The Urban Refugee Crisis

Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash

September 13, 2020

by Steve Stofka

In popular urban areas, affordable housing has been a persistent problem. Housing costs can consume 50% or more of a working person’s pay. Urban residents have become refugees in their own city, living in tents on downtown sidewalks.

Homeless tent “cities” in urban areas were already a problem, and the Covid crisis has exacerbated the situation. The tent areas are a breeding ground for 19th century diseases like cholera and typhus (Gorman, 2019).

The free market has not been able to solve this problem. Wanting to maximize his return on a property investment, a developer has more incentive to build luxury units than lower cost condos or apartments. Are they greedy and rapacious? Let’s take the developer out of the equation. Imagine telling a farmer that they must dedicate part of their land to growing more affordable wheat when rye is twice the price. In front of capitol buildings in mid-west states, there would be tractor protests by farmers. So why should it be different with a developer? They have an asset, an input, and want to get the most out of that asset.

Cities have tried several solutions with poor results. Santa Monica, a destination city in California, passed a rule that 30% of new multi-family housing had to be affordable units. Residential building has come to a halt (SCAG, 2019).

The city and state of California have passed funding laws to support affordable housing, but it is expensive (Camner, 2020). In popular coastal states where taxes are already high, a proposal of affordable housing subsidies to developers arouses ugly passions.

Affordable housing is a negative externality, a cost not borne by the developer or the buyer of a upclass condo or townhome. Perhaps there should be a fee on each unit? The cost of the externality is so expensive that the high per unit fee would limit sales of new units and raise little revenue to build affordable housing.

Let’s suppose that a couple buys a new condo from a developer. The couple has paid in the 75th percentile of housing prices in that area, but they enjoy ocean views and the cultural and social amenities of the neighborhood. In front of their new condo complex, several homeless people pitch tents on the public sidewalks. The couple is outraged. For the price they have paid, they reason that they should not have to endure the sights and behaviors of the homeless. The couple complains to the developer and the city. An urban economist would understand that the couple shares some tiny responsibility for the homeless problem but they, and their fellow residents, are bearing the costs out of proportion to their responsibility.

If there were a way to cut up and distribute the homeless problem among all the residents of an area, the problem might not be so noticeable. Fortunately, we live in a society that does not dismember human beings to achieve a perfectly equitable distribution of society’s costs. There will always be what biologists call a “clustered” distribution of homeless people.

Planned refugee camps have better health conditions than tents thrown up on a sidewalk. Should a city like Santa Monica accept the clustering problem and house their homeless in urban refugee camps? The city could provide better sanitary conditions and perhaps build a clinic at the refugee camp that would relieve downtown emergency rooms of attending to the many medical needs of the homeless.

In want of a perfect solution, our society has created an ever worsening problem. If the homeless can abide living clustered together with little privacy and no sanitation on a public sidewalk, then they would certainly abide a tented refugee camp with a bit more order, sanitation and medical facilities nearby.



Camner, L. (2020, February 10). Santa Monica’s affordable housing policies have failed -. Retrieved September 11, 2020, from

Gorman, A. (2019, March 11). Medieval Diseases Are Infecting California’s Homeless. Retrieved September 11, 2020, from

Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). (2019). Profile of the City of Santa Monica, p. 12. Retrieved from

Thanksgiving Leftovers

December 1, 2019

by Steve Stofka

My wife and I were visiting dear friends in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a college town surrounded by farms, small industrial businesses and several Amish communities. The people are friendly, the town is bucolic, and the downtown area has been revitalized after a flood several years ago. I was introduced to Hurts Donuts, a franchise of cake style donuts that just opened in Cedar Falls (KWWL, 2019). Yum, yum.

A 1600 SF house built in the 1950s can be had for less than $200K. I priced one house in Cedar Falls that would have sold in Denver for $350-$400K. Asking price was $180K. We helped a friend move into a townhome with 1100 SF living area and a garage. Rent? $850 per month, half of what I could rent a townhome in Denver.

Do the residents make considerably less? Not according to Best Places (n.d.). Their median household income and average income are almost exactly the national average. Cedar Falls sister city is Waterloo, which has the largest population of African-Americans in Iowa. At about 10,000, that’s less than 2% of the state’s population. That’s half of the black population in a neighborhood two miles from where I grew up in New York City. Iowa doesn’t do black. New York City does.

The city made the local news this year when the financial web site 24/7 ranked the city as the worst place in America to be African-American. Ouch. A reporter with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier dug deeper into the Census Bureau numbers used by 24/7 and confirmed that the data was not skewed or taken out of proper context (Steffen, 2019).

Presidential candidates visit the twin city area frequently. Elizabeth Warren was going to be back in Cedar Falls on December 1st, but we couldn’t stay there. Candidates for either party pound the rostrum and offer solutions for big problems. The biggest problems are the small ones next door to us.


