Marching Forward

April 28, 2019

by Steve Stofka

When former President Obama took the oath of office, the economy was in the worst shape since the Great Depression 75 years earlier. Tax receipts plunged and benefit claims soared. Millions of homes and thousands of businesses fell into the black hole created by the Financial Crisis. In sixteen years of the Bush and Obama presidencies, the country added $16 trillion to the public federal debt, more than tripling the sum at the time Clinton left office in early 2001.

Although growth has remained slow since the financial crisis (see my blog last week), the economy has not gone into recession. Despite the fears of some, a recession in the next year does not look likely. The chart below charts the annual percent change in real GDP (green) against a ratio called the M1 money multiplier, the red line (Note #1). Notice that when the change in GDP dips below the money multiplier for two quarters we have been in recession.

The money multiplier seems to act like a growth boundary. While some economy watchers have warned of an impending recession, GDP growth has been above 2.5% for more than a year and is rising. In 2018, real disposable personal income grew nearly 3%. This is not the weak economic growth of 2011 or the winter of 2015/16 when concerns of recession were well founded.

The number of people voluntarily quitting their job is near the 1999 and 2006 highs. Employees are either transferring to other jobs or they feel confident that they can quickly get another job. An even more important sign is that this metric has shown no decline since the low point in August 2009.

In 2013, the Social Security disability fund was in crisis and predicted to run out of money within a decade. As the economy has improved, disability claims have plunged to all-time lows and the Social Security administration recently extended the life of the fund until 2052 (Note #2).

Approximately 1 in 6 (62 million) Americans receive Social Security benefits and that number is expected to grow to 78 million in a decade. However, the ratio of workers to the entire population is near all time highs. The number of Millennials (1982-1996) has surpassed the number of Boomers. This year the population of iGen, those born after 1996, will surpass the Millennial generation (Note #3). Just as a lot of seniors are leaving the work force, a lot of younger workers are entering. The ratio of worker to non-worker may reach 1 to 1. 45 years ago, one worker supported two non-workers.

As the presidential cycle gets into gear, we will hear claims that there are not enough workers to pay promised benefits. Those claims are based on the Civilian Employment Participation Rate, which is the ratio of workers to adults. While the number of seniors is growing, the number of children has been declining. To grasp the total public burden on each worker, we want to look at the ratio of workers to the total population. As I noted before, that is at an all time high and that is a positive.

Raising a child is expensive. The average cost of public education per child is almost $12K (Note #4).  Public costs for housing, food and medical care can push average per child public cost to over $20K annually.

Let’s compare to public costs for seniors. The average person on Social Security receives $15,600 in benefits (Note #5). In 2018, the Medicare program cost an average of $10,000 per retiree (Note #6). The public cost for seniors is not a great deal more than those for children.

As a society, we can do this.

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Notes:

  1. The M1 money multiplier is the ratio of cash and checking accounts to the amount of reserves held at the Federal Reserve.
  2. SSDI solvency now extended to 2052. Here’s a highlight presentation of the trustee’s report.
  3. Generation Z will surpass the numbers of Millennials in 2019. Report
  4. Public education costs per pupil
  5. Social Security costs
  6. Medicare program cost $583 billion. There are approximately 60 million on the program. CMS

The Line of the Idle

July 8, 2018

by Steve Stofka

It used to be easy for a horse to get a job. This week I’ll look at the workers who have been idled by a century of automation. As a counterpoint to the daily rhythms of being busy, a casual idleness helps us recharge our batteries. In an America whose moral foundations are the Protestant work ethic, a constant idleness taints a person’s character. Those who have retired after a lifetime of work are expected to stay active. Leisure time is a resource not be squandered.

The phrase “pull your weight” meant to act like a horse and contribute to the team effort. From the Revolutionary War for Independence to World War 1, horses fought bravely and earned a place of respect in American history. Many a statue portrays a general atop his brave steed. Horses helped turn America into the bread basket of the world. Then the gas engines came after their jobs. Motors took over the jobs of pulling horse drawn carriages, plows and work wagons. Thousands of horses joined the line of the idle.

Then the engines came for the jobs of the agricultural workers. In the first half of the 20th century, farm employment fell from 40% of the labor force to 20% in 1950, and is 2% today.

Then the robots came for the jobs of manufacturing workers. A 1987 BLS report found that “relatively few employees have been laid off because of technological change.” Thirty years later, the National Council on Compensation (NCCI) summarized data from several sources. “In 2016 the United States produced almost 72% more goods than in 1990, but with only about 70% of the workers.” This two-part report is a bit lengthy but a quick glance at the graphs on the first page tell the story of the decline in agricultural and manufacturing jobs. (Part 1 and Part 2) . As a percent of the labor force, agricultural jobs peaked in the late 1800s. Manufacturing employment peaked just after World War 2.

Robots help assemble the horseless carriages in the car factories. In businesses across the land, the robots now weld and lift, pick and sort, box and ship – jobs that humans had a monopoly on. The robots are now learning how to drive and to think. Almost 40% of adults, and 20% of adults in the prime of their lives now sit idle, joining the horses in pasture.

