The Black Hole of Generational Wealth

January 5, 2020

by Steve Stofka

As we begin this new decade, let’s look at some developing trends. In 2005, the wealth of the Boomer generation (1946-1964) finally surpassed that of their parents (Federal Reserve, 2019). This was the so-called Silent generation born in the years 1925-45. In 2005, each of those two generations owned a quarter of the nation’s wealth for a total of slightly more than half the nation’s wealth. There are about five generations that make up a human life span. Older generations have had more time to accumulate wealth, so this distribution of wealth among the two oldest generations was expected.

Turn the dial forward 14 years to 2019 and the distribution of wealth has changed significantly following the Financial Crisis. The median age of the Boomer generations is now 64 and they own 60% of the nation’s wealth. Even more remarkable is the 25% share of the country’s wealth owned by the oldest generation who are 75 years or older (Federal Reserve, 2017). The median wealth of those oldest households is greater than that of the Boomers.

What happened? Most of that wealth is in real estate. Following the financial crisis, asset prices have recovered. Housing prices have risen sharply on both coasts where most of the country’s population lives. Between the 2013 and 2016 Surveys of Consumer Finances, the median net wealth of the 75+ generation increased 32% while the oldest of the Boomer generation aged 65-74 had a 6% decline.

As these oldest Americans die, their wealth will pass to younger generations but most of it will presumably pass to their immediate heirs, the Boomers. Within five to ten years, the Boomers – less than 25% of the population – will own 70% or more of the nation’s wealth.

The Consumer Survey data shows that approximately 80% of that 70% will be owned by 10% of the Boomers (Federal Reserve, 2017, Figure B). A small percentage of old people will control a majority of the wealth in the country. Wealth buys political influence to protect that wealth. Younger generations have a greater number of votes but have not exercised that vote power in the same percentages as older people. Will the concentration of wealth prod younger people into exercising their power at the ballot box? Older and wealthier Americans have political alliances that give them more electoral power than their vote numbers. In this coming decade younger Americans will have to come out in overwhelming numbers on election days to overcome the power of those alliances. Will we see a generational revolution this decade?

The strength – and weakness – of older people is their predictability. They will counter proposals for fairer wealth distribution with familiar arguments. “These younger people want something for nothing” has been an effective counterargument for several decades. “These policy proposals are socialist and un-American” is another effective ad campaign against policy changes. “How will we pay for this? Higher taxes and less money for working people” is another strategic counterargument that attracts moderate and conservative voters.

The past decade has been historic. We ended the “aughts” or 2000s with the election of a black American for president and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We ended this decade with the impeachment of President Trump. Like President Clinton who was impeached in 1998, both men enjoyed robust economic growth, historically high stock and housing market prices during their terms. Economic well being did not insulate either president from impeachment by the opposite party. Get ready for the next decade. I’m betting that economic disparity and political friction create a maelstrom that makes the past two decades look tame.

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Notes:

Federal Reserve. (2019, December 23). Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989: Wealth By Generation. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/dfa/distribute/table/#quarter:120;series:Net%20worth;demographic:generation;population:all;units:levels

Federal Reserve. (2017, September). Changes in U.S. Family Finances from 2013 to 2016: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances: Table 2. Family median and mean net worth, by selected characteristics of families, 2013 and 2016 surveys. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2017-September-changes-in-us-family-finances-from-2013-to-2016.htm#xtable2-familymedianandmeannetworthb-c9084a05

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

Budget Perspective

June 2, 2019

by Steve Stofka

How does your spending compare with others in your age group? Working age readers may compare their budgets with widely published averages that are misleading because they include seniors as well as those who are still living at home with their parents or are going to college. Let’s look at spending patterns classified by working age consumers 25-65 and seniors whose spending patterns change once they retire.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects data on consumer behavior by conducting regular surveys of household spending (Note #1). These surveys provide the underlying data for the computation of the CPI, the Consumer Price Index. Social Security checks and some labor contracts are indexed to this measure of inflation.

The BLS also provides an analysis of consumer purchasing by household characteristics, including age, race, education, type of family, and location (Note #2). Spending and income patterns by age contained some surprises (Note #3). The average income of 130,000 people surveyed in 2017 was $73K. Seniors averaged $25K in Social Security income. Younger workers aged 25-34, the mid-to-late Millennials, earned $69K, near the average of all who were surveyed. Following the Great Financial Crisis, this age group – what were then the early Millennials in 2010 – earned only $58K, so the growing economy has lifted incomes for this age group by 20% in seven years.

