May 21, 2017

Last week I mentioned the 20 year CAPE ratio, a modification of economist Robert Shiller’s 10 year CAPE ratio used to evaluate the stock market. This week I’ll again look at equity valuation from a different perspective.  The results surprised me.

The date of our birth is circumstance.  When we retire is guided by our own actions and the circumstance of an era. We have no control over market behavior during the twenty year savings accumulation phase before we retire or the distribution of that savings during our retirement.   Let’s hope that we live long enough to spend twenty years in some degree of retirement.

The state of the market at the beginning of the distribution phase of retirement can have a material effect on our retirement funds, as many newly retired folks found out in 2008 and 2009.  Some based their retirement plans on the twenty year returns  prior to retirement.

I’ll use the SP500 total return index ($SPXTR at or ^SP500TR at Yahoo Finance) to calculate the total gain including dividends. The twenty year period from 1988 through 2007 began just after the stock market meltdown in October 1987 and ended just as the 2007-2009 recession was beginning in December 2007. The total gain was 742%, or 11.3% annualized. Sweetness! Sign me up for that program.  Those high returns led many older Americans to believe that they didn’t need to accumulate more savings before retirement.  Then came the double shock of zero interest rates and a 50% meltdown in stock market valuation.

Now let’s move that time block one year forward and look at the period 1989 through 2008. Still good but what a difference one year makes. The total gain was 404%, or 8.4% annualized. That’s a drop of 3% per year! Investors missed the 16% bounce back in 1988 after the October 1987 crash, and the time block now included the 35% meltdown of 2008. There was even more pain to come in the first half of 2009 but I’ll come back to that.

1995 through 2014 was a good period with total gains of 550%, or 9.8% annualized. Shift that time block by two years to the period 1997 through 2016 and the gains fall off significantly. The total gain was 340%, or 7.7% annualized.

We can make a rough approximation of total returns during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, an ugly period for equities. In 1980, someone quipped “Equities are dead.” Twenty year periods ending during this time did not fare so well but still notched gains of more than 6%. Bonds, CDs and Treasuries were paying far more than that at the time. In today’s low interest environment, 6% seems a lot better than it did during the double digit inflation of 1980.

In past weeks I have written about the overvaluation of today’s stock market based on trailing P/E ratio and the smoothed 10 year CAPE ratio. Let’s look at the current valuation from the perspective of this twenty year return. It would come as no surprise that the total twenty year gain hit a low at the end of February 2009 when the market was about a 1/4 of its current valuation. That 20 year annualized gain was 5.7%. What surprised me was that the current valuation shows the same 20 year gain! Using this metric as an evaluation guide, the market sits at a relatively low level just like it was in 1988 and 1989.

The historical evidence shows that stock returns may be erratic but consistently make over 5% over a twenty year retirement period. Those who are newly retired or about to retire might understandably desire more safety. The safest approach is not to suddenly shift one’s portfolio entirely to safe assets.


Income Inequality

Much has been written about the growth of income inequality. The GINI coefficient is the most popular but there are other measures (for those who want to get into the weeds of inequality measures). The Social Security Administration offers a simple indicator of the trend. They track the average and median incomes of millions of earners every year.

When the median and average are fairly close to each other, that indicates that the numbers in the data set are uniformly distributed. As the ratio percentage of the median to the average falls, that indicates that a few big numbers are raising the average but do not raise the median.

Here’s a simple example of an evenly distributed set. Consider a set of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The average is 3.5. The median is also 3.5 because there are three numbers in the set below 3.5 and three numbers above 3.5.  The percentage of the median to the average is 100%.

Let’s consider an unevenly distributed set: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 12. The median is still the same value as the earlier example: 3.5. But the average is now 4.5. The ratio of the median to the average is 3.5 / 4.5 = about 78%.

The ratio of the median to the average income has fallen from 71% in 1990 to 64% in 2015. This indicates that there is a growing number of large incomes in our data set.

Here’s the data in a graph form

Median wages have doubled, or grown by 100%, while average wages have grown by more than 150% in the last quarter century.

Next week I will look at a hypothetical income tax proposal based on income. It might just blow your mind.


Dividend Payout Ratio

FactSet Analytics grouped dividend paying stocks in quintiles (20% bands) by the dividend payout ratio (Chart). This is the percentage of profits that are paid to shareholders in the form of dividends. Over the last 20 years of rolling one month returns the stocks that had the highest and lowest payout ratios had the lowest total return. Think about that. Both the highest and lowest quintiles did the worst. What performed the best? Those stocks that were in the middle quintile, the companies who balanced their profit distributions between investors (dividends) and investment (future sales and profits).



Each month I compute a Constant Weighted Purchasing Index built on a combination of the two Purchasing Manager’s surveys (PMI) each month. For the six month in a row, this composite has shown strong growth and the three year average first crossed the threshold of strong growth in January 2015.

A sub-index composite that I build from the new orders and employment components of the services survey (NMI) shows moderate growth. Its three year average has shown moderate growth since early 2014.


Employment and Economy Swings Up

April 6th, 2014

Capital Goods

Factory orders, including aircraft, rose in February but general investment spending on capital goods declined.  The leveling off of non-defense capital spending in the past year indicates a lack of certainty among many businesses to commit funds for future growth.

A more panoramic view of the past two decades shows a peaking phenomenon at about $68 billion, one which this recovery has not been able to rise above.

Remember that these peaks are in current dollars and do not take inflation into account.  When adjusted for inflation, the trend is not reassuring.  A significant component of capital goods orders comes from the manufacturing sector – manufacturers ordering capital goods from other manufacturers – whose declining share of the economy puts a damper on growth in this area.


