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

Border Adjustment Tax

March 5, 2017

Gary Cohn,  President Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor, says that the Border Adjustment Tax (BAT) is off the table. This is a key revenue raiser, a hidden tax, in the Republican scheme to lower corporate taxes. We will continue to hear about BAT as the fight over tax reform heats up. What is it and how will it affect American families?

First, a bit of context. Most other developed countries have a VAT, or Value Added Tax, on purchased goods and services. In the EU most VAT taxes range from 20-25%. In America, we have state and local sales taxes that might add as much as 8 – 10% to the cost of a good. A VAT is like a Federal sales tax of 20%.

Unlike a VAT tax that affects most goods and services, the BAT will affect only imported goods. Here’s an example of the BAT tax using Big-Box as an example of a large merchandiser similar to Wal-Mart.

Big-Box imports a DVD Player for $80 (Cost of Goods Sold) and sells it for $100, making $20 gross profit. It has $5 other costs which are deducted from gross profit to reach a taxable profit of $15. Let’s say that Big-Box’s effective Federal tax rate is 30% (27.1% per Congressional Research Service). $15 taxable profit x 30% = $5 (rounded) Federal Tax.  Big-Box has a net after-tax profit of $10, or 10% of the retail price.  Remember that.  Current law = 10%.

Under the BAT proposal, Big-Box could not deduct the $80 it paid for the good because it is an import. Big-Box’s gross profit is now $100. Subtracting the $5 other costs, the taxable profit is $95. Multiply that by a lower 20% corporate tax rate and the Federal tax is now  about $19, far more than the $5 using the current tax system. Big-Box paid $80 cost + $19 in tax = $99, leaving them a gain of $1, or 1%.  Current law = 10% profit.  Proposed law = 1% profit.

For Big-Box to make the $10 after-tax profit it has under the current tax system, it would  need to raise the price of the DVD player about $15.  After paying a 20% tax ($3) on the additional revenue, it will net an additional $12. So the customer now pays $115 for a DVD player that used to be $100.  No change in quality.  Just an extra $15 out of the consumer’s pocket for an imported CD player.

What if Big-Box buys the DVD player from an American supplier for $100?  Under BAT, the $100 direct cost of the DVD player would be deducted from the sale amount, giving Big-Box a tax CREDIT of $20 ($20%).  The after-tax cost of the player is now $80 direct and the same $5 indirect cost = $85. To make a $12 net profit as under the current system, Big-Box could sell the DVD player for $97 and undercut another vendor selling the same DVD player for $115.

In theory, customers would rush to the vendor selling American DVD players. BUT, there is only one DVD manufacturer in the U.S. (Ayre Acoustics) and we don’t know how many parts of their product are imported.  The transition could take years and consumers will pay more for many household goods during that time.

Some products can only be imported.  Most of the lumber used to build homes is imported from Canada.  This hidden tax will be added onto the prices of homes and remodels.  Most diamonds are imported and will bear this hidden tax.  Businesses will lobby to have their product excluded where there is no alternative to an import.  This will be a boon for lobbying firms.

Businesses, particularly durable goods manufacturers, anticipate a complexity in this new tax. Planes, cars, boats, sporting goods and appliances are made with parts from a variety of countries, including the United States. Assessing the component value of imports and exports may require a judgment call by the company, and that is subject to dispute with the IRS. This is sure to become a headache.

Should the BAT become law, customers who have benefitted from the lower prices of imported goods are sure to complain loudly at the higher prices. Retailers have opposed the scheme. Republicans are promising tax cuts for middle class households but the tax reduction won’t offset the extra cost of many household goods.

Republicans have long resisted tax increases in their effort to shrink the size of the government yoke on American families. Many have signed a pledge not to raise taxes. To avoid any appearance of raising taxes, Republican lawmakers had to hide the tax and this was the best they could do.

Side Note: Why not just add the extra $20 as an import tax, or duty? Import taxes are paid to the government by the importing company of record when the goods are received in the country. Even if an item sits in a warehouse as inventory, the import duty has been paid, creating a cash flow problem for companies. With both VAT and BAT taxes, the tax is not charged until the good or service is sold.

