Jobs Affect Elections

September 15, 2019

By Steve Stofka

“It’s the economy, stupid,” James Carville posted in the headquarters of Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign. The campaign stayed focused on the concerns of middle and working- class people who were still recovering from the 1990 recession. Jobs can make or break a Presidential campaign.

Each month the BLS reports the net gain or loss in jobs and the unemployment rate for the previous month. These numbers are widely reported. Weeks later the BLS releases the JOLTS report for that same month – a survey of job openings available and the number of employees voluntarily quitting their jobs. When there are a lot of openings, employees have more confidence in finding another job and are more likely to quit one job for another. When job openings are down, employees stick with their jobs and quits go down as well.

President Bush began and ended his eight-year tenure with a loss in job openings. Throughout his two terms, he never achieved the levels during the Clinton years. Here’s a chart of the annual percent gains and losses in job openings.

As job losses mounted in 2007, voter affections turned away from the Republican hands-off style of government. They elected Democrats to the House in the 2006 election, then gave the party all the reins of power after the financial crisis.

As the 2012 election approached, the year-over-year increase in job openings slowed to almost zero and the Obama administration was concerned that a downturn would hurt his chances for re-election. As a former head of the investment firm Bain Capital, Republican candidate Mitt Romney promised to bring his experience, business sense and structure to help a fumbling economic recovery. The Obama team did not diminish Romney’s experience; they used it against him, claiming that Romney’s success had come at the expense of workers. The story line went like this: Bain Capital destroyed other people’s lives by buying companies, laying off a lot of hard-working people and turning all the profits over to Bain’s fat cat clients. The implication was that a Romney presidency would follow the same pattern. Perception matters.

In the nine months before the 2016 election, the number of job openings began to decline. That put additional economic pressure on families whose finances had still not recovered following the financial crisis and eight years of an Obama presidency. Surely that led some working-class voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to question whether another eight years of a Democratic presidency was good for them. What about this wealthy, inexperienced loudmouth Trump? He didn’t sound like a Republican or Democrat. Yeah, why not? Maybe it will shake things up a bit.  Enough voters pulled the lever in the voting booth and that swung the victory to Trump.

In the past months the growth in job openings has declined. Having gained a victory based partially on economic dissatisfaction, Trump is alert to changes that will affect his support among this disaffected group. As a long-time commentator on CNBC, Trump’s economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, is aware that the JOLTS data reveals the underlying mood of the job market. Job openings matter.

Unable to get action from a divided Congress, Trump wants Fed chairman to lower interest rates. There have been few recessions that began in an election year because they are political dynamite. The recession that began in 1948 almost cost Truman the election. The 1960 recession certainly hurt Vice-President Nixon’s bid for the White House in a close race with the back-bench senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy.

In his bid to unseat President Carter in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously asked whether voters were better off than they were four years earlier. The recession that began that year helped voters decide in favor of Reagan.

Although the 2001 recession started a few months after the election, the implosion of the dot-com boom during 2000 certainly did not help Vice-President Al Gore’s run for the White House. It took a Supreme Court decision and a few hundred votes in Florida to put Bush in the White House.

As I noted earlier, George Bush began and ended his eight years in the White House with significant job losses. Those in 2008 were so large that it convinced voters that Democrats needed a clear mandate to fix the country’s economic problems. After the dust settled, the Dems had retained the house, won a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and captured the Presidency. Jobs matter.

The 2020 race will mark the 19th Presidential election after World War 2. Recessions have marked only four elections – call it five, if we include the 2000 election.  An election occurs every four years, so it is not surprising that recessions occurred in only 25% of the past twenty elections, right? It’s not just the occurrence of a recession; it’s the start of one that matters.

Presidents and their parties act to fend off economic downturns with fiscal policy or pressure the Fed to enact favorable monetary policy that will delay downturns during an election. Trump’s method of persuasion is not to cajole, but to criticize and denigrate anyone who doesn’t give him what he wants, including the Fed chairman. To Trump, life is a tag-team wrestling match. Chairman Powell can expect more vitriolic tweets in the months to come. Trump will issue more executive orders to give an impression that his administration is doing something. The stock market will probably go up. It usually does in a Presidential election year.

Optimism Reigns

Dec. 11, 2016

For the second week since the election the SP500 index rose more than 3%, reversing a slight loss the previous week.  The SP500 has added 160 points, or 7.6%, in total since the election.  Barring some surprise, the market looks like it will end the year with a 10+% annual gain, all of it in the 6 – 7 weeks after the election. Small cap stocks have risen 17% in the past five weeks.  Buoyed by hopes of looser domestic regulations, and that international capital requirements will be relaxed, financial stocks are up a whopping 20% in the same time.

Having held their Senate majority, Republicans now control both branches of Congress and the Presidency but lack a filibuster proof dominance in the Senate.  They are expected to pass many measures in the Senate using a budget reconciliation process that requires only a simple majority. The promise of tax cuts and fewer regulations has led investment giants Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to increase their estimate of next year’s earnings by $8 – $10.  Multiply that increase in profits by 16x and voila!  – the 160 points that the SP500 has risen since the election.  The forward Price Earnings ratio is now 16-17x.

Speculation is about what will happen.   History is about what has happened. The Shiller CAPE10 PE ratio is calculated by pricing the past ten years of earnings in current year’s dollars, then dividing the average of those inflation adjusted earnings into today’s SP500 index.  The current ratio is 26x, a historically optimistic value.  The Federal Reserve is expected to raise interest rates at their December meeting this coming week.

As buyers have rotated from defensive stocks and bonds to growth equities, prices have declined.  A broad bond index ETF, BND, has lost 3% of its value since the election.  A composite of long term Treasury bonds, TLT, has lost 10% in 5 weeks.  For several years advisors have recommended that investors lighten up on longer dated bonds in anticipation of rising interest rates which cause the price of bond funds to decline.  For 6 years fiscal policy remedies have been thwarted by a lack of cooperation between a Democratic President and a Republican House that must answer to a Tea Party coalition that makes up about a third of Republican House members.  The Federal Reserve has had to carry the load with monetary policy alone.  Both former Chairman Bernanke and curent Chairwoman Yellen have expressed their frustration to Congress.  If Congress can enact some policy changes that stimulate the economy, the Federal Reserve will have room to raise interest rates to a more normal range.