Electric motors, long chained by a cord to a wall, have broken free and are now taking the jobs of gas engines. Robots built by workers in other countries compete for the jobs of American-built robots. Now the machines are making other machines obsolete.

Forged by the Protestant work ethic, the retired generation of Boomers pursue their leisure in earnest. RV sales are at record levels and last year’s visits to national parks almost matched the record numbers of 2016. Each year there are more visits than there are people in the country (Nat’l Park Service link). This growth in recreation occurs at a time when continuing drought in the western states has put extraordinary pressure on plants and wildlife. Summer in the west is now the season of fire.

In 1900, people welcomed their idleness as a byproduct and hallmark of progress and prosperity. The idleness of prosperity looks very different from the idleness of poverty visible in many troubled countries around the world, including parts of America. Which line is longer and which line are we on?

Building A Peak

June 3, 2018

by Steve Stofka

First I will look at May’s employment report before expanding the scope to include some decades long trends that are great and potentially destructive at the same time. In the plains states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, summer rain clouds are a welcome sign of needed moisture for crops. That’s the good. As those clouds get heavy and dark and temperatures peak, that’s bad. Destruction is near.

May’s employment survey was better than expected. The average of the BLS and ADP employment surveys was 203K job gains. The headline unemployment rate fell to an 18 year low. African-American unemployment is the lowest recorded since the BLS started including that metric in their surveys more than thirty years ago. As a percent of employment, new unemployment claims were near a 50-year low when Obama left office and are now setting records each month.

During Obama’s tenure, Mr. Trump routinely called the headline unemployment rate “fake.” It’s one of many rates, each with its own methodology. Now that Mr. Trump is President, he takes credit for the very statistic that he formerly called fake. The contradiction, so typical of a veteran politician, shows that Mr. Trump has innate political instincts. A President has little influence on the economy but the public likes to keep things simple, and pins the praise or blame on the President’s head.

The wider U-6 unemployment rate includes discouraged and other marginally attached workers who are not included in the headline unemployment rate. Included also are involuntary part-time workers who would like a full-time job but can’t find one. Mr. Trump can be proud that this rate is now better than at the height of the housing boom. Only the 2000 peak of the dot com boom had a better rate.

Let’s look at a key ratio whose current value is both terrific and portentous, like a summer’s rain clouds. First, some terms. The Civilian Labor Force includes those who are working and those who are actively seeking work. The adult Civilian Population are those that can legally work. This would include an 89-year old retiree and a 17-year old high school student. Both could work if they wanted and could find a job, so they are part of the Civilian Population, but are not counted in the Labor Force because they are not actively seeking a job. The Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate is the ratio of the Civilian Labor Force to the Civilian Population. Out of every 100 people in this country, almost 63 are in the Labor Force.

While that is often regarded as a key ratio, I’m looking at a ratio of two rates mentioned above: the Labor Force Participation Rate divided by the U-3, or headline, Unemployment Rate. That ratio is the 3rd highest since the Korean War more, ranking with the peak years of 1969 and 2000. That is terrific. Let’s look at the chart of this ratio to understand the portentous part.

CLFUIRatio
Whenever this ratio gets this high, the labor economy is very imbalanced. Let’s look at some previous peaks. After the 1969 peak, the stock market endured what is called a secular bear market for 13 years. The price finally crossed above its 1969 beginning peak in 1982. In inflation-adjusted prices, the bear market lasted till 1992 (SP500 prices). Imagine retiring at 65 in 1969 and the purchasing power of your stock funds never recovers for the rest of your life. Let’s think more pleasant thoughts!

For those in the accumulation phase of their lives, who are saving for retirement, a secular bear market of steadily lower  asset prices is a boon. Unfortunately, bear markets are accompanied by higher unemployment rates. The loss of a job may force some savers to cash in part of their retirement funds to support themselves and their families. Boy, I’m just full of cheery thoughts this week!

After the 2000 peak, stock market prices recovered in 2007, thanks to low interest rates, mortgage and securities fraud. Just as soon as the price rose to the 2000 peak, it fell precipitously during the 2008 Financial Crisis. Finally, in the first months of 2013, stock market prices broke out of the 13-year bear market.

We have seen two peaks, followed by two secular bear markets that lasted thirteen years. The economy is still in the process of building a third peak. Will history repeat itself? Let’s hope not.

May’s annual growth of wages was 2.7%, strengthening but still below the desirable rate of 3%. The work force, and the economy, is only as strong as the core work force aged 25-54. This age group raises families, starts companies, and buys homes. For most of 2017, annual employment growth of the core fell below 1%. It crossed above that level in November 2017 and continues to stay above that benchmark.

Overall, this was a strong report with job gains spread broadly across most sectors of the economy. Mr. Trump, go ahead and take your bow, but put your MAGA hat on first so you don’t mess up your hair.