Home ownership is around 62% for the whole population, but far above that average for older consumers. 78-80% of people 55 and older own their own homes. More than 50% of those have no mortgage but too many seniors do not have enough savings. In many states, property taxes are the chief source of K-12 education funding and older consumers have the fewest children in school. Older consumers on fixed budgets resist higher property taxes to fund local schools and they vote in local elections at much higher rates than younger people. Since 2000, per pupil spending has grown more than 20% but most of that gain came in the 2000s.  In the past twelve years, real per pupil spending has barely increased (Note #4). Below is a chart from the Dept. of Education showing per pupil inflation adjusted spending.

Graph link: https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=66

Saving is an expense and working age consumers aged 25-65 are saving 9-12% of their after-tax income, twice as much as the 5.6% average. Wait – isn’t saving the process of not spending money? How can it be an expense?  Call it the imaginary expense, as fundamental to our life cycle as i, the imaginary square root of -1, is to the mathematics of cyclic phenomena. Let’s compare today’s savings percentage with the panic years of 2009-10 just after the financial crisis. Workers in the 25-34 age group – who should have been spending money on furniture and cars and eating out – were saving 20% of their after-tax income (Note #5). That age group will probably carry the lessons – and caution – learned as they began their working career after the financial crisis.

Workers 25-65 spend 28-32% of their after-tax income on housing. Until they are 65, people spend a consistent 12% of their income on food, both at and away from home. Seniors spend less on food but most of that change is because they spend less money eating out at restaurants. Working age consumers spend more on transportation than they do on food – a consistent 15% of after-tax income.

People 65 and older are entitled to Medicare but they spend more on health insurance than working people and the dollar amount of their spending on health care rises by 50%. As a percent of after-tax income, seniors spend 15% while people of working age spend about 6%. Ouch. I’m sure many seniors are not prepared for those additional expenses.

Those of working age should compare their budget averages to other workers, not to the national averages, which include older people and those under 25. Summing up the major expense categories: workers are averaging 30% for housing, 15% for transportation, 12% for food, 11% for personal insurance, pensions and Social Security contributions, 10% for savings and 6% for healthcare.

As Joey on the hit TV show Friends would often say, “So how you doin’?”

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Notes:

  1. Explanation of Consumer Expenditure Survey
  2. Consumption patterns – list Table 1300
  3. The most recent detailed analyses available are for 2017.
  4. Dept of Ed data
  5. Spending and income levels for those aged 25-34 2009-2010.

The Flame of Fame

On Monday, George finished a re-read of Nassim Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness, an examination of probability without the mathematics. Taleb wrote from the point of view of a market trader but the book contained apt lessons for many kinds of decision making.  Mabel went out with a few friends to see the movie Birdman.  She asked George if he wanted to go but he was happy to sit around and read.

Taleb told the story of a emerging market bond trader in the 1990s who made a quarter billion dollars for his firm by “buying on the dips.”  When the price of the bonds declined, the trader took a highly leveraged long position, betting that the price of the bonds would rally.  Each time they did.  The man became convinced that he knew this market well.  He believed in his own astute judgment.  Then came a dip with no subsequent rally.  Instead, prices continued to fall.  The trader had no stop loss set, a floor price where a trader closes his position to prevent further losses.  Instead the trader convinced his bosses at the firm that prices would soon rally.  He increased his position as prices fell further.  Eventually, prices fell so low that the firm, near bankruptcy, fired the trader and closed the position, losing almost 600 million.  George thought about that.  There had been one correction in April and May of 2012, a near correction in October and November of that same year.  Smaller dips had occurred in June and August of 2013, then in January, April and August of this year.  Finally, this month a 7% or so dip.  Like the bond trader in the 1990s, the winning strategy of the past few years had been to buy on these dips.  The subsequent rise in prices helped convince buyers that their particular view of the market, whether fundamental or technical, was a sound one.  Note to self, George thought, don’t confuse good luck with genius.

Earnings and sales reports would drive the market for a few days until Wednesday when the Fed was expected to end its bond buying program.  On Thursday, the first estimate of 3rd quarter GDP would be released.  After the close Monday, Amgen reported earnings that were 12% better than expected.  That would help set a positive mood for Tuesday’s open.