Modestly strong job gains of almost 200,000 in March sparked hope that the winter doldrums are over. The private payroll processor ADP reported 191,000 private job gains in March, in line with expectations and revised their February job gains from 139,000 to 178,000.  The headline this month was that private sector employment FINALLY surpassed the level in late 2008.

Net gains or losses in government employment have been negligible in the past several months.  State and local governments have been hiring enough to offset the small monthly declines in federal employees. Total non-farm employment is still below 2007 levels but so-o-o-o-o close.

While the unemployment rate stayed unchanged, many more unemployed started looking for work.  A reader writes “I read that the labor force has increased by 1.5 million from Jan-Mar, but that doesn’t jive with the number of people hired over that time.  Am I missing something here?”

The labor force includes both the employed and the unemployed.  Unemployed people, including those who retire, who have not looked for work in the past four weeks are not considered active participants in the labor force.   Whether a person was 50 or 80, if they started looking for work, they would then be counted in the unemployed and in the labor force.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that:
The basic concepts involved in identifying the employed and unemployed are quite simple:
People with jobs are employed.
People who are jobless, looking for jobs, and available for work are unemployed.
People who are neither employed nor unemployed are not in the labor force.
This definition of the labor force uses the narrowest, or headline, measure of unemployment.  Since the beginning of the year, the labor force has increased 1.3 million, 1.6 million since October.

When people get discouraged, they stop looking for work.  Then a friend says “Hey, ABC company is hiring,” and people start their job hunt again.  In the past quarter, a net 800,000 people have come back into the labor force, despite the record number of people retiring and leaving the work force.

As the economy improves, enrollment in for-profit and community college will continue to decline, accelerating from the 2% decline in 2012 – 2013 (NY Times article)  As students start looking for work, they officially re-enter the labor force.

Retirees: According to PolitiFact 11,000 boomers per day become eligible for Social Security.  Let’s say that only 8,000 per day drop out of the labor force, making a total of about 700,000+ who retired this past quarter.  A job market that can continue to overcome the drag from retirement is a sign of strength.

The Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate is the percentage of (employed + unemployed) / (people who can legally work).  So if the Civilian Labor Force were 150 million and there were 250 million people 16 years and over and not institutionalized, 150/250 = .6 or 60%.  The participation rate is currently at 63%.



In the March ISM survey of service sector purchasing managers, employment rebounded strongly from the contracting readings of February.  New orders grew stronger; both of these components get more emphasis in the calculation of the CWPI.

Weighed down by the winter lull, the smoothed composite index of manufacturing and services growth has declined for six months in a row but this should be the bottoming out of this expansionary wave. Barring any April surprises, March’s strength in employment and new orders should lead to an uptick in  the composite in the coming months.



What are the chances an actively managed fund beat its benchmark?  Not good.  An analyst at Standard and Poors compared various indexes that her company produces vs the performance of actively managed funds.  In the past five years, only 28% of large cap actively managed funds beat the benchmark SP500 index.  Some mid cap and real estate funds did much worse; less than 20% beat their benchmarks.  Consider also that actively managed funds carry higher annual fees and/or operating expenses because the fund has to pay for the brain power of active management.

Employment, New Orders, CWPI

CWPI (Formerly CWI)

The Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI) that I introduced last summer was designed to be an early or timely warning system of weakening elements of the economy.  It is based on a 2003 study by economist Rolando Pelaez on the monthly Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) published by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM).  ISM also produces a Non-Manufacturing index for service industries each month but this was not included in the 2003 study.

The CWPI focuses on five factors published by ISM:  employment, new orders, pricing, inventory levels and the timeliness of supplier deliveries.

The CWPI assigns constant weights to the components of both indexes, then combines both of these indexes into a composite, giving more weight to the services sector since it is a larger part of the economy.  Both the CWPI and PMI are indexed so that 50 is neutral; readings above 50 indicate growth; readings below 50 indicate contraction.  In previous months (here and here), I anticipated that the combined manufacturing and services sector index would move into a trough at this time before rising again in March and April of this year.

A longer term chart shows the wave like formation in this expansionary phase that began in the late summer of 2009.

February’s ISM manufacturing index climbed slightly but the non-manufacturing, or services, index slid precipitously, more than offsetting the rise in manufacturing.  Particularly notable was the huge 9% decline in services employment, from strong growth to contraction.  The service sector portion of the CWPI shows a contraction which some blame on the weather.  A slight contraction – a reading just below 50 – can be just noise in the survey data.  The past two times when the employment component of the services sector has dropped below 48, as it did in this latest report, the economy was already in recession; we just didn’t know it till months later.

A close comparison of the current data with the previous two episodes may sound a cautionary tone.   At this month’s reading of 48.6, the CWPI services portion is not showing as severe a contraction as in April 2001 (43.5) and January 2008 (33.1), when the employment component also dropped below 48.

New orders and employment in both portions of the CWPI are given extra weight. In January 2008, new orders and employment both fell dramatically.  The current decline is similar to the onset of the recession beginning in early 2001, when employment declined severely in April but new orders remained about the same.  Let’s isolate just these two factors and weight them proportionate to their respective weights in the services portion of the CWPI.

Notice that the decline below 50 signaled the beginning of the past two recessions.  Here’s the data in a different graph with a bit more detail.

Some cite the historically severe weather in the populous eastern half of the country as the primary cause for the decline in the services sector employment indicator and it well may be.  If so, we should expect to see a rebound in this component in March.  Basing a prediction on one month’s reading of one or two components of an indicator is a bit rash.  However, we often mistakenly attribute weakness in some parts of the economy to temporary factors and discount their importance because they are temporary – or so we think.

