Country Roads and the Election

May 12, 2019

by Steve Stofka

I spent the past week traveling with my sister to a family reunion near Dallas, Texas. In our travels, we passed through rural counties in southeast Colorado, western Oklahoma, and northwest and central Texas. In contrast to the signs of a brisk economy in the larger cities, some rural communities show signs of stress. Some roads leading off the main route need repair; some houses could use a fresh coat of paint; some stores have delayed maintenance. In some small towns most of the stores remain boarded up ten years after the financial crisis.

Candidates for the 2020 Presidential election must speak to the two Americas. The Americans who produce the food we eat and the power that lights our businesses and homes are not doing as well as those in the urban corridors. Young people in rural America leave for the larger cities to find a job or pursue an education. Older people with medical needs must move to larger cities with hospital facilities available in an emergency.

Let’s turn to a proposal on the list of issues for the 2020 election – an increase in the Federal minimum wage. A person making a minimum wage of $15 an hour in Los Angeles earns a bit more than half of L.A.’s median household income (MHI). She may work 2-1/2 weeks to pay the rent on a one-bedroom apartment (Note #1). The MHI in rural America is about 20% less than the national average. In Limon, Colorado (population less than 1500), the MHI is about half of the national average (Note #2). $15 an hour in Limon is the MHI.

In 2009 and 2010, the Democrats controlled the Presidency, the House and had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. They could have enacted a federal minimum wage that was indexed to the living costs in each county or state. Why didn’t they fix the problem then? Because Democrats use the minimum wage as an issue to help win elections. If Congress passes a minimum wage of $15 an hour this year, they will have something new to run on in five years – a raise in the minimum wage to $17 an hour. Voters must begin asking their elected representatives for practical and flexible solutions, not political banners like a federal mandated one-size-fits-all $15 minimum wage.

For decades after World War 2, Democratic Party politicians who controlled the House refused to allow legislation that would index tax rates to inflation. This resulted in “bracket creep” where cost of living wage increases put working people in higher tax brackets automatically (Note #3). The problem became acute during the high inflation decade of the 1970s and the issue helped Ronald Reagan take the White House on a promise to fix the problem.

A week ago, I heard a Democratic Senator running for President say that they knew all along that Obamacare was just a start. The program was poorly drafted and poorly implemented and now we learn that Democrats knew all along that it was bad legislation? Will Medicare For All also be built on poor foundations and require a constant stream of legislative and agency fixes? This provides a lot of work for the folks in Washington who draft a lot of agency rules that require a lot of administrative cost to implement. Democrats are fond of federal solutions but show little expertise in managing the inevitable bloated bureaucracy that such solutions entail.

Some Democratic Party candidates are promising to fix the harsh sentencing guidelines that they themselves passed in the 1990s, which fixed sentencing guidelines enacted 25 years earlier by Democratic politicians in the 1960s and 1970s. This party’s platform consists of fixing its earlier mistakes.

According to a Washington Post analysis of election issues (Note #4), some candidates are concerned about corporate power. A Democratic president would have to work with the Senate’s Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer whose main support comes from large financial corporations based in his home state, New York. While a President Elizabeth Warren might propose regulatory curbs on corporate power, Mr. Schumer would be gathering campaign donations from the large banks who needed protection from those same regulations.

Large scale industrial power production has a significant effect on the climate. The few blue states that supported a Democratic candidate for President in the 2016 election also consume most of the final product of that power production. Have any candidates proposed solutions that lower the demand for power? Temperature control systems in commercial buildings could be set to a few degrees warmer in the summer and a few degrees cooler in the winter. That would have a significant impact on carbon production. Some candidates propose solutions that regulate the production and supply of power – not the demand for power. Most of that production occurs in states that supported a Republican candidate in the 2016 election. Proposals to install wind and wave generating stations in Democratic leaning coastal states in the northeast and northwest have been met with local resistance. Voters in the blue states want green solutions to be implemented in the red states, but not inconvenience residents of the blue states. Voters in the red states see through that hypocrisy.