Works Cited:

Best Places. (n.d.). Cedar Falls, Iowa. [Web page]. Retrieved from

KWWL. (2019, November 6). Hurts Donut open today in Cedar Falls. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Steffen, A. (2019, February 2). Waterloo Confronts List’s Label as Worst Area to Be Black. Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. [Web page]. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Bayside, Queens. [Web Page]. Retrieved from,_Queens

The Skittish Market

August 11, 2019

by Steve Stofka

I had some whole hazelnuts left over and left them out for the squirrels. They smelled them, tried to bite them, gave up and buried them in the ground. No surprise there. Squirrels bury food. But that got me to wondering. Do hazelnuts soften after a few weeks in the ground? If so, then that might be an indication that squirrels have some primitive notion of future time. I buried a few hazelnuts in the garden and dug them up this week. Still as hard as they were when I put them in there.  Maybe two weeks is not long enough.

We bury money, not nuts. We put it in banks and other institutions called “financial intermediaries” and hope that our savings grow into a big money tree over time. Our bank, mutual or pension fund sends us statements every month or quarter and tells us how big our tree has grown. Financial advisors caution us not to go out and look at our money tree every day. Why? Because sometimes the wind comes and breaks a few branches.

This past Monday was a bit windy. In response to escalating trade tensions, the Chinese yuan weakened in the global money market, and the Chinese central bank did not intervene as the exchange rate dipped below a key number of 7 yuan to the dollar. President Trump accused the Chinese of manipulating their currency because they had taken a free market approach much like the U.S. does. That’s the upside down world we live in now. If the Chinese don’t manipulate their currency, they are guilty of manipulating their currency.

The popular Dow Jones index dropped 3%.  How much is that? A little perspective might help. The financial crisis began when investment firm Lehman Brothers went bankrupt on September 15th, 2008. The stock market dropped 4.4%. A dip below a key number in the money exchange rate between China and the US was all it took to drive the market down a remarkable 3%. In short, the market is extremely sensitive right now to information. Don’t look at your money tree. Some of the branches have been broken.

How do the banks and pension funds grow our money trees? They loan the money out to people and businesses who need it. Unlike nuts and seeds, money doesn’t grow when left in the ground. Growth during the past decade of recovery has been slow but unemployment is at 50-year lows so demand for consumer credit is high – credit card rates are the highest in 25 years – over 17% (Note #1).

Here’s a graph showing credit card rates (the blue dots) and the prime rate (red line), the rate that banks charge their best business customers.

Here’s a chart of the spread or difference between the two rates. Notice that the spread decreases a few years before a recession actually occurs or banks get increasingly worried about a recession. Banks were already telegraphing their fears two years in advance of the 2008-09 recession.

As you can see, the current spread is increasing, not decreasing. Banks are not worried about getting paid because the economy is strong, and people are working. Credit card defaults are near all-time lows (Note #2). Interest rates are the price of money – the price of time. Banks are confident that they can raise their prices for people who want to borrow money.

Less than two weeks ago, the Fed cut interest rates for the first time in a decade. Chairman Powell cited concerns about global growth and warned that the market should not expect further cuts unless data justified such action. He called the ¼% rate cut a mid-course correction.

Conflicting signals – the “yes, buts” – drive market volatility higher. The economy is good. Yes, but the global economy is weakening.

Wage growth is slow. Yes, but unemployment and delinquencies are very low. Housing costs are through the roof and people won’t be able to keep up their payments. Yes, but annual increases in housing costs for the whole country are only 2-1/2 to 3%, the same as they were for most of the 90s and early 2000s (Note #3).

The yield curve recently inverted, meaning that short term rates are higher than long term rates. Yes, but workers in the retail industry are particularly vulnerable and their real weekly earnings are still rising (Note #4). The yes, buts.

As children we were told to go to sleep and we may have said, “yes, but I saw a spider on the ceiling, and I don’t want it to eat me while I’m sleeping.” It’s just a trick of the light, now go to sleep. “Yes, but I heard a mouse under the bed. What happens if it gets under the covers?” That’s just the wind outside, now go to sleep.

Not once did we worry before going to sleep, “Yes, but what about my piggy bank?” That’s what some of us do as adults. “Yes, but what if the financial crisis comes again and uproots my money tree and carries it up into the sky?” we ask. Close your eyes, now. Don’t listen to the market noise. It’s only the wind. Don’t look under your financial statement every minute for mice and bugs.



  1. Highest credit card rate in 25 years
  2. Credit card delinquency, FRED series DRCCLACBS
  3. Housing costs, FRED series CPIHOSNS
  4. After adjusting for inflation, median weekly earnings of full-time retail workers have risen 10% since the end of the recession. Annual earnings of $33,000 (in 2018 dollars) are far below the median $45,000 for all workers.

Growth Periods

July 28, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Did you know that housing costs double every twenty years? The predictability surprised me. Both rents and home prices double. Based on the last forty years of data the average annual increase is about 3-1/2% (Note #1).