In the early part of 2008, many thought that a healthy correction in an overheated housing market was responsible for the slowdown in economic growth.  In the spring of that year, the bailout of bankrupt Bear Stearns, an undercapitalized investment firm which had made some bad bets in the housing market, confirmed the hypothesis that the corrective phase was nearing its end. As weakness continued into the late spring of that year, some blamed temporarily high gasoline and commodity prices for exacerbating the housing correction.  In the fall of 2008, the financial crisis exploded and only then did many realize that the problems with the economy were more than temporary.

In the early part of 2001, a healthy correction to the internet boom was responsible for the slowdown – a temporary state of affairs.  When the horrific events of 9-11 scarred the country’s psyche, the recession was almost over.  Many were not listening to the sucking sound of manufacturing jobs leaving for China or giving enough importance to the increasing competitiveness of the global market.  Employment would not reach the levels of early 2001 till the beginning of 2005.

This time the slowdown in employment and new orders in the services sector may be a temporary response to the severe winter weather.  Let’s hope so.


Private Sector employment and new unemployment claims

ADP released their February employment report this week and eyes rolled.  January’s benign reading of 175,000 private job gains was so at odds with the BLS’ reported gains of 113,000.  “Oh, wait,” ADP said this week, “we’ve revised  January’s gains down to 127,000.”  In a work force of some 150 million, 50,000 jobs is rather miniscule.  As the chief payroll processor in this country, ADP has touted its robust data collection from a large pool of employers.  A revision of this magnitude leads one to question the robustness and reliability of their methodology, and the timeliness of their data collection.  For its part, the BLS admits that its current data is based on surveys and that each month’s estimate of job gains is largely educated guesswork.  ADP is actually processing the payrolls, which should reduce the amount of guesswork.

Private job gains in February were 10,000 below the consensus 150,000 but this week’s report of new unemployment claims dropped 27,000, bringing the 4 week average down a few thousand.  As a percent of workers, the 4 week average of continuing claims is below the 33 year average and has been since March 2012.  In this case, below average is good.


Employment – Monthly Labor Report

This week’s labor report from the BLS carried a banner caveat that the cold weather in February may have affected employment data.  With that in mind, the headline job gains of 175K were above expectations for 150K job gains.  The unemployment rate ticked up a bit.  If we average the ADP job gains with the private sector job gains reported by the BLS, we get 150K plus 13K in government jobs added for a total of 163K total jobs.  The year over year growth in the number of workers is above 1%, indicating a labor market healthy enough to preclude recession.

A big plus this year is the growth in the core work force, those aged 25 – 54, which finally surpassed the level at the end of the recession in the summer of 2009. 

However, there are some persistent trends independent of the weather that underscore the challenges that the current labor market is struggling to overcome.

As I pointed out last week, there are several unemployment measures, from the narrowest measure – the headline unemployment rate – to wider measures which include people who are partially employed.  The U-6 rate includes discouraged workers and those who are working part time jobs because they can’t find full time jobs.  For a different perspective, let’s look at the ratio of the widest measure to the narrowest measure. The increase in this ratio reflects a growing disparity in the economic well being of the work force.

Contributing to the rise in this ratio is the persistently high percentage of workers who are involuntary part timers.  Looking back over several decades, we can see that the unwelcome spike in this component of the work force can take a number of years to decline to average levels.  Following the back to back recessions in the early 1980s, levels of involuntary part timers took 8 years to recover to average, then quickly climbed again as the economy sputtered into another recession.  We are almost five years in recovery from this recession and have still not approached average.

There are more discouraged workers today than there were at the end of the recession in the summer of 2009.  Discouraged workers are included in the wider measure of unemployment but not in the narrow headline unemployment figure.

The median duration of unemployment remains at levels not seen since the 1930s Depression.  Someone who becomes unemployed today has a 50-50 chance of still being unemployed four months from now.  That would make a good survey question:  “In your lifetime, have you ever been involuntarily unemployed for four months?”

Despite all the headlines that the housing market is rebounding, the percent of the work force working in construction is barely above historic lows.

A recent report by two economists at the New York branch of the Federal Reserve paints a disappointing job picture for recent college graduates.  On page 5 of their report is this telling graph of a higher percentage of recent college graduates accepting low wage jobs.

Low wage and part time jobs do not enable a graduate to pay back education loans.  Almost two years ago, the total of student loans surpassed the trillion dollar mark.  According to the Dept. of Education, the default rate in 2011 was 10%.  I’ll bet that the current default rate is higher.



As is often the case, data from one source partially contradicts data from a different source.  The employment decline reported by ISM bears close watching for further signs of weakness.  The yearly growth in jobs reported by the BLS indicates a relatively healthy job market.

January Employment and Economic Production

February 9th, 2014

The ISM manufacturing report for January reported a severe decline from the robust readings of past months.  New orders suffered the most, dropping from a strong reading of almost 65 in December to just a bit above the neutral reading of 50.  Prices jumped significantly.  Manufacturing’s drop off in new orders comes on the heels of a similar decline in the service sector in December.  This is the third report in the past thirty days that came in below even low estimates, the other two being pending home sales and December’s employment gains.  At mid week, ISM released their January estimate of the health of the service sector which is the bulk of the economy.  Happily, this showed continued growth, helping to offset concerns about a broad slowdown in the economy.

The CWI that I have been tracking continues to show an overall strength, declining slightly to 58 from the rather vigorous reading of 60 last month.  As I noted a few weeks, this index anticipated a winter lull before picking up energy again in early spring.

A reader had difficulty understanding the wave like graph of the CWI.  I indexed it to a starting base then indexed that to the SP500 average in 1997.  Perhaps this will help visualizing the long term response of the SP500 to underlying economic activity.