Tuesday’s gauge of consumer confidence from the Conference Board was almost 95, the highest since 2007.  Lower gasoline prices have put extra money in consumer pockets.  A 25% decrease in the price of gas ($4 – $3) puts about $800 in a consumer’s pocket, a “raise” of almost $20 a week.  The declining price of oil caused Chevron to revise its earnings guidance downward by 15-20% for 2014 and 2015 but that was not as bad as anticipated and the shares rose.

The Case Shiller index of home prices in 20 metropolitan areas showed a 5.6% year over year gain, the lowest yearly gain in two years.  After almost a decade, the housing market seemed to be returning to more normal patterns of price appreciation.

On the whole, this earnings season seemed positive but the cautionary tone of Taleb’s book reminded George to stay watchful.  On Sunday, the European Banking Authority had released the results of their 2014 stress tests on more than 120 European banks. Approximately 20% had failed the test, most of them in Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain. When a football game ends, fans leave their seats and move toward the exits in a loosely organized fashion.  When a larger bank or sovereign country seems to be in danger of failing or defaulting, investors rush toward the exits as though someone called “Fire!”  Still, George was feeling – well, vindicated – that he had seemed to catch this latest dip near the bottom.
 
The mild weather of late October continued.  In shorts and tee shirt, George raked leaves in the backyard on Wednesday morning.  Taking a break, he poured himself another cup of coffee, then glanced out the window overlooking the front yard.  “Oh, wow,” he muttered.  He went to the front door, commenting to Mabel as he opened it, “Must be a bad accident down the street.  There’s a Channel 3 van parked across the street.  I’m gonna check it out.”  If Mabel had a stopwatch, she would have clocked 14 seconds before George was rushing back inside, hurriedly closing the front door. “Geez,” he exclaimed.  “What’s wrong?” Mabel asked.  “Some woman from the TV station, she starts running across the street toward the house when she saw me!  She called my name, for Chrissake!”

George walked into the kitchen, then took up a position on the side of the fridge where he could look out the window onto the street without being seen.  “There’s some guy with a video camera with her!” He said, managing to fit anger, annoyance and exasperation into the tone of his voice.  Mabel got up from her chair, stood by the living room window, partly concealed by the drapes as she looked out at the street.  “What do you think they want, George?  Should we go out and talk to them?”  “No, that’s the problem.  I think that’s exactly what they want – to talk to us.  Weird!”  Mabel noticed that the rooftop mounted dish on the TV van had been raised up.  “I think they’re broadcasting, honey,” she told George in a loud whisper.  The woman outside stood on the sidewalk, her back to the house, gesturing, turning to the house, then turning back to the camera man who wielded a shoulder mounted video camera pointed at the woman and George and Mabel’s house.  “They wouldn’t come into our front yard, would they?” George wondered aloud. “Isn’t there some kinda law against that?”

Mabel switched channels from the weather to Channel 3. “Oh, no!  This is a live feed.” She turned up the volume.  The woman reporter standing out on their sidewalk was looking at Mabel from the TV screen. There seemed to be several seconds of delay so that George and Mabel could see the woman reporter gesturing on the front sidewalk, then seeing that same gesture shortly on the TV as though time had fractured.

Reliable source, the reporter said.   In advance of the mid-terms, President visited Liscombs, who have not demonstrated active role in politics for either party.  Speculation about election strategy in the hotly contested Senate and Governor’s races.  A man presumed to be Mr. Liscomb ran back into the house to avoid answering questions.  Supposedly independent political organizations spending a lot of money in Colorado.  Are the Liscombs bundlers for one of these organizations?  Just how independent are these organizations?  Why did the President visit this house, this couple?  Were campaign rules broken?

George had joined Mabel, standing beside her, staring dumbstruck at the TV.  “Are they saying we’re like some kind of political action group like the ones the Koch Brothers fund?” George asked Mabel.  “Oh, they’re not saying anything,” Mabel said with a touch of anger.  “They’re suggesting, provoking…” she stopped as the report concluded.  “Now here comes the tease before the commercial,” she said.  “More on the upcoming elections here in Colorado when we come back,” announced the lunchtime news host.  “You watch too much TV,” George kidded her.  “You’ve gotten hip to their tricks.”

