Lessons Learned

June 5, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

This week Janet Yellen, the current Secretary of the Treasury and former Fed Chair, admitted that she had not understood the path inflation would take. Such honesty from an administration official is refreshing. Ms. Yellen joins a long list of smart and experienced money managers who did not forecast this inflation trend. Global pandemics happen once a century, producing economic shocks that are unpredictable.

The economist Milton Friedman attributed inflation to money growth. Who grows money? Banks. The central bank (Fed) may increase the base money[1] it makes available to its member banks but it is the banks who multiply that base money when they make consumer and business loans. In the past decade, the annual percent change in household debt has tracked closely the rate of inflation. As long as banks were reluctant to extend credit, inflation remained low. The CARES act transferred billions to consumers and banks followed the money, extending more credit and shifting consumer demand higher.

For more than a decade sales of consumer durables excluding cars (ADXTNO) had waned. Pandemic restrictions forced us to alter our consumption habits and we bought durable goods for a new stay-at-home lifestyle. These included computers, dishwashers, refrigerators, and workout equipment. Our collective actions produced positive and negative effects. There is no one individual responsible for the negative impacts so we have blamed government policies or politicians.

Our collective actions change our physical and economic environment. Like a forest fire, we create our own weather and that feedback process can amplify the destructive forces of our actions. Adam Smith, the first economist, lived at a time when people were clustering in communities to trade with each other and engage in collective production. He was the first to note the dynamics of labor specialization where the productivity of individual effort is magnified and the entire community benefits from the assembly of coordinated effort.

As our  population grows and concentrates in larger communities, group dynamics have a greater influence in our individual lives.  Fashionable ideas and perspectives sweep through our society as easily as new product innovations. Social media speeds the introduction and adoption of trends. Under normal circumstances, the global supply chain adapts to these demand shifts rather quickly. However, the supply chain relies on a continuous flow of goods and services. The pandemic interrupted that flow, inducing a supply shock into the economy.

As economic activity returned to normal during 2021, investors and policymakers thought that supply chain disruptions would ease. Market prices increased about 20%. In January 2022, companies reporting 4th quarter results indicated that supply chain problems were slow to resolve and anticipated higher prices in 2022. Thousands of very smart people revised their earlier forecasts and adjusted their portfolio positions.

One of our favorite pastimes is armchair quarterbacking. We do it with ourselves as much as we do it with others. Reviewing a test score, we are sometimes surprised by a dumb mistake we made. Many of us gravitate toward jobs with a greater degree of familiarity and predictability. There is less stress and less likelihood of making mistakes. Some jobs are like daily tests with multiple selection choices and the answers are not certain. The lessons emerge as events unfold and lack what statisticians call external validity. The lessons learned or principles identified cannot be generalized to other situations because of important differences. Top administration officials and those in upper company management have those kinds of jobs.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash


[1] Base money refers to reserve money that is available only to banks.

The Leaving

January 30, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Every week I read about the Great Resignation. What is it? The number of people quitting their jobs is at a historic high. In the leisure and hospitality industry, the number of quits is up 20% from pre-pandemic levels. In retail jobs, quits are up 16%. People quit their jobs for a lot of reasons. In more normal times, a higher quit rate indicates a greater confidence in finding another job. As the quits rate goes up, the unemployment rate goes down. I’ve inverted the unemployment rate to show the historic trend between job quits and unemployment.

These are not normal times. Employees in public facing jobs are enduring abuse from patrons. We have lost a social cohesion, an agreement on the rules of civility. In response to physical threats to employees over mask wearing, Denver’s Children’s Museum closed for ten days. According to the FAA, the number of active investigations into unruly passengers climbed 7-fold in 2021. The number of quits in healthcare field, in the leisure and hospitality industry, education, and food services are all more than 1/3 higher than pre-pandemic levels. In professional services, quits have increased by 28%. In the retail sector, the growth is only 18%.

In the South and Midwest regions that the Labor Department surveys, the quits rate has climbed 30%. According to US Census data almost 40% of the country lives in the Southern region and is the fastest growing region of the country. The Midwest region has about half the population, has recently experienced a slight population decline, but is experiencing the same job churn. Are people moving from the Midwest to the South? In the Western and Northeastern regions, the quits rate has grown more modestly – at 20-22%.

The first estimate of last quarter’s real GDP growth was an annualized 5.5% growth (GDPC1). That’s real growth after subtracting the effect of inflation. Household purchasing grew by a strong 7.1% after inflation (PCEC96). How much have households borrowed to fund that buying spree? 3rd quarter real debt rose by only 2.5%, easing slightly after the first two quarters of last year (CMDEBT/PCEPI). We won’t have 4th quarter debt levels until early March but real debt levels are still below the peak of 2007 when households had gorged on debt. Until the financial crisis in 2008, real household debt was growing 7-8% per year then went negative for six years after the crisis. Household debt did not rise above a 1% growth rate until the final year of the Obama presidency.

