The Nature of Money

March 31, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) helps us understand the funding flows between a sovereign government and a nation’s economy. I’ve included some resources in the notes below (Note #1). This analysis focuses on the private sector to help readers put the federal debt in perspective. In short, some annual deficits are to be expected as the cost of running a nation.

What is money? It is a collection of  government IOUs that represent the exchange of real assets, either now or in the past. Wealth is either real assets or the accumulation of IOUs, i.e. the past exchanges of real assets. When a sovereign government – I’ll call it SovGov, the ‘o’ pronounced like the ‘o’ in love – borrows from the private sector, it entices the holders of IOUs to give up their wealth in exchange for an annuity, i.e. a portion of their wealth returned to them with a small amount of interest. A loan is the temporal transfer of real assets from the past to the present and future. This is one way that SovGovs reabsorb IOUs out of the private economy. In effect, they distribute the historical exchange of real assets into the present.

What is a government purchase? When a SovGov buys a widget from the ABC company, it also borrows wealth, a real asset that was produced in the past, even if that good was produced only yesterday. The SovGov never pays back the loan. It issues money, an IOU, to the ABC company who then uses that IOU to pay employees and buy other goods. A SovGov pays back its IOUs with more IOUs. That is an important point. In capitalist economies, a SovGov exchanges real goods for an IOU only when the government acts like a private party, i.e. an entrance fee to a national park. Real goods are produced by the private economy and loaned to the SovGov.

What is inflation? When an economy does not produce enough real goods to match the money it loans to the SovGov, inflation results. Imagine an economy that builds ten chairs, a representation of real goods. If a SovGov pays for ten people to sit in those ten chairs, the economy stays in equilibrium. When a SovGov pays for eleven people to sit in those ten chairs, and the economy does not have enough unemployed carpenters or wood to build an eleventh chair, then a game of musical chairs begins. In the competition for chairs, the IOUs that the private economy holds lose value. Inflation is a game of musical chairs, i.e. too much money competing for too few real resources.

A key component of MMT framework is a Job Guarantee program, ensuring that there are not eleven people competing for ten jobs (Note #2). Labor is a real resource. When the private economy cannot provide full employment, the SovGov offers a job to anyone wanting one. By fully utilizing labor capacity, the SovGov keeps inflation in check. The  idea that the government should fill any employment slack was developed and promoted by economist John Maynard Keynes in his 1936 book The General Theory of Employment, Money and Interest.

The first way a SovGov vacuums up past IOUs is by borrowing, i.e. issuing new IOUs. I discussed this earlier. A SovGov also reduces the number of IOUs outstanding through taxation, by which the private sector returns most of those IOUs to the SovGov.

Let’s compare these two methods of reducing IOUs. In Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote that government borrowing “destroys more old capital … and hinders less the accumulation or acquisition of new capital” (Note #3). Borrowing draws from the pool of past IOUs; taxation draws more from the current year’s stock of IOUs. Further, Smith noted that there is a social welfare component to government borrowing. By drawing from stocks of old capital it allows current producers to repair the inequalities and waste that allowed those holders of old capital to accumulate wealth. He wrote, “Under the system of funding [government borrowing], the frugality and industry of private people can more easily repair the breaches which the waste and extravagance of government may occasionally make in the general capital of the society.”

Borrowing draws IOUs from past production, while taxation vacuums up IOUs from current production. Since World War 2, the private sector has returned almost $96 in taxes for every $100 of federal IOUs. Since January 1947, the private sector has loaned the federal government $371 trillion dollars of real goods, the total of federal expenditures (Note #4). What does the federal government still owe out of that $371 trillion? $15.5 trillion, or 4.17% (Note #5). If the private sector were indeed a commercial bank, it would expect operating expenses of 3%, or $11.1 trillion (Note #6). What real assets does the private sector have for the difference of $4.4 trillion in the past 70 years? A national highway system and the best equipped military in the world are just two prominent assets.

The federal government spends about 17-20% of GDP, far lower than the average of OECD countries (Note #7). That is important because the accumulated Federal debt of $15.5 trillion is only .9% of the $1.7 quadrillion of GDP produced by the private sector since January 1947. Our grandchildren have not inherited a crushing debt, as some have called it. In the next forty years, the U.S. economy will produce about $2 quadrillion of GDP (Note #8). If tomorrow’s generations are as frugal as past generations, they will generate another $18 trillion of debt.

Adam Smith called a nation’s debt “unemployed capital,” a more apt term. The obligation of a productive nation is to put unemployed capital to work for the community. Under the current international system of national accounting, there is no way to account for the accumulated net value of real assets, or the communal operating expenses of the private economy. Without a proper accounting of those items, we engage in noisy arguments about the size of the debt.

In next week’s blog, I’ll examine the inflation pressures of government debt. I’ll review the Federal Reserve’s QE programs and why it has struggled to hit its target inflation rate of 2%. We’ll revisit a proposal by John Maynard Keynes that was discarded by later economists.

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Notes:
1. A video presentation of SovGov funding by Stephanie Kelton . For more in depth reading,  I suggest Modern Monetary Theory by L. Randall Wray, and Macroeconomics by William Mitchell, L. Randall Wray and Martin Watts.

2. L. Randall Wray wrote a short 7 page paper on the Job Guarantee program . A more comprehensive 56-page proposal can be found here 

3. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the year that the U.S. declared independence from Britain. Smith invented the field of economics. The book runs 900 pages and is available on Kindle for $.99

4. Federal Expenditures FGEXPND series at FRED.

5. At the end of 1946, the Gross Federal Debt held by the public was $242 billion (FYGFDPUB series at FRED). Today, that debt total is $15,750 billion, or almost $16 trillion dollars. The difference is $15.5 trillion. The debt held by the public does not include debt that the Federal government owes itself for the Social Security and Medicare “funds.” Under these PayGo pension systems, those funds are nothing more than internal accounting entries.

6. In 2017, the Federal Reserve estimated interest and non-interest expenses for all commercial banks at 3% (Table 2, Column 3).