House prices can only get ahead of earnings for so long before a correction occurs. Take a look at the chart below. Yes, low interest rates reduce mortgage payments so people can afford more home. That’s what we said in the 2000s. This trend does not look sustainable to me.

I was doing some work on potential GDP and wondered which president since World War 2 has enjoyed the longest and strongest run of real (inflation-adjusted) GDP above potential. Potential GDP is estimated as a nation’s output at full employment.

I won’t start with the #1 award because that would be no fun. Nixon came in fourth place with a run of strong economic growth from 1971 – 1973. The oil embargo that followed the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 sent this country into a hard tailspin that ended that growth spurt.

Ronald Reagan comes in third with a cumulative total of 24.5% growth above potential GDP. The expansion began in the third quarter of 1983 and ran through the second quarter of 1986. These strong growth periods seem to last two to three years.

Second place goes to President Truman with a short (less than two years), sharp 25.2% gain that ended with the beginning of the Korean War.

And the award goes to…the envelope please…Jimmy Carter. Wha!!? Yep, Jimmy Carter. The growth streak began in 1976, the year Carter was elected, and ended in 1979 when Iran overthrew their Shah, oil production sank, and oil prices doubled. At its end, the expansion had totaled 25.5% above potential GDP. In less than two years, the nation soured on Carter and put Reagan in office.

What about other Presidential administrations? We might remember the late 1990s as a heady time of skyrocketing stock prices during the second Clinton administration. The output above potential was only 11.5% but is the longest period of strong growth, lasting almost four years, from the first quarter of 1996 through the last quarter of 1999.

George Bush’s growth streak was only slightly higher at 12.8% but is the second longest growth period, beginning in the third quarter of 2003 and ending in the last quarter of 2006. A year later began the Great Recession that lasted more than 1-1/2 years.

Barack Obama’s presidency began with the nation deep in a financial crisis. By the time he took office fourteen months after the recession began, the economy had shed 5 million jobs, 3.6% of the employed. Employment was more than 6 million jobs below trend. The economy did not start growing above potential until the first quarter of 2010. The growth period ended in the third quarter of 2012, but employment did not regain its 2007 pre-recession level until May of 2014, 6-1/2 years after the recession began. It is the weakest strong growth period of the post-WW2 economy.

President Trump’s streak of strong growth began in the last few months of Obama’s term and is still ongoing with a cumulative gain of 7.5%. Unlike other growth periods, this one is marked by steadily accelerating growth above potential.

I’ve charted the cumulative growth above potential and the period length for each president.

As the economy shifted away from manufacturing in the 1980s, the days of 20-plus percent growth ended. Manufacturing is more cyclic than the whole economy. The manufacturing sector contributes to strong growth in recovery and pronounced weakness at the end of the business cycle each decade. In the 1980s, economists and policy makers in both government and the Federal Reserve welcomed this shift away from manufacturing. They dubbed it the Great Moderation and it ended twenty years later with the Great Recession.

President Trump is on a mission to begin another “Great” period – the resurgence of manufacturing in America. It is a monumental task because manufacturing depends on a supply chain that is presently located in Asia. In 2013, Apple tried to manufacture and assemble its high-end computer, the Mac Pro, in Texas. Production faltered on the availability of a tiny screw (Note #2). Six years later, the Trump administration is levying 25% tariffs on Apple products to encourage them to manufacture computers again in Texas.

The widespread use of tariffs usually leads to fewer imports. As other countries retaliate, exports decrease. Slowing global growth poses additional challenges to repatriating manufacturing to this country. If Trump can realize his passion, we may again return to those days of heady growth and more severe business cycle corrections.



  1. The Case-Shiller home price index (HPI) for home prices. The Consumer Price Index’s rent of a primary residence.
  2. A NY Times account of Apple’s last attempt to manufacture in the U.S.A.

Optical Illusions

May 12, 2018

by Steve Stofka

I have long enjoyed optical illusions. Is that a picture of a rabbit or a duck? Which way is the cube facing, right or left? (Some examples) Is that two people facing each other, or a vase? (Image page) These can be even more fun when shared with a friend or sibling. Can’t you see the rabbit? No, it’s a duck!!!

Moving images present a selective attention deception. When asked to count the number of basketball passes, we may not see the gorilla that walks across our field of view. (Video)

These examples excite our curiosity and fascination as children and carry important lessons for us as adults. We sometimes misinterpret the data our senses receive. Those with a strong ideological bent may focus narrowly on only that data that supports their view of the world, or that makes them feel comfortable.

Let’s look at an example. Real (inflation-adjusted) median (middle of the pack) household income peaked in 1999 at $58,665. In 2016, income climbed to $59,039. However, personal income did not peak till 2007, at $30,821. Like household income, personal income finally rose above that peak in 2016.