Households have a historically low debt burden as a percent of disposable income (TDSP). If a household’s monthly income after taxes is $1000, the average debt payment is less than $100, near a four decade low. There is a lot of guesswork in this series but the important thing is the declining trend in the data. People are not borrowing beyond their means as they did during the 2000s. Do lower debt levels mean that buying pressures will remain strong? Will another Covid variant further strain hospital staff and resources?

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Finding the Right Wires

February 14, 2021

by Steve Stofka

Since WW2, households have traditionally held more debt than the federal government as a percent of GDP. I’ll call it %Debt. The biggest component of household debt is mortgages, and includes car loans, student loans, credit card debt, etc. A decade ago, Federal %Debt surpassed households, effectively allowing households to reduce their debt level and put it on the federal balance sheet.

Federal debt spiked during the pandemic while household debt levels have risen only 1.5%. For decades, deficit hawks have long warned that rising federal debt levels could cause an economic implosion that would make the Great Depression look tame by comparison. They may be right – finally.

There are two ways that the federal %Debt can go down. The first is to grow the economy; that’s the GDP in the denominator of Debt / GDP. The second way is to reduce the level of Debt, the numerator. It is unlikely that Congress is going to raise taxes enough to reduce the debt, so that leaves only one way to reduce %Debt – grow the economy faster than the growth in federal debt.

To do that, consumers need to spend money because their spending makes up 70% of GDP. There are three ways to increase spending. The first is to increase incomes faster than economic growth but that has not been happening for several decades. The real growth in middle class incomes over the past 30 years is only 15%, or 1/2% per year average.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects that total incomes will increase by an average of $33B per year over the next decade if the minimum wage is raised to $15 over the next five years (CBO, 2021). That increase of 1.5% in GDP will not change the federal %Debt by much.

The second way to increase GDP is for consumers to take on more debt. A rise in housing prices has lifted the net worth of many households, who can tap into that equity to increase their spending. However, households are already choked with debt. The two largest generations, the Millennials and the Boomers are offsetting each other’s spending. Older Boomers are reducing spending as Millennials increase their purchases. The Millennials have been crushed by the financial crisis a decade ago and again with the Covid crisis. Many feel like they came along at the wrong time in history and are cautious. When consumers pay down debt, they spend less and that lowers GDP growth.

The third way is probably the trend of the future. The federal government will continue to pile debt on its balance sheet and shift income onto households in the hopes that consumers will spend money and grow the economy faster than the rise in federal debt. There is a concept called the multiplier and economists argue over its value. It is the total effect of spending in an economy when the government spends $1. That depends on consumer and business confidence, which depends on the amount of debt each sector holds. The IMF estimates that the multiplier is about 1.5, so that $1 of spending equals $1.50. If so, deficit spending might grow the economy faster than the federal debt grows.

I’ll return to a proposal I discarded earlier – increasing taxes, particularly on the top 10% who don’t spend as much of their incomes on consumer goods as the bottom 90%. Under the Budget Reconciliation rule in the Senate, the Democrats could pass tax legislation that undoes the 2017 tax cuts that the Republicans passed using that reconciliation process. In his campaign proposals, President Biden limited any tax increases to those making $400,000 or more, a small sliver of the population.

Income distribution is skewed toward the upper 5%, who will fight vigorously to keep what they have. They will complain – and they have a point – that they are already paying higher taxes in the form of lost income because interest rates are so low. Those with savings are being paid a paltry amount in interest but the low rates reduce the interest on the debt that the federal government pays each year. Boomers on fixed incomes are having to reduce their savings faster  to meet monthly expenses.

The structure of income distribution is weak. No, it’s not a problem with capitalism, as some like to claim. This is a problem with political policy which pre-dates capitalism. A small group of people in a nation take command of the distribution levers and direct more of the nation’s income to themselves. In the 1700s, the problem was thought to originate with monarchy and aristocracy. Democracy was going to cure the problem, but it didn’t. Communism was going to cure the problem and it didn’t. Socialism – the middle way between capitalism and communism – was going to solve the problem, but the EU demonstrates that socialism simply slows growth, increases structural unemployment, and does little to solve the persistent problem of distributional inequalities.

Governments worry about exogenous factors like Covid, war, or a dramatic shift in commodity prices. While those do produce crises, they do so because of endogenous factors – weaknesses in a nation’s political and economic system that award property rights in such a way as to exacerbate social tensions. The Great Depression and Financial Crisis were examples.

Since the Financial Crisis a decade ago, people in nations around the world have been raising their fists and their voices. The productivity gains that capitalism promoted had ameliorated the centuries old problem of political oligarchies, but no economic system can solve what is fundamentally a political problem.

Those who voted for former President Trump in 2016 did so thinking that he was a political outsider who could “drain the swamp,” i.e., bust up the political oligarchy that controls Washington. He became part of that oligarchy, feeding the monster, because it relied on his lack of political expertise.

Those who voted for President Biden hope that his decency and moderation will help craft legislation that unlooses the grip that the oligarchy has on our political process. Which wires do we pull to disconnect the oligarchy?