7. Germany’s government, the leading country in the European Union, spends 44% of its GDP Source

8. Assuming GDP growth averages 2.5% during the next forty years.

9. International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) sets standards for public sector accounting.

 

The Force of the Fed

To some extent, the Federal Reserve considers itself government. Other times, when it serves, it considers itself not government. – Philip Coldwell, President FRB Dallas 1968-74

September 2, 2018

by Steve Stofka

The nations of the world are the gods of Mt. Money, most of them with central banks who administer the credit and currency of each nation. Like the ancient Mt. Olympus of Greek lore, there is competition and a hierarchy among the gods. Currently the U.S. is the top god of Mt. Money.  Central banks manage credit by changing the interest rate, or price, that they will charge the demi-god banks within the nation’s borders. The banks, however, do not perfectly distribute the intentions of the central bank. Acting as intermediaries, the banks filter monetary policy and have a more direct effect on the economy. In this intermediary role, banks control the draining of Federal taxes generated by the economic engine.

In the U.S., the Federal Reserve (Fed) is the central bank of the Federal government, an independent agency created by Congress which has given it two targets: promote full employment and stable inflation. To meet those goals, Fed economists must gauge the strength of the economy, a difficult task, and estimate an ideal state of the economy, an even more difficult task.

Each August the Federal Reserve holds an economic summit at Jackson Hole in Wyoming. The newly appointed head of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, is the first non-economist leading the central bank in 39 years. His paper (Note #1) is plain spoken and illustrates the difficulty of reading an economy in real time. As such, I think he will be a gradualist, someone who advocates measured moves in interest rates unless there is a more abrupt shift that requires a stronger policy tonic.

Powell uses the analogy of a sailor steering the waters by reading the stars. The waves and weather can make real time observations unreliable, yet the sailor must make decisions that steer his course. Optimizing employment is one of the two missions that Congress has given the Federal Reserve. The Fed must make a real-time estimate of what they think is the optimum or natural rate of unemployment (NAIRU) and adjust interest rates to help align the actual unemployment rate to the natural rate. Powell presented a chart that compares the actual rate of unemployment to NAIRU as it was estimated at the time, and the “hindsight” NAIRU as economists now calculate it. (Note #2) The speech balloons are mine.

UnemployEstimatesPowell2018

On page seven, Powell writes that, in the past, the central bank “placed too much emphasis on its imprecise estimates of [NAIRU] and too little emphasis on evidence of rising inflation expectations.”

Note the final word – expectations. Measuring what will happen is especially difficult because it has not happened. Probability methods can help but an economy has many more inputs than a dice game. One category of estimates are surveys of guesses about what will happen in the future, but these overstate actual inflation [Note #3]. A second category uses market prices. One method uses the price that buyers are willing to pay for a Treasury Inflation Protected Security (TIPS) (Note #4) In my July 22nd post, I introduced another market method – the net flow of money into the economic engine (Note #5)

Credit expansion has been poor since the Financial Crisis. The Fed cannot force banks to increase or decrease their loan portfolios by changing interest rates. In the years following the Financial Crisis, the Fed was frustrated by this inability, called “pushing on a wet noodle.” Interest rates are the carrot. The stick is a complex regulatory process that raises or lowers asset leverage ratios to encourage or discourage lending (Note #6).

The Fed manages credit flow through asset sales and purchases. While the central banks of other countries can buy stocks and commodities, the Fed is limited to buying debt, including foreign currencies, from its member banks (Note #7).

The Fed has the extraordinary power to purchase or sell the reserves of its member banks without their consent. Like the Fed, you or I can increase the reserves of a bank by depositing money in the bank (Note #8). What we can’t do is lower those reserves by writing our own loans. However, credit card companies, who are underwritten by banks, do provide us with a line of credit that we can draw on by using our cards. During the Financial Crisis, credit card debt jumped $50B, or 15%, because card holders reduced their payments by that much. In response, credit card companies reduced credit card limits by 28% (Note #9). While the Fed encouraged banks to loan, the behavior of consumers and businesses did the opposite. Consumers and businesses were more powerful than the Fed.

The banks administer or filter Fed policy in their interactions with consumers and businesses. If a bank must pay higher interest for its funds, then it will charge higher interest rates for consumer and business loans. Interest is the price for a loan. When the price rises, the supply for loans rises (banks make more profit on the spread) but demand for loans falls. The reverse is not true, as the data of the past decade has shown. When the price falls, the supply of loans falls while the demand increases.

Less credit expansion results in a slower economic engine, which generates less Federal tax revenue. For the engine to run properly, the internal pressure must remain stable. Inflation is one gauge of that internal pressure. The annual growth in Federal tax revenue must be equal to or greater than the inflation rate. When it is not, the engine begins to stall. In the graph below, I’ve charted the annual growth in Federal tax revenue less the inflation rate. Note the periods when this metric dropped below zero. In most cases, recession follows. Look at the right side of this chart. There has never been a time when the reading is so far below zero without a recession. That is a cautionary note.

FedTaxLessInflation

The Fed must look through the fog of the future before it deploys its money super powers. In the face of this, the Fed must act with humility and a practical caution. Once it has decided on a strategy, the banks modify its implementation because they obey three masters: the Fed, their customers and their stockholders. Actual monetary policy becomes not the work of a select few in the Federal Reserve but an emergent composite of policy force and practical friction.

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1. Powell’s speech is 14 pages double-spaced with several pages of charts and references.

2. For thirty years, from 1955 to 1985, the gap between the real-time estimate of NAIRU and the hindsight estimate is 1-1/2%, an error of 25%. In the 1990s economists’ models were more accurate. The estimate of NAIRU and its validity is debated now as it was in 1998 when Nouriel Roubini referenced several views on the topic.

3. A one-page Fed article on survey and market methods of measuring inflation expectations.

4. A one-page Fed article on long-term inflation expectations using the implied rate of TIPS treasury bonds – currently it is 2.1%. Vanguard article explaining TIPS bonds.

5. The net flows of credit growth, federal spending and taxes precedes inflation by several months (July 22 blog post).

6. Credit growth has been flat for the past decade as I showed in this July 15th post.

7. In conjunction with the Treasury, the Federal Reserve may buy foreign currencies to correct disruptive imbalances in interest rates. A NY Fed article explaining the process.