A viable Democratic candidate must convince independent voters who are wary of political solutions from either party.  Donald Trump won the Presidency without visiting rural folks on their home turf. He landed his plane near a staged rally and the folks came from miles around to hear him. Compare that approach with former Republican candidate Rick Santorum who visited many small towns in Iowa in the months before the 2012 Iowa primary. In small restaurants and rural post offices, Santorum listened to the concerns of voters. Trump’s approach was successful. Santorum was not. Go figure.

Trump convinced rural folks that he was going to go to Washington and drain the swamp. This in turn would help the economy in small town America so that those folks could get themselves a new roof, or a new pickup truck, fix the fence or get a few potholes patched. From what I saw, those folks are still waiting. Some rural folks may run out of patience with Trump by next year. The success of any Democratic candidate depends on that.

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Notes:

  1. One week’s take home pay of $550 x 2.5 weeks = $1375. A 1 BR in L.A. averages $1350 L.A. Curbed
  2. Areavibes.Com assessment of Limon, Colorado.
  3. Tax indexing
  4. Washington Post article on various election issues

Making Stuff

May 5, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This week I’ll review several decades of trends in productivity. How much output do we get out of labor, land, and capital inputs? Capital can include new equipment, computers, buildings, etc. In the graph below, the blue line is real GDP (output) per person. The red line is disposable (after-tax) income per person. That’s the labor share of that output after taxes.

As you can see, labor is the majority input. In the following graph is the share of real GDP going to disposable income.  In the past two decades, labor has been getting a larger share.

That might look good but it’s not. Since 2000, the economy has shifted toward service industries where labor does not produce as much GDP per hour. The chart below shows the efficiency of labor, or how much GDP is being produced by labor.

If labor were being underpaid, the amount of GDP produced per dollar of disposable income would be higher, not lower. On average, service jobs do not have as much leverage as manufacturing jobs.

A century ago, agricultural jobs were inefficient in comparison to manufacturing jobs. The share of labor to total output was high. In the past seventy years, the agricultural industry has transformed. Today’s farms resemble large outdoor manufacturing plants without walls and productivity continues to grow. In the past five years, steep price declines in the prices of many agricultural products have put extraordinary pressures on today’s smaller farmers. The increased productivity of larger farms has allowed them to maintain real net farm income at the same level as twenty years ago (Note #1). Here’s a graph from the USDA.

Although agriculture related industries contribute more than 5% of the nation’s GDP, farm output is only 1% of the nation’s total output. The productivity gains in agriculture have not been shared by the rest of the economy. Labor productivity has plunged from 2.8% annual growth in the years 2000-2007 to 1.3% in the past eleven years (Note #2).  Here’s an earlier report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics with a chart that illustrates the trends (Note #3). The report notes “Sluggish productivity growth has implications for worker compensation. As stated earlier, real hourly compensation growth depends upon gains in labor productivity.”

Productivity growth in this past decade is comparable to the two years of deep recession, high unemployment and sky-high interest rates in the early 1980s. The report notes “although both hours and output grew at below-average rates during this cycle [2008 through 2016], the fact that output grew notably slower than its historical average is what yields the historically low labor productivity growth.” Today we have low unemployment and very low interest rates – the exact opposite of that earlier period. Why do the two periods have similar productivity gains? It’s a head scratcher.

Simple answers? No, but hats off to Donald Trump who has called attention to the need for a greater shift to manufacturing in the U.S. economy. He and then Wisconsin governor Scott Walker negotiated with FoxConn Chairman Terry Gou to get a huge factory built in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin to manufacture LCD displays, but progress has slowed. An article this week in the Wall St. Journal exposed the tensions that erupt among residents of an area which has made a major commitment to economic growth (Note #4).

If we don’t shift toward more manufacturing, American economic growth will slow to match that of the Eurozone. Along with that will come negative interest rates from the central bank and little or no interest on CDs and savings accounts. We already had a taste of that for several years after the recession. No thanks. Low interest rates are a hidden tax on savers. They lower the amount of interest the government pays at the expense of individuals who are saving for education or retirement. Interest income not received is a reduction in disposable income and has the same effect as a tax. Low interest rates encourage an unhealthy growth in corporate debt and drive up both stock and housing prices.