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Photo by Victor Barrios on Unsplash

Congressional Budget Office (CBO). (2021, February 08). The budgetary effects of the raise the Wage act of 2021. Retrieved February 13, 2021, from https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56975

Tax Policy Center. (2020, May). What is reconciliation? Retrieved February 13, 2021, from https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/briefing-book/what-reconciliation

Economic Cracks

February 17, 2019

by Steve Stofka

As the recovery enters its tenth year, there are signs of strain. As debtors struggle to pay their loans in a weakening economy, the percentage of non-performing loans increases.  The current rate of one percent indicates a healthy economy (Note #1). When the annual change in the rate of delinquency increases, that has been a reliable indicator that the economy is growing stagnant. Here’s a chart of the percent change in non-performing loans. A change above zero has preceded the last three recessions.

Non-PerfLoansChange

Let’s add one more series to the graph to help us understand the cycle of consumer credit. In the graph below, the red series is the percentage of banks tightening lending standards. Notice how the banks respond to a rise in delinquencies by being more selective in their credit criteria. Eventually, this tightening of credit leads to a recession. The cycle is as natural as the ocean currents that distribute heat around the planet.

NonPerfBankTighten

The financial news agency Bloomberg reports that delinquent auto loans are the highest since 2012 (Note #2). Bankrate reports that credit card debt has risen since last year. Less than half of people surveyed have emergency funds (Note #3).

December’s retail sales report, released only this week because of the government shutdown, showed a surprising decline of 1% from November. Have some consumers reached their limit? Retail sales, adjusted for inflation and population growth, does not show the strain so far. Look at the period from late 2015 through late 2016 when sales growth consistently slowed below 1%. That was a key factor that cost Hillary Clinton the election. Trump turned voter dissatisfaction into an electoral victory in the Midwest.

RetailRealAdjPop

Politicians ride to power on the anger of voters. In 1994, Republicans overcame forty years of Democratic rule in the House by promising less regulation and lower taxes in a “Contract with America.” When the Supreme Court decided the 2000 election in favor of a Republican president, they enacted tax cuts to reverse the tax increases passed by Democrats in 1993. In 2006, voters were angry with the incompetent Bush administration and reinstalled Democrats in the House.

In the depths of the Financial Crisis in 2008, Democrats rode a wave of anger, despair and hope to take the White House and command a filibuster proof majority in the Senate for the first time since the post-Watergate Congress thirty years earlier. Such a rare majority indicated that voters strongly wanted a solution to the crisis (Note #3). The Obama administration and Democratic Congress protected the financial and insurance industries while ordinary people lost their homes and their savings. The one piece of legislation that emerged from that majority was Obamacare, the bastard child of back alley compromises between mainstream Democrats and the health care industry. Few who voted for it knew what was in the bill.

In 2010, Republicans rode the anger wave of the Tea Party caucus to retake the House. With an equal number of Senate seats up for re-election, Republicans took six seats from Democrats and ended their filibuster proof majority (Note #4). In 2014, voters handed the Senate back to Republicans, then gave the reins entirely to the Republicans with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016.

In 2018, Democrats rode a wave of anger to take back control of the House. Social media campaigns whip up indignation to fan the flames of voter anger in the hopes that Democrats can at least take back the presidency in 2020. Voters may not be in enough economic distress to give Democrats control of the Senate in 2020, but it is the Republicans who have the most seats up for re-election this coming Senate cycle (Note #4).

Credit expands and contracts in a seasonal multi-year cycle. Banks are tightening in response to higher delinquencies. Will the timing of the credit cycle coincide with the 2020 election?

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Notes:
1. In 2016, China, Japan and Germany had rates below 2%; the U.K. and Canada had less than 1%. On the high side, Greece had 36%; Italy had 17%, and Spain had 7%.
2. Why are so many people delinquent on auto loans? Bloomberg
3. In 1964, the Supreme Court forced the states to redistrict their state legislatures based on population changes. For fifty years, Democrats were sometimes able to forge filibuster proof Senate majorities because racist Southern states were effectively one party Democratic states. Reynolds v. Sims . Since the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1914, Republicans have never had a filibuster proof majority
4. A third of Senators are up for election every two years so party advantage shifts with every election cycle.

Personal Debt

April 15, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Until the financial crisis, I thought that other people’s debt was their problem. In 2008, debt became a nation’s problem and a national conversation with two aspects – the moral and the practical. Moral conversations are not confined to church; they drive our politics and policy. Many laws contain some language to contain moral hazard, which is the danger that language loopholes in a law or policy promote the opposite of the intended effect of the law. This is particularly true of many entitlement policies. Let’s leave the moral conversation for another day and turn to the practical aspects of current policy.

Bankers learned their lesson during the financial crisis, didn’t they? Maybe not. A decade of absurdly low interest rates has starved those who depend on the income earned by owning debt. Even a savings account is money loaned to a bank, a debt that the bank must pay to the account holder. In their hunger for income, investors have turned to less prudent debt products. So long as the economy remains strong, no worries.

A fifth of conventional mortgages are going to people whose total debt load, including the mortgage, is more than 45% of their pre-tax income. By comparison, at the market’s exuberant peak in late 2007, 35% of conventional mortgages were going to such households, who were especially vulnerable when monthly job gains turned negative in early 2008.