8. When we deposit money in a bank, its reserves, or cash balance, increases on the asset side. It incurs an offsetting liability of the same amount because the bank owes us money. We have, in effect, loaned the bank money. When so many banks collapsed before and during the Great Depression, people came to realize the true nature of depositing money in a bank. The banks could not pay back the money that depositors had loaned them. The creation of the FDIC insured depositors that the money creating powers of the Federal government would stand behind any member bank. My mom grew up during the Depression era and passed on the lessons learned from her parents. She would point to the FDIC Insured decal on the bank window and tell us kids to look for that decal on any bank we did business with in the future.

9. Credit card companies lowered limits. See page 8. Oddly enough, this Fed study found “we have little evidence on the effect of such large declines in housing wealth on the demand for debt.” Page 9. NY Fed paper written in 2013.

Hunt For Inflation

July 15, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Saddle up your horses, readers, because we are going on the Hunt for Inflation. I promise you’ll be home for afternoon tea. During this recovery, Inflation has been a wily fox, a real dodger. It has not behaved according to a model of fox behavior. Has Inflation evolved a consciousness?

Inflation often behaves quite predictably. The central bank lowers interest rates and pumps money into the economy. Too much money and credit chasing too few goods and Inflation begins running amuck. Tally-ho! Unleash the bloodhounds! The central bank raises interest rates which curbs the lending enthusiasm of its member banks through monetary policy. Inflation is caught, or tamed; the bloodhounds get bored and take a nap.

Not this time. Every time we think we see the tail of Inflation wagging, it turns out to be an illusion. Knowing that Inflation must be out there, the central bank has cautiously bumped up interest rates in the past two years. Every few months another bump, as though unleashing one more bloodhound ready to pounce as soon as Inflation shows itself.

Yes, Inflation has evolved a consciousness – the composite actions of the players in the Hunt. These players come in three varieties. One variety is the private sector – you and me and the business down the street. The second variety is the federal government and its authorized money agent, the Federal Reserve, the country’s central bank. Finally, there is a player who is a hybrid of the two – banks. They are private but have super powers conferred on them by the federal government. The private sector is the economic engine. The federal government and banks have inputs, drains and reservoirs that control the running of the economy.

The three money inputs into the constrained (see end) economy are 1) Federal spending, 2) Credit growth, and 3) net exports. In the graph below, the blue line includes 1, 2, and 3. The red line includes only 1. The graph shows the dramatic collapse of credit growth in this country. Federal spending accounted for all the new money flows into the economy.

CreditNXFedSpendvsFedSpend

Before the financial crisis, money flows into the economy were just over 30% of GDP. In less than a year, those inputs collapsed by almost 25%.

CreditGrowthFedSpendPctGDP

When inflation is lower than target, as it has been for the past decade, too much money flow is being drained out for the amount that is flowing in. In the case of too high or out of control inflation, as in the case of Venezuela, the opposite is true. Too much is being pumped in and not enough is being drained out. That’s the short story that gets you back to the lodge in time for a cup-pa or a pint. Next week – the inputs, drains and reservoirs of the economy.

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  1. Constrained – the private economy, state and local governments who cannot create new credit.
  2. Net exports are the sum of imports (minus) and exports (plus).

Smackdown

February 4, 2018

by Steve Stofka

We tell ourselves stories. Here’s one. The stock market fell over 2% on Friday so I sold everything. Here’s another story. After the stock market fell 2+% on Friday, the SP500 is up only 21% since 2/2/2017. Wait a second. 21%! What was the yearly gain just a few days earlier? 24%! Yikes! How did the market go up that much? Magic beans.

Here’s another story. Did you know that there has been a rout in the bond market? Yep, that’s how one pundit described it. A rout. Let’s look at a broad bond composite like the Vanguard ETF BND, which is down 4% since early September, five months ago.  The stock market can go down that much in a few days. Bonds stabilize a portfolio.

Two stories. Story #1. The Recession in 2008-2009 produced a gap between actual GDP and potential GDP that persists to this day. To try to close that gap, the Federal Reserve had to keep interest rates near zero for almost eight years and is only gradually raising interest rates in small increments.

Story #2. The Great Recession was an overcorrection in a return to normal. The GDP gap was closed by 2014. Here’s a chart to tell that story. It’s GDP since 1981. I have marked the linear trends. The first one is from 1981 through 1994. The second trend is an uptick in growth from 1995 to the present.

GDP1981-2018

What do these competing narratives mean? For two years the economy has been growing at trend. Should the Federal Reserve have started withdrawing stimulus sometime in 2015, instead of waiting till 2017? Perhaps chair Janet Yellen and other members were worried that the economy might not sustain the growth trend. A do-nothing incompetent Congress could not agree on fiscal policy to stimulate the economy.  The extraordinary monetary tools of the Federal Reserve were the only resort for a limping economy during the post-Recession period.

Ms. Yellen’s last day as Fed chair was Friday. She served four years as vice-Chair, then four years as chair. During her tenure, she was the most powerful woman in the history of this country. She was even-tempered in a politically contentious environment. She kept her cool when  testifying before the Senate Finance Committee.  A tip of the hat to Ms. Yellen.

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Performance

Vanguard recently released a comparison of their funds to the performance of all funds.

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Young Beasts of Burden

October 8th, 2017

The Federal Reserve recently released their triennial survey of household income, debt and wealth. Rising asset values have lifted the fortunes of many, but younger families are struggling.  I’ll show a reliable indicator of recessions as well as some trends peeking out behind the numbers. The incomes below are denoted in inflation adjusted 2016 dollars.

The good news is that lower income workers have recently seen some income gains, which the Federal Reserve attributes to the enactment of minimum wage laws in 19 states at the start of 2017. However, single parent families have struggled with income gains, as they have for three decades. The decade from the late 1990s to the financial crisis in 2008 lifted the incomes of single parents but they have struggled during the recovery. Median incomes for this group remain below the 2007 level.

