Socioeconomic Engineering

April 30, 2023

by Stephen Stofka

Last week’s letter was about marginal loss and marginal value. This week I’ll continue exploring another topic in marginal thinking – the marginal disutility of labor. I will touch on the influence of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen and revisit John Bates Clark from last week. I will finish up with Keynes, a seminal figure who voiced disapproval of some earlier economic ideas but incorporated portions of that thought into his General Theory.

What is the marginal disutility of labor? Disutility is a synonym for harm. There are two choices in each period of time: work and leisure. Leisure should be understood as non-work, not an activity like resting in a lounge chair on the beach. If the next period of work causes harm we will choose leisure, a rest from work. This idea became popular in the late 19th century as neoclassical economists adopted utilitarian ideas contained in John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economics. Mill claimed that values were subjective, based on scarcity and the costs of production (Heilbroner, 1997). Mill rejected the claim by classical economists like Ricardo and Smith that there was some natural law of distribution of the gains from production. Mill wrote that distribution of gains was based on customs and morals peculiar to each society.

That was a bit too arbitrary and subjective for some neoclassical economists like Jevons and Menger. The neoclassical economists wanted to divorce politics from economics, to cut out the “Political” in the title of Mills book. They developed the concept of a marginal productivity of labor idea to accompany the marginal disutility of labor. Under this schema, every worker was paid their marginal product, their contribution to production. Neoclassical economists became preoccupied with equilibrium in a static world.

I wrote about John Bates Clark last week and I will mention him again. A neoclassical economist himself, his book The Distribution of Wealth reminded readers that most neoclassical ideas only made sense in a fictional world where labor and capital were free to go wherever they would earn the most return. It is a world without friction or gravity like Newton’s mechanical world of motion. The simplification helped Newton identify the interplay of forces on an object in motion.

Clark went down the rabbit hole himself and he defined and reconciled two sets of laws, the static and dynamic. In his theory, there were static laws of equilibrium between scarcity and wants. This was a system seeking rest like the swing of a pendulum as it gradually comes to rest at the lowest point of an arc. He identified five forces that disrupted the static laws. These were population, capital, technological improvements, the types of businesses and the wants of consumers. Each of these were increasing, a dynamism that interfered with any resolution.

At this point in the story, I will return to The Worldly Philosophers by Robert Heilbroner (1997).  One of Clark’s pupils was Thorstein Veblen, a Norwegian who would become one of the leading voices of what is called American Institutionalism. That school of economists proposed a class of socio-economic engineers who would optimize the institutions that dictated the distribution of property to make production more efficient. Marx had also insisted that production and distribution could not be separated. Veblen’s ideas were a rational system implemented by a trained intellectual elite. Marx envisioned a reactionary movement like the upheavals that swept Europe in the 1840s. Despite the stark differences between Veblen and Marx, the neoclassicals depicted Veblen as another Marxist philosopher and marginalized that school of thought.

John Maynard Keynes rejected the notion of the marginal disutility of labor because it failed to explain how millions of workers were idle regardless of their asking wage. Employers were not hiring because the expectation of sales was so low. Sales remained low because workers were not employed, a problem that Henry Ford had solved two decades earlier. Ford needed more people to buy his cars but even his own workers could not afford the cars. So he paid them more money. That solution was more difficult to deploy throughout an entire economy, however. Only a government had enough fiscal power to put a large number of people back to work, to increase what Keynes called effective demand.

In his General Theory Keynes introduced the same idea of the economist engineer but did not mention Veblen. Heilbroner thought it was because the neoclassicals had successfully stereotyped Veblen as a Marxist, a socialist without respect for private property. Keynes was essentially a conservative in the camp of Edmund Burke, someone who wanted to preserve the capitalist system based on private property. Despite the difference in intentions, Keynes introduced top down economic engineering at a time when people were desperate for solutions that would preserve existing institutions.

Our society today is based on these ideas and the institutional norms those ideas spawned. As the debate over raising the debt nears a critical standoff sometime this June, we will be able to see the clash of ideas tangled with the posturing and struggle for political dominance.     


Photo by Mykola Makhlai on Unsplash

Heilbroner, R. L. (1997). Teachings from the worldly philosophy. New York, NY: Norton & Company.


October Surprise

October 11, 2015

A good week for stocks (SPY), up over 3%.  Emerging markets (VWO) were up over 5%, but are still down 18% from spring highs and are on sale, so to speak, at February 2014 prices.

On news that domestic crude oil production had fallen 120,000 barrels per day, about 15%, in September, an oil commodity ETF (USO) rose up 8% this week.  On fears, and confirmations of fears, of an economic slowdown in much of the world, commodities have taken a beating in the past year, falling 50% or more.  A broad basket of commodities (DBC) was up 4% this week but are still at ten year lows.  An August 2010 Market Watch commentary recounted the evils of commodity ETFs as a place where the pros take the suckers’ money.  Not for the casual investor.

The Telegraph carried a brief summary of the latest IMF assessment of credit conditions around the world.  There is an informative graphic of the four stages of the macro credit cycle and which countries are at what stage in the cycle.


Social welfare

Some people say they dislike redistribution schemes on moral grounds.  The government takes money from some people based on their ability and gives it to other people based on their need, a central tenet of Communism.

In a 2014 paper IMF researchers have found that redistribution is a hallmark of developed economies.  Why?  Because advanced economies have the most income inequality.  Why?  Developed economies have greater income opportunity and opportunity breeds inequality.  A sense of human decency prompts the voters in these developed countries to even the playing field a bit.

In countries with greater equality, living standards and median income are lower.  There is less income to redistribute.  In the real world where the choices are higher income and redistribution vs an equality of poverty, I’ll take the more advanced economies.



Since the beginning of this year the manufacturing component of the Purchasing Managers’ Index has continued to expand.  The strong dollar has made U.S. products more expensive around the world and this has hurt domestic manufacturers.  Growth has slowed from the strong expansion of the last half of 2013 and all of 2014.  September’s survey of manufacturers is right at the edge between expansion and contraction.  The CWPI weights the new orders and employment portions of each index more heavily.  Using this methodology, the manufacturing side of the equation looks stronger than the headline index indicates.

The services sector, most of the economy, is still enjoying robust growth and this strength elevates the combined CWPI.

How much will the substandard growth in the rest of the world affect the U.S. economy?  Industrial production in Germany declined last month.  China’s growth is slowing.  GDP growth in the Eurozone is barely positive.  Emerging markets are struggling with capital outflows.  Developed economies that are dependent on natural resources – Canada and Australia – are struggling.  The GDP growth rate of both countries is very slightly negative. The U.S. is probably the one economic ray of hope.  September’s lackluster labor report and the Fed’s decision to delay a rate increase has attracted capital back into the stock market. This past Monday, volatility in the market (VIX – 17) dropped down below its long term historical average of 20 but is a tiny bit above its 200 day average.  I’d like to see another calm week before I was convinced that the underlying nervousness in the market has abated.  Third quarter earnings season is here and estimates by Fact Set  are for a 5% decline in earnings, the second consecutive quarter of declines since 2009.

The Talk

November 23, 2014

A strong wind from the southwest blew into town, chasing the cold weather out onto the great plains east of Denver.  Most of the trees had given up their leaves as the days grew shorter but the elm trees had stubbornly held onto their leaves, still green far into November.  The turning of color began during the cold snap of the previous week and now the great gnarly giants began to release their leaves to the winds.  Busy at work for many years, George had hired out the autumn cleanup.  Now that he was retired, he was becoming more attuned to the daily and seasonal rhythms of the plants and animals in the neighborhood.

“Leave me a small bag of leaves, dear,” Mabel asked.  She would dry them out, then arrange them into an autumn harvest theme.  George knew he needed to bring up the renewal of the CD with Mabel before her attention became entirely focused on the holidays.  She would set up the card table in the dining room and the season’s decorating would begin.

George had spent a lifetime assessing risk for the insurance of commercial buildings, which are dependent on the municipal services available to them – the fire, police, utilities, transportation, communications, and medical facilities that reduce either the risk or cost of damage.  George had given too many presentations at city council meetings or at the city planning board, outlining the cost benefits of municipal improvements.  Unlike the federal government with its seemingly limitless ability to borrow money, state and local governments had to live with real budget constraints.

