Experimental Philosophy

March 21, 2021

by Steve Stofka

At a Senate Banking Committee hearing this week Senator Tim Kane presented a comparison of two philosophies of governing. Without any Democratic support, Republicans passed the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (TCJA) in December 2017. Prior to its passing, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the loss of revenues at $1.5T over ten years. After two years of data, they revised their estimate of lost revenue to about $1.8T. The bulk of the benefits go to the top 20% of incomes. Without any Republican support, Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan (ARP) two weeks ago. Its estimated cost is $1.9T over ten years. This bill will benefit the bottom 60% of income earners. Two plans, two philosophies, similar costs.

Tim Kane suggested that we are having a real-world experiment. Both laws are projected to cost the same amount. Economists already have performance metrics on the Republican law from 2018-2019, the two years before Covid.  In 2023, economists can compare performance and benefits of ARP which exemplifies the Democratic philosophy.

The essence of the Republican philosophy is an assumption that income and benefits will “trickle down” from the top 20% of income earners, the wealthy in America. After three decades of Republican rhetoric that income should trickle down, many economists find the opposite trend. Those at the top get wealthier.

The Gini coefficient is a measure on equality/inequality. 0 represents perfect equality, 1 represents perfect inequality. In 1972, the Gini coefficient for household income in the U.S. was .4. In the fifty years since, that coefficient has risen to .48 (FRED Series GINIALLRH), near the mid-point of the equality/inequality range. An economic analysis can only confirm what many Americans sense intuitively; life is getting easier for the wealthy and harder for the middle and working classes.

The Republican philosophy espouses tax cuts and a strong defensive posture around the world which has led to a constant state of war. Former President Trump had to fight his own party to cut back troop commitments in Iraq and Syria. These twin goals – a larger military and tax cuts – are incompatible and have caused bigger deficits than Democratic administrations over the past forty years. Republican voters care about deficits so Republican politicians continue to pay homage to the idea despite their poor performance on that count. Republican politicians counter that it is the Democratic benefit plans that cause deficits, not Republican military spending and tax cuts.

Democrats champion more benefits and higher taxes on high income earners to pay for the benefits. Most of those high-income earners are in solidly Democratic states, not Republican political strongholds, so there is little advantage to Republican resistance to higher taxes. Republicans are opposed to higher taxes on principle, not politics. They believe that there are few legitimate functions of central government under Federalism: 1) provide a common defense and make treaties, what John Locke called a Federative power in his Second Treatise of Government, 2) resolve disputes between states, 3) preserve property and individual freedoms. The several other functions like coining money and post offices can be found in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.

The heart of the dispute between Republican and Democratic voters lies in their different interpretations of the General Welfare clause of that section, i.e., that Congress shall have the power to “provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” Democratic voters believe that phrase means Congress should provide for the welfare of the people in each state. Republican voters believe that it applies at the state level. In interpreting the Second Amendment, Democrats and Republicans switch; Democrats think gun rights apply to state militias while Republicans think those rights apply to individuals.

These are long standing arguments and opinions that resist change, despite the experimental data. I agree with Tim Kane that we have a chance to compare economic philosophies. I disagree that the results will change many minds. We don’t like to change our habits or opinions.

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Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

Minority Control

October 13, 2019

by Steve Stofka

On September 15, 2008 the trading firm Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. A small number of outstanding shares traded on the stock market that day. The SP500 lost almost 5% of its value. New Yorkers gathered in Times Square to watch the ticker tape display. A small number of people controlled the direction of the market and constructed a reality that they sold to the rest of us.

In politics, a few key people control the direction and fate of legislation. In the Senate, the Majority Leader decides whether to bring legislation up for a vote. Even if a bill makes it out of a Senate committee, the Majority Leader can stop it from reaching the full Senate.  Unlike the Majority Leader in the House, his position is practically impregnable. Legislation vetoed by the President can be overridden by Congress. There is no recourse to a veto by the Senate Majority Leader.

The current holder of the position is Sen. Mitch McConnell from Kentucky. He is up again for re-election next year. When Democrats held the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid ruled with a similar disregard for others in his own party as well as the minority.