Purchasing Manager’s Index

The latest Purchasing Manager’s Index (PMI) was very upbeat, particularly the service sectors, where employment expanded by 5 points, or 10%, in November.  There hasn’t been a large jump like this since July and February of 2015.  For several months, the combined index of the manufacturing and service sector surveys has languished, still growing but at a lackluster level.  For the first time this year, the Constant Weighted Purchasing Index of both surveys has broken above 60, indicating strong expansion.

The surge upward is welcome, especially after October’s survey of small businesses showed a historically high level of uncertainty among business owners.  This coming Tuesday the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) will release the results of November’s survey.  How much uncertainty was attributable to the coming (at the time of the October survey) election?  Small businesses account for the majority of new hiring in the U.S. so analysts will be watching the November survey for clues to small business owner sentiment.  Unless there is some improvement in small business sentiment in the coming months, employment gains will be under pressure.



Occasionally productivity growth, or the output per worker, falters and falls negative for a quarter.  Once every ten or twenty years, growth turns negative for two consecutive quarters as it has this year. Let’s look at the causes.  Productivity may fall briefly if businesses hire additional workers in anticipation of future growth.   Or employers may think that weak sales growth is a temporary situtation and keep employees on the payroll.  In either case, there is a mismatch between output and the number of workers.

During the Great Recession productivity growth did NOT turn negative for two quarters because employers quickly shed workers in response to falling sales.  The last time this double negative occurred was in 1994, when employment struggled to recover from a rather weak recession a few years earlier.  For most of 1994, the market remained flat.  In Congressional elections in November of that year, Republicans took control of the House after 40 years of Democratic majorities.  The market began to rise on the hopes of a Congress more friendly to business.  Previous occurrences were in the midst of the two severe recessions of 1974 and 1982.   As I said, these double negatives are infrequent.


The Next Crisis?

The economies of the United States and China are so large that each country naturally exports its problems to the rest of the world.  The causes of the 2008 Financial Crisis were many but one cause was the extremely high capital leverage used by U.S. Banks.  A prudent ratio of reserves to loans is 1-8 or about 12% reserves for the amount of outstanding loans.  Large banks that ran into trouble in 2008 had reserve ratios of 1-30, or about 3%.

Now it is China’s turn.  Many Chinese banks have reported far less loans outstanding to avoid capital reserve requirements.  How did they do this?  By calling loans “investment receivables.”  It sounds absurd, doesn’t it?  Like something that kids would do, as though calling something by another name changes the substance of the thing.  70 years ago George Orwell warned us of this “doublespeak,” as he called it.  Reluctant to toughen up banking standards for fear of creating an economic crisis, the Chinese central bank is planning a gradual move to more prudent standards that will take several years.  However, it is a crisis waiting for a spark.  Here’s a Wall St. Journal article on the topic for those who have access.


Election Volatility

November 13, 2016

Sometimes the hardest thing an investor can do is nothing.  That’s pretty much what a casual investor with a balanced portfolio should do in response to the election results.  With a portfolio of 57% stocks and 43% bonds and cash, my total portfolio has risen 1/2% this week, or much ado about nothing.  Let’s dig into this week’s election results and the market’s reaction.

Donald Trump, the President-elect, has long maintained that his campaign was a movement and was proved right this past Tuesday.  White voters from rural districts around the country rallied in strong numbers to Trump’s promise to straighten up Washington.

Voters generally want a change of direction after one party has occupied the White House for two terms and this election proved to be no different. In the modern era of politics, only H.W. Bush was able to gain a 3rd Presidential term for the Republican party in 1988 after two terms of Ronald Reagan.  Countering the emotion and momentum of the Trump movement on the right were the voters on the left who passionately turned out for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries.  Voters and superdelegates chose the establisment candidate, Hillary Clinton.  Some say that the process and the rules favored Clinton over Sanders.  His supporters are convinced that Sanders could have beat Trump.  Movement against movement.

In the past decade, voters have expressed a preference for rallying cries, for mantras of momentum like “Si se puede!” (Obama), “Build the wall!” (Trump) and “Medicare for all!” (Sanders).  Candidates must learn to condense their message into a short slogan that can be easily waved.  McCain, Romney and Clinton never found a verbal cadence that would act as a catalyst for voters to enthusiastically join the parade.  Sarah Palin, McCain’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 2008, understood the need for slogans.

 Note to future Presidential candidates who would like to actually win:  criticize the candidate, not that candidate’s supporters.  Hillary Clinton made the same mistake that Romney made in the 2012 election – disparaging their opponent’s voters.

Election night.  As a Trump victory became increasingly probable, global markets began to sell risk (stocks) and buy safety (bonds).  In the early morning hours after the polls closed, the networks called the state of Wisconsin for Donald Trump and put him over the threshold of 270 votes in the Electoral College.  Several  minutes later, about 2:45 AM on Nov. 9th, we learned that Hillary Clinton  had called Donald Trump to concede and wish him luck.  Dow Futures were down about 4% at that point.  Japan’s stock market was down 5.5%.  The yield on the 10 year Treasury note was down 7.22%, meaning that the price was up about 8% as investors in world markets were seeking the safety of U.S. debt.  Emerging markets fell in anticipation of protectionist trade policies under a Trump administration.

About 3 A.M.  President-elect Trump began to give a sedate and rational acceptance speech that began with a gracious nod to Hillary Clinton’s fight.  He spoke of unity, healing and more importantly, infrastructure spending and tax cuts.  With control of the Congress and Presidency in Republican hands, there was real hope that Washington could end the years of stalemate and finally implement fiscal policy to rescue a economy that had been kept afloat by an exhausted monetary policy for six years.

The overseas markets began to turn around.  By the time U.S. markets opened more than six hours later, stocks and Treasuries had reversed.  Stocks were now off less than 1/2% and Treasury prices were down severely.  TLT, a popular ETF for long term Treasuries, opened about 2% lower, a price swing of 10%.  EEM, a composite of Emerging Market stocks, opened up almost 3% down and lost ground during the trading session.  By week’s end the SP500 had risen 3.8% for the week, and EEM had fallen by that same percentage.

This week’s action in the bond market was a good example of the mechanics of bond pricing so let’s look at the price action and what it says about the future guesses of the direction and extent of interest rates.  First, bond prices move inversely to interest rates.   The extent that these prices move is measured by a bond’s duration.  Here is a link to the iShares page for the TLT ETF on long term Treasuries.  I have captured a section of the page with the duration highlighted.