George categorized himself as a prudent judge of risk.  However, he knew that most people he had met in his line of work thought they were prudent.  If asked, “Do you think you are more or less prudent than average?” most would answer that they are above average.  It was the Lake Wobegon effect, where everyone’s child was above average.  We couldn’t all be above average.

Mabel’s experience as a school principal had given her a firm grounding in budgets and accounting, but she was reluctant to take much risk with their personal savings, preferring CDs and savings accounts. She was not alone. In a recent Wall St. Journal blog was a study showing that 1/3 of IRA accounts had no stock exposure.

Fifty-six percent of IRA owners had either all their IRA money in stocks or absolutely none of that money in stocks in both 2010 and 2012, according to a study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute of data on 25.3 million accounts. (It was 33.2% at the no-equity end of the spectrum and 22.5% at the all-equity end.)

 In today’s low interest environment these accounts paid little interest but their value was secure.  If the 2008 financial crisis had happened when he and Mabel were in their thirties and had little in savings and several decades of paychecks to come,  the emotional effect probably would have lessened with time.  Coming as it did right before their retirement, the crisis had shaken their faith in anything whose principal was not guaranteed.  Their losses during the crisis had been lessened simply because Mabel had been so insistent on selling what stocks and bonds they had in September of 2008.

She had blamed the crisis on Bush, whom she thought to be one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.  George, who followed the markets and financial news more closely, made several attempts to give Mabel a more balanced assessment but she was adamant.  “No rules!  No regulations!  This dummy for a president is finding out what happens when there are no rules or regulations!  It’s like high school with no one in charge!”  As stock prices continued to sink over that winter, George was thankful that they had avoided any additional losses.  On the other hand, they had avoided most of the subsequent gains in the past seven years.

He mentally rehearsed his presentation.  The $50,000 CD was coming up next week.  It had paid a paltry 1.1%.  He checked one year CD rates.  Chase was offering 1/100th of 1%, Wells Fargo 5/100ths.  Had George read that right?  He checked the decimal points.  Sure enough, .01% and .05%.  In short, “We don’t want your money!”  A savings deposit or CD was essentially a loan to the bank, so why would any bank want money from Ma and Pa Liscomb when they could get it for almost free from the U.S. government?  So, he would start off telling  Mabel about the low interest rates.

The next part of his presentation would be a cautionary tone of risk and reward.  He would tell Mabel that the stock market was like a wagon train.  Well, maybe that was too poetic.  She might give him her “gimme a break” look.  He would hold up his hand and ask for some patience.  Different wagon trains take different paths across the country. The bond wagon train takes the southern route.  The terrain is flatter but the distance is longer.  The stock wagon train takes the more direct route across the mountains and valleys.  He’d show her the chart of the SP500 as it went up and down the hills and valleys.

“Yeh,” she would say, “what I don’t like are the steep valleys.”  That’s when he would show her his zig-zag chart.  Do you see how bonds zig when stocks zag? he would say.  This way, bonds counterbalance some of the risks in the stock market.

“So what happened in 2008?” she would say with a healthy dose of skepticism in her voice.  “Well, that was unusual,” he would say.  “Everything fell.  Even it did happen again, it is unlikely to stay that way for more than a few months or at most a few years.  If a crisis like that happened again and stayed that way for several years, we’d be more worried about getting food and gas, not about paying for it,” he’d say.  Ok, maybe that would be an overstatement, but maybe not.

“But stocks have already gone up for the past few years,” she might say.  “Some people are saying that it’s a bubble.”  Then he’d mention all the good economic signs.  Manufacturing and services were both strong.  Industrial Production continued to rise and has been above 2007 levels for more than a year.

Sure, there were signs of weak consumer demand. The Consumer Price Index had risen only 1.7% over the past year.  Falling gas prices had helped keep a lid on raises in the CPI and was putting extra money in consumers’ pockets.  It was not only lifting airline profits but contributing to lower costs for a lot of companies.  The Homebuilders association was reporting strong confidence among their members and existing home sales were at a stable level.

George wouldn’t tell her one thing that concerned him.  It was a long term phenomenon, a growing caution that George attributed to the aging of the population.  People put money in safe money accounts like savings, CDs, money markets, and checking when they were less confident about the future or anticipated a short term need for  cash.  On the second point, it was true that as people got older, they prudently put more money in safe accounts.  Retired people in particular were encouraged to keep five years of anticipated withdrawals in a safe place, not the stock market.  The Federal Reserve tracked the amount of these safe money accounts, known as the M2 money supply.  Occasionally, George would look at this amount as a percent of GDP.  Over the past decade the percentage of M2 to GDP had been growing.

This could be a natural trend of an aging population but there was another metric that concerned George.  Over the past thirty years, people were keeping twice the amount of money in safe accounts.  In the early 1980s, it had been about $8000.  After accounting for inflation over the past thirty years, the per capita average was $15000.

George guessed that this cautious move to safety would contribute to slowing economic growth for years to come.  But he wouldn’t tell Mabel that.  He was also keeping a wary eye on small cap stocks.

If the index continued to break down below the neckline, George expected further weakness, perhaps another 10% drop as investors lost confidence in small cap stocks.  Falling oil prices and low gas prices helped small caps but the strong dollar and continued weakness in the European countries and Japan would curtail export growth.

Armed with a mental outline of his presentation, George sat down next to Mabel in the living room.  “Whatcha reading?” he asked.  If she was in the middle of a whodunit, this wouldn’t be a good time.  “It’s a series of papers, mostly statistical studies on student scores,” she said.  “Teaching models, and correlations with their socioeconomic backgrounds, their race.  Lorraine lent me her copy.  It’s very interesting but reminds me that I need to brush up on some terms.”

This was good, George thought.  Her brain was in analytical mode already.  “Hey, hon, I wanted to talk to you about that CD coming up next week,” he started.  “Oh, yeh,” Mabel responded.  “I was at the bank the other day and couldn’t believe how low the rates are now.  Why do they insult their customers by posting the rates?” she mused.

“I was thinking about that,” George stepped in.  God, she was making this easy, he thought.  “What do you think,” she continued, “maybe move that money into one of those bond index funds?” she asked.  “Uh, yeh,” George said, a bit befuddled. She was making it too easy after all the time he’d spent planning his presentation, her objections, and his persuasive responses.  “You had said you wanted to keep everything totally safe, so I thought…,” George’s voice trailed off.  “Well, I do, but this is ridiculous,” Mabel said.  “Obviously, we are going to have to take some risk.”  “And I’ve got the time to watch it,” George reassured her.  “I’ve noticed that,” she said. “I don’t have the interest to watch it.  I guess I always thought that investing was a ‘set it and forget it’ proposition.  Maybe it was never that way.  But, after 2008, I’m…” and she gave a rock-the-boat gesture with her hand.  “Ok,” George said and stood up. “I’ll have the bank close out the CD, then transfer the money.”

Wild Ride

October 19, 2014

On Monday, Mabel met for lunch with several friends, both active and retired teachers, to celebrate a new inductee into the Million Mistake Club.  Mabel had once explained it to George, “It started a few decades ago when Mr. Densmore – he taught trigonometry at the school – commented one day in the break room that he had passed the two million mark.  He was probably in his late fifties, early sixties at that time. I had only a few years of teaching under my belt at that time and was still trying to get comfortable in the job.  Mr. Densmore – funny, I don’t think I ever called him by his first name and I can’t remember what it is right now – anyhow, he just seemed to flow so easily into the job.  It was like he wore the job as easily as he wore those old suit jackets he had.  Students that I had discipline problems with in my class behaved well in his class.  I was still trying to figure out the quiet command thing that can make or break a teacher.  He just seemed to make it all look so easy.  I asked him what the two million mark was.  He said it was the number of mistakes he had made in his lifetime.  It didn’t seem possible because it just seemed to me, being fairly new to the job, that he didn’t make any mistakes.  Well, except for his taste in clothes.  He would sometimes wear brown pants with a gray jacket which seemed to emphasize his age.  Mr. Densmore calculated that he made at least a hundred mistakes a day.  Joan – she taught sociology – said that no adult could survive if they made that many mistakes in a day.  Gary, the biology teacher, said that at the cellular level, our bodies probably made at least that many mistakes a day but we correct most of them before the mistakes turn into cancer or we get sick.”