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Note:

  1. USDA summary of agricultural industry
  2. BLS report on multi-factor productivity
  3. BLS report on declining labor productivity
  4. FoxConn LCD factory (March article – no paywall). Also, a recent article from WSJ (paywall) – Foxconn Tore Up a Small Town to Build a Big Factory—Then Retreated

Decline of Income Growth

January 13, 2019

by Steve Stofka

On the week before Christmas, the stock market fell more than 7%. I wrote about the historical trends following previous falls of that magnitude. The week opened on Dec. 17th with the SP500 index. Two months was the shortest recovery period after 7% falls in 1986 and 1989. In a previous budget showdown in 2011, the market recovered after five months, but shutdowns are just one component of a complex economic environment. If the outlook for corporate profits looks positive, the market will pause during a long showdown, as it did in October 2013.

Investors wanting to contribute to their retirement plans can do so in a measured manner. The uncertainties that produce tumultuous markets take some time to resolve. Although the market rose for five straight days in a row this week, it was not able to reach that opening level of 2600 three weeks ago.

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Let’s turn to a persistent problem: the lack of income growth. Beginning in the early 1970s, the annual growth rate in real personal income began to decline (Note #1). I calculated ten-year averages of annual growth to get the chart below. 5% annual inflation-adjusted growth during the 1960s became 3% growth during the 1980s and early 1990s. The dot-com and housing booms of the late 1990s and early 2000s kicked growth higher to 3.5%. In 2008, annual growth (not averaged over ten years) went negative and reached as low as -4.9% in May 2009. Following the Financial Crisis, the ten year average is stuck at 2% growth.

rpigrowth

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks total employee compensation costs, including benefits and government mandated taxes (Note #2). I compared ten-year averages of both series, income with (blue line) and without (orange line) benefits. The trend over five decades is down, as before. When the labor market is tight, employers have to offer better benefit packages and the growth in total compensation is higher than income without benefits. When there is slack in the market, employees will accept what they can get, and the growth of total compensation is less.

incgrowthcomp

Beginning in early 2008, we see the dramatic effect of the last recession and the financial crisis. Income growth went negative, but income with benefits plunged 19% by January 2009. With unemployment stubbornly high, employers could attract employees with rather skimpy benefit packages. The ten-year average growth of income with benefits (blue line) sank to 1%, a full percent below income without benefits. In the last two years, the two series are starting to converge but the trend is below 2% growth.

The data contradicts those who claim that income growth is low because employers are spending more in benefits.

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Notes:
1. Real personal income series at Federal Reserve. An explanation of various types of personal income at Federal Reserve
2. Fed Reserve Series PRS85006062 Less PCEPI Chain Type Inflation Index.

A Real Minimum Wage

November 18, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Near the top of the Democratic agenda in the new Congress is a minimum wage of $15. The bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, but it will signal to the voters that the Democratic House is meeting campaign promises. The states with the most solid Democratic support are those on the west coast and northeast coast where the cost of living is much higher. A single minimum wage for the entire country is not appropriate. Republicans control the Senate and they are from states with much lower costs of living. They will reject an ambitious minimum wage that is one-size fits all.

Housing is the largest monthly expense for most families. Below is a graph of home prices in several western metropolitan areas (MSAs) and the national average of twenty large MSAs. Home prices in Dallas and Phoenix are a 1/3 less than Los Angeles and San Francisco. Housing costs in many smaller cities will be below Dallas and Phoenix.

CaseShillerComps

Why isn’t the minimum wage indexed to inflation? Because politicians of both parties, but particularly Democrats, have used it as a wedge issue to gain voter support. If the House Democrats wanted to pass bi-partisan legislation on a minimum wage, they could use a flexible minimum wage that is indexed to the average wages for each region within the country. These are published regularly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the same agency that publishes the monthly report of job gains and the unemployment rate. I’ve charted the annual figures for those same cities.

HourlyEarnComp

A $15 minimum wage is 40% of the average wage in San Francisco, and a bit more than half of the average wage in Los Angeles. It is almost 60% of the national average. The current minimum of $7.25 is 28% of the national average.

If the House passed a minimum wage bill that set the wage to 40% of the average wage for each region, Senate Republicans might at least consider it. In Denver and L.A., the minimum wage would be about $11.50. In Dallas and Phoenix, it would be about $10.60. Democrats could show that they are in Washington to pass legislation for working families, not pound some ideological stump as Republicans did for eight years with the repeal of Obamacare.