In 2014, 800,000 voters chose McConnell. In effect, less than 1% of the country’s voters control the course of legislation in the U.S. Did the founders of this country intend that one person should control Congress? James Madison, the chief crafter of the Constitution, worried that a majority would overwhelm and take advantage of a minority (Feldman, 2017). Accordingly, the Constitution is structured so that a minority controls power. However, one person is a very small minority. What would the founders think of the current arrangement in Congress? If Americans wanted a king with veto-proof power, America would still be a colony of Britain.

Our method of electing a President is a 230-year-old compromise between republicanism and democracy. An electoral college composed of men not subject to the passions of the crowd would elect the leader of the country. It was an Enlightenment model of dispassionate rationality.

Even if they had Fox News and CNN on Election night at the time of the founding, all the thirteen states were in the same Eastern time zone. At a recent symposium on our election, former RNC chair Michael Steele pointed out the west coast states are mostly taken out of the Presidential election (C-Span.org, 2019). By 5 P.M. Pacific time, they are discouraged from voting because much of the action has already been called. The founders did not design a system for four time zones.

We have 50 states but the election for President takes place in eight to twelve battleground states. Most polling is done at the national level, not in the battleground states. Many polls do not accurately survey the sentiments of the critical minority of voters in the states that will decide the election.

A minority of people own and control much of the wealth of the world. They now pay a lower percentage of their income than the bottom 50%. That includes federal, state and local taxes. In the Triumph of Injustice, due to be released next week, authors Saez and Zucman (2019) tally up the tax bills for the rich and ultra-rich. The book is #1 bestseller at Amazon and it hasn’t been published yet.

In 1980, the top 1% paid 47% of their income in total taxes at all levels. Now they are down to 23% and below the rate paid by the bottom half of incomes. Two sets of rules – one set for the peasants and one for the castle royalty. The Constitution prohibits the granting of titles so the rich granted themselves the titles. This book is sure to get a lot of media attention. Like we need more controversy.

Notes:

Feldman, N. (2017). Three Lives of James Madison: genius, partisan, president. [Print]. New York: Random House.

C-Span.org. (2019, October 7). National Popular Vote Election, Part 2. [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?464997-2/national-popular-vote-election-part-2

Saez, E. & Zucman, G. (2019) Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay. [Print]. Available for pre-order at https://www.amazon.com/Triumph-Injustice-Rich-Dodge-Taxes/dp/1324002727

Effective tax rates: If you make $100,000 and you pay $25,000 in federal, social security, state, sales and property tax, then your total effective tax rate is 25%.

Photo: WyrdLight.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bodiam-castle-10My8-1197.jpg

Years Past

December 31, 2017

by Steve Stofka

This past week, I found a July 2008 Wall St. Journal used as shelf liner. On the eve of 2018, a look back has some useful reminders for a casual investor.

Journal20080703

Most of us remember the financial crisis that erupted in September 2008. What we may not remember is that the first half of that year was very volatile. In reporting about the first half, there were “warnings of the collapse of the global financial system.”

In the first six months of 2008, 703,000 jobs had been lost. The job losses continued until March of 2010 and totaled a staggering 8 million. In early July 2008, the stock market had lost 16% from its high mark in October 2007 but a balanced portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds had lost only 8%. To prepare for a difficult second half of 2008, investors were cautioned to:
1) Balance
2) Diversity
3) Spend less and invest more
4) Don’t pay high investment fees
5) Don’t get greedy and chase get rich investments

The advice is timeless.

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Tax Reform

In a holiday week, thousands of residents in coastal states lined up at their local tax assessor in order to pre-pay 2018 property taxes in 2017.  Most of these residents have annual property taxes that exceed the $10,000 cap on all state and local taxes that can be deducted on 2018 Federal taxes.

The IRS said that they would not allow deductions for prepaid taxes unless the local district had assessed the tax by December 31, 2017.  We may see lawsuits over the definition of the word “assess.” When is a homeowner assessed a property tax?  When they receive a bill?  When the district announces the rate for the following year?