In the household series, the past twenty years have been especially tough. In the personal series, only the past ten years have been that difficult. What accounts for the difference in the two series? Households have grown faster than the population. Population Income / Households will be lower when households increase.

But what is income? Household income is money income received and does not include employer-provided benefits and retirement contributions (Census Bureau Defs). The BLS does track total compensation costs which do include these benefits, and those costs are 67% higher today than they were in 2001.


If an employer gave an employee $500 a month for health care expenses and the employee sent the money to the health insurance company, that would be counted as income in the data. But because the employer sends the money directly to the insurance company, that income is not counted. Because of World War 2 wage and price controls, and to avoid being taxed under the income tax system, most employee benefits never touch the employee’s pocket, and are not counted as income. This becomes important when something not counted, benefits, grows much quicker than the income that is counted, or money received.

Since 1970, real hourly wages have grown only 3%. Bernie Sanders and other Democrats use a similar figure to press for more social welfare programs. Total hourly compensation has grown 60% (Fed Reserve blog) and most of that is not included in household income.


Is it a rabbit or a duck?


Do Millennials have it worse than Boomers did at this age?

I’ll call them the Mills and the Booms, so I don’t wear out my fingers. The Mills were born about 1982-2001 so they are 17 – 36 years old today.  A decade after the worst recession since the Great Depression, home and apartment prices are rising fast in many urban areas.  Mills are now the largest generation alive and are at an age when a majority of  them are independent and increasing the demand for housing.

Some Mills are trying to provide shelter for their families when the competition for housing puts constant upward pressure on prices. Some Mills are paying off student loans, while paying $800 to $1000, or more in California, to share a 3 bedroom house with  two other people. It is stressful.

The Booms were born approximately 1946 – 1964. The youngest are 54; the oldest are 72. When the Booms were 17-36, the year was 1982, and oh, what a year it was. The Booms had just endured a decade of double-digit inflation rates (it is now less than 2%), four recessions, mortgage rates that were considered a “bargain” at 9% (4% today), and high housing and apartment prices because there was so much demand for living space from this post war baby boom.

Oh, and tax increases. Tax rates were not indexed for inflation till 1985, so higher wages each year to keep up with that double-digit inflation meant that many workers were kicked up into a higher tax bracket each year. One of Ronald Reagan’s campaign promises was to stop the sneaky practice of dipping deeper into worker’s pockets every year. He got elected President, beating President Jimmy Carter who had told workers to turn the heat down and put a sweater on.

How do today’s monthly debt payments compare? Household Debt Service Payments as a percent of disposable personal income are 5.8% today compared to 5.6% in 1982. The 37-year average is 5.7% (Federal Reserve).

What are those average debt service payments buying? Better cars, more education, more square footage of housing space per person, and computers and electronics that didn’t exist in the 1980s. People are paying more for housing but are enjoying 30% more square footage per person (Bloomberg). In 1982, 17% of the population 25 years and older had a college degree. Today, it is double that percentage (Census Bureau table A-1), an achievement that the Mills can be proud of.

The Mills do have it better than the Booms, who had it better than the generations before them. That “good old days” talk that we heard from Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail are based on some foggy memories. The reality was way tougher than Sanders remembers or talks about because his perception is clouded by his ideology. He only sees the data that tells him it’s a rabbit. He doesn’t see the duck.

The Un-Crash

February 18, 2018

by Steve Stofka

The stock market did not go down 4% this past Wednesday.  It could have. The annual inflation reading for January was above expectations and confirmed fears that inflation forces are heating up. January’s retail sales report was also released Wednesday. It showed the second weakest annual increase in the past two years. If consumers are moderating their spending a bit, that would counteract inflation pressures.  Instead of dropping 2 – 4% on Valentine’s day, the SP500 went up 2.7%.

The labor report and the retail sales report each month have a significant sway on the market’s mood because they measure how much people are working and getting paid, and how much they are spending.

On a long-term basis, I think (and hope) that consumers will remain relatively cautious in their use of credit. Families today carry a higher debt burden relative to their income. By 2004, household debt levels had surpassed their annual level of income. As housing prices continued to rise, many families overextended themselves further and paid a horrible price when jobs and housing prices declined during the recession.

Families during the 1960s and 1970s carried far less debt relative to their income. People saved their income and bought many items when they could afford it. High inflation in the late 1970s and more relaxed lending standards in the 1980s helped cause a shift in thinking. Why wait? Charge it. Businesses learned that consumers are more likely to spend plastic money than real money. Consumers were encouraged to take another credit card. Buy that new car. Your family deserves it. We have a good interest rate for you.

Following the recession, families have kept the ratio of debt to income at a steady level, so that their debt is slightly below the level of their annual income. Prudent consumers will help keep inflation in check.  Here’s a chart of the debt to income ratio.  See how low it was during the decades after World War 2.