RealMedIncSglParent

That this group needed back-to-back historic asset bubbles in order to see some income gains shows just how vulnerable they are.

Much has been written about income inequality among households. During booms, there is a growing inequality even among those in the top 10% of incomes. The median in any data set is the halfway point in the numbers, and is usually less than the average of the numbers. If the numbers are evenly distributed the median is closer to the average and the percentage of median to average is high.  When there are a lot of outliers that raise the average far above the median, as in home prices, the percentage is lower.  During boom times there is growing inequality, even among the top 10%  of incomes. (Data from survey)

RealMedMeanIncomeRich

The growth of inequality of income obeys a power law distribution. Think of a 1’x1’ square. The area is 1. Now double the sides to 2’x2’. The area quadruples to 4. Triple the sides to 3’x3’ and the area increases by a factor of 9. Let’s imagine that the area inside of a square is money. How fair is it that the 2’ square has four times the money that the 1’ square has? Politicians may pass tax and social insurance laws to take some of that money from the 2’ square and give it to the 1’ square.  The redistribution of income and wealth can’t change the fundamental characteristics of a power law distribution. Despite the political rhetoric, solutions are bound to be temporary.

The income figures most cited are for households but this data has only been collected since the mid- 1980s. A fall in real median income usually precedes a recession except for the latest fall in 2014 when oil prices began to slide.

RealMedHHInc

Let’s turn to the data for family household income that has been collected since the mid-1950s. What is the difference between a household and a family? By the Census Bureau definition, a family household consists of at least one person who is related to the householder by blood, marriage or adoption. A fall in family income has preceded every recession except a mild one in the 1960s. Family incomes rose very slightly just before that recession, due in part to a new optimism about the presidency of JFK and the promise of tax cuts.

RealMedinc

Because this family income data is released annually at mid-year, this indicator is usually coincident with the start of a recession. However, it has proven quite reliable in marking the start of recessions.

Non-family households are not related. This includes roommates or a childless couple living together but not married. Non-family households are generally younger and their income is less than the income of family households. Over the past three decades, the ratio of the incomes of all households to family households has declined.

RealMedHHIncVsFamilyInc

Although younger people are experiencing slower growth in incomes, they will face increasing pressure to meet the demands of older generations expecting social insurance benefits like Social Security and Medicare. As the oldest Americans begin living in nursing homes in increasing numbers, they are expected to put an ever-growing burden on the Medicaid system (CMS report).  It is the Medicaid system, not Medicare, which covers nursing home costs for seniors after they have depleted their resources. Although the number of nursing homes and certified nursing home beds have declined slightly in the past decade (CMS Report page 21), Medicaid spending still increased a whopping 10% in 2015 as enrollment expanded under Obamacare.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has said that many states are expecting an increase in Medicaid spending on nursing home care as the first of the large Boomer generation turns 75 at the beginning of the next decade. CMS expects total health spending to increase 5.6% per year for the next decade. The last time we had nominal GDP growth that high was in 2006, at the peak of the housing boom.

The demands of both low income families and seniors on the Medicaid system will strain both federal and state budgets.  The federal government can borrow money at will; states are constitutionally prevented from doing so.

What will drive the high growth needed to sustain the promises of the future?  New business starts are at an all-time low (CNN money). How did we get here? The financial crisis caused the failure of many small businesses, many of which are funded with a home equity loan by an entrepreneur.  Home equity loans are down 33% from their peak in early 2009. At the end of last year, the Case-Shiller home price index finally regained the value it had in 2006. In the past decade there has been no home equity growth to tap into.

CaseShillerHPI201708

Imagine a couple in their late 30s or early 40s who bought a home 10 to 15 years ago. They may have only recently recovered the value of their home when they bought it. One or both may long to start a new venture but how likely are they to take a chance? In some of the bigger metro areas where home prices grew much stronger during the boom, prices are still below their peak ten years ago.

CaseShiller20City201708

The market has priced in a tax cut package that will lower corporate taxes. Investors are expecting a third or more of those extra profits in dividends. Investors are expecting a compromise that will enable companies like Apple to “repatriate” their foreign profits to the U.S. and for that money to be used to buy back stock or pay down debt, both of which are positive for stocks. The IMF projects 3.6% global GDP growth in 2018. There’s good cause for optimism.

Investors have not priced in the long term effects of this year’s hurricanes, the volatility of commodities, the future risk of conflict with North Korea, the risk that the debt bubble in China, particularly in real estate, could escape the careful management by the Chinese government. Add in the several fault lines in household finances that the Federal Reserve survey reveals and there is good cause to season our optimism with caution.

Individual investors surveyed by AAII are cautiously optimistic, a healthy sign, but the sentiment of actual trading by both individuals and professionals shows extreme optimism, a negative sign.  The VIX – a measure of volatility – just hit a 24-year low this past week, lower than the low readings of early 2007.  Sure, there was some froth in the housing market, investors reasoned at that time, but nothing that was really a problem.

Then, oopsy-boopsy, and stocks began a two year slide. So, don’t run with joy, Roy. Don’t go for bust, Gus. Pocket your glee, Lee. Stick with your plan, Stan. There are at least “50 Ways To Leave Your Money,”  and one of them is investing as though the future is predictable.

 

Dance of Debt

April 9th, 2017

Last week I wrote about the dance of household, corporate and government debt. When the growth of one member of this trinity is flat, the other two increase. Since the financial crisis the federal debt has increased by $10 trillion. Let’s look at the annual interest rate that the Federal government has paid on its marketable debt of Treasuries. This doesn’t include what is called interagency debt where one part of the government borrows from another. Social Security funds is the major example.

In 2016, the Federal government paid $240 billion in interest, an average rate of 1.7% on $14 trillion in publicly held debt. Only during WW2 has the Federal government paid an effective interest rate that is as low as it today. World War 2 was an extraordinary circumstance that justified an enormous debt. Following the war, politicians increased taxes on households and businesses to reduce the debt. Here is a graph of the net interest rate paid by the Federal government since 1940.