ADP reported a gain of 175,000 private jobs in January, below the strong 227,000 job gains of December.  There was only a slight revision to ADP’s previous report, confirming the suspicion of some that the greater flaw lies in the BLS figures for December.

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their estimate of 113,000 job gains in January, far below the consensus of about 180,000.  Here’s a story from the Atlantic that captures some of the highlights.  Forgive some of the misspellings, if they are still there by the time you read it.

As I did last month, I’ll show the average of monthly job gains estimated by the BLS and ADP.  ADP does not report government jobs so I’ve just added those in from the BLS report.

The decline below the replacement level of 150,000 may be a temporary response to severe weather conditions in the populous east coast and Chicago region.

The market responded quite favorably to this labor report. A slackening labor market prompted hopes that the Federal Reserve will not accelerate their easing of bond buying.  A large revision of job gains in November was a big positive in the report.  Another positive was the half a million increase in the core work force, those aged 25 – 54.  Men accounted for most of this increase.

The number of people working part time because they can’t find a full time job dropped by a half million but there are still more than 7 million people in this situation.  A 232,000 decrease in the number of long term unemployed was heartening although many lost their unemployment benefits at the end of the year and may have had little choice but to take whatever job they could find.


Doug Elmendorf is the head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that advises the Congress in constructing the budget, making appropriations, and the anticipated or actual economic effects of policy.  In advance of his testimony before the House Budget Committee this past week, the CBO released the highlights of their report. Some talk show hosts and conservative media were trumpeting a loss of 2.3 million jobs due to Obamacare.  In his testimony, Mr. Elmendorf explained that the 2.3 million jobs mentioned in the CBO report are not lost jobs because the CBO does not estimate any reduction in the demand for employees because of Obamacare. The CBO estimated the number of hours that employees would voluntarily reduce their hours in order to meet qualifications for subsidies under Obamacare and divided those total hours by what a full time employee would work in a year.  Since there is a surplus of labor in this country, this voluntary reduction would help those who are either looking for a job or want to work more hours.  The CBO sees no impact on part time jobs that can be attributed to Obamacare.

Republicans and some Independents have repeated the claim that the rich are paying most of the personal income taxes in this country. IRS 2010 data (Table 2 ) doesn’t seem to support that contention.  The top 5% of taxable returns with taxable incomes greater than $200K had taxable income of $1.9 trillion, or 36% of the total $5.3 trillion in taxable income.  On that income, the top 5% paid $513 billion in Federal income tax, 49% of the total.  In a flat tax system, the top 5% would have paid a bit more than $360 billion.

When Republicans use the code words “broaden the tax base” what they mean is that they want a flat tax so that rich people pay the same percentage of tax as poor people.  Several states have such a flat tax system.  To Democrats, a broadening of the tax base means making more of the income of rich taxpayers subject to progressive tax rates.

When Democrats use the code words “paying their fair share” they mean that the rich should pay proportionately more than the additional load of about 32% that they are currently paying.  To Republicans “fair share” means a flat tax.

What the IRS data shows is that the rich are not paying most of the income taxes in this country.  Often tax policy and social benefit programs are lumped together, confusing the issue in the minds of many.  The Tax Foundation did an analysis of the net benefit and expense of taxation and benefit programs.  They report that:

As a group, the bottom 60 percent of American families receive more back in total government spending than they pay in total taxes.

Government tax and spending policies combine to redistribute more than $2 trillion from the top 40 percent of families to the bottom 60 percent.

The methodology that the Tax Foundation uses presumes that everyone benefits equally from public spending like defense, police and the courts.  An alternative assumption that people benefit according to their income results in a $1.2 trillion redistribution, about 40% lower, according to the Tax Foundation.  (Kudos to the Tax Foundation for making both computations.)

What the report does not do – because it is just so hard to do – is calculate age and circumstance related movements of taxpayers from the top 40% to the bottom 60%.  Consider a taxpayer – I’ll call her Linda – making $100,000 who is in the top 40%.  She loses her job and starts collecting unemployment for several months.  Her income now puts her in the bottom 60%.  “Past Linda” was supporting the bottom 60% but “present Linda” is now part of the bottom 60%, according to the methodology used by the Tax Foundation.  Yet if we isolate this one taxpayer, we can say that “past Linda” was actually supporting “present Linda.”  When Linda was making $100K, she presumably paid a lot in income and other taxes, including unemployment taxes paid by her employer.  The Federal Government does not keep records that would allow this kind of inter-temporal analysis.  As a result, we get a distorted view of what is actually happening.

Let’s look at an older taxpayer – I’ll call him Sam – who retires.  Sam was making $80K before he retired and was in the top 40%.  With social Security income and income from savings, Sam now makes $36K in retirement, which puts him in the bottom 60%.  Is Sam being supported by the top 40%?  Statistically he is.  However, most of us would say that Sam is simply living off the benefits that he paid into during his working life.

I appreciate the exhaustive work that the Tax Foundation does but the problem is more complex than they present.  Furthermore, many people are not aware of the difficulties and complications of calculating who supports whom.  Some use this analysis to present the case that the majority of Americans are sucking on the teats of the few well off.  Presidential contender Mitt Romney’s unguarded comment about “the 47%” who are living off the efforts of others did not serve him well in the past election yet a sizeable percentage of voters believe this.

The 16th Amendment passed a century ago allowed the Federal government to tax the income of individuals directly and it was intended to be progressive.  Relatively few paid any income taxes in the first decades after the enactment of the income tax.  Whether one likes the progressivity of the tax code, one has to recognize that the law was intended to be that way when it was passed.