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Executive Clemency

This week President Trump pardoned the filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, serving a five-year probation after a 2014 conviction for breaking election finance laws. He helped fund a friend’s 2012 Senate campaign by using “straw” contributions. D’Souza complains that he was targeted by then President Obama and General Attorney Holder for being critical of the administration. A judge found no evidence for the claim but if he didn’t see the conspiracy against D’Souza, then he was part of the conspiracy, no doubt. I reviewed the 2016 movie in which D’Souza unveiled the perfidious history of the Democratic Party and its high priestess, Hillary Clinton.

Prejudice and Jobs

April 22, 2018

by Steve Stofka

America is built on prejudice and the passionate denial that we are a country built on prejudice.

Investors who understand the role of prejudice in the economics of this society can recognize a few early signs of a coming recession. A strong economy, like a bull stock market, raises all boats, including those at the margins who are easily stranded.  During the financial crisis, they were the first to be discarded.  As the current strength of the economy is finally able to lift the fortunes of the more vulnerable, countervailing forces will undermine that strength.

From the country’s founding, broken and forced land treaties, enforced by superior military power, have sidelined those with red skin.  Like the thoroughbred horses in the upcoming Kentucky Derby, Americans with black or brown skin must carry an extra weight during the race of life. I’ll show one data sign of this weight. White people must bear their own burden: privilege. Centuries of discrimination blocked those with black skin from many housing and job choices to give those with white skin a better chance at success. The prejudice against those with brown skin is less strong but has intensified when Candidate Trump used the issue of illegal immigration to taint those with brown skin or Hispanic surnames, regardless of their citizenship.

America has a shorter history of isolating and persecuting immigrants of white skin. First it was the Irish who immigrated to America after the potato blight devastated Ireland’s staple crop in the mid-19th century. Newspapers and periodicals portrayed the Irish as ignorant, shiftless criminals. In a country dominated by Republicans, many Irish were Catholic and suspected of being more loyal to the pope in Rome than democratically elected leaders in America.

As the century turned, Italians and southern Europeans became the target of American prejudice (History). Like the Irish, many Italians were Catholic and not to be trusted. To this day, no Italian has been elected President. JFK was the first successful Irish Catholic candidate for the Presidency, and he had to overcome objections that he would turn to the Pope for advice on national policy.

As discriminatory as Protestants have been to Catholics, they have been especially unkind to those of other Protestant sects. As more Catholics migrated to America, many Protestants in America deflected their prejudices from other Protestants to the Catholics as easy targets of discrimination.

In America, Jews encountered less discrimination than in Europe but housing, job and social discrimination were prevalent in the first half of the 20th Century. In the 19th Century, those of the Mormon faith were driven out of Ohio, then Missouri, and Illinois by Protestant sects who regarded Mormons as non-Christians. The abandoned farms and businesses were auctioned off to the Christian righteous who remained. Mormons escaped across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains to settle in a valley in Utah. Following the Holocaust during World War 2, there was a proposal to settle many European Jews in Utah, but Mormons nixed the idea. Even those who suffer persecution for their religious beliefs are not immune to bias.

From Europe, Protestant settlers brought their prejudices with them. Those Protestants who immigrated to America because of religious persecution were often fleeing long standing animosities with other Protestant sects. Eight of the thirteen colonies established churches of a particular denomination and only those citizens belonging to that denomination were allowed to hold office. Each Protestant sect was convinced that the other sects had strayed from the message and meaning of the Bible. To counter such discrimination, Virginia adopted an amendment to protect religious freedom even before the founding of the United States. Mindful of these bedrock prejudices, the Founding Fathers based the language of the First Amendment on the laws of several states protecting religious freedom.

Jobs and their compensation reflect the value that a society places on an individual’s labor. The graph below is a sign of prejudice in America. The unemployment rate for blacks is always higher than the rate for whites. If this were a chart from the year 1890, the persistently higher unemployment rate could be labeled Irish or Italian.  A disadvantaged class of worker is more willing to do unpleasant jobs for less money.

UnemployBlackWhite

Under Obama, the unemployment rate for black men dropped from 18% in the spring of 2010 to 7.7% in November 2016. Since Trump’s election to the Presidency in November 2016, that rate has fallen another 20%. At 6.1% this rate is the lowest since the early 1970s. There are black grandfathers who thought they might die before seeing a younger generation enjoying an unemployment rate this low.

Still, the current rate for black men is 2.8% higher than the 3.3% rate for white men. Over the past forty years, the average difference between the two unemployment rates is close to 6%. This is the burden of being black in America. In the past half century, there have been few times when the difference in rates is this low: 1) during the Vietnam War when many black and white men were removed from the labor force; 2) 1999, near the height of the dot-com boom; and 3) several months this past year.

UnemplRatesDiff

It’s not just skin color, religion and nationality that drives prejudice in America. Five years after the end of the Civil War in 1865, the 15th Amendment gave black males the right to vote. Women suffragettes lobbied hard to be included in the Amendment and win their right to vote. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were prominent leaders of this movement. The idea was just too crazy, they were told. Women were too guided by their emotions, and too irrational, particularly during their menses, to be trusted with the vote.