If you have a bond fund, the mutual fund company will state the bond duration as well.  What does this tell you?  Leverage.  Duration tells you the approximate change in price for a 1% change in interest rates.  In this case, a 1% increase in interest rates will generate about a 17% decrease in price.  Because TLT is a composite of long term Treasuries, its price is more sensitive to changes in interest rates, or the consensus on interest rates six months to a year in the future.  The price of TLT fell 7.4% this week as traders repriced future interest rates.  With some grade school math, we can calculate what traders are guessing interest rates will be a half year to a year from now.

The Fed last raised rates at the end of 2015, putting them at approximately 1/4% – 1/2%.  In July, the price of this ETF was about $142.  It closed this week at $122, a decline of 14% from the summer high. Now we divide the 14% by the bond’s duration of 17.41% to get a ratio of .80.  This is the new guess of how much interest rates are likely to rise – approximately 3/4% – 1%.  By the fall of 2017, traders are betting that the benchmark Fed interest rate will be about 1.25% to 1.5%.

Let’s look at a more balanced composite bond ETF that financial advisors might recommend for casual investors.  Vanguard has a more conservative composite ETF whose ticker symbol is BND, with a duration of 5.8, about a third of the TLT ETF. (Spec Sheet here)  This week BND lost almost 2% and is down almost 4% from its summer high.  When we divide 4% by 5.8% (the duration in percentage terms) we get a guess of about a .7% raise in interest rates.  Because BND contains shorter term bonds, this guess is slightly below that of TLT.

Why are traders betting on more aggressive interest rate increases after Donald Trump was elected?  He has spoken about infrastructure spending and tax cuts, two fiscal stimulus programs that will likely spur inflation upward.  With a Republican party that has control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress, these measures are likely to be passed in some form.  Some sectors of the economy will likely benefit from more infrastructure spending so they rose this week.  Shares in technology giants like Apple and Google fell as traders switched money among sectors but are still up by healthy margins since February lows.

Let’s say that next March comes and the Trump White House and the House Budget Committee can not come to terms on either of these programs.  Investors would likely reprice interest rate expectations and lower them, causing the price of bond ETFs or mutual funds to rise.


Miscellaneous Election Notes

I’ll share a distinction that NPR’s David Folkenflik made this week.  Those on the left took Donald Trump literally, but not seriously.  Those who voted for him took him seriously, but not literally.

During Thursday’s trading the Mexican peso fell to 15.83 per dollar, the lowest since 1993 when Mexico reset their currency. Why the big drop?  Trump has repeatedly said that he would cancel the NAFTA agreement that binds Mexico, Canada and the U.S.  The NAFTA agreeement requires only a 6 month notification before termination.  There is some disagreement whether the White House would need Congressional approval to cancel NAFTA which might delay the action.  Some in the Republican party like free trade agreements and are likely to put up a fight.  Some analysts think that the devaluation of the peso could lead to a recession in Mexico, which was already under economic pressure due to falling oil prices.

131 out of 231 million registered voters cast their vote in this election, slightly below the voter total in the 2008 election. (538)  Trump and Clinton each took 26% of registered voters.

The Trump White House can reverse Obama’s executive action on the Keystone pipeline and re-initiate construction.  It will likely amend or repeal tentative proposals to mitigate climate change.

Why did pre-election polls get it so wrong?  According to Pew Research, more than a third of households would respond to a survey a few decades ago.  Now it is only 9%.  Statisticians must tweak this rather small sample to make it more representative of the population as a whole.  A particular demographic constituent in the sample – say white working class men – might be underrepresented in the survey.  Survey methodology then gives the opinion of relatively few sample respondents more weight than it actually has in the general voter population.

Some statisticians recommend using economic and demographic algorithms to gauge future election results based on actual past voting records.

Of the 700 counties that voted for Obama in 2012, a third of those voted for Trump in 2016.  Polls indicated that Hillary Clinton would capture the majority of the white college-educated vote for the first time in decades but she failed to do so.  More white voters voted for Obama than Hillary.

A third of Democrats in the House come from just three states:  California, New York and Massachusetts.  This concentration may answer to the concerns of those states but indicates that the party has become out of touch with the voters in many states.

Each time a Democratic candidate is elected President, unfounded rumors circulate that the new President will take away people’s guns.  People rush out to buy guns.  Trump’s surprise win caused the stock of gun maker Smith and Wesson to decline 22% in a couple of days.

On the other hand, many women feared that Trump and a Republican Congress would restrict birth control and stocked up in the days after the election. Here is a map of abortion regulations in the states before the 1972 Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.  Abortion was more permitted in the southern states than the northeast states.

Here‘s a state-by-state breakdown of the vote from NPR.

The Political Battle

October 16, 2016

State and local governments provide the infrastructure of our daily lives, from the streets we drive on to the legal and judicial institutions that maintain a sense of order within our communities, yet we pay far more of our paychecks to a distant capital in Washington.  Why?  To understand we must look at a two century long battle of  opposing ideas, two ideological forces fighting for power.

We can judge the pervasive impact of state and local government by the amount of taxes that they collect to provide that infrastructure.  I’ll count the primary taxes –  sales, corporate and peronal income and property tax.  In the past four quarters, state and local governments collected $1.2 trillion, about 6.5% of the nation’s GDP.

On the other hand, Washington has a much reduced impact in our lives and, we might hope, an accordingly smaller tax bite.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  In the past four quarters, the Federal Government collected almost three times the state and local amount, close to $3.6 trillion. (Chart link).  For the past eighty years, the Federal Government has assumed an ever larger role as a national insurance company. In the past year, the Federal Government collected $1.2 trillion – the same amount as primary state and local government taxes – in pension and medical insurance receipts alone. (Graph link)

The two major political parties in this country have different ideological approaches.  Democrats prefer to have the bulk of tax collections come into a central authority like the Federal Government, where a number of central committees decide on the allocation of those funds.  Republicans favor a system where the majority of tax collections come into the states.  Decisions over the allocation of those tax funds should be more responsive to the voters in that state.
In the Democratic system representatives from each state in both the Congress and Senate must vie with each other for access to tax funds under an ever growing number of programs that the Federal Government oversees.  States are administrative and geographical branches of the Federal Government and have limited autonomy. In the House, this competition exists within a system of seniority so that junior members must compete for favors from senior members who control committee assignments and access to discretionary funds.