InterestRate

In 2008, before the run up in debt, the interest rate on the debt was 4.8%. If we were to pay that rate in 2017, the interest would total $672 billion, more than the defense budget. Even at a measly 3%, the interest would be $420 billion.  That is $180 billion greater than the interest paid in 2016.  That money can’t be spent on households, or highways, or education or scientific research.

The early 1990s were filled with political arguments about the debt because the interest paid each year was crippling so many other programs. Presidential candidate Ross Perot made the debt his central platform and took 20% of the vote, more than any independent candidate since Teddy Roosevelt eighty years earlier. Debt matters. In 1994, Republicans took over Congress after 40 years of Democratic rule on the promise that Republicans would be more fiscally responsible. In the chart below, we can see the interest expense each year as a percent of federal expenses.

PctFedExp

Let’s turn again to corporate debt. As I showed last week, corporate debt has doubled in the past ten years.

CorpDebt2016

In December, the analytics company FactSet reported (PDF) that the net debt to earnings ratio of the SP500 (ex-financials) had set another all time high of 1.88. Debt is almost twice the amount of earnings before interest, taxes, debt and amortization (EBITDA). Some financial reporters (here, for example ) use the debt-to-earnings ratio for the entire SP500, including financial companies. Financial companies were highly leveraged with debt before the crisis. In the aftermath and bailout, deleveraging in the financial industry effectively hides the growth of debt by non-financial companies.

What does that tell us? Unable to grow profits at a rate that will satisfy stockholders, corporations have borrowed money to buy back shares. Profits are divided among fewer shares so that the earnings per share increases and the price to earnings (profit), or P/E ratio, looks lower. Corporations have traded stockholder equity for debt, one of the many incidental results of the Fed’s zero interest rate policy for the past eight years.

Encouraged by low interest rates, corporations have gorged on debt. In 2010, the pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson was able to borrow money at a cheaper rate than the Federal government, a sign of the greater trust that investors had in Johnson and Johnson at that time.

Other financial leverage ratios are flashing caution signals, prompting a subdued comment in the latest Federal Reserve minutes ( PDF ) “some standard measures of valuations [are] above historical norms.” Doesn’t sound too concerning, does it?

Each period of optimistic valuation is marked by a belief in some idea. When the bedrock of that idea cracks, doubts grow then form a chasm which swallows trillions of dollars of marketable value.

The belief could be this: passively managed index funds inevitably outperform actively managed funds. What is the difference? Here’s  a one-page comparison table. In 1991, William Sharpe, creator of the Sharpe ratio used to evaluate stocks, made a simple, short case for the assertion that passive will outperform active.

During the post-crisis recovery, passive funds have clearly outperformed active funds. Investors continue to transfer money from active funds and ETFs into index funds and ETFs. What happens when a smaller pool of active managers make buy and sell decisions on stocks, and an ever larger pool of index funds simply copy those decisions? The decisions of those active managers are leveraged by the index funds. Will this be the bedrock belief that implodes? I have no idea.

Market tensions are a normal state of affairs. What is a market tension? A conflict in pricing and risk that makes investors hesitate as though the market had posed a riddle. Perhaps the easiest way to explain these tensions is to give a few examples.

1. Stocks are overvalued but bond prices are likely to go down as interest rates rise. The latest minutes from the Fed indicated that they will start winding down their portfolio of bonds. What this means is that when a Treasury bond matures, they will no longer buy another bond to replace the maturing bond. That lack of bond purchasing will dampen bond prices. Stocks, bonds or cash? Tension.

2. Are there other alternatives? Gold (GLD) is down 50% from its highs several years ago. Inflation in most of the developing world looks rather tame so there is unlikely to be an upsurge in demand for gold. However, a lot of political unrest in the Eurozone could drive investors into gold as a protection against a decline in the euro. Tension.

3. What about real estate? After a run up in 2014, prices in a broad basket (VNQ) of real estate companies has been flat for two years. A consolidation before another surge? However, there is a lot of debt which will put pressure on profits as interest rates go up. Tension.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, we discovered that financial companies, banks, mortgage brokers and ordinary people resolved market tensions through fraud, a lack of caution, and magical thinking. Investors can only hope that there is enough oversight now, that the memories of the crisis are still fresh enough that plain old good sense will prevail.

During the present seven year recovery there have been four price corrections in the Sp500 (Yardeni PDF). A correction is a drop in price of 10 – 20%. The last one was in the beginning of 2016. Contrast this current bull market with the one in the 2000s, when there was only one correction. That one occurred almost immediately after the bear market ended in the fall of 2002. It was really just a part of the bear market. From early 2003 till the fall of 2007, a period of 4-1/2 years, there was no correction, no relief valve for market tensions.

Despite the four corrections and six mini-corrections (5 – 10%) during this recovery, the inflation adjusted price of the SP500 is 50% higher than the index in the beginning of 2007, near the height of the market.  Inflation adjusted sales per share have stayed rather stable and that can be a key metric in the late stages of a bull market. The current price to sales (P/S) ratio is almost as high as at the peak of the dot com boom in 2000 and that ratio may prove to be the better guide. In a December 2007 report, Hussman Funds sounded a warning based on P/S ratios.  Nine years later, this report will help a reader wanting to understand the valuation cycles of the past sixty years.

The Supply Chain Sags

September 11, 2016

Fifteen years ago almost three thousand people lost their lives when the twin towers crumpled from the kamikaze attack of two hijacked airplanes.  Over the fields of rural Pennsylvania that morning, the passengers of a another hijacked plane sacrificed their own lives to rush the hijackers and prevent an attack on Washington.  We honor them and the families who endured the loss of their loved ones.

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Purchasing Managers Index

Each month a private company ISM surveys the purchasing managers at companies around the country to assess the supply chain of the economy. Are new orders growing or shrinking since last month?  Is the company hiring or firing?  Are inventories growing or shrinking?  How timely are the company’s suppliers?  Are prices rising or falling? ISM publishes their results each month as a  Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), and it is probably the most influential private survey.

ISM’s August survey was disappointing, especially the manufacturing data.  Two key components of the survey, new orders and employment, contracted in August. Both manufacturing and service industries indicated a slight contraction.