In the past year, tenant groups in California have been lobbying to loosen rent control laws in that state. You can read about it here (Sacramento Bee). To illustrate the economic pressures on many middle-class California residents, I’ll show you a few graphs. The first one is per capita income in six cities. All of them are above the national average. San Francisco and New York top the income list, followed by Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas.


Now I’ll divide these income figures by an index of housing costs, the largest expense in most household budgets. In the past few years Chicago has edged into the top spot.  San Francisco is still in the top 3, but has shifted downward as housing costs have climbed.  The housing adjusted income of Los Angeles has dropped even further below the national average.


Feeling the fatigue of keeping up with escalating costs, some Angelenos are reaching out to their local politicians for help. Some have thrown up their hands and left the state.

Housing Heats Up

June 5, 2016

In parts of the country, particularly in the west, demand for housing is strong, causing higher housing prices and lower rental vacancy rates.  For the first quarter of 2016, the Census Bureau reports that vacancy rates in the western U.S. are 20% below the national average of 7.1%.  At $1100 per month, the median asking rent in the west is about 25% above the national average of $870 (spreadsheet link).

With a younger and more mobile population, home ownership rates in the west are below the national average (Census Bureau graph). Housing prices in San Francisco have surprassed their 2006 peaks while those in L.A.are near their peak.  Heavy population migration to Denver has spurred 10% annual home price gains and an apartment vacancy rate of 6% (metro area stats).

From 1982 through 2008, the Census Bureau estimates that the number of homeowners under age 35 was about 10 million. These were the “baby bust” Generation X’ers who numbered only 70% of the so-called Boomer generation that preceded them.

Shortly before the financial crisis in 2008, a new generation came of age, the Millenials, born between 1982 and 2000, and now the largest age group alive in the U.S. (Census Bureau). Based on demographics, homeownership should have increased to about 13 million in this younger age group, but the financial crisis was particularly hard on them.  Starting in 2008, homeownership in this younger demographic began to decline, reaching a historic low of 8.8 million in 2015, a 15% decline over seven years, and a gap of almost 33% from expected homeownership based on demographics.

In response to lower homeownership rates, builders cut back and built fewer homes.  I’ll repost a graph I put up last week showing the number of new homes sold each year for the past few decades.

Look at the period of overbuilding during the 2000s, what economists would euphemistically call an overinvestment in residential construction.  Then, financial crisis, Great Recession and kerplooey!, another technical term for the precipitous decline in new homes built and sold. As the economy has improved for the past two years, the demand for housing by the millennial generation, supressed for several years by the recession, has shifted upwards.  More demand, less supply = higher prices.  This younger generation prefers living closer to city amenities, culture and transportation, causing a revitalization of older neighborhoods.  In Denver, developers are buying older homes, scrapping them off, and building two housing units where there was one. Gentrification influences the rental market as well as affordable single family homes and pushes out families of more modest means in some parts of town.

The housing market really overheats when rentals and home prices escalate at the same time. During the housing boom of the 2000s, many tenants left their apartments to buy homes and cash in on the housing bonanza.  Rising vacancies put downward pressure on monthly rents.  Move-in specials abounded, announcing “No Deposit!”, “First Month Free!” or “Free cable!” to attract renters. This time it’s different.

Rising rents and home prices put extraordinary pressure on working families who find they can barely afford to live in central city neighborhoods which offered low rents and affordable transportation.  They consider moving to a satellite city with lower costs but face longer commute times and additonal transportation costs to get to work.  Demographic trends shift more slowly than building trends but neither moves quickly so we can expect that housing pressures will not abate soon until the supply of multi-family rental units and single family homes increases to meet demand.



For the past four decades, household income has declined, as Presidential contender Bernie Sanders is quick to point out.  Some economists also note that household size has declined greatly during that time as well so that comparisons should take into account the smaller household size.  A recent analysis  by Pew Research has made that adjustment and found that middle class incomes had shrunk from 62% of total income in 1970 to 43% in 2015.

But, again, comparisons are made more difficult because some categories of income, which have risen sharply in the past few decades, are not included.  Among the many items not included are “the value of income ‘in kind’ from food stamps, public housing subsidies, medical care, employer contributions for individuals (ACS data sheet).  Generally, any form of non-cash or lump sum income like inheritances or insurance payments are excluded.  There is little dispute with the exclusion of lump sum income but the exclusion of non-cash benefits is suspect.  An employer who spends $1000 a month on an employee health benefit is paying for labor services, whether it is cash to the employee or not.

The lack of valid comparison provokes debate among economists, confusion and contenton among voters.  The political class and the media that live off them thrive on confusion. Those who want the data to show a decline in middle class income cling to the current methodology regardless of its shortcomings.



The BLS reported job gains of only 38,000 in May, far below the gain of 173,000 private jobs reported by the payroll processor ADP and below all – yes, all – the estimates of 82 labor economists. The weak report caused traders to reverse bets on a small rate increase from the Fed later this month.