The Republican system recognizes state borders and autonomy to a greater degree that promotes competition among states for the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of businesses and individuals.  Within each state, elected members of both parties should compete with each other for tax funds.  Because each state must adhere to a balanced budget by law, spending has more constraints than the Democratic system.

The responsibilities and powers of the Federal Government are more constrained under the Republican system.  When Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to provide for the “general Welfare of the United States,” Republican politicians and conservative justices read the clause literally, that this provision applies to the states, not the people in the states.

Democratic politicians and liberal justices interpret the clause as meaning that the Federal Government has a direct responsibility for the welfare of each citizen within each state and gives the Federal government greater oversight of state and local communities, which are more easily influenced by local economic interests and disciminations. These two competing interpretations were hotly debated at the drafting and ratification of the Constitution so it is likely that the argument may never be resolved as long as this country exists.

Again let’s come back to that pot of money that makes our cities and counties go.  In the current system we take that same amount and give it to the Federal Government, which spends most of it on older people.  This massive transfer of resources from younger generations to an older generation is likely to permanently hobble our economic growth. Under a broader scope of social insurance programs, the people in European nations have reluctantly accepted the tradeoff of economic growth for increased sense of security in their personal lives – more health, job, educational and child rearing protections.  French people have become accustomed to a 10 – 12% unemployment rate.  In the U.S. such a high rate provokes political upheaval.

Do Americans want to follow the European model?  Half of the citizens of this country say yes, half say no.  What we do know from the European and Japanese models is that, as social insurance programs get larger, the transfer of money from the productive element of society to the less productive segment of society hampers growth.  This in turn makes it more difficult to fund those  insurance programs. There is a tried and true maxim that applies here – what can’t last forever, won’t.

Older Americans should understand that there is no social contract other than the informal contract of the ballot box.  Each generation pays into “the system” and waits until it is their time to collect.  Each generation relies on earlier generations to honor the promise but, just in case, the older generations vote far more than younger generations because they want to insure that pension (Social Security) and health (Medicare) benefit laws are protected.

Insurance companies must keep assets in order to pay future claims.  The Federal Government is not an insurance company and keeps no assets to pay future benefits.  Instead, it collects taxes under the Social Security system and puts those funds in the general pot of money, leaving a little slip of paper in the Social Security fund that says “We owe you.”  Really, it is little more than this – an accounting entry. From that big pot of money, benefits are paid.  This is a cash based system called “Pay Go” or “Pay As You Go.”  The lack of an asset base for future benefits means that it is extremely difficult to convert the current system to another type.  Former President George Bush learned this harsh lesson ten years ago when his political talk of privatizing Social Security ran into the harsh realities of actually making the transition. Oops.  Bush dropped the idea.

This election season is another episode in a continuing series, a battle between the forces who want the Federal Government to take an ever greater role in our individual lives, and those who want to roll back national control in favor of state, local and private solutions.  The election will take place shortly before the debut of the next Star Wars movie.  Some Republican voters see the Democratic vision of the political system as the Empire of rigid Federal oversight and conformity, where everyone must come under the authority of a central command.  Some Democratic voters may see themselves as part of the Rebel Alliance, fighters for the vision of the Old Republic, a constitutional democracy of worlds that is similar to the European Union, and, like the EU, was bogged down in bureaucracy.

On November 8th, 130 million people will unsheath their political swords and continue the battle. (Presidential election stats  Starting December 15th, more than 80 million people will fire up their light sabres at the coming Start Wars movie. (Star Wars box office stats).  En garde!

Election Reflections

August 28, 2016

Let’s pay a visit to an earnest voter…

The Labor Day weekend was a week away and the election campaigns would swing into full gear following the holiday. He had a hard time deciding what to do with his vote in November.  His mom used to make it easy, voting the party ticket no matter what. He heard someone say that they would write in Reagan’s name this election. He told himself that he was more conscientious than that so he reviewed some of the issues.

Climate Change

He thought that climate change was at least partially caused by human activity, so he decided he should probably vote Democratic this election. Republicans were climate deniers, weren’t they?  Hell, some Republicans denied evolution.  Michele Bachmann had announced that she wasn’t running for re-election for her House seat. He thought that she should be put out to pasture where she could do the least harm.  He had read a climate scientist writing that it didn’t matter much anymore, that human activity had already flipped the switch.  Sure, we might be able to make a few small improvements, some amelioration of the damage, but it wasn’t worth arguing with others who preferred to think that climate change was as real as Santa Claus.  What was that song by Chris Rea?  The Road To Hell

White House Short-timers

Obama had a few months left in his second term.  Was he hoping that Iran didn’t do something crazy in the meantime?  Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said (Interview with David Axelrod) that the worst day in an election campaign is the best day working in the White House. Everyday some part of everything that happens in the world came into the White House so the stream of problems was constant.

September was coming up.  Did Obama say a little prayer that there would be no financial crisis like the one that beset former Prez Bush in September 2008?  Bush’s body language in those last few months of his second term screamed out that he wanted to be gone from the flood of problems coming across his desk.  Bush had turned out to be a big government Republican with dramatic big government solutions to the financial crisis.  He had flooded Iraq with lots of cash in 2003.  Then he had wanted $700 billion from Congress.  His Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, had famously handed the Congress a scrap of paper, the most concise emergency bailout plan ever devised.  Hank could have written it on a piece of toilet paper in the men’s room.  $700B!

Rock-em-sock-em big government robot fights for justice

Democrats had been proposing big government solutions to society’s problems for as long as he could remember.  Solutions that cost a lot of money and produced meager or mixed results.  Was it bad execution of a good solution or was it the wrong solution?   The Dems were good at blaming someone or something else when their programs didn’t work very well.  Human greed, Republicans, selfishness, and poverty were the usual suspects.

Republicans blamed most problems on government regulators, Democrats, high taxes, and a loss of Christian values.  Republicans believed that a progressive income tax, the taking of money from one person and giving it to another, was a violation of a person’s property rights.  He agreed with that so maybe he should vote Republican.  But then most Republicans wanted to take away a woman’s right to choose what happened inside of her own body.  That was also a violation of a woman’s property rights, a God given right to privacy. So which property rights should he hope to protect with his vote?  Neither party cared much for the Constitution, that was for sure.