The real estate analytics firm Core Logic also reports that Fannie Mae has started backing mortgages to those with total debt loads up to 50%. FICA, federal, state and local income taxes can amount to 25% of a paycheck (Princeton Study). Add in 45% of that gross pay for mortgage and debt payments, and there is only 30% left for food, gas, home repairs and utilities, child care, etc.

I’ll convert these percentages to dollars to illustrate the point. A couple grossing $80,000 might have a take home pay of $60,000. The couple has $36,000 in mortgage and other debt payments (45% of $80,000). They have $24,000, or $2000 a month for everything else. This couple is vulnerable to a change in their circumstances: a layoff or a cut back in hours, some unexpected expense or injury.

For those who get a conventional loan despite their heavy debt load, where is the money coming from? Banks suffered huge losses during the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve tightened capital requirements for banks’ loan portfolios, forcing them to improve the overall quality of their debt. As a result, banks turned away from their most lucrative customers – subprime borrowers and those with heavy debt loads who must pay higher interest on their loans. Profits in the financial industry fell dramatically. A broad composite of financial stocks (XLF) has still not regained the price levels of 2007.

The banking industry employs some very smart people. What solution did they create? The big banks now loan money to non-financial companies who loan the money to subprime borrowers. After bundling the consumer loans into securities, the non-financial companies use the proceeds to pay the big banks back. In seven years this kind of borrowing has expanded seven times to $350 billion. Doesn’t this look like the kind of behavior that almost took down the financial system in 2008? The banks say that this system isolates them from exposure to subprime borrowers. If large scale job losses cause a lot of loan defaults, it is the investors who will bear the pain, not the banks. Same song, different lyrics.

The 2008 financial crisis is best summed up with a chart from the Federal Reserve. In the post WW2 economy, the weekly earnings of British workers rose steadily. The growth is especially strong when compared to the earlier decades of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2008, earnings peaked.
WeeklyEarnUK

Developed countries depend on the steady growth of tax receipts generated by weekly earnings. An assumption of 3% real GDP growth underlies the health and continuation of post-war social welfare policies. For more than a decade, the U.S. and U.K. have had less than 2% GDP growth.  Both governments have had to borrow heavily to fund their social support programs.  How long can they increase their debt at such a rapid pace?

I am reminded of a time more than 40 years ago when New York City held a regularly scheduled auction to sell  bonds to fund their already swollen debt load.  None of the banks showed up to bid for the bonds.  The city is the financial center of the world.  The lack of interest stunned city officials.  To avoid a messy bankruptcy, the city turned to the Federal government for a loan (NY Times).

The Federal government is not a city or state, of course. It has extraordinary legal and monetary power, and its bonds are a safe haven around the world.  But there could come a time when investors demand higher interest for those bonds and the rising annual interest on the debt squeezes spending on other domestic programs.

Debt causes stress.  Stress causes anxiety.  Anxiety weakens confidence in the future and causes investment to shrink. Falling investment leads to slower job growth. That causes profits and weekly earnings to fall which reduces tax receipts to the government.  That increases debt further, and the cycle continues.  Other people’s debt is everyone’s problem after all.

Vulnerable

September 3, 2017

Hurricane Harvey invaded the lives, homes and businesses of so many people in Houston and the surrounding area of southeast Texas. People around the world watched the plight of so many who were caught in the rising waters. I was cheered by the dedication of first responders, by those who came from near and far to help with their boats, with food and clothing. I have never been in a flood. Some of those interviewed had been in several. Why do they stay there, I wondered? The answer is some or all of these: their family, their church, their job, their school, their culture.

Watching so many vulnerable people reminded me of my own. If given a few minutes to leave my house, what would I put in a garbage bag? In the urgency and stress of the moment so many people in Houston forgot their medications.  My list: Pets, papers, clothes, medications. Food? Will the shelter have food? Pet food, as well? Where are we going? Oops, what about a phone charger? And the laptop. What about the list with all the passwords? That too. What about the photos in the closet? I was going to get those scanned in and uploaded. No time now. Take a few of the smaller framed photos on the shelf in the living room. Out of time. Gotta go. All the questions that must have been bouncing around inside the heads of those forced to evacuate as the brown water took possession of their house.

If I don’t call it Climate Change, I could call it Flood Frequency, or Flood Freak for short. Here is a chart showing the increased frequency of flooding during the past century. This was from an article in the WSJ (paywall).

FloodFrequency
This week’s theme – vulnerability. The signs of it and what we can do to lessen it. Debt is a vulnerability. For the past three years, households have been increasing their debt load in mortgages, auto and student loans. Here’s a breakdown of household debt from the NY Fed. (As a side note, this report gives a breakdown of the different types of debt by credit score. For example, the median credit score for an auto loan is about 700).

DebtBalance2016.png
Mortgage debt is more than 2/3rds of total debt. Despite the rise in home prices, more than 5 million homes, or 7%, are still badly “under water.” (Consumer Affairs)

Credit card debt has stayed stable for the past thirteen years. Households are only using 10% of their after-tax income to service their debt.