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Stocks and Taxes

There is a close correlation between stock prices and corporate tax collections. The tax bill passed last December lowered corporate tax revenues in the hope that businesses would invest more in the U.S. The divergence between prices and collections has to correct. Either tax collections increase because of greater profitability or stock prices come down.

StocksVTaxes
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Income Growth

The financial crisis severely undercut income growth. Real, or inflation-adjusted, per capita income after taxes decreased for three years from 2008 through 2010, and again in 2014. It is the longest period of negative growth since the 1930s Depression.

IncomeRealPerCapGrowth

Inflation Measures

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” – Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

September 30, 2018

by Steve Stofka

The above quote has been attributed to the former Senate Majority Leader. People repeat the quote when discussing a contentious subject. We are often convinced that we have the facts when our facts may indeed be arbitrary. Let’s take the case of real or inflation-adjusted income. Has the average real wage declined or risen in the past decades? The calculation depends on which measure of inflation we choose.

There are two measures of inflation, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the Personal Consumption Expenditure Price Index (PCE). The CPI relies on surveys of what consumers buy. The PCE is based on surveys of what businesses sell (Note #1). The CPI uses a fixed basket of goods, regardless of changes in the prices of items in a basket. If the weekly basket of goods includes two pounds of ground beef, that two pounds never changes in response to lower prices. It is static. The PCE does adjust for price changes. If the price of a pound of ground beef went down thirty cents, the PCE calculates that a family bought a bit more ground beef and a little bit less chicken, for example. It is a dynamic measure.

People drive fewer miles and buy more fuel-efficient cars as the price of gas increases BUT only after a certain dollar amount. Our purchasing patterns are both static and dynamic. Because we are creatures of habit, our buying patterns are resistant to change. Within a certain price range, we will continue to buy the same items. Outside of that range, we do make changes because we want to optimize our choices.

In the past forty years the CPI has calculated an annual rate of inflation that is over ½% higher than the PCE rate. That small difference compounded over forty years amounts to 23%. That large difference tells two very different stories. Using the CPI, the average worker has lost a few percent in inflation adjusted hourly wages. Using the PCE, on the other hand, the average worker has enjoyed real gains of 20% in the past forty years (Note #2).

Our most volatile disagreements are in areas where facts are difficult to observe. The household survey data that underlies the CPI is unreliable because people living busy lives are not accurate journal keepers of their daily purchases. On the other hand, surveys based on business sales are inaccurate because people stock up on items whose prices decline.

Even when facts are readily verifiable, the interpretation of those facts varies with context. In arriving at our version of the meaning of those facts and their context, we subtract a lot of observable data.  We must filter reality because we cannot manage such a large amount of information. Because we filter our perceptions, eyewitness testimony is unreliable. Although our perceptions are inaccurate, we must act on those perceptions and hope that they are accurate enough. That same reasoning guides economists, politicians, and those in the social and physical sciences. We would all have more constructive discussions if we understood the imperfection of our perceptions.

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Notes:

1. The Difference between CPI and PCE {Federal Reserve}

2. Using the average hourly wage for production and non-supervisory employees.

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.

PersVsHouseholdIncome

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.

Benefits

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.

HourlyWagesVsTotalComp

Is it a rabbit or a duck?

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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.

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.

The Poor and the Not Poor

October 15, 2017

No worries. Among the 25 OECD countries, Americans have historically had the lowest percentage of their financial assets in cash and savings deposits. After the financial crisis, we became the second lowest, just ahead of Chile. The percentage for the most recent available year (2015) was 13.5%.

In the heady optimism of the dot-com boom in 1999-2000, Americans had less than 10% of their assets in cash and savings. In the long downturn from 2000 – 2003, Americans bumped up their percentage in safe assets to almost 13%. As the economy recovered, that need for safety declined slightly but not to the levels of the 1990s. The financial crisis in 2008 caused Americans to reach for safety. Safe assets rose to 14.3% of total financial assets and we have still not recovered the level of confidence we once had.

You can click on this OECD link to see a comparison of current percentages. On the bottom right below the chart you can drag the year slider and look at some historical data.

Below the chart on the left is a category labeled “Perspectives.” Select “Total” to see total financial assets, which does not include home equity. Americans have the second highest total, just below Switzerland.