Almost 40,000 Verizon employees have been on strike since mid-April and just returned to work this past week. On the presumption that a company will hire temporary workers to replace striking workers, the BLS does not adjust their employment numbers for striking workers.  However, most employers of striking employees hire only as many employees as they need to, relying on salaried employees to fill in.  Do strikes contribute to the spikes in the BLS numbers?  A difficult answer to tease out of the data. In the graph below we notice the erratic data set of the BLS private job gains (blue line; spikes circled in red) compared to the ADP numbers (red line; spike circled in blue).

Each month I average the BLS and ADP estimates of job gains to get a less erratic data swing.  The 112,000 average for May follows an average of 140,000 job gains in April – two months of gains below the 150,000 new jobs needed to keep up with population growth.  Let’s put this one in the wait and see column.  If June is weak, then I will start to worry.

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.


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.



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.


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.

Housing and Stocks

February 23rd, 2014

The extreme cold in half of the country had a profound effect on housing starts which fell 16% in January.  Less affected by the weather are permits for new housing which slid 5%.

The Bible prescribes that every 50th year should be a Jubilee year, in which all debts are forgiven.  While this policy of redistribution of property might be a practical solution in a smaller tribal society, it is much less practical, even dangerous, in a complex economy.  By targeting a 2% inflation rate, central banks in the developed world engage in a type of gradual debt forgiveness.  Inflation incrementally shifts the real value of a debt from the debtor to the creditor.  At a 2% inflation rate, a debt is worth half as much in 35 years.

Let’s say Sam borrows $1000 from Jane at 0% interest and doesn’t pay her anything for 35 years, then pays off the debt.  The $1000 that Sam pays back in 35 years is only worth $500 in purchasing power.  Half of Sam’s debt has effectively been forgiven.  So why would Jane loan Sam any money?  She wouldn’t – not at 0% interest.  At that interest rate the loan is actually a gift.  Jane would need Sam to pay her an interest rate that 1) offsets the erosion of the purchasing power of the loan amount, the principal, and 2) compensates Jane for the use of her money over the 35 years.

Janes all over the world loan Sam the money and don’t want much interest.  The Sam in this case is Uncle Sam, the U.S. Government.  The loan is called a 30 year Treasury bond.  (Treasury FAQs )

If your name is just plain old Sam though, few people want to loan you money for thirty years, even if it is to buy a hard physical asset like a house.  That is why U.S. government agencies back most of the mortgages in the U.S., essentially funneling the money from around the world to ordinary Sams and Janes to buy housing.  Heck of a system, isn’t it?

The affordability of housing… 

In the metro Denver area, median household income was $59,230 in 2011, compared to the national median income of $50,054. (Source)  According to Zillow, the median home value in Denver is $253,700, or 4.3 times income.   Although Denver is a large city, it is not a megalopolis like New York City or Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, median home values are $491,000.  Median incomes in 2011 were $46,148, so that home values are more than ten times incomes.  Like other megaregions, Los Angeles has a huge disparity in housing and incomes, resulting in a median income that is skewed downward because of the large number of poor people that inhabit any large metropolitan area.  The L.A. Times ranks incomes by neighborhoods.  This ranking shows a median income in middle class areas at about $85K.  Using this metric, housing is still more than six times income.  Using a conventional bank ratio of .28 of mortgage payment to income, a household income of $85K will qualify for a monthly mortgage payment of almost $2K, which will get a 30 year, 4.5% fixed interest mortgage payment, including property taxes, of about $320K.  A 20% down payment of $80K brings the price of an affordable house to $400K, below the median value of $461K, meaning that many middle class Los Angelenos can not afford to live in a middle class neighborhood.

… acts as a constraint on home sales.

This week the National Assoc of Realtors reported a year over year 5% drop in existing home sales.  After rising more than 10% over the past year, prices have outrun increases in income.  While we don’t have median household income figures for 2013, disposable personal income actually declined in 2013 so we can guesstimate that household income was relatively flat as well.

As this year progresses, we may see other effects from the drop in disposable income.  Economists and market watchers will be focusing on auto and retail sales in the coming months.  January’s Consumer Price Index showed a yearly percent gain of 1.6%, indicating little inflationary headwinds.  An obstacle to growth is the difference between inflation and the weak growth in household income.


Minimum Wage

On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office released their estimate of the net effect of raising the minimum wage to either $9 or $10.10 from the current Federal level of $7.25 an hour.  Their analysis ranged from a minimal loss of jobs to almost a million jobs lost.  The average of this range, 500,000 jobs lost, became the headline number.  The CBO also noted that over 16 million low income workers would see an increase in income, enabling some to rely less on government aid programs.  Their projection was a slight increase in revenues to government.  A half million jobs is relatively small in a workforce of 150 million.  Some economists would concur that there is no clear evidence that raising the minimum wage has any effect on the number of jobs.  The science of economics is the study of complex human behavior in response to changes in our environment and resources.  Many times the data is not as conclusive as one might like, leading researchers to statistically filter or interpret the data according to their professional biases.