Social mores

At heart he was a classic liberal, or what is now called a moderate Libertarian. Gay marriage, fine.  If transgender people wanted to use the sex of bathroom that they identified with, fine.  His granddaughter had said she didn’t care if some transgender boy wanted to use the bathroom. The stalls had doors.  Dems seemed more libertarian on social issues, but very autocratic on economic issues.  Why couldn’t the Dems or Republicans be libertarian on both social and economic issues?  Because then one of them would be the Libertarian Party, he thought ruefully.  The anti-government anarchists had taken over the Libertarian Party several decades earlier.  Maybe it was time for the moderates to take it back?


He didn’t think that politicians in Washington should be using the tax code to correct what they perceived as inequities in society.  It was the Republicans in 2003 who had stopped the practice of penalizing married couples through the tax code.  A Democratic House and Senate had put that one into place in 1971 (1998 article) but it was Nixon, a Republican, who signed the legislation.  Democrats could justify any tax.

The Hammer of God

He didn’t think Bible thumping politicians should be telling us how to live our lives. He was with the Dems on this one.  No, God wasn’t dead.  He was kept alive by politicians who used Him as a rhetorical weapon against the other party. Running for his first term in Congress, Abraham Lincoln, a Whig, had endured accusations that he was not a religious man (Sandburg’s Lincoln bio).  The Whigs had morphed into the Republican Party during the 1850s and now it was the Republicans who used religion as a cudgel against Democrats.  (Obama warning in 2012 race)  Apparently, only Republicans knew God’s will and how to implement it here on earth.  How could he vote for a party that was so conceited and arrogant?


But he also thought that the Federal government had no constitutional right to be telling people that they had to buy health insurance.  Each party wanted to take away people’s rights and freedoms.  As a small employer for several decades, he had often wished that health insurance wasn’t tied to employment. Bigger companies could offer more favorable benefits to good employee prospects, and it was tough to compete with that. Despite his preference for private solutions to societal problems, he wished that there was a program like Medicare for all or no tax write offs for health care benefits.  One or the other.  A public option had been a part of Obama’s 2008 platform (Politifact) but he had not been a particularly strong leader on this one and had encountered resistance from the members of his own party.  The result was Obamacare, a rough draft legislative hodge-podge that was more typical of a preliminary committee product, not a final piece of law.  Democrats just sucked at crafting economic legislation yet, in an ironic twist, they tended to see most of society’s problems as economic ones.  Obama had got his health care legislation passed only to see it used against the Democratic Party in the important census election of 2010, when the Dems lost a large lead and control of the House. Bill Clinton had tried to pass a health care bill in 1993 and lost Democratic control of the Congress to the Republicans in the 1994 election.  The Dems had apparently not learned their lesson.


He couldn’t decide who was going to best keep the country safe.  Republicans seemed to think that Mexicans threatened each American family somehow.  Not all Mexicans, he understood, just illegal Mexicans.  For years, hundreds of thousands of students and visitors had come to the U.S., then overstayed their visas and remained in the U.S. illegally.  According to Republicans, all those other illegals weren’t a problem. Just Mexicans.   The Donald would build a wall.  In 2006, a Republican Congress had approved funds for Homeland Security to build more fences along the southern border.  Neither Democrat or Republican Congresses had been able to move the fence building further along toward actual construction.  Having once solved the problem of building a skating rink in Central Park, the Donald thought that he – and only he – could get this fence thing going.  He wished the Donald good luck in herding 535 fat cats in Congress toward any one project.  As the top Fat Cat, maybe the Donald could make it work.

Crazy vs Experience

Nah, he thought, the Donald was too crazy and inexperienced. Most Presidents were either one or the other, but not both, except for Bill Clinton.  Clinton had been crazy enough to have sex with an intern in the Oval Office and inexperienced enough to propose a universal health care plan.  He had won the Presidency with the lowest popular vote in the country’s history yet Clinton had thought he had some clear mandate. Even strong Democratic control of both the House and Senate could not help him and within two years, Clinton certainly contributed to the loss of  both the House and Senate to the Republicans.

Split the vote

Several decades ago a co-worker had shared his personal voting system.  “Split your ticket in the hope that the government stays split,” the guy had said.  That way the politicians could do the least harm.  Maybe that’s what he would do this election.  His congressional vote didn’t matter.  Few Congressional districts were contested in the general election and his district had voted Democratic for more than forty years.  Republicans would likely keep the House anyway.  Democrats might just take the Senate so he should vote Democratic to make it more likely.  That would help split the Congress.  That still left his vote for President.

Supreme Court

Over and over again he had heard that this Presidential election was a vote for the direction of the Supreme Court for the next decade or more.  His secret hope was that the Court would remain at eight members. If there was no clear majority on the Court then there should be no precedence set in Constitutional law.


Maybe he should vote for the Libertarian Candidate, Gary Johnson?  Johnson seemed neither inexperienced or crazy other than the fact that anyone who runs as a third party candidate in this country must be crazy.  If the Dems took the Senate, they could simply block any nominee to the court and keep the Court at 8 members.  He could tell himself that a Libertarian vote was a combined nod to both the Democrat and Republican parties.  It would not be first time that he had split his vote but it had been quite some time since it did it in the hopes of a split government.


Having resolved all those election issues, he turned his attention to the World Series schedule.  If the series went to seven games, the last game would be played on November 4th, at the height of pre-election coverage and just a few days before the election. (Schedule) If the Cubs were in the World Series for the first time since 1945, the attention of many voters might easily be diverted to the historic match up.  Let’s say the Cubs won the series for the first time since 1908 and let’s imagine that the series went to seven games, with the final game played on Friday, the 4th. KC Royals’ fans had celebrated their 2015 series extra inning win over the Mets just two days after the final game.  He could imagine that millions of Chicago residents and former residents would be there to celebrate the event on Sunday perhaps and the festivities rolling into Monday.  Although Illinois was usually a solid vote for the Democratic Presidential contender, he imagined the possibility that thousands of Illinois voters, distracted by the post-Series events, didn’t vote in Tuesday’s election.  Like Florida in 2000, the results turned on the votes of a few in Illinois and Donald Trump won the Presidency because the Cubs won the series.  Nah, he thought, sounds too much like a bad movie script.