I would like to see the repeal of the 16th Amendment for two reasons: 1) protect individuals from the power of the Federal government; 2) slow the consolidation of money in Washington.  Money brings power and power begets patronage, if not downright graft.  We can never get rid of patronage, only retard the concentration of patronage. Studying 5000 years of history, we have learned that the concentration of power in any political institution ultimately leads to the downfall of that institution.  Only corporations can exist with such a concentration of power and even they sometimes fall when top leadership in a company becomes resistant to change.

Perhaps we could adopt a taxing system where the Federal government taxes the states based on the population in each state.  If a state has 10% of the country’s population, then they would owe 10% of any tax used to replace the current income tax.  Let the states determine how they will collect the money.  Racism has been a constant nemesis of this country and legal protections could be enacted which would prevent states from taxing citizens based on race or sex.  Head taxes have a tawdry reputation because they were often used to disenfranchise poorer voters.  If the population count of a state was simply used as an allotment mechanism and not applied directly to each citizen, I think that this could be a fairer and safer system of taxation.  Certainly, legislation could be passed preventing the denial of rights to a citizen based on a tax.

Could Doug Elmendorf and his cohorts at the CBO build a model based on such a system?



And we’re talking about nine million individuals who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid. They are responsible for a significant amount of spending in both programs — approximately 46% of Medicaid and close to a quarter of Medicare spending annually.  Estimates range that that is anywhere from 300 to $350 billion a year total that we’re [CMS] spending. 
Melanie Bella, Director of the Federal Healthcare Office at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Federal Coordinated Healthcare Office Conference 11/1/2010

Labor’s Journey

January 12th, 2014

A dramatic decrease in new orders, mostly for export, for the non-manufacturing sector of the economy offset other positives in the December ISM report.  The composite non-manufacturing index dropped slightly but is still growing.  A blend of the manufacturing and non-manufacturing indexes, what I call the CWI, declined from its peak as expected. A month ago I noted the cyclic pattern in this index, and the shorter time between peaks as the economy has formed a stronger base of growth. Most businesses are reporting expansion, or strong growth.  Some respondents to the survey noted that the severe winter weather in December had an impact on their business.


Ringing in the New Year, the private payroll firm ADP issued a strong report of employment growth before the release of the BLS figures on Friday.  The reported gain in jobs was above the best of expectations.  In the past few months,  several reports in production and now in employment have exceeded expectations or come in at the upper bounds of estimates.


Wells Fargo announced that they will be offering non-conforming mortgages to selected buyers who present a low risk.  Non-conforming mortgages may be interest only, or have loan to values that don’t meet guidelines. Reminiscent of the “old days,” Wells Fargo intends to hold onto the mortgages instead of selling the paper in the secondary market.

The Gallup organization announced their monthy percentage of adults who are working full time, what Gallup calls the P2P.  I call this the “Carry the Load” folks, those people whose taxes are supporting the rest of the population.  At 42.9%, it is down a percentage point or two from previous winters.

The 4 week average of new unemployment claims is still below 350,000 but 20,000 higher than a month ago.  As I mentioned last week, this metric will be watched closely by traders in the coming weeks.  Although there is little statistical significance between a 349,000 average and a 355,000 average, for example, there is a psychological boundary marked in 50,000 increments.

Friday I woke up and found that somebody stole the ‘1’s at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The BLS reported net job gains were 74,000 and I thought that there was a smudge on my computer screen blocking the ‘1’ of 174,000 and reached out to wipe it off.  There was no smudge.  It is difficult to interpret the discrepancy between the ADP report and the BLS report.  Some say that the particularly harsh winter weather in the midwest and east caused many people to stop looking for work or that many businesses returned their BLS survey late.  If so, we may see some healthy upward revisions to the employment data when the February report comes out. Here’s a look at total private employment as reported by BLS and ADP.

As you can see there is a growing divergence between the two series.  As a percentage of 120 million or so employed in private industry, the divergence of a few hundred thousand is slight.  The BLS assumes a statistical error estimate of 100,000.  But people closely watch the monthly change in employment as a forecast of developing trends in the overall economy, changes in corporate profits and consequently the price of stocks.  Here is a chart of the difference in private employment as measured by the BLS and that measured by ADP.  A positive number means that the BLS is reporting more employment than ADP.

As with any estimates, I tend to average the estimates to get what I feel is a more accurate estimate.  This averaging works well when bidding construction jobs and some statistical experiments have proven the method reliable.  Averaging the two estimates for private payrolls gives us an estimate of job growth that is still above the replacement threshold of about 150,000 net job gains per month needed to keep up with population growth.

The figures above do not include 22 million government employees, or about 14% of total employment.  Flat or declining employment in this sector has dragged down the headline job gains each month.  Adding in net job gains or losses in the government sector gives us a net job gain of about 150,000 in December.

For those of you interested in more analysis of the employment report, Robert Oak at the Economic Populist presents a number of employment charts similar to the ones I have been doing in past months.

For the past 5 – 10 years, much has been written about the growth in income inequality during the past 30 to 40 years. I’ll call income inequality “Aye-Aye” because the abbreviation  “II” looks like the Roman numeral for “2” and because Ricky Ricardo used to exclaim “Aye, Aye, Lucy!” on that much loved comedy series.  Those on the left blame former President Reagan,  British Prime Minister Thatcher, and deregulation for Aye-Aye.  Those on the right blame increasing regulation that disincentivises businesses from taking chances, from making capital and people investments to pursue robust growth. The expansion of social welfare programs makes people ever more dependent on government and less likely to take jobs that they don’t want.  Economists cite the aging of the population as a cause of the growth of Aye-Aye.  Few I know of seriously challenge the idea that Aye-Aye has been happening.  The argument is over the causes and the solutions.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century will add to the debate.  The English translation will be published in March.  A book review in the Economist outlines some of the ideas in the book.  Piketty’s analysis of almost 150 years of data from several countries indicates that the slower an economy grows, the more unequal the distribution of income.  One might think that the U.S. would have the most unequal income distribution, but Piketty reveals that it is France that tops the list.