A 2013 analysis of minimum wage workers by the Economic Policy Institute indicated that the average age of minimum wage workers was about 35 years old.  Yet, 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the primary aggregator of labor force characteristics, does not support EPI’s conclusions – unless one includes workers who are exempt from minimum wage laws – like waiters – who are paid below the minimum wage law.  The BLS data shows that 55% of minimum wage workers are below 25 years old.

Too frequently, financial reporters who could summarize the caveats of a particular study either don’t bother or their work is left on the editor’s floor.  Many readers digest the headline summary without question and a difficult guesstimate by a government agency like the CBO is re-quoted as though it were gospel truth.


Manufacturing Rebound?
On the bright side, an early indicator of manufacturing activity in February showed a rebound from January’s decline.


Stock Market Dividends
As the market continues to rise, the voices of caution, if not doom, get louder.  Some analysts are permanent prophets of catastrophe.  Eventually they are right, the market sinks, they proclaim their skills of prognostication and sell more subscriptions to their newsletters.  Subscribers to these newsletters don’t seem to mind that the authors are wrong most of the time.

Last August, I wrote about the dividend yield – or it’s inverse ratio, the price dividend ratio – of the SP500 index using data that economist Robert Shiller compiles from a variety of sources.  The dividend yield of the SP500 index is currently 1.9%, meaning that for every $100 a person invested in the SP500 index, they could expect $1.90 in dividends.  The price dividend ratio is just the inverse of that, or $100 / $1.90 = 52.6. The current dividend yield is at the 20 year average.  I will focus on the dividend yield, or the interest rate that the SP500 index pays an investor.

It might surprise some investors that dividend information is available on a more timely basis than earnings.  In the aggregate,  dividends are more reliable and predictable.  Most companies have several versions of earnings and they massage their earnings to present the company in the best light.  On the other hand, most companies announce their dividend payouts near the end of each quarter so that the aggregate information is available to an investor more quickly than aggregate earnings.

Most portfolios contain a mixture of stocks and bonds so it is instructive to compare the dividend yield of the relatively risky SP500 with the yield on what is considered a perfectly safe bond – the 10 year Treasury.  Many investors think of these two asset classes as complementary – they are – but they are also in competition with each other. If the real dividend yield on stocks is the same as ten year Treasuries, it means investors in stocks want to be compensated for risking their principle on stocks.  If the interest rate on 10 year Treasuries is 4% and the  dividend yield of the SP500 is 2%, then the dividend ratio of stocks to Treasuries is 2% / 4%, or .5.  As investors perceive less risk in the stock market, this “demand for yield” from stocks will fall and the ratio will decline.   In the past, this ratio has reached a low of .19 in July 2000 as the stock market reached its apex of exuberance and investors became convinced that the rise of the internet and just in time inventory control had ushered in a new era in business.  Bill Gates, then CEO, Chairman  and founder of Microsoft, scoffed at dividends as a waste of money that could be better put to use by a company in growing the business. At the other extreme, this demand for yield ratio rose as high as 1.28 in March 2009 as stocks reached their lows of the recession.

More importantly is the movement of this ratio from peaks and troughs, indicating a change in sentiment among investors.  Note that the early 2003 market lows after the tech bubble burst were about the 50 year average of this ratio.  Compare that relative calm to the spikes of fear in this ratio since late 2007 to early 2008.  For the past 18 months, this demand for yield has declined but is still above the 50 year average.  There is still enough skepticism toward the stock market that it continues to curb exuberance.

Investment Allocation and Housing

December 1st, 2013

While cleaning up some old files, I found a 1999 “Getting Going” column by Jonathan Clemens in the Wall St. Journal.  That year was rather turbulent, rocked by Y2K fears that the year 2000 might play havoc with older computers still using a two digit date,  and a intensifying debate about the valuation of stocks.  Looking away from the hot internet IPOs of that year,  Clemens interviewed several professors about the comparatively mundane subject of home ownership.

 “A house is not a conservative investment,” says Chris Mayer, a real-estate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’sWharton School. “Any market where prices can fall 40% in three years is not a safe investment.” 

Remember, this is 1999.  At that time, what 40% decline is he talking about?  It would not be till 2009 or 2010 that house prices tumbled down the hill.  In the past, declines of this magnitude were confined to particular areas of the country where a fundamental shift  in the economy occurred.  The Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania, the Pueblo area of Colorado and the Detroit area of Michigan come to mind. In the first two examples the collapse of the steel industry had a profound effect on home prices as people moved to other areas to find work.  In case a homeowner thinks “it can’t happen here,” I’m sure many homeowners in Detroit felt the same way during the 1960s when the car industry was at its peak.