On the other hand, the U.S. has a comparatively high poverty rate of 17.5% using the OECD standard,  a simple measure that an economist would use.The poverty threshold is half the median income.

The U.S. publishes a poverty rate that is several percent lower because it uses a complex definition first set in 1963 when families spent an estimated 1/3 of their income on food. The complexity of the definition hints that politicians had a hand in crafting the definition but it is attributed to one person in the Social Security Administration, who based her standard on a combination of foods that the Department of Agriculture thought would meet minimum nutritional needs. The history of this standard and its many revisions is an interesting read.

The threshold is set at three times the cost of this 1960s era minimum food diet. Efficiencies in food production over the past 50 years have dramatically lowered food costs for U.S. families. In 1978, the BLS estimated that the average family spent only 18% of their income on food. In 2014, it was a bit more than 14% (BLS).

Using food costs as the basis for measuring poverty has enabled politicians in this country to claim success in lowering poverty over the past half century. In 1978, the calculation of the U.S. poverty threshold produced one that was slightly more than the OECD standard. Today, the U.S. threshold is 16% less than the OECD standard.

Let’s look at a family of four making $28K in 2016. They were above the official U.S. poverty threshold of $24,300 for a family of four. By the OECD definition, that American family was below half of the median $59K in income and would be counted as poor.

Housing costs are higher in urban areas, where half of the U.S. population lives. That family of four living in Chicago might pay $15000 per year for a 2 BR apartment in Chicago. Further south in the same state, Springfield, IL, they might pay $11,000. That $4000 difference in housing cost is not calculated into the poverty rate that the U.S. publishes. In effect, poverty is undercounted in urban areas and overcounted in rural areas.

The simplicity of the OECD standard better captures poverty among both urban and rural low-income families because it is based on median income. So why doesn’t the U.S. adopt this much clearer standard? We can turn to the last sentence of the previous paragraph for a clue. Politicians in rural areas want a standard that overcounts poverty in their districts. A higher headcount of poverty equals more subsidies for their constituents. When this standard was set, rural areas in the southern states were primarily Democratic and Democrats dominated the Congress under a Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson. Those politicians wanted the adoption of a food based standard that overcounted those voters.

Today, most rural areas are predominantly Republican and the standard works to the advantage of Republicans and the disadvantage of Democrats. As a rule of thumb, whenever we see excessive complexity in rule-making, there’s usually a very sound political reason for that obfuscation. Former President John Adams lamented this unfortunate characteristic of lawmaking in the crafting of the Constitution itself.

The intentional lack of clarity in lawmaking ensures that any nation’s population will be at odds with each other. A small and smart part of the population makes money from conflict and confusion. People argue on Facebook; Facebook makes money. Trump did what? There’s a video. Got to see that, right? Click bam boom, Google makes money by placing some ads next to the video.  Controversy is profitable. Politics as carnival show.

Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, publishes both the fringe right author Ann Coulter, and the way out on the left author and MSNBC host, Rachel Maddow. Worried that the liberals are taking over the country? Frightened that the conservatives will destroy the very institutions that have made America the greatest nation on earth?  Crown has something for you.

On the other hand, the record low volatility of the stock and bond markets in the past year have made it difficult for financial firms who depend on controversy to make a good profit.  Active fund managers have struggled to outperform their benchmark indexes.  The volume of derivatives and other products that insure against volatility have fallen.  People are not worried enough.  That’s the problem.  We need to worry about not being worried.

And those poor families?  If we lower the poverty threshold even more, we won’t have to worry about those poor people as much.

The Long Game

April 16, 2017

Happy Easter!

Successful investing requires a far sighted vision. At the end of each year Vanguard sends its customers their long term outlook. This last one contained a few caveats: “the investment environment for the next five years may prove more challenging than the previous five, underscoring the need for discipline, reasonable expectations, and low-cost strategies.”

Vanguard’s ten year estimate of annualized returns is about 8% for non-US equities, 6.5 – 7% for the US stock market, 5% for REITs (real estate) and commodities, and 2% for bonds.