Mabel had paused then, a catch in her throat. “Anyway, on my 28th birthday, several of the teachers, including Mr. Densmore, chipped in for a catered lunch.  Roast beef, some wonderful Italian pastries, potato salad, ice cream.” Mabel paused on her trip down memory lane.  “Security in the schools today.  Probably couldn’t have caterers come in without some planning weeks in advance.”  She went on with her story.  “Instead of wishing me a happy birthday, they inducted me into the million mistake club.  For the first time in my short career at the point, I felt like I was going to make it.  It changed how I taught.  I was no longer trying so hard to get everything just right.  I would discuss the wrong answers on tests with the students.  Why was it wrong?  No, Lee was not the general of the union army that won the battle at Gettysburg.  But what if Lee had been the general of the union army?  How did each army differ and so on.  The A students who were good at memorization stretched their imaginations, their analytical skills.  The C students started taking more interest in the class, participated more in discussion.  The stigma of wrong answers was less.  It became more about learning from our wrong answers.  I would occasionally take time to review episodes in the history of wrong answers, like phlogiston.”

“What’s that?” George asked.  “For a long time people speculated that it was the substance that caused things to burn,” Mabel responded.  “Wow,” George nodded.  “They didn’t know about oxygen yet.  You know, that’s the heart of risk assessment.  Learn from our mistakes.  The insurance business is just one long rocky path through mistakes in figuring out where the risk is, the degree of risk and how to reduce the risk.”

Monday was the Columbus Day holiday and there wasn’t much good economic news to stem the deepening pessimism in the market. Fears over the spread of Ebola just added to the darkening mood.  Mabel would be furious with him if they lost any more money so George sold the two remaining ETFs he hadn’t sold a week or so before.  If he had anticipated this pessimism, why hadn’t he bought an ETF that shorted the market?  The really good employment report in the beginning of October had made him less sure about his earlier forecast of lower prices.  Then he considered – again – buying the 20 Year Treasury ETF but everyone else had been doing that for the past ten days or so and the price was near $121 a share, up about 6% – 7% in the past few week.  Geez, George thought. The buying demand for safety has gotta slow down pretty soon.

Tuesday dawned brighter than Monday’s close but then came the release of a report  from the International Energy Agency forecasting that oil demand in 2014 would be 22% less than previously forecast.  Industrial production in the Eurozone was tepid.  George was surprised that the market finished near Monday’s close.  Maybe this was the end of the downturn in prices.  Like so many retail investors, George had probably sold at the bottom on the previous day.  Of little note to the world that day was the fact that George finally cleaned up the wasp nests above the door to the shed.  There were only two wasps buzzing around so George didn’t feel like a mass murderer.  Where did wasps go for the winter?

On Wednesday morning, George forgot to check the market or economic news before going out to clean up the rock garden.  With all of their money now in cash, George had turned his attention to his seasonal chores.  The climbing vine had shed most of it’s leaves.  The ash tree nearby had shed half of its leaves as well.  As George picked leaves out of the ground cover and other perennials in the garden, he wondered whether he should cut down the climbing vines.  He had planted them years ago to prevent the neighbor’s dog from jumping the fence during lightning storms in the summer.  The dog had died and the vines had spread.  Before lunch, Mabel came out onto the back deck. “George, honey.  The market is going crazy.”  “It’s OK,” George replied, assuring her, “we’re out of the market.”  “Oh,” the worry in her voice evaporated. “Well, just thought you’d want to know.”  Yeh, just wanted to let me know, George thought wryly. He wondered how many money managers had been fielding calls from clients who were worried about a meltdown like the fall of 2008. “Mrs. Jones, the SP500 is only down about 5 or 6 percent from its September peak,” they might tell their clients.  “But I heard that the Dow had dropped 200 points yesterday,” the client might say.  To older clients, anything more than 100 points was big. “Yes, but 200 points is just a bit more than 1%.  And remember, the Dow is only a part of the stock market.”  Yes, the firm is taking prudent care of your money, Mrs. Jones.   Put phone down.  Next phone call from another worried client.

Employment and retail sales are the top two economic reports that consistently set the tone of the market.  When the mood is pessimistic, it doesn’t take much negative news to send things into a tailspin. Wednesday’s retail sales report wasn’t bad but it wasn’t good.  Strong auto sales in August had led to expectations that total retail sales would decline in September.  The decline was just a teeny tiny more than expected, contributing to the wave of selling.  The core retail market without auto sales showed 3% year on year growth.

Part of the decline was because gas prices had been falling, producing less revenue.  What the market wanted to see was that the American consumer was taking that money saved on gas and spending it on back-to-school items, or a fall wardrobe.

The Census Bureau released manufacturing and trade sales data for August that showed a 4.5% year-over-year increase in sales but a 5.7% increase in inventories.  People were not buying as much as distributors were anticipating.  This only seemed to confirm fears that growth in consumer spending might be slowing down.  As though being routed by an opposing army, traders ran for the rear lines.  The SP500 dropped 4% by midday.  As George checked quotes on the SP500 ETF, SPY, he saw that it had climbed up from a bottom near 182.  He was tempted to put a buy order in, taking advantage of an afternoon rally.  Transportation stocks were bouncing up as well.  IYT, the iShares ETF, was bouncing off a midday bottom, indicating that money managers were buying in after the 14% decline from the mid-September highs.  Then George remembered that he had already tried his hand at these really short term trades.  From genius to dunce in a day, he had found that it was not good for him temperamentally.  Plus it took an hourly vigilance that he wasn’t willing to give.  One more report of Ebola in the U.S. could send this market into a dive within a few minutes. He closed the lid of his laptop.  By the end of the day, the Dow Jones had swung more than 600 points. After dropping about 4% during the day, the SP500 closed down only .7% from its previous day close.  Fresh troops in the rear had rallied at the end of the day.

Thursday’s release of October’s Housing Market Index from the National Assn. of Homebuilders showed a reversal of six months of rising sentiment.  More data from the Eurozone indicated that the entire region might be headed back into recession.  Sound the retreat alarm!  The market opened up about 1.5% lower.  Once again the troops in the rear pressed forward to the battle line as attention turned to several positive reports.

New claims for unemployment were near historic lows, prompting a discussion that had been missing for several years: when would unemployment get low enough to generate some wage growth?  George remembered Mabel’s Million Mistake Club earlier in the week.  Decades ago, unemployment levels below 5 or 5-1/2% were thought to be inflationary. This target level was called NAIRU, the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment. At low levels of unemployment, workers could bargain for higher wages which pushed up the cost of products which pushed up prices which led workers to demand more wages, ad infinitum.  Like the “law” of gravity, this theory of unemployment and inflation had been regarded as solid by both investors and policy makers.  Theories are tested in the passage of time.  During the 1990s, unemployment dropped and did not spark inflation.  Economists scrambled to explain the phenomenon with global trade adjustments to their models. In the 2000s, unemployment fell below 5% and inflation remained tame by historic standards.  More adjustments to the models, more explanations of how the theory was still true. It is still a controversial topic.  (1998 article on NAIRU by Nouriel Roubini )

In addition to the positive employment news, Industrial Production grew in September, notching a 1% monthly gain, and rising back into the sustainable growth zone of 4 – 5%, year-over-year.

“Fix Bayonets, men!” came the call as the greenies beat back the morning onslaught from the reds. Greenies were days when the market closed higher than it opened, red the opposite.  George wondered if some set or prop designer for CNBC would come up with a Civil War soldier set for the talking heads to play with on camera when the market clash over valuation was particularly intense. As a kid, he’d been so disappointed that all the great battles like the Alamo had already been fought.  Santayana’s Mexican legions had rushed forward on the plains of Texas as the small band of brave Texans like Davey Crockett and Jim Bowie prepared for the onslaught.  The good ole days when life was exciting – and much shorter.