In 1920, exactly fifty years later, the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. The Suffragette movement had allied with the Prohibition movement to press each of their causes in a joint effort. The Volstead Act, the implementation of the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquor, was passed a few months before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. They were a package. Had women been granted the right to vote in 1870, the Prohibition movement would have lacked a critical partner to win passage of the Amendment. Without Prohibition, the rise of organized crime might not have occurred.

Whenever there is a war, or any act of aggression with another country, Americans single out those nationalities or races for discrimination. In the 19th Century, those of Mexican descent were vilified after the Mexican-American War.

Many Germans were denied jobs and housing following the start of WW1. Historical prejudices were resurrected. German soldiers, known as Hessians, had fought with the British against American colonists in the War for Independence. Americans began to see that there was something wrong with the German character. Political cartoons pictured Germans as Huns, a mongrel and violent race of uncivilized people always lusting for battle.

Following Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were forced to sell their homes and businesses at below market value, then were moved to internment camps away from the west coast.

The most recent assault on U.S. territory was the 9-11 attack by multiple suicide squads. Most hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, but we did not single out Saudi nationals in the U.S. Unlike the targets of previous war discrimination, Saudis have no unique language. Instead we singled out all Muslims, and all Arab speakers as potential threats.

Prejudice based on sex, on religion, on skin color, and on nationality have formed our country. America is built on prejudice and the passionate denial that we are a country built on prejudice. We can’t do the work of healing until we admit the reality.

Low unemployment rates among minority groups means that the economy is especially strong. Low levels of unemployment for black, brown and white men usually precede a recession. For white men, the benchmark is 4%. For black men, it’s 7%. For Hispanic men, 5%. Below those benchmarks, the Fed has coincidentally seen what they consider to be inflationary pressures.

In a strong economy with low unemployment, confidence and spending increase. This puts some upward pressure on prices. Central bankers jump at the slightest hint of rising prices. Inflation and employment models like the Phillips curve are imperfect. Despite mountains of surveys, equations and data, inflation is difficult to measure, and many factors influence its rise and fall.  Building a model is made more difficult because each high inflation period has had its own unique features. Among economists, fears of an awakening of the inflation beast has persisted since the recovery in 2009.  Economists had begun to worry why the beast has not awoken.  The models said the beast should be awake! Finally, the Fed is seeing some consistent signs that inflation is growing toward their 2% mark. It has begun to lift interest rates to curb inflationary pressures.

I’ve added the Federal Funds rate to a chart of the unemployment rate for white men to show the pattern. I’ve left off the series for black males that I showed earlier so that the chart was not too cluttered.

UnemplVsFedFundsRate

Economists joke that it’s the Fed’s job to remove the punch bowl just when the party is getting going. Want to know what’s ailing the stock market lately? One of them is the greater likelihood of four rate hikes by the Fed this year. At the start of the year, investors put the chances of four rate hikes at 15%. This week it stands at 45%.

To those on the edges of our society and labor force, and to those just entering the job market, the easier job market that others have enjoyed for several years is just opening to them. If there has been a party, they have been left out. As their prospects brighten, the Fed’s raising of interest rates is a cruel joke.

As interest rates go higher, fewer people can afford to buy homes, cars and furniture. Many companies run on borrowed money to meet short term funding needs and long-term investment. As money becomes more expensive, companies tighten their belts and hiring slows. The most vulnerable are the recently hired and they are often the first to be let go. Like marine life that lives in the tidepools at the ocean’s edge, some are left high and dry when the tide of easy money ebbs.

 

Trade Wind Turbulence

April 8, 2018

Remember the clip of Jack Nicholson In the 1980 movie The Shining? Jack hacks his way through a door with an axe, then presses his face to the jagged hole and announces, “It’s Johnny!” Substitute “Trade Wars” and we get a dramatic portrayal of the stock market this past week. On several days, the Dow swung 700+ points, or more than 2%, in response to fears of a tariff feud between the U.S. and China.

The share of global commodities that China consumes far exceeds its share of the world’s population (1/5) or the global economy (1/6). Here’s a chart from Visual Capitalist.

On Thursday, the market opened almost 2% down in response to comments from the chief Tweety Bird in the White House. Later that morning, Larry Kudlow, Trump’s new NEC Director, did a quite effective job of easing market jitters. Kudlow has been a host of CNBC and his own radio program for many years and is savvy to shifting sentiments. No, he said, Trump is a free trader in disguise. This is just a bargaining tactic. The market started the day 500 points down and finished up 240 points.

This is a trader’s market. Much of the price action is taking place in the last hour of the trading day. Each price recovery since mid-March has failed, so the overall sentiment is negative and Friday’s trading was near the 200-day average. For an investor who has not yet made their 2017 IRA contribution, buying now is somewhat equivalent to dollar cost averaging over the past nine months. For those with shorter time horizons, cash looks good till the market finds its head.

The Labor Report for March showed job gains of just 103,000. This was below the 175,000 anticipated gains and far below ADP’s 240,000 estimate of job gains. Mid-March weather on the east coast may have had a negative effect on this month’s survey. The average of the BLS and ADP surveys is 172K, and I find that average to be a more accurate long-term estimate.