DebtService2016

Despite low interest rates, households are continuing to deleverage, to decrease their vulnerability. The ratio of household debt – the total of that debt, not the payments – to income climbed above 2.5 in late 2007. It has fallen below 2.2 but is still high. We are still up to our eyeballs in debt.

HouseholdDebtIncomeRatio

Debt reduction will curb economic growth for the near future. According to several cabinet members, Trump is focused on GDP growth in discussions about trade policy, defense policy, infrastructure spending, and the regulatory environment. How does this or that policy get us to 3% growth? he asks.

2/3rds of the nation’s economy is based on the public willingness to spend money. Jobs helps. Higher wage growth helps. Low interest rates help. But without the willingness to take on more debt relative to income, policymakers may feel like they are trying to goad a stubborn mule to go faster. Tough to do.

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Unemployment

Continuing the theme of vulnerability.  As a percentage of the unemployed, the number of long-term unemployed remains stubbornly high at close to 25%.  I call them the 27ers because 27 weeks of unemployment is the cutoff that the BLS uses to determine whether someone is categorized as long term unemployed. 27 weeks or six months is a long time to be actively looking for work and not finding a job.  Eight years after the end of the recession, today’s percentage of 27ers is at the same level as the worst of most past recessions.

LTUnemploy

During any recession the number of long term unemployed climbs higher. When these past few recessions have ended, the number of 27ers doesn’t start to decline.  Instead, they continue to increase and reach a peak several months after the recession is officially over. In the last three recessions, the peaks came later than previous recessions.

UnemployLTPctCLF
This more vulnerable cohort in the labor force struggles to recover after a recession.  Manufacturing is the more volatile element in the business cycle.  As manufacturing has declined, recessions are less frequent. However, manufacturing used to put a lot of people back to work at the end of recessions.  In a recovery, the service sectors are not as quick to add jobs.

The structural shift in the labor force will continue to leave more workers and families vulnerable and needing help just as many older workers are claiming retirement benefits. More than half of voters, both Republican and Democrat, have received benefits from at least one of the six entitlement programs (Pew Research). Elected officials offer promises of future benefits in exchange for taxes, and votes, today. When circumstances force a clash of priorities and promises, Congress seems incapable of resolving the conflict. President Trump’s approval ratings are in the low thirties, but his popularity far exceeds the public’s dismal ratings of Congress.

In a crisis, Americans come together to help each other but why do we wait till there is a crisis? Have we always been a nation of drama queens?  Maybe that’s the American charm.

A Choice of Money

July 30, 2017

Gresham’s law states that an overvalued form of money will drive out an undervalued form of money. Let’s say that both gold and silver are accepted as money and the government fixes a ratio of 1:20 between the two metals. One ounce of gold thus equals twenty ounces of silver. Let’s say that people and businesses hold ten times as much silver as gold. The exchange ratio that the government has set is higher than the ratio of the stores of the two metals. Gold is overvalued. Gresham’s law states that people will start using gold as an exchange medium to the extent that eventually silver will be driven out of circulation.

I wanted to explore this concept and substitute two things that are not currencies or commodities: liquidity and debt.  Liquidity is today’s money.  Debt is tomorrow’s money. Today’s money is stable and available.  Tomorrow’s money is not. As soon as money is loaned, it can’t be readily converted to cash.  It’s future money.

Gresham’s law is about people’s preferences and the value of money.  When millions of individual circumstances are added up,  a preference for liquidity or debt emerges. When tomorrow’s money is overvalued, people use it, and drive down the use of present money. “Don’t save up to buy what you want.  Buy it now with future money.  Here I’ve got some,” say businesses and banks.

Let’s look at two representations of present and future money.  M2 is a broad measure of the money supply that includes cash, checking and savings accounts, as well as money market accounts and CDs that can be quickly converted to cash. Future money is the amount of business and household debt.

During recessions (gray areas in the chart below), M2, the numerator in the ratio, goes up and debt goes down. Economists call this a greater preference for liquidity. Banks are more reluctant to lend money, which tightens credit and restrains the growth of debt.  People charge less and stick more money in checking and savings. Businesses don’t borrow to expand their operations and keep more cash on hand to pay present obligations.

In the chart below, I chart the ratio of the yearly change in today’s money, or what the Federal Reserve calls M2 money, and tomorrow’s money, the amount of business and consumer debt.

M2DebtCLIRatio1960-2007

In the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, the graph shows what I would expect. There was a greater preference for liquidity and the ratio of present to future money rose above 1, a clear sign that people and businesses were worried about the future.  As the recessions ended, the ratio declined as debt, the denominator in the fraction, grew at a faster rate than M2 money, the numerator. The recessions of the early 1990s and early 2000s were fairly mild in comparison and the uptick in a preference for liquidity was mild.

The chart ends in 2007, just before the recession and financial crisis. Let’s now turn to that period. During the early part of 2008, the ratio began to climb to 1, indicating that people and businesses were preferring liquidity over debt. During the first six months of 2008, 700,000 jobs had been lost but this was only 1/2% of the workforce. Almost 300,000 of those lost jobs were in construction, which had become overheated by the building of so many homes. Retail sales growth had gone flat but was probably just a pause in the normal course of the business and credit cycle. Not to worry.