Friday was the last day of October option trading. The release of new Housing Starts for September, and strong earnings from G.E. and Morgan Stanley prompted a flood of buy orders at the opening bell on Friday.  The previous months housing starts had been volatile, rising up strongly in July, then falling a lot in August, and now up more than 6% in September.  On a year-over-year basis, September’s starts were up almost 18%.

George was not as awed by the housing data.  The declining peaks of year-over-year percent gains in new housing starts would probably continue.  Friday’s upswing continued shortly after the open when the latest consumer confidence numbers revealed a rising sentiment based on  improvements in employment and lower gas prices.  The price had crossed above both the open and closing prices for the past two days.  Could be a fake out but George hit the buy button. The earnings season would be in full swing next week.  

Income and GDP

March 30th, 2014

Business Activity

The Institute for Supply Mgmt (ISM) and Markit Economics are two private companies that survey purchasing managers and release the results in the first week of each month. Toward the end of each month Markit releases what is called a “Flash PMI”, an early indication of activity for the month.  This month’s flash index of manufacturing activity declined slightly but is still showing strong growth.  New orders are showing strong growth at a reading of 58.  The Flash reading of the services sector rose to over 55 but this is a mixed report, with only tepid growth in employment and backlogs actually in a slight contraction.  The most remarkable feature of this report was the 78.1 index of business expectations, an outstandingly optimistic reading. This Flash index gives investors a glimpse of the full survey reports from ISM and Markit that will be released in the first week of next month.


On the other hand…

The monthly report of durable goods indicates a rather tepid 1-1/2% year over year growth.  This excludes planes, autos, and other transportation orders.  Including those components, there has been no yearly growth.


Stick with the plan, Stan…

Rising equity and real estate markets have been good for a lot of people. A blog noted the number of people entering the ranks of millionaires in 2012.  Toward the end of this report was an important lesson: “60 percent of investors worth $5 million or more say they’ll invest in equities this year, while 31 percent of those worth $100,000 to $1 million plan to do the same.”  Hmmm…rich people are not buying into the prophecy prediction analysis that the market will crash this year.  Could they be sticking with a plan that  allocates investments across a variety of assets, including stocks?


Personal Income

This week, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released February’s estimate of personal income.  Real, or inflation adjusted, disposable personal income (DPI), rose 2.1%, a decline from January’s 2.75% increase but above the 1% that has historically led to recessions.

A few weeks ago I noted that annual DPI had dropped below 1% in 2013.  Contributing to the weak year over year comparison was the high spike in income in the fourth quarter of 2012 when many companies “paid forward” both dividends and bonuses in December in advance of tax increases scheduled for 2013.

While this may have been a contributing factor to the decline, it would be a  mistake to give it too much weight.  The growth in personal income has been relatively weak and it shows in the consumer spending index released this week.  The .1% year over year increase – essentially zero – indicates consumer demand that is too weak to put any upward pressure on prices.  Sensing this, businesses are less likely to invest in growth.  Less investment growth means that employment gains will be modest, which further reinforces modest economic growth.

The stock market trades on profit growth.  Standard and Poors reports that 4th quarter earnings for the companies in the SP500 rose 9.8%, accelerating from the 6.0% growth in the 3rd quarter of 2013.  A moderately improving economy and only modest growth in investment has helped boost profits.  Profits are expected to rise 11% in the second half of 2014.



The third estimate of GDP growth in the fourth quarter of last year was 2.6%, in line with consensus estimates.  In her testimony before Senate Finance Committee two weeks ago, Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen noted that we may be in for an extended period of slow growth below the fifty year average of 3%.

Three weeks ago I looked at GDP and the personal savings rate.  This week I’ll look at per hour GDP.  Readers should understand that this is what some economists would call a messy data set.  I have made some assumptions about the number of hours worked per employee.  The BLS publishes average hours worked for manufacturing employees and I made a guesstimate that the average for all workers is about 90% of that.  The number of part time employees who do not work this amount of hours offsets the unreported hours of the self-employed.  I am less concerned about the absolute accuracy of the GDP output per hour worked but that any inaccuracies be fairly consistent.  The trend is more important than the actual numbers.  What can we learn when output per hour flattens or declines?  Below is a graph of sixty five years.

We can see that flat growth tends to precede recessions but there is no definite pattern where we can say with any confidence that a flattening or decline in per hour GDP necessarily precludes a recession.  If we zoom in on the past thirty years, we do notice that the preceding decade has been marked by long periods of flat growth.  More importantly, the recovery from this past recession is marked by the longest period of flat growth in the history of the series.

The summer of 2009 marked the official end of this past recession.  For five years there has been no increase in real GDP per hour worked.  For a few years following a recession in the early 1990s, per hour GDP flattened before taking off in the late 1990s.

Does this flat growth represent a pruning of the economic tree before a surge of new growth? Or does it presage an even worse recession? Is the economy locked inside a limbo of limp growth for years to come, echoing the two decades of little growth in Japan’s economy?  Whatever happens, we can be certain of one thing – the trend and pattern will be so much more obvious in the future simply because we will disregard some past data based on what happens in the future.

As we make investment decisions, we should remember that the “obvious” patterns we see when we look back were much less clear at the time.  Sure there will be investment gurus who tell us that they saw it coming.  We forget that they also saw the depressions of 1994, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2011 – the ones that didn’t happen.

Let’s look a bit more closely at recent periods of flat growth.  The recovery from the recession of 1991 was marked by a painfully slow recovery in the job market.  After a 30% rise over three years, the market stumbled.

There’s a story to be told when we look at the growth in the market index and per hour GDP.  Whether it is by coincidence or not, there is a loose response of the market to changes in output.

After another slow recovery from the recession of 2001, the market began to climb in 2004.

But this time the market was not responding to the flattening growth in per hour output.

In the past four years, there has been little growth in output per hour.

But the market has doubled over that time.

Part of that recovery can be attributed to the market simply reversing the decline of 2008 and early 2009, but a good 40% increase in market value can be attributed to the greater share of output that companies have been able to convert to profit. (See last week’s blog)  How long that trend can and will continue is anyone’s guess but we know that it can not go on forever.  Flat revenue growth makes growing profits an ever more difficult task.

The flat growth in per hour output gives us perhaps another insight into the so-so growth in employment.  Without a clear vision of a stimulus that will spur growth, companies are reluctant to commit to plans for an expansion of their work force.

Productivity & GDP

March 23rd, 2014

Industrial Production

The week opened with a positive report on industrial production.  The .8% rise offset Janary’s decline and was the 4th month in which this index has been above the level of late 2007, the onset of the last recession.  To give the reader a sense of historical perspective, this index of industrial production has been produced for almost hundred years.  The average recovery period of civilian production is 2-1/2 years.  This recovery period of this past recession, 6 years, is second only to the  7-1/2 year recovery of the 1930s Depression.  I have excluded the 6-1/2 year post WW2 recovery period from war time production, which doubled production to produce goods and armaments for the war.  If that period is included, the average is 3 years.

Here is a comparison of the recovery periods since 1919.  The back to back dips of 1979 and 1980-83 were, in effect, one long dip lasting 4 years, making it the third worst recovery period of the past one hundred years.

When industrial production takes several years to regain the ground lost during a recession, it is vulnerable to even minor economic weaknesses.  As production recovered from a 7-1/2 year dip during the 1930s Depression, the Federal Reserve tightened money and production slid once again before reviving to produce arms to ship to British and European forces in the early years of World War 2.  Outgoing Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, a noted scholar of the 1930s Depression, understands the inherent weakness of an economy when production takes several years to recover.  For this reason, he was reluctant to ease up on monetary support until production was clearly and securely recovered.

The new Federal Reserve chairwoman, Janet Yellen, has decades of experience and is well aware of the fragility that is inherent in an economy that experiences a long period of industrial recovery.  This will be one of several factors that the Federal Reserve watches closely for any signs of faltering.  Those who think that the Fed will make any abrupt changes in monetary policy have not been reading the footprints left by the past.