Vanguard’s team projects that a diversified portfolio of 60% stocks/ 40% bonds will return 5.6% annually over the next ten years. An agressive 80/20 mix they estimate at a 6.6% return, and a very conservative 20/80 mix at about 3.3%. Insurance companies typically adopt this safe approach. (Source)

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ANNUITIES vs. MANAGED PAYOUT?

Investors near or in retirement must often turn to their investments for supplemental income. Annuities are sold as a safe “set it and forget it” solution, but they come with upfront fees and currently pay low interest.

In early 2008, before the fianncial crisis, a 65 year old man could get an average annuity (the average of a 10 year and life) for 5.5% a year. That provided a guaranteed income that was more than the classic 4% “safe” withdrawal rate for retirees. That 4% withdrawal rule would normally ensure that a retiree did not run out of money before they died.

The average annuity rate for that same age is now half that interest rate (Source). For an investment of $100K, a 67 year old male living in Colorado can get a lifetime annuity of $7212 per year (CNN Annuity Calculator) For 14 years, the insurance company providing the annuity is essentially returning the investor’s money to them. If that male investor lived for 20 years till age 87, they would receive a total of $144K, an annual return of only 1.84%. If the retiree lived to 97, their annualized return would increase to 2.5% over the thirty year period. Clearly, an investor is paying for safety.

Wade Pfau is a CFP whom I have cited in previous blogs. Here he compares the advantages and disadvantages of investments vs. insurance. He makes an argument that an annuity that covers one’s essential needs allows a person to take more risk with the rest of their portfolio. The potentially higher return from the investment side of the portfolio can thus make up for the lower returns of the annuity, an insurance product. He does caution, however, that most annuities do not protect against inflatiion. A investor who needed $1000 extra dollars in monthly income in 2017, would need more than $2000 in 30 years at a 2.5% inflation rate.

Managed Payout?

One alternative is a managed payout fund. The Vanguard Managed Payout Fund VPGDX lists the fund’s holdings as 60% stocks with an almost 20% allocation to alternative strategies. Alternatives vary in volatility depending on the intent of the investment but let’s treat them as though they were mostly a stock, giving the fund a simple effective allocation of 75% stock, 25% bonds. This fund lost 43% from April 2008 through March 2009, less than the 50% loss of the SP500 index but not by much. A broad composite of bonds (BND) actually gained 3% in price during that time. Here is some info from the investing giant Black Rock on alternative investments.

The return of the fund since its inception in April 2008 is 4.28%. Vanguard’s broad bond composite fund VBMFX, with far less risk, had a ten year return of 4.12% and gained value during the financial crisis. Although some mutual funds have trade restrictions, the prospectus on this fund lists no such restrictions, so that one could set up a monthly withdrawal from the fund.

A Vanguard target date 2030 fund (VTHRX), which has an allocation of 70% stocks, 30% bonds, had a ten year return of 5.31%. That fund lost 45% during the eleven month downturn in 2008-2009, slightly more than the Managed Payout Fund.  The additional 1% annual return is the reward for that slightly greater drawdown. A 1/4 of that additional 1% return can be attributed to lower fees.

The advantage of a Managed Payout Fund – simplicity and regularity of income flows – does not outweigh the disadvantages of volatility and some tax inefficiency. An investor could conveniently set up a monthly withdrawal from a broad based bond fund and enjoy the same return with much greater safety of principal, lower fees, and control over the withdrawal amount, if needed.

When it comes to retirement income, most investors would prefer the simple arithmetic of our grade school years.  Both Social Security and traditional defined benefit pension programs use that kind of math.  Each year, a retiree gets ‘X’ amount that is adjusted for inflation.  No choices needed.  However, most employees today have defined contribution, not benefit, plans. A retiree owns their savings, the capital base used to generate that monthly income, and it is up to the retiree to  navigate the winding channel between risk and return.

Midpoints

July 3, 2016

A week after crash-go-boom in the stock market following Brexit, the British vote to leave the European Union, the market recovered most of the 5 – 6% lost in the two days following the vote.  The reaction was a bit too intense, inappropriate to an exogenous shock, the vote, whose consequences would take several years to develop. In last week’s blog I had suggested that the market drop was a good time to put some IRA money to work for 2016.  This was not some kind of magic insight.  Each year’s IRA contribution amount is a small percentage of our accumulated  retirement portfolio.