Then a funny thing happened to the economic engine of the country, something that had never happened before in post-WW2 America. The ratio spiked upward, registering nosebleed readings.

M2DebtCLIRatio2006-2008

The preference for present money continued upward but the change in debt, the bottom number in the ratio, plunged downward and this drove the ratio higher. The Federal Reserve began buying some of this debt until it held about $2 trillion.

Debt2008-2010

As the change in debt turned negative, the ratio turned negative, a post Depression first. Month after month, old debts soured.  People and businesses shunned new debt. People who were saving more of today’s money were being offset by those who had to tap their savings accounts to make up for lost income. Toward the end of 2008, the economy lost as many jobs each month as it lost in total for the first six months of 2008. Retail sales dropped a few percent each month.

M2DebtCLIRatio2008-2011

Like a car whose brakes have failed, the ratio continued its downward slide. In a program called Quantitative Easing (QE_, the Federal Reserve began buying more debt in an effort to get this ratio into the positive zone.

By the middle of 2012, the ratio broke into the positive zone as debt stopped contracting. The preference for liquidity was strikingly high, going up above 8, more than three times higher than the 2.5 level of the 1980s recession.

M2DebtCLIRatio2012-2014

The Federal Reserve continued to buy debt as the economy staggered to its feet.  In 2013, the stock market finally surpassed its inflation adjusted value at the start of the recession.  In the early part of 2014, the ratio of liquidity to debt, of present money to future money, finally fell below 2. At mid-2014, the Fed had accumulated $4.5 trillion in debt, $3.7 trillion of which had been added during the financial crisis. After 6-1/2 years, the number of people employed finally rose above its pre-recession level.  The Fed ended its debt buying program.

So where do we stand today? The stock market and house prices continue to make new highs but the current reading of this ratio show that people continue to prefer today’s money over tomorrow’s money.

M2DebtCLIRatio2014-2017

In short, the economy is still healing. During the expanding economy of the 1960s, the ratio was a bit over 1 for half the decade.  People who had grown up during the Depression were understandably a bit cautious. However, both present and future money grew at a steady rate during the 1960s. Today’s households and businesses have been scarred by the financial crisis and are cautious.  Into this cautious confidence, the Fed has a lot of debt to unload.  It must maintain a balance between money preferences as it feeds the debt it bought during the crisis back into the economy.

Confidence Up

April 2nd, 2017

The Conference Board’s survey of Consumer Confidence shot up to 125, a 16 year high. Unfortunately, that previous high was set as the dot-com frenzy was nearing its end and just before the start of the 2001 recession. History could not possibly repeat itself, could it?

Confidence201703

There have been other frenzies in the past decades: the dot-com boom of the late ’90s, the housing and consumer debt boom of the ’00s, the run up in gold prices in the ’10s, the spike in interest rates in the late ’70s – eary ’80s. In the rear view mirror, the correction seems predictable.

From 1995 – 2000, the SP500 index tripled on the giddy expectations of a new global internet economy. Here was the plan: global supply chains spread among developing countries would assemble products which would be shipped to markets around the world. The U.S. and other developed countries could steer the global economy to new heights, and rid themselves of the nasty pollution that comes from manufacturing stuff.

Then, the new global digital economy went oops…

After falling back about 40%, the index then doubled from early 2003 through 2007. During that five year period, the house price index grew 40%, more than double its annual growth rate for the past century. In the old mortgage model, a lender would take a risk on the fortunes and reliability of a single family to repay a mortgage. Now, through the power of computerized algorithms, that risk could be sliced and diced so thin and spread among so many synthetic mortgages that the risk virtually disappeared. The smart people in the financial industry had finally figured out the secret to securitized debt. Every family could now build wealth by owning a home. Oh, happy days!

Then, housing went oops….

As the financial crisis gripped most of the developed world, central banks took on vast quantities of debt and expanded the money supply to counteract a slide into a global depression. Expanding the money supply usually brings an increase in inflation, and to protect against that coming inflation, investors around the world turned to gold. From the depths of the financial crisis in early 2009 toward the latter part of 2011, a period of less than 3 years, the price of gold doubled. But inflation did not rise as expected. The central banks had simply been fighting a strong undercurrent of deflation, stronger than even they had realized.

As inflation remained low, gold went oops….

The trick is to figure out beforehand what will go oops next. The pattern is this: an increasing number of people become convinced of “X” idea and begin to take it for granted. Then some series of events undermines a belief in “X” and the stampede begins. The massive increase in sovereign debt looks like a prime candidate for default and debacle but the central banks of developed countries have many legal and financial tools at their disposal to stem any panics.

For a dominant economic power like the U.S., the “X” has traditionally been based on private debt whose value can not be easily controlled by government dictate. In the late 90s, it was technology. Most of us associate that period with wildly inflated stock prices and IPOs that jumped in price on opening day. What may have escaped our attention is that corporate debt increased by almost 60% from the beginning of 1995 to the end of 2000. When the towers came down on 9-11, corporate debt had grown 75%. From early 2002 through 2005, there was no growth in corporate debt.