Last August I wrote about the rather slow growth of multi-factorial productivity (MFP) since 2000.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates a meager 1% annual rate of growth in that time.  Far down in their historical tables is a revealing trend: Labor’s contribution to production has declined dramatically in the past ten years while capital’s share of inputs has increased.  Capital inputs include equipment, inventories, land and buildings.  In 2011, the most recent year available, labor’s share of input had decreased to 63.9%, far below the 60 year average of 68.1%.

Capital’s share of input had increased to 36.1%, far above the average 31.9%

As I mentioned last August, the headline productivity figures are misleading because they simply divide output by number of hours worked and ignore the contributions of capital to the final output.  As capital’s share of input increases, the contributors of that capital want more return, i.e. profit, on their increased contribution.

In the twelve years from 2000 – 2011, capital’s share of input has increased 20%, from 30% to 36%.  In that same period, after tax profits have grown by 130%, a whopping return on the additional 20% capital invested.  While overall MFP growth has slowed, the mix has changed.

Given such a rich return, we can expect this trend to continue until the growth of profits on ever larger capital investments reaches a plateau and slows.  Until then, labor’s share of productivity gains will be slight, acting as a continuing restraint on family incomes.


Existing Home Sales

The 5 million sales of existing homes in 2013 was 9% above 2012 levels but the percentage of cash buyers has increased as well, now making up almost 1/3 of existing homes sales. (National Assn of Realtors).  The percentage of first time buyers declined from 30% in December 2012 to 27% in December 2013. For the past half year sales of existing homes have declined and the latest figures for February show a 7% decline from 2013 levels.

In May 2013, the price of Home Depot’s stock hit $80, a 400% rise from the doldrums of the spring of 2009.  Since then, it has traded in a close range around that price.  In May 2013, the price of the stock was 200% of the 4 year average, an indication that all of the optimism had been baked into the stock price.  It now trades at 160% of the 4 year average, rich but more reasonable if expectations for a continued housing recovery materialize.

In January 2000, the stock broke above $50 and was also trading at almost 250% of it’s 4 year average.  After trading in a range in the high $40s for several months, the stock began to fall.  By mid-June of 2000, the stock traded for 150% of its 4 year average.

The range bound price of Home Depot’s stock price for 8 months now is a good indication that investors have become watchful of the real estate sector, particularly the existing home market.  The percentage of cash buyers has risen 10%, replacing the similar decline in the number of first time home buyers.  Remember that this stalling is taking place at a time when interest rates are near historic lows.


Reader questions

A reader posed a few questions about last weeks blog.

When annualized sales rates are down, but annualized inventory rates are up, is that usually because of prior contracts that businesses must accept?  Or is it usually hope for their future?  In other words, is a higher inventory rate a positive sign or a negative one?

When sales are going down and inventories are going up, it means that businesses were not prepared for the change in sales. This ratio measures the amount of surprise.  Businesses will then reduce their orders to factories, wholesalers, etc.  They may decide to reduce any hiring plans.  On the other hand, they might increase their marketing expense.  Look closely at the Inventory to Sales Ratio (ISRATIO) graph from the Fed.  In the early part of the recession in the first quarter of 2008, the ISRATIO moved up a bit, then down in the 2nd quarter but it was still in the subdued normal range of 1.25 to 1.30 established since 2006.  During the summer of 2008, the ISRATIO rose again but it was not until September 2008 that this ratio began it’s several month upward spike as sales crashed.

Re:  Decline in real personal consumption below 2.5% has ALWAYS led to a recession within a year.  Are there any substantive changes in how the economy is run now than in the past?  For example, has the Fed always been involved with quantitative easing like it is now?  Could that easing create a better economic climate despite personal consumption decline?  When we look at the past, are we generally comparing apples to apples?

The fact that a recession has always happened when inflation adjusted personal consumption falls below 2.5% does NOT mean that it will happen this time.  These are indicators, not predictors and we must remember that indicators of past trends are with revised data.  Investors and policy makers must make decisions with the currently available data, before it is fully complete. Personal consumption for 2013 could be revised higher in the coming quarters.  Some revisions happen as much as three years later.  What it does mean is that the Fed will be watching this sign of weakness in the consumer economy and is unlikely to make any dramatic policy changes.

So how do you think our leaders should lead in regards to SS?  Do you think the age should be raised to say 70?  Do you think we will not be able to depend on SS being there throughout our lifetimes?  It must be of great concern to your kids that it may not be there for them, esp. after having contributed over the years.

I think politicians will have to spread the pain on Social Security.  These suggestions are not new.

1) Raise the salary level that is subject to the tax so that more tax is captured from higher salaries.  This years maximum is $117K. (SSA) This is a tough sell.  The ratio of the maximum taxed earnings to the median household income (Census Bureau Table H.6) has gone up from 150% in 1980 to almost 220% in 2012.

Well to do people feel like they are already paying their “fair share.”  Senator Bernie Sanders and other Democrats use the ratio of the maximum taxed earnings to the top 10% of incomes to make the case that the maximum should be as high as $175K.  Computers and the availability of so much data enable policy makers and think tanks to produce whatever data set they want in order to support their conviction.

2)  Raise the employee and employer share of the tax .1% each year for the next five years.  Democrats will not like this one because it raises the burden on lower income families.

3)  Initially raise the social security age by two months each year over the next five years and index it to the growth in the life expectancy of a 65 year old so that the official retirement age is 15 years less than the life expectancy.  In 2025, if the life expectancy is 85 years, then the official retirement age would be 70.  Early retirement should be set at 3 years less than full retirement age.  In this case, early retirement would be 67.

All of these are tough choices and most politicians don’t want to touch them.   Voters are not noted for their prudence and are unlikely to pressure pressure policy makers for more taxes and less benefits. In order to sell these difficult proposals, I would add one more proposal.

4) Guarantee the payout of benefits for ten years, regardless of death.  Each retiree would name beneficiaries for their social security and payments would go to those beneficiaries until the 10 year anniversary that retirement benefits began.  This would incentivize retirees who could afford it to delay the start of their retirement benefits until 70, knowing that their heirs would get at least ten years of benefits. This delay would ease some of the fiscal shock as the boomer generation is now retiring.

Currently, the highest social security benefit is paid to a surviving spouse.  If a man dies with a higher monthly benefit than his wife, then the wife gets the husband’s higher benefit amount each month but loses her benefit.  Under this proposal, the wife would get her benefit and the husband’s benefit plus her benefit if her husband dies within ten years of retirement.  Often, a couple’s income is cut in half or by a third when a spouse dies.  Older women are particularly impacted, finding that they can no longer afford the mortgage or rent in their current housing situation. This feature would enhance the popular understanding that Social Security is like an insurance annuity.  It would help particularly vulnerable older surviving female spouses, an emotionally appealing feature that politicians could sell to voters, thus making it more likely that voters would accept the higher taxes and raised retirement age.  Whether the idea is fiscally sound is something that the Board of Trustees at the SSA could calculate.

The Market and Growth

March 2nd, 2014

Some pundits have made the case that the stock market is due to fall this year because of the almost 30% rise in prices in 2013.  On the face of it, it seems logical.  If the average rise in the SP500 over the past fifty years is about 8-1/2% and there is a 30% rise in one year, then the market has essentially “used up” more than three years of the average – all in one year.  But the stock market is the net result of billions of buy and sell decisions by human beings.  My experience has taught me that the connection between sense and the behavior of human beings is tenuous, at best.  The Red Carpet walk at the Oscars Award Ceremony is a demonstration of the nonsensical choices that human beings make.  I mean, can you believe the dress that actress is wearing?  And who told that actor he could grow a beard?  PUH-LEEZ!

So I looked at past history and wondered: what is the average yearly return of the SP500 index over the three years following a 20% rise in the market?  As an example, if the market rises 20% in Year #1, what is the 3 year average of yearly returns in Year #4?  The results surprised me – 9.5%.

But wait! you say.  The late nineties were an aberration of irrational exuberance that skews the average.  Removing those two outliers from the data set gives a yearly average of 6.2%.  Add in 2% dividends and the total comes to 8.2%, a respectable return.