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IRA Contributions

Did you put off making your IRA contribution for 2016? In May 2011, I compared several “timing” scenarios of investing in an IRA for the years 1993-2009.The choices were making a contribution on:
1) July 1st, the middle of the tax year;
2) January 31st following the tax year;
3) April 15th following the tax year

The 1st option had a 2.5% advantage over the 2nd option because of the longer time frame invested. An even greater advantage was an option not on this list. Contributing an equal amount every month produced a 4% greater gain over the first option.

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Stand up or Sit Down

The Bureau of Labor Statistics published a study  of  the time workers spend standing/walking or sitting. The average worker spends 3/5th of their time standing or walking.

timestudy
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Education in the 21st Century

“Education technology is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…”

That’s just one quote from this TechCrunch article on the investments needed in K-12 and higher education. The author feels that the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education will break up a coalition of interests that has stymied the adoption of technology in classrooms.

Readers who do not support Ms. DeVos may still find themselves in agreement with the author’s comment that “in both K-12 and higher education, technology remains supplemental to chalk-and-talk practices as old as the hills, and not much more effective from a pedagogical standpoint.”

Those who are sympathetic to teacher’s unions will bristle at this comment: “In K-12, the most promising applications of technology have been found most consistently in private and charter schools — freed from the strictures of teachers unions.”

The author discusses a new “10/90” proposal to give higher education institutions some “skin in the game.” Under an Income Share Agreement (ISA), higher education schools would contribute 10% of the amount of every federal loan. After graduation, students would make loan payments based on a fixed percentage of their income for a fixed number of years, with a clear cap on the total amount paid. The schools would recap their money ONLY if students graduated and would thus be more invested in the future of their students.

Heatlh Care

November 29, 2015

Obamacare

United Healthcare (UNH), the largest health insurance carrier in the U.S., announced that they may drop out of the state health care exchanges at the end of 2016.  The CEO indicated that it would review costs again in mid-2016 but was concerned that continuing losses on the state exchange plans would simply make it uneconomical for UNH to continue to offer these plans.

UNH says it has evidence of many individuals gaming the system by coming into and out of the health insurance system when they need medical services. {Bloomberg and Market Watch} It is not clear how patients would do this since the health care exchanges have enrollment rules similar to Medicare.  These restrictions are designed to make it difficult for individuals to game the system.  Are those rules being implemented consistently on the state level?  If the policy rules are in place, have the screening algorithms been reviewed?  Poor implementation and oversight have plagued some exchanges.

At the heart of Obamacare is the projection that costs for the newly insured stabilize after approximately two years, a metric derived from long experience with Medicare patients.  Individuals who have not had regular medical care often have chronic unattended conditions which need to be stabilized.  Medicare costs typically rise during this initial stage before leveling off.

Obamacare will certainly be an issue in the upcoming Presidential election.  The debate will intensify if other insurers express doubts about the economic feasibility of the system,

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Productivity and Policy

Economists and policy makers continue to debate the causes, and solutions, for the slowdown in labor productivity that has occurred over the past several decades.  Larry Summers served as Treasury Secretary under President Clinton, Director of the National Economic Council under President Obama, and Chief Economist at the World Bank.  In other words, the guy’s got some chops.

In a recent speech Summers noted several trends:

1)  Dis-employment of unskilled workers.  The participation rate of those aged 25 – 54 has declined from 95% in 1965 to 85% now. (p. 3)  While this is often attributed to technical improvements, Mr. Summers makes the case that labor productivity should go up, not down, due to technical change.  That is not the case.  Summers says he doesn’t have the answer either but the contradiction between theory and data indicates that economists still don’t understand the underlying processes. (p. 4)

2) Mismeasurement.  Productivity measures are based on the calculation of real GDP which is dependent on the measure of inflation.  Summers asks whether differences in quality, or what are called hedonic measures, are captured in CPI data.  He asks “Which would you rather have for you and your family, 1980 healthcare at 1980 prices or 2015 healthcare at 2015 prices?  How many people would prefer 2015 healthcare at 2015 prices?”  If people prefer the 2015 variety at 2015 prices then inflation has been negative in healthcare.  As a percent of GDP, healthcare spending has increased.  Mismeasuring inflation in healthcare may negate all or most of this increase. (p. 5)

3) As we have transitioned to an economy dominated by services, mismeasurement of inflation has probably increased.  A leading technocat in Democratic administrations, Summers casts doubts on a staple of liberal rhetoric – that median family income has not changed since 1973.  This idea is a central tenet of Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.  What if the measurement of median family income is flawed?  This doubt is more often raised by conservative economists and policy makers.  Summers’ remarks crossed the ideological and political divide and surely raised a few eyebrows. (p. 6)

4) Developing the theme of measurement as it pertains to different types of economies, Summers refers to several statistical terms like “unit root” stationarity that may challenge casual readers.

