set in 1963 when families spent an estimated 1/3 of their income on food. The complexity of the definition hints that politicians had a hand in crafting the definition but it is attributed to one person in the Social Security Administration, who based her standard on a combination of foods that the Department of Agriculture thought would meet minimum nutritional needs. The history of this standard and its many revisions is an interesting read.

The threshold is set at three times the cost of this 1960s era minimum food diet. Efficiencies in food production over the past 50 years have dramatically lowered food costs for U.S. families. In 1978, the BLS estimated that the average family spent only 18% of their income on food. In 2014, it was a bit more than 14% (BLS).

Using food costs as the basis for measuring poverty has enabled politicians in this country to claim success in lowering poverty over the past half century. In 1978, the calculation of the U.S. poverty threshold produced one that was slightly more than the OECD standard. Today, the U.S. threshold is 16% less than the OECD standard.

Let’s look at a family of four making $28K in 2016. They were above the official U.S. poverty threshold of $24,300 for a family of four. By the OECD definition, that American family was below half of the median $59K in income and would be counted as poor.

Housing costs are higher in urban areas, where half of the U.S. population lives. That family of four living in Chicago might pay $15000 per year for a 2 BR apartment in Chicago. Further south in the same state, Springfield, IL, they might pay $11,000. That $4000 difference in housing cost is not calculated into the poverty rate that the U.S. publishes. In effect, poverty is undercounted in urban areas and overcounted in rural areas.

The simplicity of the OECD standard better captures poverty among both urban and rural low-income families because it is based on median income. So why doesn’t the U.S. adopt this much clearer standard? We can turn to the last sentence of the previous paragraph for a clue. Politicians in rural areas want a standard that overcounts poverty in their districts. A higher headcount of poverty equals more subsidies for their constituents. When this standard was set, rural areas in the southern states were primarily Democratic and Democrats dominated the Congress under a Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson. Those politicians wanted the adoption of a food based standard that overcounted those voters.

Today, most rural areas are predominantly Republican and the standard works to the advantage of Republicans and the disadvantage of Democrats. As a rule of thumb, whenever we see excessive complexity in rule-making, there’s usually a very sound political reason for that obfuscation. Former President John Adams lamented this unfortunate characteristic of lawmaking in the crafting of the Constitution itself.

The intentional lack of clarity in lawmaking ensures that any nation’s population will be at odds with each other. A small and smart part of the population makes money from conflict and confusion. People argue on Facebook; Facebook makes money. Trump did what? There’s a video. Got to see that, right? Click bam boom, Google makes money by placing some ads next to the video.  Controversy is profitable. Politics as carnival show.

Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, publishes both the fringe right author Ann Coulter, and the way out on the left author and MSNBC host, Rachel Maddow. Worried that the liberals are taking over the country? Frightened that the conservatives will destroy the very institutions that have made America the greatest nation on earth?  Crown has something for you.

On the other hand, the record low volatility of the stock and bond markets in the past year have made it difficult for financial firms who depend on controversy to make a good profit.  Active fund managers have struggled to outperform their benchmark indexes.  The volume of derivatives and other products that insure against volatility have fallen.  People are not worried enough.  That’s the problem.  We need to worry about not being worried.

And those poor families?  If we lower the poverty threshold even more, we won’t have to worry about those poor people as much.

Storage Costs

August 6th, 2017

Last week I discussed the concepts of present and future money. This week I’ll look at the costs involved in storing our money for future use. When I store my fishing boat over the winter, I pay storage costs. When I store money for the future I also pay storage costs. Some of these costs are outright fees. If I have a financial advisor, I may pay them a percentage based on the amount of money they manage for me. All mutual funds charge a fee which is clearly stated in the fund’s prospectus. Pension funds charge fees as well and that is not always as clearly stated.

In addition to fees, there are implied costs. My bank lowers the interest rate they pay me for savings and CD accounts to take care of their operating costs and profits. I could put my future money under my pillow but inflation eats away at my store of future money like rats in a granary bin.

Let’s turn to another cost that is more of a packaging cost– income taxes. But wait, taxes come out of my present money, my income. How can that be a cost of my future money? In the progressive income system that we have in this country, my income is taxed. If I make more money than my neighbor, I will pay a higher rate. My neighbor may pay an effective tax rate of 5% and I pay 15%.

We pay taxes on our leftover income – what we could put away into our store of future money. Let’s say that the median household income is $50K and my family makes $70K. The difference is $20K more than the median. It’s money that I could put into my store of future money. On the other hand, my neighbor’s household makes $40K, or $10K less than the median. Part of my family’s income that I could have put away for the future is going to be taken by the government in taxes.  Some of it will be used as a fee to pay for today’s common expenses like defense, police and courts, research, and infrastructure. Part of it will be given to my neighbor as a transfer payment. My future money becomes my neighbor’s present money.