But wait!, you say again.  What about the year after the 20% rise?  Surely, the index must compensate for the above average rise the previous year.  In the year after a 20% rise in the market, the average gain was 13.5%.  Again, there were those crazy years of the late nineties so I’ll take them out, leaving an average gain of 3.7%.  Add in the 2% dividend and it easily outpaces the current return on long term bonds.

This year the pundits could be right and the stock market falls.  However, a successful long term investor must learn to play the averages.


GDP and Savings

GDP is a measure of the economic output of a nation but what the heck is it?  A recent presentation by Gary Evans, an economics professor at Harvey Mudd College in California, has a number of wonderfully illustrated graphs that may help the casual reader understand the components of GDP and recent trends in the economy.

On January 30th, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released their advance estimate of real GDP growth of 3.1% in the 4th quarter.  As more information of December’s slowdown became available in late January and early February, the market began anticipating that the BEA would revise their advance estimate down.  Slower growth might mean further declines in stock prices, right? Instead, the market anticipated that a slowing of growth in the fourth quarter would calm the hand of the Fed in tapering their bond purchases. As a result, the market  rebounded in February, more than making up for January’s decline.  On Friday, the BEA revised their second estimate of fourth quarter growth downward to 2.4%, almost exactly what the market consensus had anticipated and the market finished out a strong month with a small gain.  The BEA attributed the slower growth in the fourth quarter to reductions in federal, state and local government spending and a slowdown in residential housing.

As the BEA revises their methodology, they also revise previously published GDP data.  In the 2013 revision the BEA adjusted their data going back to 1929.  In the past few years, revisions have added about 1/2 trillion dollars to GDP.  Adjustments to the personal savings rate were substantially higher but savings in the past decade have been at historically low levels.  Personal savings are the amount of disposable income, or income after taxes, that families save.  The rate or PSR is the the percentage of their disposable income that they don’t spend.

When people charge purchases that decreases the savings rate.  Conversely, when families pay down their credit purchases that increases the savings rate.  Despite the explosive growth of household debt in the past thirty years,

the savings rate has remained positive, meaning that the people who do save are more than offsetting those who don’t or can’t save.

Let’s take an example of three families:  the Jones family makes $60K in disposable, or after tax income, saves nothing, but increases their debt $8,000 by buying a new car.  Their personal savings rate is $-8K/$60K, or -13.3%.  The Smith Family also has $60K in disposable income, but is frugal and pays down a few loans and saves some money for a total savings of $2K, or 3.3%.   The Williams family has a disposable income of $120K and has net savings of $20K, or 16.7%. Families with higher incomes tend to save proportionately more of that income.  Total disposable income for the three families is $240K.  Total savings is $14K, or 5.8% of disposable income, but that hides the fact that it is the Williams family that is making most of the contribution to that savings rate.

There is another subtle element contributing to this disparity in savings: inflation.  The Consumer Price Index charts the increasing prices of goods and services – spending.  A higher income family that spends less of its income is less affected by changes in the CPI than a lower income family and this helps a higher income family save proportionately more than the lower income family.  The difference is slight but the compounded effect over thirty years is significant.

During the past thirty years, the personal savings rate has steadily declined.

This doesn’t mean that families are saving less as a percentage of their income but that the number of families with net savings are becoming fewer while the number of families with little net savings or negative net savings are becoming more numerous.  The period from 1930 to 1980 was one of relatively more income equality than the period 1980 to the present.  Let’s look again at the chart above.  In the late 1970s, as income equality begins a decades long decline, so too does the personal savings rate.  The ratio of high income families with a relatively high savings rate to lower income families with a low savings rate also declines.

Savings drives investment in the future.  The low savings rate means that future U.S. economic growth must rely ever more on the savings from those in other countries.  Typically savings rates increase as a recession progresses and then the economy recovers.

Notice that the savings rate has stayed relatively steady in the past three years, indicating neither an increasing confidence or caution.  As shown in the table, only the three year period from 1988 – 1990 period showed the same lack of direction.  GDP growth in that period was stronger than it is today but the savings and loan crisis and the stock market crash of October 1987 had diluted the confidence of many.


New Home Sales
Here’s a head scratcher.  New home sales rebounded almost 10% in January, after falling 13% in December.  Even the figures for December were revised a bit higher.  As I noted last week, the rather flat growth in incomes has become an obstacle to the affordability of homes. December’s Case Shiller 20 city home price index reported a 13.4% annual increase in home prices. January’s rise in home sales was partially aided by sellers willing to make price concessions, resulting in a 2.2% decrease in the median sales price.


Durable Goods
Orders for durable goods, excluding transportation, were up about 1% this past month. A durable good is something which has a life of 3 years or more.  Cars and furniture are common examples. The year over year gain, a bit over 1% as well, indicates rather slow growth over the past year after adjusting for inflation.  However, several current regional reports of industrial activity indicate a quickening growth at the start of this year.  Reports from Chicago, Philadelphia and Kansas City hold promise that next week’s ISM assessment of manufacturing activity nationally will show a rebound.

As I have noted in blogs of the past few months, the pattern of the CWI index that I have been compiling since last summer indicated a rebound in overall activity in the early spring of this year.  This gauge of manufacturing and non-manufacturing activity is based on the Purchasing Managers Index released each month by ISM.  I suppose a better name for the CWI index would be “Composite PMI.”  Readers are welcome to make some suggestions.


New unemployment claims rose, approaching the 350K mark, but the 4 week average of new claims is holding steady at 338K.  In past winters the 4 week average has been around 360K.  If new claims remain relatively low during this particularly harsh winter in half of the country, it will indicate an underlying resiliency in the labor market.

Janet Yellen, the new chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, appeared before the Senate Finance Committee this week.  In her response to questions about the dual mandate of the Fed – inflation and employment – she noted that the Fed looks at much more than just the unemployment rate in gauging the health of the labor market.  One of the employment indicators they use is new unemployment claims.

When asked what unemployment rate the Fed considers “full employment,” Ms. Yellen stated that it was in the 5 – 6% range.  One of the Republican Senators asked about the “real” unemployment rate, without specifying what he meant by the word “real.”  Without hesitation and in a neutral tone, Ms. Yellen responded that if the Senator meant the “widest” measure of unemployment, the U-6 rate, that it was about 13%.  The U-6 rate includes discouraged workers and part time workers who want but can not find full time work.

When George Bush was President, “real” meant the narrowest measure of unemployment to a Republican because it was the smallest number.  With a Democrat in the White House, the word “real” now means the widest measure of unemployment to a Republican because it is the largest number.  Democrats employed the same strategy when George Bush was President, preferring the higher U-6 unemployment rate as the “real” rate because it was higher.  I thought that it would be a good response for anyone when confronted by a colleague at work about the “real unemployment rate” that we steer the conversation to more precise and politically neutral words like “widest” and “narrowest.”

A reader sent me a link to a Washington Post article on the pension and budget woes of San Jose, a large city in California.  I am afraid that we will see more of these in the coming decade.  Beginning in the 1990s politicians in state and local governments found an easy solution to wage demands from public workers: make promises.  Wages come out of this year’s budget; pension promises and retiree health care benefits come out of some budget in the distant future.  For an increasing number of governments, the distant future has arrived.

In Colorado, a reporter at the Denver Post noted that the Democratic Governor and the Republican Treasurer are hoping that the state’s Supreme Court will force the public employee’s pension fund, PERA, to open its books. It might surprise some that a public institution like PERA is less transparent than a publicly traded company.  Actuarial analysis estimates are that PERA’s asset base is underfunded by $23 billion, or about $46,000 for each retiree. It was only last year that the trustees of the fund reluctantly lowered its expected returns to 7.5% from 8%.  Assumptions on expected returns, what is called the discount rate, is a major component in analyzing the health of any retirement fund and the money that must be set aside today to pay for tomorrow’s promised benefits.  Many analysts contend that even 7.5% is a rather lofty assumption in this low interest rate environment.

Readers who Google their own state or city and the subject of pensions will likely find similar tales of past political promises and lofty assumptions running headlong against the realities of these past several years.