In their battle against the IRS, Republicans have cut the agency’s funding so much that the IRS does not have the resources to perform audits on several hundred thousand to determine the status of assessment.  The courts will likely weigh in on the question.  Come next November, voters will register their opinions.

The New York Times featured a several question calculator  to estimate the effect of the tax bill on your 2018 taxes.

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Income

Economists have noted the decades long decline in inflation-adjusted wages.  Since 1973, the share of national income going to wages and salaries has declined by 14%.

WagesSalariesPctGDI

Employee benefits as a percent of gross domestic income have grown by a third since the 1970s. Of course, a person cannot spend benefits.

BenefitsPctGDI

Even after the increase in benefits, total income is down. In 1973, 50% of Gross Domestic Income (GDI) went to wages and salaries + 7.5% to benefits for a total of 57.5%. In 2016, 42% went to wages + 10% to benefits = 52%.  Total compensation is down 10%.

As the wealth of the affluent continues to grow, the ratio of net wealth to disposable income has reached an all-time high.

WealthPctInc
It is inevitable that extreme imbalances must revert to mean.  The last two peaks preceded severe asset repricings.

Circumstance

May 21, 2017

Last week I mentioned the 20 year CAPE ratio, a modification of economist Robert Shiller’s 10 year CAPE ratio used to evaluate the stock market. This week I’ll again look at equity valuation from a different perspective.  The results surprised me.

The date of our birth is circumstance.  When we retire is guided by our own actions and the circumstance of an era. We have no control over market behavior during the twenty year savings accumulation phase before we retire or the distribution of that savings during our retirement.   Let’s hope that we live long enough to spend twenty years in some degree of retirement.

The state of the market at the beginning of the distribution phase of retirement can have a material effect on our retirement funds, as many newly retired folks found out in 2008 and 2009.  Some based their retirement plans on the twenty year returns  prior to retirement.

I’ll use the SP500 total return index ($SPXTR at stockcharts.com or ^SP500TR at Yahoo Finance) to calculate the total gain including dividends. The twenty year period from 1988 through 2007 began just after the stock market meltdown in October 1987 and ended just as the 2007-2009 recession was beginning in December 2007. The total gain was 742%, or 11.3% annualized. Sweetness! Sign me up for that program.  Those high returns led many older Americans to believe that they didn’t need to accumulate more savings before retirement.  Then came the double shock of zero interest rates and a 50% meltdown in stock market valuation.

Now let’s move that time block one year forward and look at the period 1989 through 2008. Still good but what a difference one year makes. The total gain was 404%, or 8.4% annualized. That’s a drop of 3% per year! Investors missed the 16% bounce back in 1988 after the October 1987 crash, and the time block now included the 35% meltdown of 2008. There was even more pain to come in the first half of 2009 but I’ll come back to that.

1995 through 2014 was a good period with total gains of 550%, or 9.8% annualized. Shift that time block by two years to the period 1997 through 2016 and the gains fall off significantly. The total gain was 340%, or 7.7% annualized.

We can make a rough approximation of total returns during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, an ugly period for equities. In 1980, someone quipped “Equities are dead.” Twenty year periods ending during this time did not fare so well but still notched gains of more than 6%. Bonds, CDs and Treasuries were paying far more than that at the time. In today’s low interest environment, 6% seems a lot better than it did during the double digit inflation of 1980.

In past weeks I have written about the overvaluation of today’s stock market based on trailing P/E ratio and the smoothed 10 year CAPE ratio. Let’s look at the current valuation from the perspective of this twenty year return. It would come as no surprise that the total twenty year gain hit a low at the end of February 2009 when the market was about a 1/4 of its current valuation. That 20 year annualized gain was 5.7%. What surprised me was that the current valuation shows the same 20 year gain! Using this metric as an evaluation guide, the market sits at a relatively low level just like it was in 1988 and 1989.