How did I get my present money, my income? Invariably, it came from someone else’s future money which was previously saved and invested in a business that either hired me or contracted with me. All this money is on a merry go round of time.

Now let’s turn to the prospects for my future money. This article lists 22 reasons for not investing more money in equities at current valuations. I have mentioned several points covered in this article. One is the percentage of household wealth that is invested in the stock market. This past month, that percentage surpassed the level at the peak of the housing boom in 2006-2007.

StocksPctFinAssets201706

Maybe this time is different but I won’t count on it. The heady peaks of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s shows that this can go on for some time before the whoosh! comes.

Housing prices continue to grow above a sustainable trend line. I’ve marked out a 3% annualized growth rate on the chart below. This housing index is for home purchases only and does not reflect refinances.

PurchaseOnlyHPI201706

Check out the growth in commercial real estate loans.  The 10% annual growth of 2015 and 2016 has cooled somewhat in the first two quarters of 2017 but is still a torrid 7.6%.  (Source)

CommlRELoans

Several years ago, I thought that real estate pricing would not get frothy again for several decades. We had all learned our lesson, hadn’t we? Maybe I was wrong. The worth of an asset is what the next buyer will pay for it.  Zillow tells me I am growing richer by the day but there’s a problem.  If I did sell my home, what would I buy?  Everywhere I look, housing prices are so expensive.  Now I come back full circle to another storage cost – storing the future me.

Pool and Flow

October 2, 2016

A few weeks ago, I introduced two concepts: stock and flow. I’ll develop that a bit to help the reader analyze their portfolio with a bit more clarity.  To avoid confusion between stocks, as a type of investment, and the concept of a stock as in a reservoir or pool of something, I’ll refer to the concept as a pool and stocks as a type of investment.

Leverage

Each month we might check our investment and bank statements to find that the value has gone up or down.  In any one day only a tiny portion of stocks and bonds trade, yet these transactions determine the value of all the unsold assets, including the ones on our statement.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the flow from a reservoir of water determines the value of all the water in the reservoir.  It is like the butterfly effect, the idea that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in Mexico can cause a typhoon in southeast Asia.  In financial terms, when a small event has a large influence it is called leverage. A flow, a transaction, is the  catalyst for a transfer of value from one asset to another.

Let’s look at an example.  We buy a 1000 shares of the XYZ biotech firm for $10 a share, for a total investment of $10,000.  The next day the FDA announces that, contrary to expectations, they will allow a drug trial to proceed to Phase 3.  XYZ’s stock price rises 10% in response to the news.  The market price of our investment is now worth $11,000.  Where did the other $1000 come from?

Transfer of Value 

An asset value rose, so the value of another asset pool fell as the value is transferred from one asset to pool to another. Yesterday $10,000 of cash was worth 1000 shares of XYZ.  Today, that $10,000 of cash is worth only 909 shares of XYZ.  This is a different way of looking at cash – not as a liquid medium with  a stable value – but as an asset with an erratic value.

Cash = Investment 

What is cash?  It is an investment of faith in the United States.  We might give it a stock symbol like CASH and I’ll use that stock symbol to distinguish cash when it acts as an asset.  Stockcharts.com allows users to track the relationship between two stocks, or to price one stock in terms of another. We do by typing in the a stock symbol ‘A’ followed by a colon and a second stock symbol ‘B’.  Stockcharts will then show us the value of A priced in B units.  Below is the chart of Google (GOOG) priced in Apple (AAPL) units, or GOOG:AAPL.

On the left side of the chart in early 2014, Google’s stock was worth about 6.25 “Apples.”  By mid-2015, Google’s stock had fallen to 4.25 Apples.  Did Google’s value fall or Apple’s value rise?  Let’s imagine that we live in a world without money, as though we had taken the red pill as in the movie “The Matrix.”  Without a fairly constant measure like cash, we simply don’t know the answer to that question.  Imagine that each investor gets to choose which asset they want their monthly statement priced in and that our choice is Apple.  Over a year and a half, we see that we have lost about a third of the value of our portfolio of Google (6.25 / 4.25 = about 2/3).  We can’t stand the continuing losses anymore and sell our Google stock and get 4.25 units of Apple. It is now September 2016 and we still have 4.25 units of Apple because Apple is our measure of value.  Had we continued to hold the Google stock, we would have 7.29 Apple units.

What is CASH worth?