Piketty’s rule of thumb is that the savings rate divided by a country’s growth rate will approximate the ratio of capital wealth to gross income.  As this ratio increases, more of the national income goes to those with capital wealth. So, if the savings rate is 8% and the growth rate is 2%, then capital wealth will be about four times gross national income.  Furthermore, he finds that population growth accounts for about half of economic growth over the past century and half.  Slowing population growth in the developed nations therefore leads to greater inequality of income.  If this rule of thumb is fairly accurate, stronger economic growth is the only way to lessen the inequality of income that has grown steadily over the past thirty to forty years.

If you are familiar enough with French, you can read a preview here or pre-order the English version here.  The book is sure to spark some lively discussion between those in the economic growth camp and those in the demographic camp.  The topic has long been a topic of discussion in emerging economies.  I will quote from an Asian Pacific policy journal published in 2003, “The most important determinant of inequality is not [emphasis mine] economic growth, however, but rather changes in demographic age structure.”

Winter Wonderland

December 8th, 2013

The Bureau of Labor Statistics rode down like Santy Claus on the arctic front that descended on a large part of the U.S. The monthly labor report showed a net gain of 203,000 jobs in November, below the 215,000 private job gains estimated by ADP earlier in the week, but 10% higher than consensus forecasts.  Thirty eight months of consecutive monthly job growth shows that either:

1) President Obama is an American hero who has steered this country out of the worst recession – wait, let me capitalize that – the worst Recession since the Great Depression, or

2) American businesses and Republican leadership in the House have overcome the policies of the worst President in the history of the United States. 

Hey, we got some Hyperbole served fresh and hot courtesy of our radio and TV!

The unemployment rate dropped to 7.0% for the right reasons, i.e. more people working, rather than the wrong reasons, i.e. job seekers simply giving up.  The combination of continued strong job gains and a big jump in consumer confidence caused the market to go “Wheeee!”


A broader measure of unemployment which includes those who want work but haven’t looked for a job in the past four weeks declined to 7.5%.  This is still above the high marks of the recessions of the early 90s and 2000s.


Construction employment suffered severe declines after the collapse of the housing bubble.  We are concerned not only with the level of employment but the momentum of job growth as the sector heals.  A slowing of momentum in 2012 probably factored into the Fed’s decision to start another round of QE in the fall of last year.


Job gains were broad, including many sectors except federal employment, which declined 7,000. Average hours worked per week rose by a tenth to 34.5 hours and average hourly pay rose a few cents to $24.15.

Discouraged job seekers are declining as well.  The number of involuntary part time workers fell by 331,000 to 7.7 million in November.  As shown in graph below, the decline is sure but slow.


There are still some persistent trends  of slow growth.  Job gains in the core work force aged 25 -54 are practically non-existent.


The percentage of the labor force that is working edged up after severe declines this year but the trend is down, down and more down.


The number of people working as a percent of the total population has flatlined.


Let’s turn to two sectors, construction and manufacturing, which primarily employ men.  The ratio of working men to the male population continues to decline.  Look at the pattern over 60 years: a decline followed by a leveling before the next decline, and so on.  Contributing to this decline is the fact that men are living longer due to more advanced medical care and a fall in cigarette smoking.


The taxes of working people have to pay for a lot of social programs and benefits that they didn’t have to pay for thirty years ago.  Where will the money come from?  A talk show host has an easy solution: tax the the Koch Brothers, cut farm subsidies to big corporations and defense.  Taking all the income from the Kochs and cutting farm subsidies and defense by half will produce approximately $560 billion, not enough to make up for this year’s budget deficit, the lowest in 4 years.  What else?


In a healing job market, those aged 16 and up who are not in the labor force as a percent of the total population  continues to climb.


A familiar refrain is the steady decline in manufacturing employment.  Recently the decline has been arrested and there is even slight growth in this sector.  Although construction is regarded as a separate sector, construction is a type of manufacturing.  Both employment sectors appeal to a similar type of person.  Both manufacturing and construction have become more sophisticated, requiring a greater degree of specialized knowledge.  Let’s look at employment trends in these two sectors and how they complement each other.

During the 90s, a rise in construction jobs helped offset moribund growth in manufacturing employment.

In 2001, China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) , enabling many manufacturers to ship many lower skilled jobs to China.  At the same time, a recession and the horrific events of 9/11 halted growth in the construction sector so that there was not any offset to the decline in manufacturing jobs.

As the economy began recovering in late 2003, the rise in construction jobs more than offset the steadily declining employment in the manufacturing sector.  People losing their jobs in manufacturing could transition into the construction trades.

As the housing sector slowed, construction jobs declined and the double whammy of losses in both sectors had a devastating effect on male employment.

In the past three years, both sectors have improved.

Although the Labor Dept separates two sectors, we can get a more accurate picture of a trend by combining sectors.


In the debate over the effectiveness of government stimulus, there is a type of straw man example proposed:  what if the government were to pay people to dig holes, then pay other people to fill in the holes?  Proponents of Keynesian economics and government stimulus argue that such a policy would help the economy.  Employed workers would spend that money and boost the economy. Those of the Austrian school argue that it would not.  Digging and filling holes has no productive value.  Ultimately it is tax revenues that must pay for that unproductive work.  Therefore, digging and filling holes would hurt the economy.