Next week: a troubling long term trend that will hurt many investors


July 3, 2016

A week after crash-go-boom in the stock market following Brexit, the British vote to leave the European Union, the market recovered most of the 5 – 6% lost in the two days following the vote.  The reaction was a bit too intense, inappropriate to an exogenous shock, the vote, whose consequences would take several years to develop. In last week’s blog I had suggested that the market drop was a good time to put some IRA money to work for 2016.  This was not some kind of magic insight.  Each year’s IRA contribution amount is a small percentage of our accumulated  retirement portfolio.

Buying on market dips can be an alternative strategy to regular dollar cost averaging since the market recovers within a few months after most dips, although the recovery is at a slower pace than the fall.  Fear can cause stampedes out of equities; confidence grows slowly.  As an example of an abrupt price decline, the SP500 index fell almost 7% in five days last August, then took more than two months to regain the price level before the fall.  The 12% price drop at the beginning of this year was more gradual, occurring over six weeks.  The recovery to regain that lost ground also took two months, from mid-February to mid-April. In the latter quarter of 2012, the market also took two months to erase a 7% price decline from mid-October to mid-November.

The price level of the SP500 is near the high mark set in May 2015, more than a year earlier.  Only in the past year has the inflation-adjusted price of the SP500 surpassed its summer 2000 level (Chart and table).  Nope, I’m not making that up. The stock market has just barely kept up with inflation for the past 15 years. The inability of the stock market to move higher indicates that buyers are not attracted to the market at current price levels.  The absurdly low interest yields on bonds makes this caution especially puzzling.  As stock prices recovered this past week, prices on long term Treasury bonds should have fallen as traders moved into more risky assets.  Instead, bond prices have risen.  As the price of long term Treasuries (ETF: TLT) broke through its January 2015 high  on Friday, the last day of June, traders began betting against treasuries (ETF: TBF).

Those who are concerned about the return OF their money, the safety searchers buying bonds, are competing against those seeking a return ON their money.  VIG is a Vanguard ETF that focuses on company stocks with dividend appreciation, and is favored by those seeking some safety while investing in stocks. TLT is an ETF of Treasury bonds for those seeking safety and, as expected, pays more in dividends than VIG.  Rarely do we see a broad stock ETF like VIG have a yield, or interest rate, that is close to what a long term Treasury bond ETF like TLT has.  At the end of this week, VIG had a dividend yield of 2.15%, just slightly below TLT.  Why are investors/traders bidding up the price of Treasury bonds?  Some 10 year government bonds in the Eurozone have recently crossed a dividing line and now have negative interest rates.  The low, but positive, interest rates of U.S. Treasury bonds look like big open flowers to the busy bees of institutional investors around the world.

In a large group of investors, buy and sell decisions tend to counterbalance each other.  Occasionally there are periods when such decisions reinforce each other and create a precarious imbalance that all too often rights itself in an abrupt fashion.  Bubbles and – what’s the opposite of a bubble? – are iconic examples of this kind of self-reinforcing behavior.

In another week we will mark the middle of the summer season.  The All-Star game on July 12th occurs near the halfway mark in the baseball season and advises parents in many states that there are still five to six weeks before the kids head back to school.  Our mid-40s is about the midpoint of our working years, a reminder that we need to start saving for retirement if we have not done so already.  It has been seven years since the market trough in March 2009.  Let’s hope that this is the midpoint of a 14 year bull market but I don’t think so.

Next week will be chock full of data before the start of earnings season for the second quarter. We will get the June employment report as well as the Purchasing Managers Index.  In this time of short, sharp reactions to news events, we can expect continued volatility.



Pew Research just released a comparison of earnings by racial group and sex that is based on Census Bureau surveys, the same data that the BLS compiles into their monthly employment reports.  My initial criticism of the Pew Research comparison was that they used the earnings of full and part time workers.  Women tend to work more part time jobs so that would skew the earnings comparison, I thought. Thinking that a comparison of full time workers only would show different results, I pulled up the BLS report which groups the data by sex, only to find out that the differences between the earnings of men and women was about the same.  At the median, women earn 82% of men.

An even more depressing feature of the BLS report is that median weekly earnings have barely kept ahead of inflation during the past decade.  This wage stagnation provides a base of support for the criticisms voiced by former Presidential contender Bernie Sanders in a recent NY Times editorial.
Like a truck stuck in the mud, households are spinning their wheels without making much progress.  In the coming months, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will try to sell themselves as the tow truck that can pull average American families out of the mud. Well, it would be nice if they would conduct their campaigns in such a positive light.  The truth is that each candidate will try to convince voters that voting for the other candidate will get American families stuck deeper in the mud.  The conventions of both parties are later this month.  Expect the mud to start flying soon after they are over.  By election day in November, we will all be buried in mud.

Pickup Purchasing Power

April 24, 2016

Relatively stagnant wages and income inequality have become a frequent theme on the campaign trail.  Let’s look at what I’ll call pickup purchasing power to understand the problem.  Sorry.  No graph from the Federal Reserve on this one.

A favorite vehicle among construction workers is the F-150 pickup, a reliable vehicle with room for a toolbox and a trip to the local lumberyard for supplies.  The MSRP of a standard bed 1998 model, available to the public in September 1997, was $14,835 (Source ) In 2016, the MSRP of that same model is $26,430 (Source), a 78% increase, about 3.2% per year.  There have certainly been improvements in that truck model in the past two decades but customers can not order the model without the improvements.  The basic model is the basic model.

Let’s look now at the wages needed to buy that pickup.  In May 1997, shortly before the 1998 F-150 was released to the public, the BLS survey reported average carpenters’ wages of $30,800.  At that time, wages and salaries were about 70.5% of total compensation, or about $43,700 (BLS report).  In the decade before that, wages as a percent of total compensation had declined from 73.3% in 1988 to 70.5% in 1997.  Rising insurance costs and other direct benefits to employees were slowly eating into the net compensation of the average carpenter.

In 2015, the average wage for carpenters was $43,530.  The BLS reported that wages were now 67.7% of the total employment cost, or about $64,300.  In that 18 year period, carpenters’ wages grew 41% but total compensation grew 47%, or 2.1% per year.  The price of that pickup truck, though, grew at 3.2% per year.  That seemingly small difference of 1% per year adds up to a big difference over the years.  That’s the sense of anger that underlies the current election season.  The growth in price of that pickup is only slightly above the average post WW2 inflation rate of 3%.  It is the wages that have fallen behind.