The BLS recently released a report on unemployment rates and weekly earnings classified by degree. This chart is a dramatic picture of the advantages of higher education.

UnemplEarnByDegreeBLS
VividMaps released a map showing the income needed to buy an average home in each state. Because the data uses average house prices, the map overstates the affordability problem for many families but does reveal the underlying trend. Why do I say overstates? The average home price is far above the median price because extremely expensive homes raise the average.

First quarter earnings to be released in the next two weeks are expected to show strong annual growth. Will the confirmation of rosy expectations overcome the darker fears of a global trade war? Stay tuned.

The Puff

February 25, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Each week I’m hunting scat, the data droppings that a society of human beings leaves behind. This week I’m looking for a ghost ship called the Phillips Curve, a relationship between employment an inflation that has had some influence on the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. The ideas and policies of others, some long dead, have a daily impact on our lives. I’ll finish up with a disturbing chart that may be the result of that policy.

A word on the word “cause” before I continue. As school kids we learned a simplistic version of cause and effect. Gravity caused my ball to fall to the ground. As kids, we like simple. As adults, we long for simple. As we grow up, we learn that cause-effect is a very complex machine indeed. The complexity of cause-effect relationships in our lives are the chief source of our disagreements.

So, “cause” is nothing more than shorthand for “has an important influence on.” The dose-response mechanism is a key component of a causal model in biology. If A causes B, I should be able to give more of A, the dose, and get more of B, the response, or a more frequent response.

Let’s turn to the Phillips Curve, an idea that has influenced the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy since it was proposed sixty years ago by economist A.W. Phillips. Simply stated, the lower the unemployment rate, the higher the inflation rate. There is an inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation.

Inverse relationships are everywhere in our lives. Here’s one. The lower the air temperature, the more clothes I wear. I don’t say that air temperature is the only cause for how many clothes I wear. There is wind, humidity, sex, age and fitness, my activity level, social protocols, etc. While there is a complex mechanism at work, I can say that air temperature has an important effect on how many clothes I wear. If I measure the varying air temperatures throughout the year and weigh the amount of clothes that people have on, I will get a strong correlation. High temps, low clothes.

Now what if the temperature got colder and people still wore the same amount of clothes? I would need to come up with an explanation for this discrepancy. Perhaps there never was much of a relationship between air temperature and clothes? That seems unlikely. Perhaps clothes fabrics have been improved? I would need to look at all the other factors that I mentioned above. If I could find no difference, then I would have to conclude that air temperature had little to do with clothes wearing. Headlines would herald this new discovery. Important areas of our economy would be upended. Retail stores would stop stocking coats or bathing suits a few months in advance of the season. Businesses around the country who depend on warm weather clothing would go out of business.

Unlike air temperature and clothes, the relationship between inflation and employment is two-way. The change in one presumably has some influence on the other. During the 1970s, inflation and unemployment both rose. The hypothesis behind the Phillips curve posits that one should go up when the other goes down. Some economists threw the Phillips curve in the trashcan of ideas. Milton Friedman, an economist popular for his lectures and his work on monetary policy, proposed a concept we now call NAIRU. This is a “natural” level of unemployment. If unemployment goes below this level, then inflation rises.

Some economists complained that NAIRU was a statistical figment designed to fit the Phillips curve to existing data. Economic predictions based on the Phillips curve have been consistently wrong. Still, the Congress has mandated that the Federal Reserve maintain “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates” (Federal Reserve FAQs). Economists at the Fed must consider both employment and inflation when setting interest rates. The models may not accurately describe the relationship, but many will instinctively feel that the relationship, in some form or another, is valid.

For the past several years, the economy has been at or near maximum employment. In January 2018, the unemployment reading was 4.1%. Whenever that rate has been this low, the country has either been at war or within a year of being in recession. The puzzlement: only lately have there been signs of an awakening inflation.

Because inflation was below the Fed’s 2% benchmark while unemployment declined, the Fed kept its key interest rate near zero for seven years. For its 105 year history, the Fed has never kept interest rates this low for as long as it did. Low interest rates fuel asset bubbles. Such low rates cause people and institutions who depend on income to take inappropriate risks to earn more income. The financial industry develops and markets new products that hide risk and provide that extra measure of income. We can guess that these products are out in the marketplace, waiting to blow up the financial system if a set of circumstances occurs. What set of circumstances? We will only know that in the rear view mirror.

Here’s a chart that tracks price movement of the SP500 ETF SPY for the past twenty years. I’ve shown the tripling in price that has occurred during the past five years.  Notice the long stalk of rising prices. That growth has been nurtured by the Fed’s policy.  Well, maybe this time is different.  Maybe not.

SPYPF20180223

Long-Term Trends

January 7th, 2018

by Steve Stofka

This week I’ll look at a few long-term trends in the marketplace for goods and labor.  Millennials born between approximately 1982 – 2002 are now the largest generation alive. Their tastes will dominate the marketplace for the next twenty years at least.  In the first eighteen years of the new century, change has been a dominant theme.

