Grandma’s Kids

May 27, 2018

by Steve Stofka

The birth rate has touched a 30-year low, repeating a cycle of generational boom and bust since World War 2. The first boom was the Boomer generation born in the years 1946-1964 (approx). They were followed by the baby bust Generation X, born 1964-1982. The Millennials, sometimes called Generation Y and born 1982 – 2001, surpassed even the Boomers in numbers. Based on the latest census data, Generation Z, born 2002- 2020, will be another low birth rate cohort.

These numbers matter. They form the population tide that keeps the entitlement system afloat. Social Security and Medicare are “pay as you go” systems. Older generations who receive the benefits depend on taxes from younger generations for those benefits. As the population surge of Boomers draws benefits, the surge of Millennials is entering their peak earning years.

To maintain a steady population level, each woman needs to average 2.1 births. During the Great Recession, the birth rate for native-born Hispanic and Black women fell below that replacement level. White and Asian women fell below that level during the recession following the dot-com boom in the early 2000s. Foreign born Hispanic and Black women are averaging a bit more than 2-1/2 births. The average of foreign born White and Asian women is just about replacement rate.

Around the world, birth rates are falling. Social welfare programs depend on inter-generational transfers of income. When a smaller and younger generation must pay for a larger and older cohort, there is an inevitable stress.

I will distinguish between social welfare programs and socialist welfare programs with one rule: the former require that a person pay into the program before being entitled to the benefits from the program. In this regard, they are like insurance programs except that private insurance policies are funded by asset reserves held by an insurance company. Government “insurance” programs are “pay as you go” systems. Current taxes pay for current benefits. The Social Security “reserve” is an accounting fiction that the Federal government uses to track how much it has borrowed from itself.

Examples of social welfare programs that require the previous payment of dues are: Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment and Workmen’s Compensation Insurance. Although the latter two are paid directly by employers, they are effectively taken out of an employee’s pay by reducing the wage or salary that the employer pays the employee. Employers who fail to understand this go out of business early in the life of the business. I have known some.

Examples of socialist welfare programs that are based on income, or need: Medicaid, TANF (Welfare), WIC, Food Stamps, Housing and Education Subsidies. There is no requirement that a person pays “dues” into a specific program before receiving benefits.

Health care in America is primarily a social welfare program with socialist elements. The Federal government does subsidize all employer provided health insurance and most private insurance through the tax system or the Affordable Care Act. However, most beneficiaries must pay some kind of insurance to access benefits. Under the 1986 EMTALA act, emergency rooms are notable exceptions to this policy. They are required to treat, or medically stabilize, all patients insured or not.

As Grandma begins to draw benefits from Social Security and Medicare, she relies on the earnings of her kids who form the core work force aged 25 – 54. Grandma has paid a lifetime of dues into the social welfare programs and wants her benefits. Grandma votes.

Her grandkids want government subsidies for educational needs and job training. They depend on socialist welfare programs with no dues. The grandkids don’t vote.

The kids are caught in a generational squeeze.  Their taxes are paying for both their parent’s benefits and their kid’s benefits.

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Housing Trends

In the spring of 2008, there was an eleven month supply of existing homes on the market.
2010 – 8-1/2 months
2012 – 6-1/2 months
2014 – 5-1/2 months
2016 – 4-1/2 months
2018 – 4 months

In some cities, a median priced home stays on the market less than 24 hours.

Here is another generational shift.  Grandma and Grandpa now own 40% percent of home equity, up from 24% in 2006. Their kids, the age cohort 45 – 60, own 45%. Those under 45 have only 14% of home equity, down from 24% in 2006.

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Brave New World

E-Commerce is now 9.5% of all retail sales, almost triple the percentage ten years ago. (Fed Reserve series ECOMPCTSA). In 2000, the percentage was less than 1%.

Shoot Out At the OK Corral

October 20th, 2013

This coming Saturday is the 132nd anniversary of the gunfight at the OK corral.  We got our own OK corral in Washington and there was a whuppin’ this week – a Washington style whuppin’, which means that no one got whupped but everyone agreed on an appointment date for a  future whuppin’.