When a time series (data observations over time like GDP) has a unit root it exhibits more deterministic behavior; it is more likely to adopt an altered path or trendline when shocked off its previous path.

Series without a unit root are more likely to exhibit stochastic behavior when subjected to some shock; that is, they will tend to return to their former path or trendline, not form a new trendline.

At mid-century, when our economy was much more reliant on manufacturing, it behaved in a stochastic way when subjected to economic shocks.  It rebounded to a previous trendline.  Our economy is now overwhelmingly service oriented, about 88%.  Summers makes the case (p. 9) that unbalanced economies like ours behave differently than a more balanced economy.  The growth path of GDP changes permanently in response to an economic shock like the financial crisis of 2008.  If that is the case, policy changes will be ineffective in returning GDP and employment back to the former trendline. (For more info on testing the deterministic and stochastic components of time series processes, see this).

Summers adds to the number of voices calling for a more accurate – but also objective – measurement of inflation. Poor measurement leads to imprecise data leads to inaccurate conclusions leads to ineffective policy leads to more problems leads to…

Policy debates often involve complicated issues of identification, measurement, and methods of analysis that are not readily explainable in a campaign speech.  On our way home from work, a complicated system of algorithms based on traffic data determines whether the traffic lights continue to trip green as we maintain a constant speed.  Much of this is hidden from us and incomprehensible to most of us.  All of that complexity is boiled down to a simple heuristic: we go when it’s green, stop when it’s red.

Voters like simple.  The job of a politician is to convince voters and donors that if they are elected, they will implement the right policies, the correct algorithms that will move traffic, i.e. the economic fortunes of the families of America, faster.

Post War Productivity

July 26, 2015

Each year, the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) submits the Economic Report of the President  to the Congress.  They compile a number of data series to show some long term trends in household income, wages, productivity and labor participation.  Readers should understand that the report, coming from a committee acting under a Democratic President, filters the data to express a political point of view that is skewed to the left.  When the President is from the Republican Party, the filters express a conservative viewpoint.  Has there ever been a neutral economic viewpoint?

In this year’s report the Council identifies three distinct periods since the end of WW2: 1948-1973, 1973-1995, and 1995-2013.  In hindsight, this last period may not be a single bloc, as the report acknowledges (p. 32).

The most common measure of productivity growth is Labor Productivity, which is the increase in output divided by the number of hours to get that increase.  Total Factor Productivity, sometimes called Multi-Factor Productivity (BLS page), measures all inputs to production – labor, material, and capital.  As we can see in the chart below (page source), total factor productivity has declined substantially since the two decade period following WW2.

In the first period 1948-1973, average household income grew at a rate that was 50% greater than total productivity growth, an unsustainable situation.  This post war period, when the factories of Europe had been destroyed and America was the workshop of the world, may have been a singular time never to be repeated.  What can’t go on forever, won’t.  In the period 1973-1995, real median household income that included employer benefits grew by .4% per year, the same growth rate as total productivity.

The decline in the growth rate of productivity hinders income growth which prompts voters to pressure politicians to “fix” the slower wage growth.  If households enjoyed almost 3% income growth in the 1950s and 1960s, they want the same in subsequent decades.  If the rest of the world has become more competitive, voters don’t care.  “Fix it,” they – er, we – tell politicians, who craft social benefit programs and tax programs which shift income gains so that households can once again enjoy an unsustainable situation: income growth that is greater than total productivity growth.

“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” was a song written by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger in the 1950s. It was  a song about the folly of war but the sentiment applies just as well to politicians who think that they can overcome some of the fundamental forces of economics.  Seeger asked: “When will they ever learn?”

An Unwelcome Guest

Nov. 30, 2014

The short week of Thanksgiving should have been rather uneventful.  The week before, officials in Ferguson, Missouri had announced an imminent decision in the grand jury hearing of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an African American, by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer who was European American.