Some businesses drowned in the rush of change. A former member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the film giant Eastman Kodak is a shadow of its former self after it emerged from bankruptcy in 2013.

Some in the music business complain that the younger generations don’t want to pay for music. Much of YouTube music is pirated material and yes, Google, the site’s owner, does remove content in response to complaints. There’s just so much of it. Album sales revenue in the U.S., both digital and physical, fell 40% in the five years from 2011 to 2016. Globally, the entire music business has lost 40% in revenues since the millennium and is just now starting to grow again (More).

Some in the porn industry make the same complaint as those in the music business. As online demand for porn grew, the industry helped pioneer digital payment security. Now there is too much free porn on the internet. Producers and distributors pirate each other’s content. Who wants to invest in good production values only to see their work ripped off? (Atlantic article/interview on the porn industry) Will the lack of quality reduce demand? ROFL!

An ever-diminishing number of city newspapers struggle to survive. Some complain that people don’t want to pay for local news. Local reporters have long been the bloodhounds who sniff out the corruption in city halls and state capitols around the country. There are fewer of them now.  Think that corruption has been reduced?  ROFL!

Surviving bookstores glance over their shoulders at Amazon’s growing physical presence in the marketplace. This year Amazon became the 4th largest chain of physical bookstores. The large book publishing houses try to preserve their hegemony as readers turn to a greater variety of alternatively published books.

As online sales grow, brick and mortar stores struggle to produce enough revenue growth to sustain the costs of a physical store.  During the past three years, an ETF basket of retail sector stocks (XRT) is down almost 10%.

Hip-hop music was a fad of the ‘80s and ’90 until It wasn’t. Rock ‘n Roll was a fad that has lasted sixty years. In the early 60s, the Beatles were told to make it rich while they could, and they worked hard to capitalize on their success before it fizzled. Never happened.

How are we going to predict the future if it is so unpredictable? Some standards fade while some fads become standards. We face the past, not the future, as the future sneaks up on us from behind.

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Employment

A few notes on what was the weakest employment report of the past year. Job gains were only 150K as reported to government surveyors but the percentage of businesses responding to the survey was particularly low. Expect the BLS to revise those job gains higher next month when more of the survey forms come in. I have long used an average of the BLS numbers and ADP’s estimate of private job gains. That average was 200K – a healthy number indicative of a growing economy.

The long-term trend remains positive. The annual growth of total employment should be at 1.5% or above. We are currently holding that threshold despite the loss of jobs to automation and the growing number of Boomers retiring.  Growth in construction jobs  remains at or above the growth in total employment – another healthy sign.

ConVsPayemsGrowth

The employment market faces a long-term challenge as the largest generation of workers in history is retiring. In January 2000, 69 million adults were out of the labor force. That figure now stands at 95 million. As a ratio, there were 53 adults not in the labor force for every 100 adults with a job. Now there are 65 adults for each 100 workers.

NotInLabForceVsPayems

Although growth in hourly wages is at 2.5%, weekly paychecks have grown 3% as part-time workers get more hours or find full-time jobs. Look for inflation to approach that growth in paychecks.

WeeklyEarnVsInflation

When inflation rises above paycheck growth, workers struggle more than usual to balance their income with spending.  I’ll use that same chart to highlight some stress points during the past decade.

WeeklyEarnStressPoints

As the economy continues to improve, the Fed is expected to continue increasing interest rates either two or three times in the coming year.  After a decade of zero interest rates (ZIRP), those with savings accounts may have noticed that their bank is paying 1% or more in interest.  It is still a far cry from the 4% to 5% rates paid on CDs in the ’90s and 2000s.  This past decade has been particularly worrisome for older folks trying to live off their savings.

Phillips Curve

November 12, 2017

For the past 16 decades, there has been a least one recession per decade. Given that this bull market is eight years old without a recession, some investors may be concerned that their portfolio mix is a bit on the risky side. Here’s something that can help investors map the road ahead.

For several decades, the Federal Reserve has used the Phillips Curve to help guide monetary policy. The curve is an inverse relationship between inflation and unemployment. Picture a see saw. When unemployment is low, demand for labor and inflation are high. When unemployment is high, demand for labor and inflation are low (See wonky notes at end).

The monetary economist Milton Friedman said the relationship of the Phillips curve was weak, and economists continue to debate the validity of the curve. As we’ll see, the curve is valid until it’s not. The breakdown of the relationship between employment and inflation signals the onset of a recession.

Let’s compare the annual change in employment, the inverse of unemployment, and inflation. We should see these two series move in lockstep. As these series diverge, the onset of a recession draws near.

In a divergence, one series goes up while one series goes down.  The difference, or spread, between the two grows larger. Spread is a term usually associated with interest rates, so I’ll call this difference the GAP.

In the chart below, I have marked fully developed divergences with an arrow marked “PC”. Each is a recession. I’ll show both series first, so you can see the divergences develop. I’ll show a graph of the GAP at the end.

PhillipsCurveRecession

As you can see to the right of the graph, no divergences have formed since the financial crisis.