Now let’s turn to a slightly different example.  We are going to price CASH in Apple units, the inverse or reciprocal of how we normally do things.  When we say that Apple’s stock is $100, for example, we are pricing Apple stock in CASH units, or AAPL:CASH.  Instead we are going to look at the inverse of that relationship: pricing CASH in Apple units.  Remember, we are no longer in the matrix.

We begin with the same portfolio, 6.25 Apple units in early 2014.  We think that this CASH asset is going to do better than Apple, so we sell our Apple units for CASH and get 68 cash units for each Apple unit, a total of 425 cash units.  In mid-2015, we find that our CASH units are now worth only 3.5 Apple units.  We have lost about 45% in a year and a half!  We sell our CASH units and get 3.5 Apple units which is what we still have in this latest statement 15 months later.

Our losses are even worse than that.  Each year, Apple gives the owners of its shares another 2/100ths of a share as a dividend.  The owners of CASH get only 1/100th of a cash share each year.  Apple pays those dividends from its profits.  For owners of CASH, a financial institution pays the dividends from its profits. While the Federal Reserve, a creation of the Federal Government, doesn’t directly “set” interest rates it effectively does so through the purchase of bank securities.  Each dollar bill is equivalent to a share in an entity called the United States and it is ultimately the U.S. government that largely determines the dividend rate that is paid on safe investments like savings accounts.

Stock dividends compete with cash dividends

To remain competitive with safe investments, Apple only has to pay a little more than the very low dividend rate that savings accounts are currently paying.  If interest rates were 5% instead of the current 1%, Apple would have to devote more of its profits to dividends to appeal to income oriented investors.  By keeping interest rates low, the Federal government effectively allows Apple to retain more of its profits.  Where does Apple keep that extra money?  Overseas and out of the reach of the IRS.  That’s only part of the irony.  If Apple had to pay more of its dividends to the share owners, the share owners would pay taxes on the income. So the U.S. government loses twice by keeping rates low (See footnote at end of blog).

So CASH is effectively owning the stock of an entity called the United States, which doesn’t make a profit.  In the long run, owning the stocks of companies that do make a profit generates much more return to the owner.  Let’s look again at the leverage aspect of stocks and cash.  Earlier I noted the huge leverage involved in stock and other non-CASH asset transactions.  A tiny number of transactions affects the value of a large pool of assets.  On the other hand, millions of CASH transactions take place each day and have little effect on the nominal value of CASH.  So we price highly leveraged assets – stocks, bonds, etc. – in terms of an unleveraged asset – cash.

The functions of cash  

Cash plays several roles. First, as a medium of exchange, it acts as a measuring stick of economic flow in a society. This first role has a symbol – $.  Secondly, as an asset pool, CASH acts as a holding pond, a reserve in the waiting, the first in the asset reservoir to be tapped. Lastly, it acts as an insurance on the principal of other assets, like stocks and bonds.  Let’s call that INS.

Insurance

As an insurance, let’s consider a portfolio of $900 in stocks, $100 INS.  A 10% fall in stocks is reduced to a 9% fall because of the INS position.  Let’s consider the exact same portfolio, except that the investor’s intention is that the $100 is a CASH investment, a reservoir of asset buying power.  The same 10% fall in stocks is now a trigger for additional purchases.  In the first case the $100 is an anxiety reduction fee; in the second, a prediction of a market correction.

An investor might blur the distinction between the functions. Retired people who want to preserve the nominal value of their savings may tend to keep the majority of their nest egg in cash without distinguishing the different functions.  Cash = safety and liquidity. Because cash is used as a yardstick, its nominal value is kept constant.  But what that cash can buy, its purchasing power, changes.  When they need some of that CASH ten years from now, the purchasing power of that asset may have fallen by 30% but the nominal value is the same as it was ten years earlier.

Cash Analysis

As noted before, companies must make a profit or go out of business. Not so the U.S. government. Over time, the rate of a company’s profit growth must exceed the inflation rate, so that stocks give the best investment return in the long run.  Investors would benefit by separating their cash position into its functions, $ and CASH and INS, to understand more clearly what their intentions and needs are for the coming year.  This can be as simple as a piece of paper that we review each year.

Analysis Example 

An example – Cash needs:
1) income for the next year including emergency fund – $50K – $ function.
2) stock market seems awfully high and it has been a while since there has been a 10% correction – $100K CASH function.
3) $30K INS function to help me sleep at night in case there is more than a 10% correction.
Total: $180K.

Why write it down?  Believe it or not, we forget things.

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As a footnote:

Offsetting the tax losses to the government is the fact that some of Apple’s cash consists of cash-like equivalents like Treasury bonds which pay a very low dividend.  Apple loses income because of the low dividend and the U.S. government gains by being able to borrow money from Apple at low rates.