Both of them turned to look outside the living room window.  The reporter now stood with the video tech near the rear of the van.  “I think they’re leaving,” George said.  “No, wait,” Mabel told him.  “The dish on the van is still elevated for upload.  Wait till they lower it.  Then we’ll know they’re leaving.”  “Where did you learn all this stuff?” George asked her.  “Remember when we had that knife fight at the school five years ago?” Mabel asked.  George nodded.  “Two kids went to the hospital.  The local stations covered it, of course.  Got to see the vans.  It’s amazing how much equipment they cram in a regular van.  There’s probably a third person in the van working all the computers and equipment.”

Eventually, the van pulled away from the curb.  George realized that he’d missed the announcement from the Fed on their bond buying program, switched channels to confirm that they had ended the program. Although the Fed had stopped adding to its balance sheet, it continued to hold a whopping $4.5 trillion in assets, the total of the past several years of printing money to support the economy as the country struggled to recover from the Great Recession.

The market closed at the about the same level as Tuesday.  Dreamworks, the studio that produced the How to Train Your Dragon movies,  reported better than expected earnings after the close, sending the stock up 5% in after hours trading.  Kraft also reported earnings slightly higher but the overall sales picture was tepid.  Samsung reported a huge 60% decline in profit, squeezed on the high end by Apple and under pressure from mid and low end competitors.  The giant insurer MetLife had a blow out quarter.  Visa reported better than expected earnings, sending the stock over 4% higher in after market trading.

If Thursday’s first estimate of 3rd quarter GDP growth had come in at 2.5%, below the consensus of 3%, the market could have dropped 2% or more, George thought.  Instead, the estimate was 3.5%.  The market opened up lower then climbed about 1% during the day.

In each earnings season, there are several stories.  One was Gilead Sciences, a small cap biotech firm, whose “killer app”  was a new hepatitis drug called Sovaldi. Gilead reported earnings of $1.79 for the past quarter.  This was about 10% above earlier guidance but in the crazy world of Wall St., investors had been expecting $1.92, a “whisper” earnings number based on anticipated higher sales of Sovaldi.  Instead, sales of the drug were 20% less than the previous quarter.  The stock dropped about 5% on Wednesday, before climbing to new highs on Thursday.  The stock had more than quadrupled since the beginning of 2012.

On Friday the market jumped 1% at the open.  Overnight, the Bank of Japan had announced a massive stimulus program to combat risks of deflation, the bugaboo of all modern economies.  If prices might be slightly lower next year, why buy this year?  As consumers postpone some purchases, the decline in sales leads to further price declines as companies compete more fiercely to get those fewer sales.  Japan’s core CPI, excluding food and energy prices, had risen above 1% in response to earlier stimulus programs but had now fallen in the past several months back toward 1%.

On the domestic front, personal income gains in September were positive, averaging about 2.4% annually and above inflation. Wages and salaries jumped .4%, double the overall income growth. Consumer spending remained tepid, declining to a 1.4% annual pace of growth.  Amazon had warned earlier that they expected the Christmas season to be subdued this year.  Some speculated that the low rate of inflation and consumer spending would further check any rise in interest rates before the middle of 2015 at the earliest.

The market closed just slightly above the level it had reached six weeks earlier.  George had to remind himself that it was just luck.  But he sure felt smart.  Then he noticed a disturbing sign, the dragonfly doji after a gap up, on the chart of SPY, the ETF that tracks the SP500 index. The doji are one of many candelestick patterns, a type of technical analysis that tries to understand the psychology of buyers and sellers in the market from price movements over one to three days. After a number of up days, such a pattern might signal that buying pressure has become exhausted. After reading Taleb’s book, George reminded himself once again to be skeptical of signals. The last dragonfly doji after a 1% gap up that George could find in the past few years occurred on April 28, 2012.  The market had turned down after that one, losing more than 10% over the following five weeks.  Of course, George could have missed some doji simply because the market had not turned after the occurrence of one.  As Taleb noted, our view of historical data suffers from hindsight bias, from knowing what happened after a particular event.  We can not see the future very well but it’s worse than that. We don’t see the past very well either.  George had laughed when he read that.

Next week was the first week of the month when several economic reports would capture the attention of investors.   The monthly labor report at the end of the week would get the most attention.  The ISM indexes of the manufacturing and service sectors would be closely watched for any signs of a slowdown.  The sluggish growth in Europe and the strong dollar would have a negative impact on exports, which would show up in the manufacturing index.  The CWPI, a composite of both of the ISM indexes, had probably peaked the previous month, and should be lower this month as a natural part of the cyclic pattern of the past several years.  Investors could react negatively though to this cyclic decline.  The VIX, the volatility indicator, had dropped into a more calm zone and below its 10 day average.