Buying on market dips can be an alternative strategy to regular dollar cost averaging since the market recovers within a few months after most dips, although the recovery is at a slower pace than the fall.  Fear can cause stampedes out of equities; confidence grows slowly.  As an example of an abrupt price decline, the SP500 index fell almost 7% in five days last August, then took more than two months to regain the price level before the fall.  The 12% price drop at the beginning of this year was more gradual, occurring over six weeks.  The recovery to regain that lost ground also took two months, from mid-February to mid-April. In the latter quarter of 2012, the market also took two months to erase a 7% price decline from mid-October to mid-November.

The price level of the SP500 is near the high mark set in May 2015, more than a year earlier.  Only in the past year has the inflation-adjusted price of the SP500 surpassed its summer 2000 level (Chart and table).  Nope, I’m not making that up. The stock market has just barely kept up with inflation for the past 15 years. The inability of the stock market to move higher indicates that buyers are not attracted to the market at current price levels.  The absurdly low interest yields on bonds makes this caution especially puzzling.  As stock prices recovered this past week, prices on long term Treasury bonds should have fallen as traders moved into more risky assets.  Instead, bond prices have risen.  As the price of long term Treasuries (ETF: TLT) broke through its January 2015 high  on Friday, the last day of June, traders began betting against treasuries (ETF: TBF).

Those who are concerned about the return OF their money, the safety searchers buying bonds, are competing against those seeking a return ON their money.  VIG is a Vanguard ETF that focuses on company stocks with dividend appreciation, and is favored by those seeking some safety while investing in stocks. TLT is an ETF of Treasury bonds for those seeking safety and, as expected, pays more in dividends than VIG.  Rarely do we see a broad stock ETF like VIG have a yield, or interest rate, that is close to what a long term Treasury bond ETF like TLT has.  At the end of this week, VIG had a dividend yield of 2.15%, just slightly below TLT.  Why are investors/traders bidding up the price of Treasury bonds?  Some 10 year government bonds in the Eurozone have recently crossed a dividing line and now have negative interest rates.  The low, but positive, interest rates of U.S. Treasury bonds look like big open flowers to the busy bees of institutional investors around the world.

In a large group of investors, buy and sell decisions tend to counterbalance each other.  Occasionally there are periods when such decisions reinforce each other and create a precarious imbalance that all too often rights itself in an abrupt fashion.  Bubbles and – what’s the opposite of a bubble? – are iconic examples of this kind of self-reinforcing behavior.

In another week we will mark the middle of the summer season.  The All-Star game on July 12th occurs near the halfway mark in the baseball season and advises parents in many states that there are still five to six weeks before the kids head back to school.  Our mid-40s is about the midpoint of our working years, a reminder that we need to start saving for retirement if we have not done so already.  It has been seven years since the market trough in March 2009.  Let’s hope that this is the midpoint of a 14 year bull market but I don’t think so.

Next week will be chock full of data before the start of earnings season for the second quarter. We will get the June employment report as well as the Purchasing Managers Index.  In this time of short, sharp reactions to news events, we can expect continued volatility.

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Earnings


Pew Research just released a comparison of earnings by racial group and sex that is based on Census Bureau surveys, the same data that the BLS compiles into their monthly employment reports.  My initial criticism of the Pew Research comparison was that they used the earnings of full and part time workers.  Women tend to work more part time jobs so that would skew the earnings comparison, I thought. Thinking that a comparison of full time workers only would show different results, I pulled up the BLS report which groups the data by sex, only to find out that the differences between the earnings of men and women was about the same.  At the median, women earn 82% of men.



An even more depressing feature of the BLS report is that median weekly earnings have barely kept ahead of inflation during the past decade.  This wage stagnation provides a base of support for the criticisms voiced by former Presidential contender Bernie Sanders in a recent NY Times editorial.
Like a truck stuck in the mud, households are spinning their wheels without making much progress.  In the coming months, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will try to sell themselves as the tow truck that can pull average American families out of the mud. Well, it would be nice if they would conduct their campaigns in such a positive light.  The truth is that each candidate will try to convince voters that voting for the other candidate will get American families stuck deeper in the mud.  The conventions of both parties are later this month.  Expect the mud to start flying soon after they are over.  By election day in November, we will all be buried in mud.