The historical evidence shows that stock returns may be erratic but consistently make over 5% over a twenty year retirement period. Those who are newly retired or about to retire might understandably desire more safety. The safest approach is not to suddenly shift one’s portfolio entirely to safe assets.

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Income Inequality

Much has been written about the growth of income inequality. The GINI coefficient is the most popular but there are other measures (for those who want to get into the weeds of inequality measures). The Social Security Administration offers a simple indicator of the trend. They track the average and median incomes of millions of earners every year.

When the median and average are fairly close to each other, that indicates that the numbers in the data set are uniformly distributed. As the ratio percentage of the median to the average falls, that indicates that a few big numbers are raising the average but do not raise the median.

Here’s a simple example of an evenly distributed set. Consider a set of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The average is 3.5. The median is also 3.5 because there are three numbers in the set below 3.5 and three numbers above 3.5.  The percentage of the median to the average is 100%.

Let’s consider an unevenly distributed set: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 12. The median is still the same value as the earlier example: 3.5. But the average is now 4.5. The ratio of the median to the average is 3.5 / 4.5 = about 78%.

The ratio of the median to the average income has fallen from 71% in 1990 to 64% in 2015. This indicates that there is a growing number of large incomes in our data set.

SSAIncomeAvgMedian
Here’s the data in a graph form

SSAIncomeAvgMedianGraph
Median wages have doubled, or grown by 100%, while average wages have grown by more than 150% in the last quarter century.

Next week I will look at a hypothetical income tax proposal based on income. It might just blow your mind.

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Dividend Payout Ratio

FactSet Analytics grouped dividend paying stocks in quintiles (20% bands) by the dividend payout ratio (Chart). This is the percentage of profits that are paid to shareholders in the form of dividends. Over the last 20 years of rolling one month returns the stocks that had the highest and lowest payout ratios had the lowest total return. Think about that. Both the highest and lowest quintiles did the worst. What performed the best? Those stocks that were in the middle quintile, the companies who balanced their profit distributions between investors (dividends) and investment (future sales and profits).

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CWPI

Each month I compute a Constant Weighted Purchasing Index built on a combination of the two Purchasing Manager’s surveys (PMI) each month. For the six month in a row, this composite has shown strong growth and the three year average first crossed the threshold of strong growth in January 2015.

A sub-index composite that I build from the new orders and employment components of the services survey (NMI) shows moderate growth. Its three year average has shown moderate growth since early 2014.

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The BUT Economy

December 9th

An eventful week in what I will call the BUT economy:  GDP revisions, Corporate Profits, Consumer Confidence and the Labor Report.  Let’s get into it!

At the end of last week, the Commerce Dept issued their customary revisions to 3rd quarter Gross Domestic Products (GDP).The first number that came out in October was a preliminary estimate.  As more data comes in, the Commerce Dept. revises its figures, and will have another revision in December.  From the initial estimate of 2.0% annualized growth, the Commerce Dept revised 3rd quarter GDP growth up to 2.7%, below the historical average of about 3% but good news is YAAY! Right?  Wait for it now…BUT upward revisions were due largely to companies building inventories.  Final sales actually declined from the initial estimate of 2.1% to 1.9%.  Excluding exports, final sales were revised from a growth of 2.3% to 1.7%.

The boom in natural gas production has led many power generators to convert their plants from coal to natural gas, when they can.  Total coal production is down this year (Source) but exports of U.S. coal to the rest of the world have surged, so that we are exporting a record 25% of the total coal production in this country.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that coal exports will total about 133 million short tons this year, or 2-1/2 times the average of the past decade. (EIA Source)

The process of drilling for natural gas, called Fracking, has also led to a high production of crude oil (EIA source).

GDP includes both exports (+) and imports (-), what is called “net exports” and it has been negative for several decades as we import far more goods than we export.  This serves as a negative drag on GDP growth.

Exports have risen over the past decade.  As natural gas prices have fallen, surging coal exports in the past few years have helped buoy up lackluster GDP growth.