Trump blames the politicians who have given away American jobs with badly negotiated trade agreements that disadvantage Americans.  Trump’s promise to bring those manufacturing jobs back home wins him popular appeal in those communities impacted by the decline in manufacturing.  The loss of manufacturing jobs has left a larger pool of job applicants for construction jobs.  Some of those displaced workers did not have the carpentry skills needed but some were able to work in roles supervised by an experienced carpenter.  The more the supply of job applicants the less upward pressure on wages. If – a big if – some manufacturing jobs do come back to the U.S., it will help spur more growth in carpenter’s wages.

Bernie Sanders blames the fat cats and proposes taxing all but the poorest Americans to distribute income more evenly. His remedies to promote his programs of fairness are far ranging.  Employers who are currently providing health insurance for their employees will probably welcome a 6.2% payroll tax.  On a forty year old employee making $50,000 a year, the $3100 tax is far less cost than an HMO plan. Employers who do not provide such coverage will resent the imposition of more taxes but at least it will be across the board, affecting all competitors within an industry or local market.  Sanders’ healthcare plan also relies on 10% cuts in payments to doctors and hospitals, who are projected to save at least that much in reduced billing costs.

While Trump addresses a specific demographic, a particular segment of the labor market, Sanders proposes broad remedies to a number of problems.  Trump’s appeal will be to those who want a specific fix.  Bring back jobs to our community.  We’ll figure out the rest.  Sanders’ proposals will appeal to voters who have more confidence in government as a problem solver.


Oil Stocks

Readers who put some money to work in oil stocks (XLE, VDE for example) in late February, when I noted the historical bargain pricing, might have noticed the almost 20% increase in prices since then.  There are a number of reasons for the surge in price but the buying opportunity has faded with that surge.  Inventories are still high relative to demand.  Recent comprehensive market reports from the IEA require a subscription but last year’s report is available to those interested in a historical snapshot of the supply and demand trends throughout the world.  Until 2014, total demand had slightly exceeded supply.  A glance at the chart shows just how tightly coordinated supply and demand are in this global market. A “glut”in supply may be less than 1% of daily worldwide consumption and it is why prices can shift rather dramatically as traders try to guess both short and long term trends in demand and supply.

Building Or Not

March 13, 2016

There are some upcoming changes to claiming rules for Social Security (SS) that take effect at the end of April.  A few weeks ago, Vanguard posted an article explaining some of the changes.

1) The end of “file and suspend,” the strategy where one half of a married couple, “John” we’ll call him, files for SS, then requests that those benefits be suspended.  The spouse, “Mary”, claims a spousal benefit while John’s benefits continue to grow at 8% per year until John is 70 years old.

2) The end of the “restricted application” strategy that allowed a person between the ages of 62 and 70 to collect benefits based on either their work history or their spouse’s history.  This allowed married couples to suspend taking benefits so that they could grow as under the file and suspend strategy.


You Didn’t Build That
In a 2012 campaign speech, President Obama infamously said, “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

With the aid of teleprompters (only $2700) Mr. Obama  is a stirring orator, unlike his predecessor, Mr. Bush, who struggled with pronunciation, cadence and tone.  In contrast to his sweeping rhetoric, impromptu remarks by Mr. Obama are notoriously equivocal or inartful.  This remark was one of those.  Later on in the speech, Obama clarified his sentiments, “we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

In the 2012 election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney used Obama’s own words against him many times.  Many small business start-ups fail and when they do, the bank does not say, “you don’t need to pay your business loan back.  Somebody else made that failure happen.”  In Obama’s philosophy, failure is our personal responsibility but success is not?  It doesn’t play well in the small business community.

In response to February’s job report released last week, Mr. Obama is quite willing to take credit for the jobs created in the past seven years: “the plans that we have put in place to grow the economy have worked.” (Video and transcript) Mr. Obama doesn’t specify what plans.  The President and Congress, Democratic and Republican, have failed to enact fiscal policies that will help American businesses grow.  These leaders, these lifeguards of the economy, can not swim.  The Federal Reserve has had to implement extraordinary monetary policy to keep Americans from drowning.  0% interest rates for SEVEN years and $4 trillion of asset purchases by the Fed have reinflated the stock market and housing prices, the life raft of wealth for most Americans.

A fundamental theme of many elections is “It’s the economy, stupid,” a core mantra of the 1992 Clinton campaign coined by strategist James Carville.   Race and bigotry, defense and security play a part in a candidate’s appeal, but jobs, wages, benefits and taxes motivate voters to pull the lever in a voting booth.  The two outsider candidates, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, play to these economic concerns by promising jobs, or free college and medical care. Both candidates have been accused of being unrealistic and dangerous.

Once in office, most Presidents come to realize the reduced power they have in a Constitutional framework of checks and balances.  Each President must cooperate with a Congress easily swayed by lobbying interests, and fifty state legislatures with varying priorities and interests.

FDR exerted king-like powers during the multiple tenures of his Presidency thanks to the unprecedented majorities in both the House and Senate during the 1930s.  In the 1937-38 session, the Senate was dominated by 76 Democrats out of 100 members.  334 Democrats overwhelmed the 88 Republican members in the House.  During those years, the Supreme Court radically shifted the permissible Constitutional role of the Federal government in our lives.  The four generations that have lived since those policies were enacted continue to struggle with the social and financial consequences of those policies.

We are unlikely to repeat the lopsided majorities of that era simply because we recognize that unrestrained legislative power is dangerous and unhealthy for both our society and economy.  The Parliamentary systems of other developed countries allow a minority of citizens to have it their way, to dominate the policy choices of the majority.  The republican (small ‘r’) and federalist values embedded in the U.S. Constitution make it so much more difficult for a group of American citizens to get their way.  While this is often a source of frustration to policy advocates, we don’t veer off center as easily as other countries.

Focused on the 2016 election, voters may not notice the creeping dangers implicit in the extraordinary monetary measures and debt accumulation of the past twenty years.

Fiscal Cliff

Just pulled out of ElectionVille.  Next stop is FiscalCliffe.   Some of us ride in plush seats, some in coach, others stand in the aisles or ride on the roof, but we are all on the train. In the front car are the really plush seats where the President and Congress sit.   They occupy the front car because they are supposed to be looking out for what comes ahead but they spend most of their time arguing with each other. 