For readers unfamiliar with this survey, I’ll review some of the details The PMI is a type of index called a diffusion index. A value of 50 is like a zero line.  Values above 50 indicate expansion from the previous reading; below 50 shows contraction. ISM compiles an index for the two types of suppliers, goods and services, manufacturing and non-manufacturing.

The CWPI variation

Each month I construct an index I call the Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI) that blends the manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys into a composite. The CWPI gives extra weight to two components, new orders and employment, based on a methodology presented in a 2003 paper by economist Rolando Pelaez.  Over the past two decades, this index has been less volatile than the PMI and a more reliable warning system of recession and recovery, signaling a few months earlier than the PMI.

Weakness in manufacturing is a concern but it is only about 15% of the overall economy.  In the calculation of the CWPI, however, manufacturing is given a 30% weight.  Manufacturing involves a supply chain that produces a ripple effect in so many service industries that benefit from healthy employment in manufacturing. Because there may be some seasonal or other type of volatility in the survey, I smooth the index with a three month moving average.  Sometimes there is a brief dip in both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing sides of the data. If the downturn continues, the smoothed data will confirm the contraction in the next month.  This is the key to the start of a recession – a continuing contraction.

History of the CWPI

The contraction in the survey results was slight but the effect is more pronounced in the CWPI calculation. One month’s data does not make a trend but does wave a flag of caution. Let’s take a look at some past data.  In 2006 there was a brief one month downturn. In January 2008, the smoothed and unsmoothed CWPI data showed a contraction in the supply chain, and more important continued to contract. The beginning of the recession was later set by the NBER at December 2007. ( Remember that these recession dates are determined long after the actual date when enough data has been gathered that the NBER feels confident in its determination.)  The PMI index did not indicate contraction on both sides of the economy until October 2008, seven months after the signal from the CWPI.  During that time, from January to October 2008, the SP500 index lost 30% of its value.

The CWPI unsmoothed index showed expansion in June 2009 and the smoothed index confirmed that the following month. The PMI did not show a consistent expansion till August 2009.  The NBER later called the end of the recession in June 2009.

The Current Trend

Despite the weak numbers, the smoothed CWPI continues to show expansion but we can see that there is a definite shift from the wave like pattern that has persisted since the recovery began.

With a longer view we can see that an up and down wave is more typical during recoveries.  A flattening or slow steady decline (red arrows) usually precedes an economic downturn.  The red arrows in the graph below occurred a year before a recession.  The left arrow is the first half of 2000, a year before the start of the 2001 recession.  The two arrows in the middle of the graph point to a flattening in 2006, followed by a near contraction.  A rise in the first part of 2007 faltered and fell before the recession started in December 2007.  The current flattening (right arrow) is about six months long.

New Orders and Employment

Focusing on service sector employment and new orders, we can see the weakness in this year’s data.

With a long view, a smoothed version of this-sub indicator signals weakness before a recession starts and doesn’t shut off till late after a recession’s end.  The smoothed version has been below the 5 year average for seven months in a row.  If history is any guide, a recession in the next year is pretty certain.

The 2007-2009 Recession

 In August 2006 this indicator began consistently signaling key weakness in the service sectors of the economy (big middle rectangle in the graph below). Stock market highs were reached in June 2007 and the recession did not officially begin till December 2007, a full sixteen months after the signal started.  That signal didn’t shut off till the spring of 2010, about eight months after the official end of the recession.

The 2001 Recession, Dot-Com Bust and Iraq War

The recession in 2001 lasted only six months but the downturn in the market lasted three years as equities repriced after the over-investment of the dot-com boom.  The smoothed version of this indicator first turned on in January 2001, two months before the start of the recession in March of that year.   Although, the recession officially ended in November 2001, the signal did not shut off till June 2003 (left rectangle in the graph above).  Note that the market (SP500) hit bottom in September 2002, then nosedived again in the winter.  Weak 4th quarter GDP growth that year fueled doubts about the recovery.  Concerns about the Iraq war added uncertainty to the mix and drove equity prices near that September 2002 bottom.  In April 2003, two months before the signal shut off, the market began an upward trajectory that would last over four years.

No one indicator can serve as a crystal ball into the future, but this is a reliable cautionary tool to add to an investor’s tool box.

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Stocks, Interest Rates and Employment

There are 24 branches of the Federal Reserve. This week, presidents of two of those banches indicated that they favored an interest rate hike when the Fed meets later this month (Investor’s Business Daily article).  On Friday, the stock market dropped more than 2% in response.  One of those presidents, Rosengren, is a voting member on the committee (FOMC) that sets interest rates.  I have been in favor of higher interest rates for quite some time so I agree with Rosengren that gradual rate increases are needed. However, Chairwoman Janet Yellen relies on the Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) to gauge the health of the labor market.

Despite an unemployment rate below 5%, this index of about 20 indicators has been lackluster or negative this year.  There are a record number of job openings but employees are not switching jobs as the rate they do in a healthy labor market.  This is the way that the majority of employees increase their earnings so why are employees not pursuing these opportunities?

The Federal Reserve has a twin mandate from Congress: “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” (Source) There is a good case to be made that there are too many weaknesses in the employment data, and that caution is the more prudent stance.  The FOMC meets again in early November, just six weeks after the upcoming September meeting. Although the Labor Report will not be released till three days after the FOMC meeting, the members will have preliminary access to the data, giving them two more months of employment data. Yellen can make a good case that a short six week pause is well worth the wait.

Stuck in the Mud

In 18 months, the SP500 is little changed.  A broad index of bonds (BND) is about the same price it was in January 2015.  The lack of price movement is a bit worrying.  There are several alternative investments which investors may include in their portfolio allocation.  Since January 2015, commodities (DBC)  have lost 15%, gold (GLD) has gained a meager 1%, emerging markets (VWO) are down 5%, and real estate (VNQ) is literally unchanged.  A bright note: international bonds (BNDX) have gained almost 6% in that time and pay about 1.5%.  1994 was the last time several non-correlated assets hit the pause button.  The following six years were good for both stocks and bonds.  What will happen this time?  Stay tuned.