Shown in the chart below are the beginnings of divergences, marked with an orange square. I’ve also included a few convergences, when the series move toward each other. These usually precede a drop in the stock market but no recession.

PhillipsCurveDiverge

Here’s a graph of the difference, or GAP, between the two series in the last 11 years.

PhillipsGap

Fundamental economic indicators like this one can help an investor avoid longer term meltdowns. Can investors avoid all the bear markets? No. Financial, not economic, causes lay behind the sharp downturns of the 1987 October meltdown and 1998 Asian financial crisis.

What about the 2008 financial crisis? A year earlier, in October 2007, this indicator had already signaled trouble ahead based on the high and steadily growing GAP.

What about the dot com crash? In February 2001, several months after the market’s height, the growing GAP warned of a rocky road ahead. A recession began a month later. The downturn in the market would last another two years.

Readers who want to check on this indicator themselves can follow this link.

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Wonky Stuff

In Econ101, students become familiar with a graph of this curve. Readers who want to dive deeper can see this article from Dr. Econ at the Federal Reserve. There is also a Khan Academy video .

Employment Trends

September 10, 2017

I’ll review a few notes from last week’s employment report and highlight some long-term trends. There’s good news and bad news.  Figuring out the future is tough because it hasn’t happened yet.  Heck, scholars still haven’t figured out what went on in the past.

The unemployment rates are computed from a Household Survey and is a self-reporting statistic. The answers of survey respondents are not verified. The monthly job gains come from a separate survey of businesses and the data is more reliable. One of the recession indicators I use is the change in employment from the business survey. I regard a 1% year-over-year gain as a minimum threshold for a stable or growing economy. 1% is about the rate of population growth. If our economy cannot keep up with population growth, that is a pretty sure indicator of a coming recession. Here is a chart of the past five years. Growth is still above 1% but there is a definite downward trend.

Employ201608

Here’s a graph of the past two recessions showing that crucial decline below the 1% threshold.

Employ99-09

Due to higher manufacturing employment and higher population growth during the 1960s – 1980s, the recession threshold was closer to 2%. Here’s a graph of the 1970s to 1990s. The exception that broke the rule was the economic shock of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The oil embargo that followed straightjacketed the U.S. economy.

Employ1973-1993

The NAFTA agreement signed in the early 1990s began an erosion of the manufacturing base and employment in this country. Still, the decline was rather mild until China was admitted into the WTO in 2001. The streamlining of ocean shipping and land transport of goods by cargo container reduced costs and catalyzed a mass migration of manufacturers and supply chains to China and southeast Asia.

Gains in construction employment are waning. A sustained plateau followed by a decline precedes every recession.  Notice that the growth is not in the actual number of construction employees but in the percentage of construction employment to total employment.

ConstructEmploy

A plateau in construction employment began in April 2000 and persisted through one recession till the spring of 2003. In late 2002, there was talk of another recession. Fed chair Alan Greenspan continued to push rates down to 1% to ward off the boogie man of recession.

ConstructEmploy1998-2005

With unemployment as low as it is, wage growth should be stronger.  In the latter part of 2016 and earlier this year the hourly earnings of private employees sometimes pushed toward 3% annual growth. Since April, growth has stayed rock steady at a mild 2.5%.  It’s like some joker is laughing at the dominant economic models.

Speaking of predictive models, the Fed has discontinued the Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI), a broad composite of 19 employment indicators. As a general picture of the employment market, it was satisfactory. As a predictive tool of developing trends, the Fed thought it was too sensitive. For those readers who would like a deeper dive, Doug Short of Advisor Perspectives examines the Feds remarks on this index.

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Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, commented recently (CNBC) that the length of this bull market has worried the traders at Goldman.   Next week, I’ll compare this bull run with those of the past.

Wage Growth – Not

August 12, 2017

Ratios are important in baseball, finance and cooking, in economics, chemistry and physics, and yes, even love. If I love her a lot and she kinda likes me a little, that’s not a good ratio. I learned that in fourth grade.

Each week I usually turn to one or more ratios to help me understand some behavior. This week I’ll look at a ratio to help explain a trend that is puzzling economists. The unemployment rate is low. The law of supply and demand states that when there is more demand than a supply for something, the price of that something will increase. Clearly there is more demand for labor than the supply. I would expect to see that wage growth, the price of labor, would be strong. It’s not. Why not?

I’ll take a look at an unemployment ratio. There are several rates of unemployment and there is no “real” rate of unemployment, as some non-economists might argue at the Thanksgiving dinner table. The rates vary by the types of people who are counted as un-employed or under-employed. The headline rate that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes each month is the narrowest rate and is called the U-3 rate. It counts only those unemployed people who have actively searched for work in the past month. In the same monthly labor report, the BLS publishes several wider measures of unemployment, U-4 and U-5, that include unemployed people who have actively searched for a job in the past 12 months. U-6 is the widest measure of unemployment because it includes people who are under-employed, those who want full-time work but can only find part-time jobs. Included in this category would be a person working 32 hours a week who wants but can’t find a 40 hour per week job.