Another contributor to GDP growth has been a more confident consumer, in contrast to the rather cautious attitude of businesses in the past six months.  An upswing in student debt and car loans has halted the decline as households have shed debt (delevered) either by foreclosure, default, paying down balances or not charging as much.  Household Credit Market Debt outstanding (includes mortgages, car loans, student loans, revolving credit) indicates a growing willingness of consumers to take on more debt. 

On a per person basis, our debt has declined slightly from the peak of 2007 but is still way too high, leaving many of us vulnerable to a subsequent downturn, slight though it might be.

Just how bad has this recession been?  In previous recessions, households cut back their debt to “only” a 5% growth rate.  For the first time ever, the American people reduced their debt growth rate below 0. It is only in the past two years that this rate of negative debt growth is approaching 0.

Here’s the BUT. The underlying fragility of confidence was revealed this past Friday when the U. of Michigan Consumer Sentiment poll showed a plunge in confidence from over 82 in September to 74 in October. For the first time since the recession started in late 2007, the consumer confidence index had finally surpassed 80, only to fall back again the following month.  In a relatively healthy economy, this index is above 90.

To summarize so far, we have a consumer slowly and haltingly gaining more confidence, spending more and keeping the growth rate of her debt in check.  We have an overall economy that is behaving rather tiredly, growing tepidly as though on the downhill of a long boom cycle; that’s a problem since this has not been a boom cycle in the past few years.  So how are corporate profits doing?  Fine! Thank you!

In this past quarter, profits rose by 18%.

Starbucks, the coffee giant, announced this week that they would voluntarily pay some British income tax this year instead of moving the profits to some low tax country and avoiding British income taxes.  It appears that their customers discovered that they had been (legally, mind you) avoiding paying income taxes and were mobilizing to boycott Starbucks’ stores in Great Britain.

Interest rates kept near zero by the Federal Reserve have been a feast for many international corporations.  At the end of October, U.S. companies have issued $1.1 trillion in investment grade and high yield bonds (Source), responding to investors’ thirst for higher yields. That is an increase of 26% over last year’s bond issuance. International companies are, quite rationally, borrowing at the lowest interest rate they can find around the world, then spread that money to their subsidiaries in other countries.  They pay the lowest income taxes they can find internationally and shuffle the paper profits around the world. 

Ok, where were we? Oh yeah, cautious but more confident consumer, tepid but possibly improving GDP growth and record corporate profits.  Oh yeah, and record Federal Debt – over $16 trillion and counting.

Pity the poor corporations who pay the highest income tax rate in the world – except that they don’t.  In 2011, it was about 20%.

Record corporate profits, record low effective corporate tax rates, record low borrowing costs for corporations and record high Federal Debt.  The largest companies heavily lobby Congress to keep their tax rates low.  No matter how high profits are, companies publicly worry about their profit forecast and the economic outlook.  These large companies have become adept at convincing Congress that they are struggling.  Half of the Congress thinks that they must help these poor companies create jobs; key committee members craft more tax goodies and bury these goodies inside large appropriations bills.  Congress underfunds regulatory agencies so that they are effectively outmanned by corporate legal departments.

The lack of corporate tax revenues contributes to the Federal debt; over the past fifty years that share has declined from 20% of Federal revenues to about 10%.  If the share of Federal revenues had remained at the 20% level of the 1960s, the Federal Debt would be $7.4 trillion today, not $16 trillion.  Calculating savings on interest paid on the smaller debt would lower the actual debt to about $6.8 to $7 trillion.

Big increases in productivity have helped fuel the strong rise in profits.  Investments in technology as well as higher skill and education levels have enabled American workers to record levels of production but they have not shared in the gains from those increasing levels of production.  The U.S. has risen to the same levels of income inequality as some emerging countries:  China, Venezuela, Ecuador and Argentina.

To recap:  record high corporate profits due to record high worker productivity which has not benefited the workers, record low effective corporate tax rates and share of the costs of government, record low borrowing costs for corporations, and record high Federal Debt.

All of this largesse to multi-national U.S. corporations begs the question: Where are the jobs? But that I’ll leave for next when we look at the November Labor Report released this past Friday.