The Erosion of Inflation

August 13, 2016

What is inflation?  Commonly regarded as the change in prices from one year to the next, we can also define it as the rate at which the value of money declines.  In classical monetary theory, inflation reflects government demand for private savings.  When savings can not meet the demand, immoderate governments create the money they need.  This influx of invented money leads to higher prices and inflation.

Higher inflation encourages borrowers, including governments, since they can pay back loans borrowed in Year 1 with money that is worth less in Year 2.  A person who borrows $100 for a year at 10% interest but with 10% inflation, pays back a total of $110.  But the $110 is only worth 90%, or $99, in purchasing power.  In effect, the lender has paid the borrower for loaning the borrower money.  In a case like this, no one wants to lend money at that interest rate. The lender must charge a higher interest rate, driving up the price of borrowed money in a self-reinforcing tailspin of inflation chasing interest rates chasing inflation.

Deflation, or negative inflation, discourages borrowing for the opposite reason; money borrowed in Year 1 is paid back with money that is worth more in Year 2.  That same $100 borrowed for a year at 10% interest and 10% de-flation is paid back with $110 that now has the purchasing power of $121.  In this example, the borrower effectively pays the lender 21% interest.

I marked up a graph of post-1850 inflation I found here to show several key points in the “hockey stick” of inflation.

The Federal Government borrowed and spent a great deal of money during the Civil War period 1860-65, driving up the rate of inflation.   With a  currency backed by gold and sometimes silver, it took several decades of intermittent deflationary periods to correct for the imbalance of the Civil War.

When the Federal Reserve was created in 1913, the value of a dollar was little changed since 1850.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t compile data on inflation before 1913.  After a World War and a severe short recession, a dollar in 1920 was worth half of what it was in  1913 {BLS }

Several years of deflation after the stock market crash restored some of the value to the dollar until the Federal Government began borrowing large sums of money to fund Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Inflation accelerated under the heavy government borrowing for World War 2.

Even though Roosevelt had ended the ready convertibility of dollars to gold during the Depression, several countries wanted cooperation in setting an international monetary standard.  At the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, a year before the end of World War 2, the price of gold was fixed at $35 per ounce, a dollar benchmark that effectively made the U.S. dollar the world’s reserve currency.
In 1971, the Nixon administration removed that fixed price and allowed the dollar to float in price against gold and other currencies.  Within two years, the rest of the developed world followed suit.  A glance at the chart shows that this is the bend in the hockey stick, the point where cumulative inflation marches relentlessly upwards.

As I noted at the start, some inflation encourages borrowing. The keyword is “some.”  High inflation introduces so much uncertainty into the economy that it becomes debilitating.  Workers can not negotiate wage increases fast enough to keep up with the speed of inflation,, so they reduce their real spending.  Lenders demand high interest rates when they lend money in order to compensate for the declining value of money.  The high rates discourage borrowing and crimp economic activity.

A reasonable and fairly predictable inflation rate allows debt burdened governments to pay back borrowed money with money that has less value. In half a lifetime, from the point in 1973 when most governments freed their currency from a gold standard, the U.S. dollar has lost 80% of its value.  For the first two decades of these past forty years, family income kept pace with that loss of value.  During the last two decades the value of a family’s labor has been transferred to governments whose elected officials devise programs to return some of that transferred value to the most disadvantaged families.

In real terms, personal incomes have more than tripled since 1973 {Graph} but most of those gains were in the twenty-five years ending in 2000 when real personal incomes grew by 135%, a 5% annual pace.  In the sixteen years since 2000, real incomes have risen only 35%, averaging slightly above 2% per year.  When the value of money declines, the only way to save value is to invest money in assets, and only those on the upper half of the income scale have been able to preserve the value of their money in assets.  The lower half on that income scale has struggled.

As the value of money has declined in the past forty years, money invested in assets have gained in value. The press goes goo-goo as the SP500 makes new highs but that is a nominal value.  The inflation adjusted value is barely above its value in 2000 (Table) but has tripled in real value since 1973.  Home prices have not done as well but have gained 50% since 1975 (Graph).  For many families, their house is the majority of their assets and the inflation adjusted Case Shiller home price index is still below the level of ten years ago.

Elections are a competition of ideas for solutions and this election is no different.  The chief theme has been the ever declining value of money and labor, the relentless struggle of those on the lower half of the income scale. Folks on the political left favor ever more government intervention and clamor for more social programs to reduce household expenses, including free college tuition,  childcare and medical care. On the income side, the left calls for a doubling of the minimum wage.  Higher taxes and more debt will pay for these solutions.

Folks on the right side of the political aisle are ruled by an ideology that opposes government solutions, believing that there always exist remedies from the private sector even if there are no proposals for a private solution.  However, even those on the right want more government spending, but of the military kind, where it can most benefit families and economies in rural communities.  Donald Trump is now calling for greater infrastructure spending but this is sure to anger the conservatives in his party.  Folks on the right claim that more spending will be paid for by lower taxes on upper income families and the magic of wishful thinking called optimistic economic assumptions and dynamic budget scoring

For more than four decades, the world has been engaged in an international game of currency manipulation to prevent the fair market pricing of each country’s currency. Nations newly industrializing disregarded or gave a knowing wink to international agreements on labor practices and environmental protections.  Now the populations of the developed countries are aging and their birth rates are falling, particularly those countries in western Europe.  Already high government debt levels are strained by a swell of retiring workers who want the pension benefits they have been promised.  Economic growth that is sluggish or non-existent can not meet the demands for services and benefits, prompting more government borrowing.

Promises in a Presidential campaign are like unicorns.  After the election, the candidate removes the horn and voters realize that what they got was a rather good looking but ordinary horse, not a magical unicorn.  Promises are nevertheless calling cards to a political vision, and the vision of both campaigns is a rally ’round the flag of the domestic economy and American families. Trump’s supporters are endorsing his call for tariffs on imported goods to punish those countries which subsidize their industries and make American products less competitive in price.  Hillary Clinton is now calling for penalties for company inversions, the practice of relocating the legal presence of a business overseas to lower a company’s tax liability.  To rally their troops each candidate promises to fight the international system that threatens the well being of many American families.  However, it is our own government that is part of that system, the war on the value of money, on the value of work.