The ratio that helps me understand the underlying trends in the labor market is the ratio of this widest measure of unemployment to the narrowest measure. This is the ratio of U-6/U-3. In the chart below, this ratio remained in a narrow range for 15 years. Unemployment levels grew or shrank in tandem for each group. By 2013, the ratio touched new heights, climbing above 1.9 then crossing 2 in 2014. The two groups were diverging. The U-3 rate, the denominator in the ratio, was improving much quicker than the U-6 rate that included involuntary part-time workers.

U-6-U-3Ratio

What would it take to bring this ratio down to 1.85? About 1.5 million fewer involuntary part time workers. What does that involve? Let’s say that those involuntary part-time workers would like an average of 15 more hours per week of work. That is more than 20 million more hours of work per week, which seems like a lot but is less than a half percent of the approximately 6.1 billion hours worked per week in the 2nd quarter of 2017.  These tiny percentages play a significant role in how an economy feels to the average person.

Let’s turn to a ratio I’ve used before – GDP per hour worked. I don’t expect this to be a precise measurement but it reveals long term trends in productivity. In the chart below, GDP per hour has flatlined since the end of the recession.

GDPPerHour201706

There are two ways to increase GDP per hour: 1) productivity gains, or more GDP per hour worked, and 2) reduce the number of hours worked more than the reduction in GDP. Door #1 is good growth. Door #2 is the what happens during recessions. GDP per hour rises because hours are severely reduced. I would prefer slow steady growth because the alternative is painful. Periods of no growth can be wrestled out of their torpor by a recession, a too common pattern. There were two consecutive periods of flat growth followed by recession in the 1970s and from the mid-2000s to the present day.

GDPPerHour1971-1984

The economy can withstand two years of flat growth without a recession as it did in the early 1990s. It is the long periods of flat growth that are most worrisome. In the early 1970s and late 2000s, the lack of growth lasted three years and were followed by hard recessions. The lack of growth in the late 1970s led to the worst recession since the 1930s Depression. GDP per hour growth has been flat for eight years now and I am afraid that the correction may be hard as well. Maybe it will be different this time. I hope so.

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Participation Rate

Some commentators have noted the relatively low Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate (CLFPR). This is the number of people who are working or looking for work divided by the population aged 16 and older. (BLS). The rate reached a high of 67% in 2000 and has declined since then. For the past few years, the rate has stabilized at just under 63%.

A graph of the rate doesn’t give me a lot of information. Starting in the 1960s, the rate rose slowly as more women came into the workforce and the large boomer generation came into their prime working years. So I divide that rate by the unemployment rate to look for long term cyclic trends. Notice that this ratio peaks then begins a downward slide as recessions take hold.

CLFPR-UI1947-2017

In mid-2014 this ratio finally broke above a long term baseline average and has been rising since. Today’s readings are nearly at the peak levels of early 2007.

CLFPR-UI

Some pundits use the CLFPR as a harbinger of doom that includes: 1) too many people are depending on government benefits and don’t want to work; 2) there is a shrinking pool of workers to pay for all these benefit programs; 3) thus, the moral and economic character of the nation is crumbling. During the 1950s and 1960s, when the participation rate was lower than today, our parent’s generation managed to pay off the huge debts incurred by World War 2. It is true that benefit programs were much less than those of today.

In “Men Without Work” Nick Eberstadt documents a long term decline in the percentage of prime age (25 – 54) males who are working.  Some interesting notes on shifting demographics: foreign born men of prime working age are more likely to be working or looking for work than U.S. born males. According to the Census Bureau’s time use surveys, less than 5% of non-working men are taking care of children.

In 2004 the participation rate for white prime age males first fell below those of prime age Hispanic males and has remained below since then.  In 1979, 10% of black males aged 30-34 were in jail.  In 2009, the percentage was 25%.

So why should I care about participation rates and wage growth? Policies initiated in the 1930s and 1960s instituted a system of inter-generational transfer programs.  In simple terms, younger generations provide for their elders. Current Social Security and Medicare benefits are paid in whole or in part by current taxes. We are bound together in a social compact that is not protected by an ironclad law.  Beneficiaries are not guaranteed payments.

For 40 years, from 1975-2008, the number of workers per beneficiary remained steady at about 3.3 (SSA fact sheet). In 2008, the financial crisis and the retirement of the first wave of the Boomer generation marked the beginning of a decline in this ratio to the current level of 2.7.

In their annual reports, both the SSA and the Congressional Budget Office note the swiftly changing ratio.  Within twelve years, the ratio is projected to be about 2.3.  In 2010, benefits paid first exceeded taxes collected and, in 2016, the gap had grown to 7% (CBO report) and will continue to get larger.

Policy makers should be alert to changes in the participation rates of various age and ethnic groups because the social contract is built partly on those participation rates.  As with so many trends, the causes are diffuse and not easily identifiable.  Economic and policy factors play a part.  Cultural trends may contribute to the problem as well.

Congress has a well-established record of not acting until there is an emergency, a habit they are unlikely to change.  Fixing blame wins more votes than finding solutions, but  I’m sure it will all work out somehow, won’t it?