But investors had not abandoned the safety of long-term Treasuries.

If Republicans took control of the Senate in Tuesday’s election, the market would probably get a boost, George figured.  The results might not be known for days or weeks if there were recounts in some key senatorial races and that might drag the market down a bit in advance of the upcoming labor report.  Would the market go up or down?  George could definitely say yes!  He looked out the window Saturday afternoon and could tell the direction of one thing for sure – leaves.  They were calling to him, or was it his wife with a helpful reminder?

Diminished Expectations

February 3rd, 2014

The SP500 has been hovering over a support trendline in the 1760-1775 range, with buyers coming in at 1775.  At 1750, the market would have corrected 5%, a fairly normal occurrence.  Market watchers have been concerned that the market has not experienced one of these small “shaking of the tree” corrections since May/June of 2012.  Disappointing earnings and revenue reports from bellweather companies, together with selling pressure on some emerging market currencies, have made traders nervous.

The market is composed of buyers and sellers responding within varying time frames.  In a short to mid term time horizon, one person might pay more attention to turbulence in emerging markets or the latest corporate reports.  A mid to long term investor might pay more attention to rising industrial production, healthy GDP numbers, consumer spending and income, and declining unemployment.

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Apple forecast lower than expected revenues for the coming quarter in the China market.  The announcement prompted an 8% decline in the company’s stock.  Facebook reported blow out revenue growth of 63% in the past quarter, causing the stock to rise about 16%.  FB’s active user base has more than doubled in two years.  Despite the robust growth, the sky high valuation of the company reminds me of some internet stocks in the late 1990s.  The stock has a Price to Sales – not Price to Earnings – ratio of about 15 to 1.  Google has a track record of strong revenue and earnings growth and sports a richly valued price to sales ratio of 6.4.  Does Facebook’s short track record deserve a valuation that is more than twice Google’s?  In 2000, Microsoft had a price-sales ratio of 23 to 1. Fourteen years later, Microsoft’s stock sells for 30% less than it did in 2000.  In 2000, Cisco had a price to sales ratio of 30 to 1.  Cisco’s revenues were growing 50% a year.  “The stock is cheap,” some said.  Fourteen years later, Cisco sells for less than a third of what it did in the heady days of rapid growth.  A word of caution to long term investors.

Amazon reported “only” a 20% increase in quarterly revenue during the busy 4th quarter Christmas season. This is five times the sales growth of the overall retail industry so a casual observer might think that the stock enjoyed a healthy bump up in price, right?  Wrong. After rising 50% over the past year, the company’s stock was priced to perfection. The disappointing growth particularly in overseas markets prompted a lot of selling and an 8% decline in price on Friday.

As I noted last week, many retailers will report quarterly earnings in February.  Many companies get a sense of the bottom line that they will report before the official release of quarterly data.  If there are material differences between consensus expectations and forecast results, a company will issue a revised forward guidance.  Wal-Mart did so this past week, revising its revenue and earnings forecast down for the fourth quarter and lowering earnings projections for the coming year.  The company cited a much greater than forecast impact from November’s reduction of the food stamp program.  The severe storms in December also had a material impact on sales.

In the past two months, Wal-Mart’ stock has declined 8%.  Let’s think about that for a moment.  The market value of Apple and Amazon declined 8% in one day.  It takes two months for Wal-Mart’s stock to decline by the same percentage.  Individuals who invest in companies like Apple and Amazon have to be able to take abrupt market gyrations in stride.  Companies are essentially stories.  Some like Apple and Amazon are stories of growth.  There comes a time when the story changes, as it did for Microsoft and Cisco more than a decade ago.  Apple’s story has been “under construction” in the past 18 months. Since the beginning of 2008, Wal-Mart’s stock has risen 56%, Apple’s is up 150%, and Amazon’s market price has soared more than 6 times.  Growth companies offer rich rewards for the investor who has the time to  follow the story, but it can be difficult to know when the story is changing.

During the past 3 weeks, Home Depot has lost about 6% after gaining 35% since the beginning of 2013.  This giant has one foot in the home construction and remodeling sectors, one foot in the retail sector.  The decline reflects lowered near term expectations for both construction and retail.  Consumer spending has risen steadily but incomes are flat.