So, let’s take a look at unemployment insurance through a different set of glasses.  Politicians and the voters like to attach the words “insurance” and “program” to all sorts of government spending.  Regardless of what we call it, unemployment insurance is essentially paying people to dig and fill holes – except that the holes are imaginary.  IRS regulations state that unemployment benefits are income, that they should be included in gross income just as one would include wages, salaries and many other income.

If unemployment is income, how many workers do the various unemployment programs “hire” each year?  Unemployment benefits  vary by state, ranging from 1/2 to 2/3 of one’s weekly wage. (Example in New Jersey)  As anyone who has been on unemployment insurance can verify, it is tough to live on unemployment benefits. I used the average weekly earnings for people in private industry and multiplied that by 32 weeks to get an average pay, as though governments were hiring part time workers.  I then divided unemployment benefits paid each year by this average.  Note that the divisor, average pay, is higher than the median pay, so this conservatively understates the number of workers that are “hired” each year by state and federal governments.

What is the effect of “hiring” these workers?  I showed the adjusted total (blue) and the unadjusted total of unemployed and involuntary part time workers.  The green circle in the graph below illustrates the effect that extensions of unemployment insurance had on a really large number of unemployed people.

At its worst in the second quarter of 2009, the unemployed plus those involuntary part timers totaled 24 million, almost 16% of those in the labor force.  8 million were effectively “hired” to dig imaginary holes.  In the long run, what will be the net effect of paying people to dig holes and fill them?  First of all, a politician can’t indulge in long run thinking.  In a crisis, most politicians will sacrifice long run growth so that they can appease the voters and keep their own jobs.

In the long run, ten years for example, paying people to do nothing productive will hurt the economy.  The argument is how much?   Keynes himself wrote that his theory of stimulus and demand only worked when there was a short run fall in demand.  At the time Keynes wrote his “General Theory,” the world economy was floundering around in a severe depression.  The severe crisis of the Depression birthed a theory that divided the economists into two groups: the tinkerers and the non-tinkerers.  Keynesian economists believe in tinkering, that adjusting the carburetor of the economic engine will get that baby purring.  Austrian or classical economists keep asking the Keynesians to stop messing with the carburetor; that all these adjustments only make the economy worse in the long run.


The November report from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) showed strong to robust growth in the both the manufacturing and services sectors.  As I noted this past week, I was expecting the composite CWI index of these reports that I have been tracking to follow the pattern it has shown for the past three years.  Within this expansion, there is a wave like formation of surging growth followed by an easing period that has become shorter and shorter, indicating a growing consistency in growth.  The peak to peak time span has decreased from 13 months, to 11 months to 7 months.  The index showed a peak in September and October so the slight decline is following the pattern.   IF – a big if – the pattern continues, we might expect another peak in April to May of 2014.

To get some context, here’s a ten year graph of the CWI vs the SP500 index.


As the stock market makes new highs each week, some financial pundits get out of bed each morning, saddle up their horses, load up their latest book in the saddle bags and ride through TV land yelling “The crash is coming, the crash is coming.”  Few people would listen to them if they shouted “Buy my book, buy my book.”  They sell a lot more books yelling about the crash.

How frothy is the market?  I took the log of the SP500 index since January 1980 and adjusted it for inflation using the CPI index.  I then plotted out what the index would be if it grew at a steady annualized rate of 5.2%.   Take 5.2%, add in 3% average inflation and 2% dividends and we get the average 10% growth of the stock market over the past 100 years.  The market doesn’t look too frothy from this perspective.  In fact, the financial crisis brought the market back to reality and since then, we have followed this 100 year growth rate.

Now, let’s crank up the wayback machine.  It’s November 1973.  Despite the signing of the Paris Peace accord and an act of Congress to end the Vietnam war, thousands of young American men are still dying in Vietnam.  The Watergate hearings continue to reveal evidence that President Nixon was involved in the break in of the Democratic National Committee and the subsequent attempts to cover it up.  Rip Van Winkle is disgusted.  “This country is going to the dogs,” he mutters to himself.  He lies down to take a nap in an alleyway of the theater district of New York City.  The SP500 index is just below 100.  Well, Rip doesn’t wake up for 20 years.  In November 1993, he wakes up, walks out on Broadway and grabs a paper out of nearby newspaper machine.  The SP500 index is 462.  Rip doesn’t have a calculator but can see that the index has doubled a bit more than twice in that time.  Using the rule of 72 (look it up), Rip estimates that the stock market has grown about 8% per year.  Which is just about normal.  But normal is what Rip left behind in 1973.  “Normal” is SNAFU.  So he goes back into the alleyway and goes back to sleep for another twenty years, waking up just this past month.  He walks out on Broadway and reads that the index has passed 1800.  “Harumph” Rip snorts.  That’s two doublings in twenty years, a growth rate of a little over 7%.  Rip reasons that eventually he’ll wake up, the country will have mended its ways and Rip will notice a growth rate of 9 – 10% in the market index.  He goes back to sleep.

In the 40 years that Rip has been asleep, we have had three bad recessions in the 70s, 80s and 2000s, a savings and loan crisis in the 80s, an internet bubble, a housing bubble, and the mother of all financial crises.  Yet the market plods along, slowing a bit, speeding up a bit.  Long term investors needs to take a Rip Van Winkle perspective.


And now, let’s hop in the wayback machine – well, a little ways back.  Shocks happen.  During periods when the market is relatively well behaved as it has been this year, investors get lulled into a sense of well being.  From July 2006 through February 2007, the stock market rose 20%.  Steadily and surely it climbed.  Housing prices had already reached a peak and the growth of corporate profits was slowing. Some market watchers cautioned that fundamentals did not support market valuations. At the end of February 2007, the Chinese government announced steps to curb excessive speculation in the Shanghai stock market (CNN article).  The stocks of Chinese companies tumbled almost 10%, sending shocks through markets around the world.  The U.S. stock market dropped more than 5% in a week.