As corporate debt grew in the late 90s, government debt decreased. As corporate debt growth stopped in the early ’00s, household debt and government debt surged upwards. So let’s keep our eyes on this dance of corporate, household and government debt.

DanceOfDebt2016

Since the financial and housing crisis that began in 2008, federal govt debt has doubled, while household debt declined. It has taken eight years for household debt to finally surpass its 2008 high water mark, and is now approaching $15 trillion.

Since 2006, corporate debt has almost doubled. It is my guess that this is where the next crisis lies.

CorpDebt2016

After the next crisis, we will look back and see that there was such an obvious over-confidence in that “X.”  Analysts will help us understand the details and unfolding of the crisis till we think that we can avoid it next time.  Like whack-a-mole, the next crisis will pop up from another hidey hole.  The trick is to have several smaller hammers instead of one big hammer.

Productivity And Labor Unions

February 5, 2017

About 10% of all workers, public and private, belong to a union. Today the percentage of private sector employees who are unionized is the same as in 1932, eighty years ago. (Wikipedia) The rise and fall of unon membership looks like the familiar bell curve, with the peak in the 1970s. The causes of the decline are debated but some attribute the erosion of union power as an important factor in wage stagnation.

The major factor is not declining union membership but declining productivity, and that persistent decline has economists and policymakers baffled.  Higher productivity should equal higher wage growth and, in the 30 year post-war period 1948-1977, multi-factor productivity (MFP) annual growth averaged 1.7%. MFP includes both labor and capital inputs. In the 40 year period from 1976-2015, MFP growth averaged about half that rate – .9%.

prodmfp1948-2015

In the debate over the causes of the decline, some contend that all the easy gains were made by 1980.  Productivity is now returning to a centuries long growth trend that is less than 1%. In an October 2016 Bloomberg article, Justin Fox picked apart BLS data to show that growth has been flat in some key manufacturing areas for the past three decades. The ten-fold surge in productivity growth in the tech sector is largely responsible for any growth during the past 30 years. OECD data indicates that other developed countries are experiencing a similar lack of growth (OECD Table) When no one can conclusively demonstrate what the causes are for the decline, policymakers face tough challenges and even tougher debate over the solutions.

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LoanGate

LoanGate may the next scandal. A few months ago, the Dept of Education (DoE) revealed that they had seriously undercounted student loan delinqencies because of a programming error. When the Wall St. Journal analyzed the revised data, they found that the majority of students at 25% of all colleges and trade schools in the U.S. had defaulted on their student loan or failed to make any repayment.  (WSJ article)

The Obama administration forced the closure of many private institutions whose students had low repayment rates. In 2015, Corinthian Colleges shuttered the last of its schools and filed for bankruptcy. The revised data show that many more institutions, both public and private, should be shut down.

This latest programming error at the DoE follows other embarrassing episodes during the two Obama terms. In October 2013, the rollout of Obamacare was riddled with programming errors that blocked many applicants from enrolling in a plan with healthcare.gov.

In 2010, the IRS delayed many applications for 501(c)3 tax status from mostly conservative political groups. Lois Lerner, the head of the agency, first claimed that these had been innocent clerical mistakes by an overworked staff, but a series of hearings uncovered the fact that employees at the IRS had acted on their own political feelings and deliberately targeted these groups. (Mother Jones)

In yet another incident, the Office of Personnel and Managment (OPM), the HR dept for thousands of Federal employees, revealed in 2016 a data breach involving 22,000,000 personnel records, including Social Security numbers.  Unchecked programming errors and data breaches erode the public’s faith in public institutions.  That these mistakes happened under a Democratic administration favoring ever bigger public institutions to solve ever bigger social problems is especially embarrassing.

When Obama first took office in 2009, the inflation adjusted total of student debt had quadrupled in the 15 year period (DoE paper – page 1) since 1993. By the time he left office eight years later, student debt had grown ten-fold to $1.3 trillion. The delinquency rate on that debt is 11% but the repayment rate is considered a better predictor of future delinquencies. The revised data reduced the combined repayment rate to a little more than 50% (Inside Higher Ed), far lower than the 75% plus repayment rates of a few decades ago.

The defaults are coming and there will be an inevitable call for a taxpayer bailout.  A popular element of Bernie Sanders’ Presidential platform was that a college education should be free. In the real world, nothing is free, so somebody pays.  Who should pay and how much will further aggravate tensions in an already divided electorate.

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Five Year Rule

A few weeks ago I wrote about the 5-year rule, a backstop to any allocation rule. Any money needed in the next five years should be in stable assets like short to intermediate term bonds, CDs and cash. Why 5 years of income? Why not 2 years or 10 years? Answer: History.

Let’s look back at 80 years in 5 year slices, or what is called 5-year rolling periods. As an example, the years 2000 – 2004 would be a 5-year rolling period. 2001 – 2005 would be the next period, and so on.