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December’s report of new homes sold was disappointing.  After rising above an annual level of 450,000 in the fall, sales have fallen closer to the 400,000 mark.

 Some blame the particularly harsh December in the east, some blame the weak labor report released in early January, others blame the low supply, still others blame rising mortgage rates. The Case Shiller home price index shows a year over year gain of almost 14% in metro area homes, indicating relatively healthy demand.  However, the latest Consumer Confidence survey reports a decline in the number of people planning to buy a home.  On an ominous note, pending home sales in December declined more than 8%, the worst monthly decline in almost four years.  Without a doubt, the severe winter weather in the eastern U.S. was a big factor but it is difficult to assess how much of a change.  This is the second report – employment was the first – that was far below even the lowest of estimates.

The link between employment and new home sales is counterintuitive; changes in new home sales anticipate changes in employment.

In a 2007 paper presented at a Federal Reserve conference, economist Ed Leamer demonstrated that changes in residential investment, a relatively small component of the economy, indicate coming recessions and recoveries.  The National Assn of Homebuilders estimates that each new home generates a bit more than three full time jobs.

Residential investment includes new homes, remodels, furniture and appliances.  Eventually residential investment reaches a point where it is contributing too much to the economy. As that percentage begins to correct to more normal levels, the contraction tugs on the total of economic growth.

As you can see in the chart above, a sustainable “sweet spot” is in the 4 to 4-1/2% of GDP range but residential investment is still less than 3% of GDP.  In past recessions, residential investment has helped recovery.  This time is different.  Housing’s less than normal contribution to the nation’s GDP has dampened overall growth.

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The first estimate of GDP growth for the fourth quarter was a rather remarkable 3.1%.  Although this was in line with estimates, I was concerned that the severe winter weather in the east might have more of a negative impact.  A version of GDP that reflects domestic consumption, Final Sales of Domestic Product, showed a modest 2.1% growth in the 4th quarter, reflecting the impact of the weather, I think. The third quarter growth rate was revised to 4.1%, up substantially from the initial estimate of 2.8%.  The hope is that this is now a 4% growth economy and the first quarter of this year may hold some welcome surprises as delayed economic activity in the 4th quarter is rolled into this year’s first quarter.  As I noted a few weeks ago, the wave like trend of the CWI composite index of manufacturing and non-manufacturing indicated a slight lull in these winter months before another peak in early to mid-spring.

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Consumer Confidence rose to 80, the lower bound of what I consider healthy.  This index fell below 80 in the early part of 2008 and did not get above that mark till this past summer, then fell back in the fall.  A separate Consumer Sentiment survey from the U. of Michigan showed a similar reading at slightly above 81.

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January’s monthly employment numbers will be released next Friday.  I ran a chart of those not in the labor force as a percent of those working.  Thirty years ago, the economy was coming out of the most severe employment recession since the Depression.  It is rather disturbing that this ratio continues to climb to the nose bleed levels of that recession thirty years ago.

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The harsh winter weather may be affecting consumers more than businesses.  Chicago and the upper Midwest region got creamed with cold snap after cold snap in December yet industrial production figures for the month are still robust, declining somewhat from the incredibly strong readings of the past few months.

Investing, New Orders, Small Business

December 4th, 2013

This will be a mid-week post of various items I thought were interesting.  The private payroll processor ADP is showing private employment growth 215,000, about 15% above expectations.  This weekend, I’ll cover the employment situation and some long term trends.

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When we buy bonds, we are buying someone’s debt. Really what we are buying is the likelihood that they will pay that debt.  When we buy stocks, we are buying someone’s profits – or the future prospects of those profits.  The S&P500 is an index of the 500 largest domestic corporations.  The BEA tracks the profits of all domestic corporations, not just the 500 largest, before tax adjustments. It is rather interesting to look at the ratio of the SP500 index to corporate profits, in billions.

Using this metric, the exuberance of the internet bubble is striking, far surpassing the housing bubble of the 2000s. It was a time when investment was high in the new digital economy.  The ingenuity of man had finally overcome the business cycle.   The ratio of stock prices to profits didn’t matter because profits were about to go through the roof, man!

Well, it would take a while but eventually profits did go through the roof.  It took a few years.  As a percentage of the nation’s GDP, corporation profits are near 11%.