“We need to hook up some more cars so that those people riding on the roof can sit in safety,” the President says. 

“We won’t have enough coal for the engines to pull that many cars,” Republicans say.

“We need have those who are sitting in the plush seats pay more,” the President insists.

“They are already paying way more than their fair share,” Republicans counter.

“The passengers on the train have spoken.  They want the plush seats to pay more,” the President responds.

“They kept us in power in the House because the House controls the money.  They trust us to manage the money and we can not betray that trust.  If we make the plush seats pay more, then the plush seats won’t need as many porters and we will lose jobs,” the Republicans parry.

“I am not going to make the other passengers pay more when the plush seats can easily afford a little more,” the President maintains.

In September, I wrote about the coming “fiscal cliff”, a self-imposed austerity program of spending cuts and tax increases that is due to take effect Jan. 1, 2013, unless the President and Congress can agree to some fiscal balancing program.  After all the election talk and negative campaigns now comes the fiscal cliff chatter, which I am now adding to.

We are about $250 billion away from the debt limit of over $16 trillion dollars.  The Treasury will run out of money by the end of this year.  With some financial sleight-of-hand, the Treasury expects that they can make it till February of next year before the debt limit must be raised.  In July and August of 2011, President Obama and the Republican House could not come to an agreement to raise the debt limit and avoid default.  The fiscal cliff of upcoming spending cuts and tax increases became the devil’s bargain that were agreed to in the compromise that led to the raising of the debt limit to its current level.  The President did not want to come back to Congress for more money until after the election.  After the momentum of the 2010 elections, Republicans thought the election just past might give them control of the Senate and the Presidency.  The grand bargain was set to take effect after the 2012 election, each party thinking that the voters would make a clear choice in the elections.  Instead, the voters chose a divided government with the same power balance as before the election.  In short, voters said “Work it out.”

“Grandpa, what’s the pistol cliff?”

I snort a quick laugh and the inner comic in me speaks up.  “It’s a place where we are all going to shoot ourselves in the foot with pistols.”

“Will somebody shoot my foot?” 

I’ve really stuck my foot in it this time.  “No, your feet will be fine.”

“Will mommy be able to walk after her foot gets shot?”

“Your mom is not going to get her foot shot.  No one is going to get shot.  I was just making a joke.”

“I was on a cliff over the ocean this summer and there were big rocks at the bottom on the beach and the water was going ‘whooompf’ all over the rocks.”

“I’ll bet that was pretty,” I say.

“Cliffs won’t hurt us as long as we stay on the path and don’t climb over the rail.”

Amen, I think.

In the early nineties, the Democrats made a deficit cutting bargain with the first President Bush:  in exchange for tax increases, the Democrats would agree to spending cuts – after the recovery from the recession.  The tax increases were put into law and cost President Bush a second term.  The spending cuts that the Democrats promised never came.  In 1994, the Republicans took the House and forced the issue.  The symbol of the Republican Party is an elephant – and elephants don’t forget.  The President and Democratic Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, will be in budget negotiations with John Boehner, the Republican House Majority Leader, who was in the House in the early nineties.  Also present will be Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, who was in the Senate at that time.  It is doubtful that either of these two Republicans have forgotten.    

GDP and Elections

“Bummer, dude!” may be what President Obama’s election campaign manager thought when the quarterly GDP figures were released this past Friday.  Second quarter growth clocked an anemic 1.5% annualized growth rate – a tepid pace – but one which was slightly above the market consensus of 1.2%.   This first estimate of quarterly GDP growth is often revised up or down 1/2% as more data comes in (BEA Source).  Second and third revisions to the GDP growth rate will follow in August and September, but pose a challenge for any re-election campaign.  What is the pace of this recovery?  It has been three years, or 12 quarters, since the official end of the recession in the 2nd quarter of 2009.  In that time, real or inflation adjusted GDP has grown 6.7%.  What has the been the real GDP growth rate of past recoveries?  Below is a comparison of the total GDP growth of past recoveries and the Administrations in office at the 3 year mark after a recession (Click to enlarge in separate tab)

At the 3 year milestone after the 1960-61 recession, President Johnson had been in office for just two months after the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963.    At mid recovery after the long recession of 1973 – 75, Carter took over the reins from President Ford, who had taken office after Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal.  Likewise, President Clinton took office from the first President Bush near the middle of an ongoing recovery from the recession of 1990 – 91.  In addition to the disgrace of resignation, President Nixon never enjoyed three years without a recession and so does not make it on this chart.  President Johnson has the distinction of never having a recession during his tenure in office.

Although the media and the public like to pin the economic tail on the President, the House and Senate have much more to do with the economy than the President.  Bills originate in the House (primarily) and Senate. Presidents do not initiate legislation.  Below is that same chart showing the mix of House and Senate during each recovery since WW2.

We can’t say that the strongest recoveries are when the House and Senate are the same party as the President.  We might be able to say that recoveries are strongest when Democrats are in the House, but Democrats ruled the house, except for four years in the late forties and early fifties, from 1933 through 1994 – a period of almost sixty years! (Metric Mash)  This doesn’t leave much for comparison.  We can’t say that a mixed Congress of Democrats and Republicans produces a weak recovery.  What makes this recovery unique is that, for the first time since at least 1900, the House switched parties during an economic recovery (Congressional Research Service, NBER and Metric Mash).  In the 2010 elections, anger over the health care act helped fuel a newly established Tea Party which worked within, not outside, the Republican Party and helped that party gain a large number of seats to take the majority in the house.  If history is any guide, the American public can change direction in the House during a recession, after a recovery, but not during a recovery.  The recovery plans set in place by either party need a chance to work themselves out.  To interrupt those plans in midstream produces a stalling effect.

Do the weak economic figures doom Obama’s re-election?  Not so, according to 538.  Whoa!  What’s 538?  The answer is who’s 538. And the answer to that who? is Nate Silver, a statistician who developed a system for predicting the performance of baseball players.  His methods for analyzing baseball proved to be suprisingly accurate in predicting the 2008 and 2010 elections.  After his almost perfect predictions for the 2008 electoral races and the recipient of a few awards, the NY Times licensed Mr. Silver’s blog in 2010. 

You can find Mr. Silver’s take on what the latest GDP figures mean for the election here.  Mr. Silver also has an interesting article on the primary economic indicators he thinks have the most influence on voter’s choices.  You can bookmark his blog here.