Congress passes a continuing budget resolution with the same frequency that many of us get our teeth and gums cleaned.  Many government reports were not released this past week but the National Assoc of Homebuilders (NAHB) released a very positive monthly report of the national housing market, showing a slight decline over the past few months last month but still a strong index reading of 55.  Two years ago this October, that index stood at 15.  In fact since the latter part of 2007, the index oscillated in the range of 15 – 20, so this has been a strong and sustained growth surge.

Over the past hundred years, house prices have risen at about the same rate as inflation, so that the real price of homes stays about the same.  Most homeowners finance their home purchase and it is this interest cost that determines the total capital cost of the home.  That capital cost and the interest cost is divided over the life of the mortgage into monthly payments.  PITI is a familiar acronym to many home owners and buyers; the initials represent the components of a monthly house payment. The ‘P’ stands for Principal – the monthly capital cost of the home.  The ‘I’ is interest on the amount of the loan.  The ‘T’ represents the local real estate taxes which are included in the monthly house payment sent to the mortgage servicer who forwards them on to the local taxing agency. The ‘I’ represents Insurance.  This can be both house insurance and, for those with an FHA loan, the amount of the loan insurance.  The interest rate on the home loan is a key component and although there has been an increase in mortgage rates since the spring, they are near all time lows.  A 30 year mortgage is a common benchmark.

Let’s index the CPI and the house price index to 1991 and look at the divergence.

Declining interest rates have enabled many more people to qualify for a home purchase, thus driving up home prices. In 1995, Congress made some major revisons to the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, making home loans more available in distressed urban and rural districts.  This further exacerbated the rise in home prices, creating a large divergence between the CPI and the housing price index.

As every homeowner knows, the cost of a home includes maintenance, repairs, utilities, and improvements.  As I discussed last week , real median household incomes plateaued during the 2000s.  The rise in home values and changes in banking laws enabled homeowners to tap the equity in their homes to meet these additional obligations and to augment stagnant incomes.

In the past dozen years, many people discovered that housing is not a reliable source of income.  At the turn of the century, stock traders who quit their jobs to trade stocks during the tech bubble, discovered the same truth about the stock market, whose price returns are a few percent above inflation.  A nifty calculator at  DQYDJ illustrates the average returns of the SP500 over the past 100 years.

 

At the heart of the financial follies of past centuries is that a surge in price for some asset, be it tulip bulbs, Florida real estate or tech stocks leads people to conclude that they can hop on the gravy train.  What is the gravy train?  As an asset increases in value, more people invest in the asset bubble, the valuation continues to rise and – for a time – it is possible to convert a stock, a store of value, into a flow of income by either buying and selling the asset or borrowing money against the asset.  There is always some constraint – the rise of inflation, or the rise of personal incomes, or the growth rate of profits – that eventually brings an asset valuation down to earth.  Einstein famously quipped that the most powerful force in the universe was compound interest.  He might have mentioned  what may be the most powerful force – reversion to the mean.

Home Equity Loans

Since the credit crisis in September 2008, home equity loans have declined – little surprise there. The steepness of the decline, however, is a bit astonishing. In a Dec. 25th article, AP details the 87% drop in loans in 2009 compared with loans in 2006, when the housing market was booming.

A lot of kitchens and baths are not getting remodeled, garages are not being built, college educations are not being funded. The reduction in remodeling projects has dealt a blow to the construction industry but the sharp reduction in home equity lending has a wider impact on many varieties of small businesses. Home Equity loans provide the start up funds for new businesses and can provide a more cost effective way for small businesses to build seasonal inventories. In a July article, CNN looked at this aspect of the credit crunch.

Small businesses, not the mega corporations or the financial bank giants, create the majority of new jobs in this country. Unemployed people sap the resources of local, state and federal government. Employed people contribute to those resources with payroll and income taxes, as well as sales taxes. It would be good public policy to implement an incentive program to encourage private banks to loan to small businesses.