“Here comes the crash” was the cry from some. The crash didn’t come.  Over the next six months, the market climbed 16%.  Finally, continuing declines in home sales and prices, growing mortgage defaults and poor company earnings began to eat away at the market in October 2007.  Remember, there is still almost a year to the big crash in September and October of 2008.


Next week I’ll put on a different shade of glasses to look at inflation.  Cold air, go back to the North Pole.

Price Dividend and CWI

August 11th, 2013

Last week I wrote about viewing trends in the market through the lens of hard cold cash; that is, the dividends paid by the companies in the SP500.  Today, I’ll revisit that subject in a bit more depth.  Beginning in the last quarter of 2008, reported earnings of companies in the SP500 dropped precipitously, plunging about 90% in the first two quarters of 2009.

The portion of those earnings paid as dividends fell 24% from peak to trough, far less than earnings.

Robert Shiller, a Yale economist and co-developer of the Case-Shiller housing index, uses a smoothing technique for calculating a Price Earnings ratio and graciously makes his data available.  He calculates the 10 year average of real, or inflation-adjusted, earnings and divides the inflation adjusted price of the SP500 by that average.  Because of the low inflation environment for most of the past decade, the difference between the two earnings figures, nominal and real, is slight.

The drop in corporate earnings was extreme, more so than any recession, including the Great Depression of the 1930s.   In the 2001 recession, earnings declined to about half of their prerecession peak.  In the recession of the early nineties, it was about 30%.  In the back to back recessions of the early 1980s, corporate earnings fell about 25%.

While Shiller’s method evens out earnings, it has one drawback, one that no one could have foreseen until 2008 simply because it had never occurred.  The severity of the decline in earnings skewed the ten year average of earnings down over the 2002 – 2012 period.  Since the earnings average is the divisor in the Shiller P/E ratio, it correspondingly makes the ratio of the price of stocks a bit higher than it might otherwise be.

For that reason, I’ll look at a less volatile ten year average of dividends; that is, the inflation adjusted price of the SP500 divided by the ten year average of inflation adjusted dividends.

Today’s market prices are at the twenty year average of the real price dividend ratio, which is about 61.  For a number of factors, market prices as measured by this dividend ratio are higher for the past twenty years than the thirty year average of 51.  The tech and real estate bubbles over-inflated prices but investors have been willing to pay more for stocks as bond yields have declined steadily from their nosebleed levels of thirty years ago.

Let’s crank up the time machine and go back a year.  Here are a few quotes from an October 13, 2012 Reuters article after the market had dropped about 2%:

“Central bank-fueled gains took markets within reach of five year highs in September, but now U.S. stock market participants are shifting their focus back to corporate outlooks, and the picture is not pretty.”

The article quoted the director of investment strategy at E-Trade Financial, Michael Loewengart: “The overall tone is so pessimistic that we may see some upside surprises, but we could still suffer considerable losses if the news is bad.”

“Profits of SP500 companies are seen dropping 3% this quarter from a year ago, the first decline in three years”

It was close to being almost the end of the world.  As you read various comments in the news, keep in mind that these remarks are coming from active traders who see a 5% drop as catastrophic if they have not anticipated it through options and other hedging strategies.  For longer term investors, a 5% drop after a 5% rise over several months is more yawn provoking than cataclysmic.

Through the middle of November 2012, the market would drop another 5%.  Slowing corporate profits and the looming – yes, looming – fiscal cliff spooked investors.  Then, on the hopes that the Fed would do something to offset these negatives, the market regained the 5% lost in the previous month.  In mid-December, the Fed announced that it would double its bond purchasing program and the market has been rising since, gaining 20%.  Has this been a new bubble, one we’ll call the “Fed Bubble?”  Some say yes, some say no.

As we read the daily news, let’s keep in mind that in ten years we will have forgotten most of it.  Some fears will seem silly, some may seem prescient.  Each day there are many predictions, some like this one from December 30, 2001: “By the year 2003, there will be 2 types of businesses, those doing business on the internet and those out of business.” (Sorry, I didn’t write down the attribution).  Some predictions will seem rather silly like the one in March 2009 that the SP500 would be below 500 in a month.

Farmers and businessmen in ancient Rome consulted soothsayers who threw chicken bones and read the pattern in the bones to tell their clients whether there would be rains in the spring and how hot the summer would be.  Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were wrong.

Each day the market goes up – or it goes down.  For the past twenty years it has gone up 54% of the time, down 46% of the time.  Going up seems like an odds on favorite but this is complicated by the fact that the market usually goes down faster than it goes up.  There is also a well documented behavioral phenomenon of risk aversion; people respond more emotionally to loss than we do to gains.

This past Monday came the release of the ISM monthly survey of Non-Manufacturing businesses.  Like the manufacturing survey released a few days earlier, this index also surged upward in July, a welcome relief after the declining numbers in June.  I’ve updated the composite CWI that I introduced a while back and compared it to the SP500 and the Business Activity Index of the Non-Manufacturing Survey.

This composite index is weighted 70% to non-manufacturing, 30% to manfacturing.  Because this CWI relies on past months’ activity as a predictor of future conditions, it responds with less volatility to a one month surge in survey data.  As we can see, the tepid growth that began appearing this past spring is still showing in this index, although it is a strong 55.5, indicating sure footed, if not surging, growth.  It has been above the neutral mark of 50 since August 2009.