“William Reichenstein, an investments professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, suggests treating your mortgage as a negative position in bonds.”  

What does this mean?  Let’s say a person has $100K in stock mutual funds, $100K in bond mutual funds, owns a house valued at $200K with $100K still left on the mortgage.  Subtract the remaining balance of the mortgage from the amount in bonds and that leaves $0 invested in bonds.  Why do this?  When we buy a bond we are buying the debt of a company, or some government entity.  A mortgage is a debt we owe.  So, if a person were to pay off the mortgage, trading one debt for another, they would sell their bonds to pay off the mortgage.

Should the house be included in the investment mix?  There is some disagreement on this.  An investment portfolio should include only those assets which a person could access for some cash flow if there was a loss of income or some other need for cash.  An older couple with a 5 BR house who intend to downsize in five years might include a portion of the house in the portfolio mix.

For this example, let’s leave the house out of the investment portfolio to keep it simple. Using this analysis, this hypothetical person has 100% of their assets in stocks, not a 50/50 mix of stocks and bonds.

Now, let’s fast forward ten years from 1999 to 2009.  An index mutual fund of stocks has lost a bit more than 20%.

A long term bond fund has gained about 100%.

[The text below has been revised to reflect the above bond fund chart.  The original text presented numbers for a different bond fund.]

Let’s say the mortgage principal has been paid down $60K over those ten years.  Assuming that no new investments have been made in the ten year period, what is this person’s investment mix now?  The stock portion is worth $80K, the bonds $200K less $40K still owed on the mortgage for a total of $240K, with a net exposure in bonds of $160K.  The person now has 33% (80K / 240K) in stocks and 67% in bonds, a conservative mix.  If we didn’t account for the mortgage as a negative bond, the mix would appear to be 29% (80K / 280K) for stocks and 71% for bonds.  What is the net effect of treating a mortgage balance as a negative bond?  It reduces the appearance of safety in an investment portfolio.

Now let’s imagine that this person is going to retire and collect a monthly Social Security check of $1500.  To get a 15 year annuity paying that monthly amount with a 3% growth rate, a person would have to give an insurance company about $220K (Calculator)   There are a lot of annuity variations and riders but I’ll just keep this simple.  Throughout our working lives our Social Security taxes are essentially buying Treasury bonds that we start cashing out during retirement.

If we were to add $220K to our hypothetical investment mix,  we would have a total of $460K: $80K in stock mutual funds, $200K in bond funds, -$40K still owed on the mortgage, $220K effectively in Treasury bonds that we will withdraw as Social Security payments.  The $80K in stock mutual funds now represents only 17% of our investment portfolio, an extremely conservative risk stance.  If we have a private pension plan, the mix can get even more conservative.

The point of this article was that many people in their 50s and 60s may have too little exposure to stocks if they don’t account for mortgages, pensions and Social Security payments into their allocation calculations.


In October 2005, the incoming Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, indicated to Congress that he did not think there was a bubble developing in the housing market. (Washington Post Source)

In September 2005 – a month before – the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a report on the rapid housing price increases of the past decade:

Between 1975 and 1995, real [that is, inflation adjusted] single-family house prices in the United States increased an average of 0.5 percent per year, or 10 percent over the course of two decades. By contrast, from 1995 to 2004, national real house prices grew 3.6 percent per year, a more than seven-fold increase in the annual rate of real appreciation, and totaling nearly 40 percent in one decade. In some individual cities, such as San Francisco and Boston, real home prices grew about 75 percent from 1995 to 2004, almost double the national average. 

Remember, these are real, or inflation adjusted prices.  Now it is easy, in hindsight, to go “ah-ha!” but it should be a lesson to us all that we can not possibly hope to consume all the information needed to mitigate risk.  There is just too much information.  A professional risk manager, Riccardo Rebonato, discusses common flaws in risk assessment in his book “Plight of the Fortune Tellers” (Amazon). Written before the financial crisis, the book is surprisingly prescient.  The ideas are accessible and there is little if any math.

On Monday, the National Assn of Realtors released their pending home sales index. These are signed contracts on single family homes, condos, and townhomes. The index has declined for five months but is still slightly above normal (100) at 102.1.  At the height of the housing bubble, this index reached almost 130.  At the trough in 2010, the index was below 80.

This chart was clipped from a video by an economist at NAR (Click on the video link on the right side of the page).  The clear and simple explanation of trends in housing and interest rates is well worth five minutes of your time.  Sales of existing homes have surpassed 2007 levels and are growing.

Demographia surveys housing in m ajor markets around the world and rates their affordability.  Their 2012 report found that major markets in the U.S. are just at the upper range of affordable.  As Canada’s housing valuations have climbed, their affordability has declined and are now less affordable than the U.S.  Britain’s housing is in the severely unaffordable range.

Next Friday comes the release of the monthly employment report.  I’ll also cover a few long term trends in manufacturing and construction employment that may surprise you.