So pick the story you want to tell.  1) Stocks are undervalued based on historical ratios of prices to profits.  2) Stocks are going to crash because corporate profits are too much a percentage of the economy, an unsustainable situation.  Both narratives are out there in the business press.

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New orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft has been declining of late.

Below is a chart showing the year over year percent gains in new orders and the SP500 index.  There is a loose correlation.  The stock market is usually responding to predictions of future activity as well as political and financial news.   I modified the changes in the SP500 by a little more than half to show the overall trend.

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In 2012, households finally surpassed 2007 levels of net worth.   In the past five years, household assets have risen by a third, more than $14 trillion dollars. More than half of that increase is the rise in stock asset values. In that same period, liabilities have decreased slightly from the $20 trillion.  All of the decrease and more is in mortgages.  This table shows the unsustainable growth in net worth during the housing boom.

Check out the growth in household debt during the housing boom.  Over 10% per year!  Now look at the growth in Federal debt.  There are only two years where it falls below 5%.  Someone once said something like “What can’t go on forever, won’t”.  How long can a government increase its debt 4x, 5x, 10x the rate of inflation or the rate of economic growth?

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A short and very informative book on investing by William Bernstein.

Deep Risk: How History Informs Portfolio Design (Investing for Adults)
William Bernstein

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Words of caution:

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” – Gerald Ford

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Gallup’s survey of consumer spending in November was the strongest November in 5 years.  On the other hand, early reports of the y-o-y gains in retail spending over the 4 day Thanksgiving weekend indicated a meager 2.3%, barely above inflation.  Same store sales at department stores declined -2.8% in the Thanksgiving/Black Friday week, although they are up 2.5% year over year.  As I wrote about two weeks ago, online shopping is now a significant portion, 20%, of total retail sales.  A more complete feel for the consumer’s mood must include sales on Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving.  These showed exceptional gains of 17% over last year’s numbers.

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ISM’s Manufacturing index was 57.3, the strongest in 2-1/2 years.  I’ll update the CWI after I input today’s numbers from the non-manufacturing report.  I was expecting a slight tapering in the composite.  As we saw a few weeks ago, there has been a positive wavelike action and it appeared as though the economy had hit a crest in October.

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In 2010, the Census Bureau reported that there were 5.7 million employers (those with payroll, as opposed to sole proprietors), a decrease of 300,000 from the 6 million employers the Census Bureau counted in 2007.  About 5.1 million employers had less than 20 employees and accounted for 14% of the $5 trillion in payroll. Those small to mid-size companies with 20 to 99 employees accounted for another 14% of payroll.  Mega-employers, those with 500 or more employees, paid out about 57% of total payroll in 2010 and constitute a little more than half of private employment.  These large employers naturally have more influence on policy makers in Washington and in state capitols throughout the nation.

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The National Federation of Independent Businesses’ (NFIB) recent monthly survey reported a fairly sharp decline in sentiment among small business owners. A hopeful sign in this report is the improvement in expectations for future sales.  Sentiment was particularly depressed over the shenanigans in Washington and pessimism towards the regulatory environmnent is near all time highs. A blend of small cap stocks has risen about 36% in the past year.  Small cap value stocks have soared 40%.

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An interesting historical note from the Social Security administration.  As  preamble, Social Security taxes are collected and put in a “separate” accounting fund before they are immediately “borrowed” for the general spending needs of the Federal government.

 President Roosevelt strenuously objected to any attempt to introduce general revenue funding into the program. His famous quote on the importance of the payroll taxes was: “We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.” 

In 1937, the Supreme Court ruled that the Social Security Act was constitutional.  The majority opinion, penned by Justice Cardozo: “The hope behind this statute [the Social Security Act] is to save men and women from the rigors of the poor house as well as from the haunting fear that such a lot awaits them when journey’s end is near.”

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Quite often, our auto or homeowner’s insurance company changes insurance plans on us.  The insurance company sends us a notice that, due to legislative changes or revised company policy, there is a new codicil to all insurance contracts.  Premiums may go up.  The insurance company’s liability may be reduced. Your old plan is being cancelled and reissued with a “-1A” after the policy number. Some of us may skim read the new changes, most of us shrug and sign the new contract and that is the end of the story.  Imagine the headlines: “MINIMUM DEDUCTIBLE RAISED TO 1% OF HOME’S VALUE.  ALL HOMEOWNERS’ INSURANCE CONTRACTS CANCELLED.”  This is what happens.  The old insurance contract is no longer available.