Saving me the time and effort of running the data on stock market returns is a blogger at All Financial Matters who put together a table of this very data for the years 1926-2012. The table shows that the SP500 has held or increased its inflation adjusted value (very important that we look at the real value) almost 75% of the time. So the 5-year rule guards against a loss of value the other 25% of the time.

The 5-year rule can apply whenever there are anticipated income needs from our savings: retirement, college expenses, sickness or disability, and even a greater chance of losing our jobs. In a retirement span of 25 years, 6 of those years will fall into that 25% category. The 5-year rule minimum usually kicks in toward the end of retirement when a person’s reserves are lower and prudence is especially important.

 

Financial Obligations

February 22, 2015

Consumer Debt

On the one hand, the economy continues to grow steadily and moderately.  Sales of cars and light trucks are strong.

Housing Starts of new homes are slow.  While homebuilders remain confident, there is a noticeable decrease in traffic from first time home buyers.

The debt levels of American households have not reached the nosebleed levels of 2007 before the onset of the financial crisis.  However, they are more than a third higher than 2005 debt levels.

Historically low interest rates have enabled families to leverage their monthly payments into higher debt.  As a percent of disposable income, monthly morgage, credit card and loan payments are the lowest they have ever been since the Federal Reserve started tracking this in 1980. As long as the labor market grows at a moderate pace and interest rates remain low, families are unlikely to default on these higher debt loads.

In addition to household debt, the Federal Reserve includes other obligations – auto leases, rent payments, property taxes and insurance – to arrive at a total Financial Obligations Ratio (FOR), currently about 15%. (Explanation here)  The highest recorded FOR was 18% in 2007. The amount of income devoted to servicing the total of these obligations – 15.28% –  is near historic lows.  (Historical table ) In the past, when this rato has climbed above 17% there has been a recession, a stock market crash, or both.

So there are three components of a family’s monthly obligations: mortgage payments – currently less than 5%; credit card and loans, currently 5.25%; and other obligations, also about 5.25%.  Should interest rates rise in the next two years, credit card and loan payments will rise above the current 5.25% but are unlikely to cause a crisis in household finances.  The percentage of home mortgages which are adjustable have been rising in the past few years but the growing number of these mortgages have been so-called jumbo loans to households with larger incomes. (Daily News  and Wall St. Journal ).  Rising rates will put increasing pressure on homeowners with these types of mortgages but are unlikely to generate a crisis similar to 2008.

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Currency Market

When someone says the dollar is strong, what does that mean?  Investopedia has a fairly concise explanation of the foreign exchange market (Forex) and the history of attempts to structure this market, the largest in the world.

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Medicare Spending

Costs for Medicare and private insurance have grown at annual rates more than double inflation since 1969, as shown in a 2014 analysis of 35 years of Medicare (CMS) data by the Kaiser Family Foundation.  The only good news is that Medicare annual growth has been 2% less than private plans.

The majority of the benefits go to a small group of patients.  “Medicare spending per beneficiary is highly skewed, with the top 10% of beneficiaries in traditional Medicare accounting for 57% of total Medicare spending in 2009—on a per capita basis, more than five times greater than the average across all beneficiaries in traditional Medicare ($55,763 vs. $9,702).”

In its 2013 annual report (highlights) CMS noted that Medicare spending for the past five years had grown at a relatively tame 4% or less – almost double the inflation rate.  This is what passes for good news in federal programs – spending that is only slightly out of control.  Medicaid costs are growing at 6% per year.  Congress and CMS know that they have got to improve spending controls but the players in the health care industry spend a lot of money in Washington so elected and non-elected officials tread carefully when proposing any reforms.

Last month, Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that, by 2018, they would like to make half of Medicare payments to doctors based on the quality of care they provide, not the number of procedures they do.  Under the ACA, 20% of Medicare payments are based on outcomes, not fee for service.  Although HHS says it has saved $700 million over the past two years, few provider organizations meet the guidelines to share in the savings as originally designed.

When Medicare Advantage programs were introduced in 2003, Congress approved additional subsidies to health care providers to reimburse providers for promoting the new plans.  Like all “temporary” subsidies, no one wants to give them up. Because of the subsidies, the plans are relatively low cost and provide a good benefit for the dollar.  Uwe E. Reinhardt, a Princeton professor writing in the NY Times economics blog, referred to a 2010 report on the cost of the popular Medicare Advantage (MA) program: “In 2009, Medicare spent roughly $14 billion more for the beneficiaries enrolled in MA plans than it would have spent if they had stayed in FFS [Fee For Service, or regular] Medicare. To support the extra spending, Part B premiums were higher for all Medicare beneficiaries (including those in FFS).”

As the population ages, Medicare will consume an ever larger percentage of total health care spending.  CMS noted that Medicare’s portion of health care spending in 2013 has been relatively steady over the past few years. A pie chart from 2009 spending illustrates the cost breakdown.  In 2013, we spent 17.4% of GDP on health care, a figure that has remained stable for a few years.  In 2001, the U.S. spent a shocking (at the time) 13.7% of GDP on health care (CMS Source).