Home Sweet Asset

April 3, 2016

Normally we do not include the value of our home in our portfolio.  A few weeks ago I suggested an alternative: including a home value based on it’s imputed cash flows.  Let’s look again at the implied income and expense flows from owning a home as a way of building a budget.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau take that flow approach, called Owner Equivalent Rent (OER), when constructing the CPI, and homeowners are well advised to adopt this perspective.  Why?

1) By regarding the house as an asset generating flows, it may provide some emotional detachment from the house, a sometimes difficult chore when a couple has lived in the home a long time, perhaps raised a family, etc.

2) It focuses a homeowner on the monthly income and rent expense connected with their home ownership.  It asks a homeowner to visualize themselves separately as asset owner and home renter. It is easy for homeowners to think of a mortgage free home as an almost free place to live. It’s not.

3) Provides realistic budgeting for older people on fixed incomes.  Some financial planners recommend spending no more than 25% of income on housing in order to leave room for rising medical expenses.  Some use a 33% figure if most of the income is net and not taxed.  For this article, I’ll compromise and use 30% as a recommended housing share of the budget.

A fully paid for home that would rent for $2000 is an investment that generates an implied $1400 in income per month, using a 70% net multiplier as I did in my previous post. Our net expense of $600 a month includes home insurance, property taxes, maintenance and minor repairs, as well as an allowance for periodic repairs like a new roof, and capital improvements.

Using the 30% rule, some people might think that their housing expense was within prudent budget guidelines as long as their income was more than $2000 a month.  $600 / $2000 is 30%.

However, let’s separate the roles involved in home ownership.  The renter pays $2000 a month, implying that this renter needs $6700 a month in income to stay within the recommended 30% share of the budget for housing expense.  The owner receives $1400 in net income a month, leaving a balance of $5300 in income needed to stay within the 30% budget recommendation. $6700 – $1400 = $5300.  Some readers may be scratching their heads.  Using the first method – actual expenses – a homeowner would need only $2000 per month income to stay within recommended guidelines.  Using the second method of separating the owner and renter roles, a homeowner would need $5300 a month income. A huge difference!

Let’s say that a couple is getting $5000 a month from Social Security, pension and other investment income.  Using the second method, this couple is $300 below the prudent budget recommendation of 30% for housing expense.  That couple may make no changes but now they understand that they have chosen to spend a bit more on their housing needs each month.  If – or when – rising medical expenses prompt them to revisit their budget choices, they can do so in the full understanding that their housing expenses have been over the recommended budget share.

This second method may prompt us to look anew at our choices.  Depending on our needs and changing circumstances, do we want to spend $2000 a month for a house to live in?  Perhaps we no longer need as much space.  Perhaps we could get a suitable apartment or townhome for $1400?  Should we move?  Perhaps yes, perhaps no.  Separating the dual roles of owner and renter involved in owning a home, we can make ourselves more aware of the implied cost of our decision to stay in the house.  A house may be a treasure house of memories but it is also an asset.  Assets must generate cash flows which cover living expenses that grow with the passage of time.

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The Thrivers and Strugglers

“Bravo to MacKenzie. When she was born, she chose married, white, well-educated parents who live in an affluent, mostly white neighborhood with great public schools.”

In a recent report published by the Federal Reserve Bank at St. Louis, the authors found that four demographic characteristics were the chief factors for financial wealth and security:  1) age; 2) birth year; 3) education; 4) race/ethnicity.

While it is no surpise that our wealth grows as we age, readers might be puzzled to learn that the year of our birth has an important influence on our accumulation of wealth.  Those who came of age during the depression had a harder time building wealth than those who reached adulthood in the 1980s.

Ingenuity, dedication, persistence and effort are determinants of wealth but we should not forget that the leading causes of wealth accumulation in a large population are mostly accidental.  It is a humbling realization that should make all of us hate statistics!  We want to believe that success is all due to our hard work, genius and determination.

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Employment

March’s job gains of 215K met expectations, while the unemployment rate ticked up a notch, an encouraging sign.  Those on the margins are feeling more confident about finding a job and have started actively searching for work.  The number of discouraged workers has declined 20% in the past 12 months.

Employers continue to add construction jobs, but as a percent of the workforce there is more healing still to be done.

The y-o-y growth in the core workforce, aged 25-54, continues to edge up toward 1.5%, a healthly level it last cleared in  the spring of last year.

The Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) maintained by the Federal Reserve is a composite of about 20 employment indicators that the Fed uses to gauge the overall strength and direction of the labor market.  The March reading won’t be available for a couple of weeks, but the February reading was -2.4%.

Inflation is below the Fed’s 2% target, wage gains have been minimal, and although employment gains remain relatively strong, there is little evidence to compel Chairwoman Yellen and the rate setting committee (FOMC) to maintain a hard line on raising interest rates in the coming months.  I’m sure Ms. Yellen would like to get Fed Funds rate to at least a .5% (.62% actual) level so that the Fed has some ability to lower them again if the economy shows signs of weakening.  Earlier this year the goal was to have at least a 1% rate by the end of 2016 but the data has lessened the urgency in reaching that goal.

ISM will release the rest of their Purchasing Manager’s Index next week and I will update the CWPI in my next blog.  I will be looking for an uptick in new orders and employment.  Manufacturing lost almost 30,000 jobs this past month – most of that loss in durable goods.  Let’s see if the services sector can offset that weakness.

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Company Earnings

Quarterly earnings season is soon upon us and Fact Set reports that earnings for the first quarter are estimated to be down almost 10% from this quarter a year ago.  The ten year chart of forward earnings estimates and the price of the SP500 indicates that prices overestimated earnings growth and has traded in a range for the past year.  March’s closing price was still below the close of February 2015.  Falling oil prices have taken a shark bite out of earnings for the big oil giants like Exxon and Chevron and this has dragged down earnings growth for the entire SP500 index.

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.

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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.