January Employment and Economic Production

February 9th, 2014

The ISM manufacturing report for January reported a severe decline from the robust readings of past months.  New orders suffered the most, dropping from a strong reading of almost 65 in December to just a bit above the neutral reading of 50.  Prices jumped significantly.  Manufacturing’s drop off in new orders comes on the heels of a similar decline in the service sector in December.  This is the third report in the past thirty days that came in below even low estimates, the other two being pending home sales and December’s employment gains.  At mid week, ISM released their January estimate of the health of the service sector which is the bulk of the economy.  Happily, this showed continued growth, helping to offset concerns about a broad slowdown in the economy.

The CWI that I have been tracking continues to show an overall strength, declining slightly to 58 from the rather vigorous reading of 60 last month.  As I noted a few weeks, this index anticipated a winter lull before picking up energy again in early spring.

A reader had difficulty understanding the wave like graph of the CWI.  I indexed it to a starting base then indexed that to the SP500 average in 1997.  Perhaps this will help visualizing the long term response of the SP500 to underlying economic activity.


ADP reported a gain of 175,000 private jobs in January, below the strong 227,000 job gains of December.  There was only a slight revision to ADP’s previous report, confirming the suspicion of some that the greater flaw lies in the BLS figures for December.

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their estimate of 113,000 job gains in January, far below the consensus of about 180,000.  Here’s a story from the Atlantic that captures some of the highlights.  Forgive some of the misspellings, if they are still there by the time you read it.

As I did last month, I’ll show the average of monthly job gains estimated by the BLS and ADP.  ADP does not report government jobs so I’ve just added those in from the BLS report.

The decline below the replacement level of 150,000 may be a temporary response to severe weather conditions in the populous east coast and Chicago region.

The market responded quite favorably to this labor report. A slackening labor market prompted hopes that the Federal Reserve will not accelerate their easing of bond buying.  A large revision of job gains in November was a big positive in the report.  Another positive was the half a million increase in the core work force, those aged 25 – 54.  Men accounted for most of this increase.

The number of people working part time because they can’t find a full time job dropped by a half million but there are still more than 7 million people in this situation.  A 232,000 decrease in the number of long term unemployed was heartening although many lost their unemployment benefits at the end of the year and may have had little choice but to take whatever job they could find.


Doug Elmendorf is the head of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that advises the Congress in constructing the budget, making appropriations, and the anticipated or actual economic effects of policy.  In advance of his testimony before the House Budget Committee this past week, the CBO released the highlights of their report. Some talk show hosts and conservative media were trumpeting a loss of 2.3 million jobs due to Obamacare.  In his testimony, Mr. Elmendorf explained that the 2.3 million jobs mentioned in the CBO report are not lost jobs because the CBO does not estimate any reduction in the demand for employees because of Obamacare. The CBO estimated the number of hours that employees would voluntarily reduce their hours in order to meet qualifications for subsidies under Obamacare and divided those total hours by what a full time employee would work in a year.  Since there is a surplus of labor in this country, this voluntary reduction would help those who are either looking for a job or want to work more hours.  The CBO sees no impact on part time jobs that can be attributed to Obamacare.

Republicans and some Independents have repeated the claim that the rich are paying most of the personal income taxes in this country. IRS 2010 data (Table 2 ) doesn’t seem to support that contention.  The top 5% of taxable returns with taxable incomes greater than $200K had taxable income of $1.9 trillion, or 36% of the total $5.3 trillion in taxable income.  On that income, the top 5% paid $513 billion in Federal income tax, 49% of the total.  In a flat tax system, the top 5% would have paid a bit more than $360 billion.

When Republicans use the code words “broaden the tax base” what they mean is that they want a flat tax so that rich people pay the same percentage of tax as poor people.  Several states have such a flat tax system.  To Democrats, a broadening of the tax base means making more of the income of rich taxpayers subject to progressive tax rates.

When Democrats use the code words “paying their fair share” they mean that the rich should pay proportionately more than the additional load of about 32% that they are currently paying.  To Republicans “fair share” means a flat tax.

What the IRS data shows is that the rich are not paying most of the income taxes in this country.  Often tax policy and social benefit programs are lumped together, confusing the issue in the minds of many.  The Tax Foundation did an analysis of the net benefit and expense of taxation and benefit programs.  They report that:

As a group, the bottom 60 percent of American families receive more back in total government spending than they pay in total taxes.

Government tax and spending policies combine to redistribute more than $2 trillion from the top 40 percent of families to the bottom 60 percent.

The methodology that the Tax Foundation uses presumes that everyone benefits equally from public spending like defense, police and the courts.  An alternative assumption that people benefit according to their income results in a $1.2 trillion redistribution, about 40% lower, according to the Tax Foundation.  (Kudos to the Tax Foundation for making both computations.)

What the report does not do – because it is just so hard to do – is calculate age and circumstance related movements of taxpayers from the top 40% to the bottom 60%.  Consider a taxpayer – I’ll call her Linda – making $100,000 who is in the top 40%.  She loses her job and starts collecting unemployment for several months.  Her income now puts her in the bottom 60%.  “Past Linda” was supporting the bottom 60% but “present Linda” is now part of the bottom 60%, according to the methodology used by the Tax Foundation.  Yet if we isolate this one taxpayer, we can say that “past Linda” was actually supporting “present Linda.”  When Linda was making $100K, she presumably paid a lot in income and other taxes, including unemployment taxes paid by her employer.  The Federal Government does not keep records that would allow this kind of inter-temporal analysis.  As a result, we get a distorted view of what is actually happening.

Let’s look at an older taxpayer – I’ll call him Sam – who retires.  Sam was making $80K before he retired and was in the top 40%.  With social Security income and income from savings, Sam now makes $36K in retirement, which puts him in the bottom 60%.  Is Sam being supported by the top 40%?  Statistically he is.  However, most of us would say that Sam is simply living off the benefits that he paid into during his working life.

I appreciate the exhaustive work that the Tax Foundation does but the problem is more complex than they present.  Furthermore, many people are not aware of the difficulties and complications of calculating who supports whom.  Some use this analysis to present the case that the majority of Americans are sucking on the teats of the few well off.  Presidential contender Mitt Romney’s unguarded comment about “the 47%” who are living off the efforts of others did not serve him well in the past election yet a sizeable percentage of voters believe this.

The 16th Amendment passed a century ago allowed the Federal government to tax the income of individuals directly and it was intended to be progressive.  Relatively few paid any income taxes in the first decades after the enactment of the income tax.  Whether one likes the progressivity of the tax code, one has to recognize that the law was intended to be that way when it was passed.

I would like to see the repeal of the 16th Amendment for two reasons: 1) protect individuals from the power of the Federal government; 2) slow the consolidation of money in Washington.  Money brings power and power begets patronage, if not downright graft.  We can never get rid of patronage, only retard the concentration of patronage. Studying 5000 years of history, we have learned that the concentration of power in any political institution ultimately leads to the downfall of that institution.  Only corporations can exist with such a concentration of power and even they sometimes fall when top leadership in a company becomes resistant to change.

Perhaps we could adopt a taxing system where the Federal government taxes the states based on the population in each state.  If a state has 10% of the country’s population, then they would owe 10% of any tax used to replace the current income tax.  Let the states determine how they will collect the money.  Racism has been a constant nemesis of this country and legal protections could be enacted which would prevent states from taxing citizens based on race or sex.  Head taxes have a tawdry reputation because they were often used to disenfranchise poorer voters.  If the population count of a state was simply used as an allotment mechanism and not applied directly to each citizen, I think that this could be a fairer and safer system of taxation.  Certainly, legislation could be passed preventing the denial of rights to a citizen based on a tax.

Could Doug Elmendorf and his cohorts at the CBO build a model based on such a system?