What is the response when the same thing happens to private health insurance  plans under Obamacare?  “Obamacare Forces over 800,000 in N.J. to change insurance plans” is the bold caption of one news story.  People who are unsympathetic to the new health care law will not make the distinction between “insurance plan” and “insurance carrier.”

Twin Horns of an Angry Bull

On Fox News Sunday today, Eric Cantor, the current Republican whip and projected majority leader in the next Congress, stated that “we do not have a revenue problem. We have a spending problem.”

Below is a 10 year chart of Federal Revenues, excluding Social Security taxes (Source). Using CPI adjustment factors from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I have shown revenues in constant 2000 dollars, or real dollars. Mr. Cantor does not think this is a “revenue problem.” I would not want Mr. Cantor as my accountant. (Click to enlarge in separate tab)

The real picture is that we have BOTH a revenue problem and a spending problem.

Below is a chart of defense spending in the past 10 years. In real dollars, it has almost doubled.

Next is a chart of human resource spending. I have excluded most of Social Security and Medicare. It has more than doubled in the past ten years.

Let’s imagine that you and your family were sitting at the kitchen table looking at similar charts of your finances. Your family income is about the same as it was 8 years ago yet your chief expenses have doubled. It’s obvious that your family will have to cut spending. It is also clear that you are going to have to find a way to bring in more money. Now imagine the budget fight when you suggest that you are going to cancel the data plan for your teenage daughter’s cell phone. How will you feel when your spouse suggests selling the newer model car you drive to work and buying an older compact car? What is your spouse’s reaction when you suggest that he or she deliver pizzas at night after work? These are tough discussions at the kitchen table or in the halls of Congress. 

Consumer Spending

OK, you’ve just finished your winter book project, War and Peace, and now you’d like something not quite as long. How about a 100 year history of consumer spending? This 69 (PDF) page report has lots of easily understood graphs and brief summaries of the economic household picture at selected periods during the last century.

Most revealing are the 100 year trend graphs near the end of the report. In chart 40 on (PDF) page 64,

we can see the century long rise of consumer spending in real 1901 dollars despite the fact that food, clothing and housing expenses take up far less of our income today. What are we spending our money on? Chart 43 on (PDF) page 67 shows the share of income that the average household spends on non-necessities, from a low of less than 25% in 1900 to 50% today.

While the percentage of income for most categories of spending have changed, there is one expense that has changed little during the past 100 years: entertainment. Those expenses have decreased only slighty, taking up just over 5% of the average household income.

The last page of the report summarizes the century’s changes in discretionary spending: ” households throughout the country have purchased computers, televisions, iPods,DVD players, vacation homes, boats, planes, and recreational vehicles. They have sent their children to summer camps; contributed to retirement and pension funds; attended theatrical and musical performances and sporting events; joined health, country, and yacht clubs; and taken domestic and foreign vacation excursions. These items, which were unknown and undreamt of a century ago, are tangible proof that U.S. households today enjoy a higher standard of living.”

It is doubtful that we will enjoy an increase in discretionary spending as dramatic as the last 100 years. Chart 43 on (PDF) page 67 shows the leveling that has happened over the past 25 years.

A comparison of a century’s worth of income data shown in Table 27, (PDF) page 56, reveals that there has been dramatic changes in income for the working person. In 1935, the average manufacturing wage was 58 cents an hour, or $7.62 in 2002 dollars. Real manufacturing wages have doubled in 80 years. Real construction wages ($.49 in 1935 = $6.39 in 2002) have tripled in that same time. In the finance and insurance industry, wages have seen the smallest increase in real terms but even those have swelled by 60%. However, after adjusting the wage data in Table 27 for inflation reveals that real wages have decreased in the past 30 years. The boom happened a long time ago.

Accompanied by that dramatic rise in real discretionary income has come the explosive rise of advertising dollars aimed at enticing us to part with that extra income on new cars, electronics, service contracts for cell phones and internet and cable service that we simply can’t do without. In short, the average American household has been sold the idea that these non-essential items are, in fact, necessary.

As noted earlier, the growth in discretionary income as a percentage of total income has slowed, leveling at about 50%. Wages have declined for more than a generation. Until there is some increase in real wages or the invention of a Star Trek like Replicator machine, the proportion of discretionary income will probably remain stagnant and households will continue to tighten their belts.