And we’re talking about nine million individuals who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid. They are responsible for a significant amount of spending in both programs — approximately 46% of Medicaid and close to a quarter of Medicare spending annually.  Estimates range that that is anywhere from 300 to $350 billion a year total that we’re [CMS] spending. 
Melanie Bella, Director of the Federal Healthcare Office at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Federal Coordinated Healthcare Office Conference 11/1/2010

Labor’s Journey

January 12th, 2014

A dramatic decrease in new orders, mostly for export, for the non-manufacturing sector of the economy offset other positives in the December ISM report.  The composite non-manufacturing index dropped slightly but is still growing.  A blend of the manufacturing and non-manufacturing indexes, what I call the CWI, declined from its peak as expected. A month ago I noted the cyclic pattern in this index, and the shorter time between peaks as the economy has formed a stronger base of growth. Most businesses are reporting expansion, or strong growth.  Some respondents to the survey noted that the severe winter weather in December had an impact on their business.


Ringing in the New Year, the private payroll firm ADP issued a strong report of employment growth before the release of the BLS figures on Friday.  The reported gain in jobs was above the best of expectations.  In the past few months,  several reports in production and now in employment have exceeded expectations or come in at the upper bounds of estimates.


Wells Fargo announced that they will be offering non-conforming mortgages to selected buyers who present a low risk.  Non-conforming mortgages may be interest only, or have loan to values that don’t meet guidelines. Reminiscent of the “old days,” Wells Fargo intends to hold onto the mortgages instead of selling the paper in the secondary market.

The Gallup organization announced their monthy percentage of adults who are working full time, what Gallup calls the P2P.  I call this the “Carry the Load” folks, those people whose taxes are supporting the rest of the population.  At 42.9%, it is down a percentage point or two from previous winters.

The 4 week average of new unemployment claims is still below 350,000 but 20,000 higher than a month ago.  As I mentioned last week, this metric will be watched closely by traders in the coming weeks.  Although there is little statistical significance between a 349,000 average and a 355,000 average, for example, there is a psychological boundary marked in 50,000 increments.

Friday I woke up and found that somebody stole the ‘1’s at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The BLS reported net job gains were 74,000 and I thought that there was a smudge on my computer screen blocking the ‘1’ of 174,000 and reached out to wipe it off.  There was no smudge.  It is difficult to interpret the discrepancy between the ADP report and the BLS report.  Some say that the particularly harsh winter weather in the midwest and east caused many people to stop looking for work or that many businesses returned their BLS survey late.  If so, we may see some healthy upward revisions to the employment data when the February report comes out. Here’s a look at total private employment as reported by BLS and ADP.

As you can see there is a growing divergence between the two series.  As a percentage of 120 million or so employed in private industry, the divergence of a few hundred thousand is slight.  The BLS assumes a statistical error estimate of 100,000.  But people closely watch the monthly change in employment as a forecast of developing trends in the overall economy, changes in corporate profits and consequently the price of stocks.  Here is a chart of the difference in private employment as measured by the BLS and that measured by ADP.  A positive number means that the BLS is reporting more employment than ADP.

As with any estimates, I tend to average the estimates to get what I feel is a more accurate estimate.  This averaging works well when bidding construction jobs and some statistical experiments have proven the method reliable.  Averaging the two estimates for private payrolls gives us an estimate of job growth that is still above the replacement threshold of about 150,000 net job gains per month needed to keep up with population growth.

The figures above do not include 22 million government employees, or about 14% of total employment.  Flat or declining employment in this sector has dragged down the headline job gains each month.  Adding in net job gains or losses in the government sector gives us a net job gain of about 150,000 in December.

For those of you interested in more analysis of the employment report, Robert Oak at the Economic Populist presents a number of employment charts similar to the ones I have been doing in past months.

For the past 5 – 10 years, much has been written about the growth in income inequality during the past 30 to 40 years. I’ll call income inequality “Aye-Aye” because the abbreviation  “II” looks like the Roman numeral for “2” and because Ricky Ricardo used to exclaim “Aye, Aye, Lucy!” on that much loved comedy series.  Those on the left blame former President Reagan,  British Prime Minister Thatcher, and deregulation for Aye-Aye.  Those on the right blame increasing regulation that disincentivises businesses from taking chances, from making capital and people investments to pursue robust growth. The expansion of social welfare programs makes people ever more dependent on government and less likely to take jobs that they don’t want.  Economists cite the aging of the population as a cause of the growth of Aye-Aye.  Few I know of seriously challenge the idea that Aye-Aye has been happening.  The argument is over the causes and the solutions.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century will add to the debate.  The English translation will be published in March.  A book review in the Economist outlines some of the ideas in the book.  Piketty’s analysis of almost 150 years of data from several countries indicates that the slower an economy grows, the more unequal the distribution of income.  One might think that the U.S. would have the most unequal income distribution, but Piketty reveals that it is France that tops the list.

Piketty’s rule of thumb is that the savings rate divided by a country’s growth rate will approximate the ratio of capital wealth to gross income.  As this ratio increases, more of the national income goes to those with capital wealth. So, if the savings rate is 8% and the growth rate is 2%, then capital wealth will be about four times gross national income.  Furthermore, he finds that population growth accounts for about half of economic growth over the past century and half.  Slowing population growth in the developed nations therefore leads to greater inequality of income.  If this rule of thumb is fairly accurate, stronger economic growth is the only way to lessen the inequality of income that has grown steadily over the past thirty to forty years.

If you are familiar enough with French, you can read a preview here or pre-order the English version here.  The book is sure to spark some lively discussion between those in the economic growth camp and those in the demographic camp.  The topic has long been a topic of discussion in emerging economies.  I will quote from an Asian Pacific policy journal published in 2003, “The most important determinant of inequality is not [emphasis mine] economic growth, however, but rather changes in demographic age structure.”

Corporate Profits and New Orders

Wednesday’s release of durable goods orders showed a rather large downward revision to July’s data and an increase in August’s orders.  The transportation component makes the overall reading of this report quite volatile.  A more consistent read is gained by excluding transportation and defense goods, which showed a less dramatic 3.3% decline in July, followed by a slight increase of 1.5% in August.  The year on year increase is 7.6%.

In nominal dollars, not adjusted for inflation, we have reached the level of new orders before the recession began in late 2007 – early 2008.  Had the economy stayed “on trend” new orders would be over $84 billion this year.

When adjusted for inflation, we are at about 2006 levels – seven years of no net growth.

Second quarter corporate profits are up almost 6% and have tripled in the past ten years.

Despite all the daily and weekly responses to political as well as economic news, the SP500 stock market index essentially rides the horse of of corporate profits.  The market’s fluctuations reflect changing current expectations of future profits.  Except for the “irrational exuberance” of the late 90s, there is a remarkable correlation between the SP500 and corporate profits.

Focusing on the past ten years, we can see these two forces as they dance around each other.   As sales and profit emerge over each quarter, companies guide analysts estimates of profits up and down.  The market renegotiates its value based on these revisions of emerging profit estimates.  As a rule of thumb, an investor with a mid term horizon of 1 – 3 years might grow wary when these trends diverge as they did in the late 90s and 2006 – 7.


As a percent of the total economy, profits have doubled over the past ten years.  At the trough in 2008, when some financial pundits were forecasting the end of capitalism, profits as a percent of GDP were at the 25 year average.  Investors had become used to this lop-sided economy where corporations grab more of the economic pie.

A growing share of profits is earned overseas; that growing globalization and two decades of effective lobbying have enabled corporations to lower the tax bite on those profits.

The taxation of corporations is a two-edged sword.  One effect of more taxes for corporations means less dividends to investors, who probably pay taxes at a higher rate than the effective rate of corporations.  During the 1980s and 90s, dividends averaged around 40 – 50% of earnings after taxes.  In the past decade and especially after the cash crunch of 2008, corporations have retained more of their earnings as an emergency cash cushion, paying investors about 30 cents on each dollar of earnings.  That rush to safety will probably reverse itself in the coming years, prompting corporations to pay out more in dividends as a percent of profits.

There may be volatility in the market in the coming days and weeks as Congress wrestles over the funding and implementation of the health care act, threatening to shut down most non-essential functions of the entire government.  A similar budget battle in late July and August of 2011 was accompanied by an almost 20% drop in the market.  The longer term trend is told by the rise in corporate profits, by the rise in industrial production and by the rise in new orders.  A move downward in the market may be a good time to put some cash to work, or to make that IRA contribution for 2013.