Slavery, the denial of civil rights to African Americans, and persistent housing and job discrimination against African Americans are an integral part of American history.  Bankruptcy is a formal discharge of debt.  There is no formal procedure for discharging past wrongs.  Some Southerners are still distrustful of the Federal bureaucracy in Washington that committed so many wrongs in the period after the Civil War.  The wounds inflicted by white skinned Americans on dark skinned Americans is fresher than those suffered by Southerners during the Reconstruction period almost 150 years ago.  Fresh wounds bleed easily when scratched.

The grand jury took several days longer than “imminent” to reach its decision, announced Monday night.  Several weeks of protests during the course of the hearing erupted into violent rioting at the grand jury’s decision that Officer Wilson should not be indicted for any charges, ranging from first degree murder to manslaughter.  The decision, right or wrong on the facts, picked at the scab of the soul of some African Americans, provoking senseless violence.  Americans of every skin color riot when their team wins the World Series (San Francisco 2014) or Super Bowl (Denver 1998).  Dark skinned Americans riot when they perceive that some injustice has been committed against them.

The costliest riots, over $1 billion in damages, had occurred in Los Angeles in 1992 after the Rodney King beating.  Whether in response to victory or injustice, rioting provoked confusion and condemnation in any society.  It was both uncomfortable and strangely seductive to watch the emergence of a super two-year old, having a temper tantrum, from a group of civilized human beings.

Property damage from civil unrest was covered by many business insurance plans, George knew, but he wondered how many businesses damaged in the Ferguson riots were covered for interruption of business operations, replacing some or all of the owner’s lost income.  Sometimes these were sold as riders to a commercial policy.

People with jobs were less likely to get angry.  Unemployment among African Americans was at the same level as the early seventies, when the economy was in a severe recession, and the oil embargo and inflation had prompted Nixon to enact wage price controls.  Those had not been good times for many Americans. Five years after the official end of this last recession, the unemployment rate among African Americans was twice the rate of the general labor force.

The participation rate among African Americans was about 1% less than that for the entire labor force but the rate difference for men was about 4 to 5%.

George was a bit concerned that Monday night’s riots in Ferguson might have a secondary effect on Tuesday’s trading if the 2nd estimate of GDP growth for the 3rd quarter was below 3%.  Yes, he should have been more focused on making turkeys out of construction paper for the Thanksgiving dinner.  He and Mabel – well, mostly Mabel – had started the tradition when the kids, Robbie and Emily, were younger.  Somehow they had continued the tradition after the kids had gone.  George told Mabel that he would do it while they watched the season finale of Dancing With the Stars on Tuesday night.  Somehow he felt like a kid saying he would do his homework later.  Long marriages result from both partners doing stuff they don’t particularly like doing, George thought.

Tuesday morning’s report of GDP growth allayed George’s concerns.  October’s initial estimate of growth had been 3.5%.  This second estimate was higher, at 3.9%.  The Case Shiller 20 city home price index showed a slight month-to-month increase, but the yearly increase in price was just about 5%, more in line with historical averages.  
 Corporate Profits for the 3rd quarter gained 3.8% year-over-year, slowing down from the 4.6% year-over-year growth in the 2nd quarter.  Profit growth was ultimately driven by growth in productivity.  Capital investments in technology had reaped the greater share of overall growth in the past decade or more.  Labor’s share of growth had been particularly weak the past few years, far below the average of the past forty years. 
A closer look at labor productivity gains in the past decade showed just how meager they were.  
A work force unable to capture productivity growth could not command strong pay growth.  Economists at the BLS anticipated increasing overall output growth in this next decade but those projections were sullied by the lack of clarity regarding the causes for the slow growth in labor productivity of the past decade. Did the shift further away from manufacturing make gains harder to come by?  Was there a limit to growth that could be achieved by better management, process design and innovation? Some blamed the exponential growth of the regulatory state, forcing businesses to devote an increasing number of hours on compliance and reporting.  Others blamed the increase in social benefit programs for softening the competitive edge of American workers.  Got a reason?  Throw it in the hat, George thought. The market traded in a flat range for the day.
On Wednesday, George went to the bank to cash in the joint CD that he and Mabel had discussed the previous week.  He was surprised to learn that the bank did not require the both of them to cash in a joint CD.  Mabel was busy with Thanksgiving fixings so it was convenient that George could go alone to handle the matter.  He picked up a certified bank check from one bank and drove over to the bank where they kept their checking account to deposit the money.  He was also surprised to find that the bank did not credit the money to their account for a few days. “The other bank is just like 10 to 15 blocks away,” George told the teller.  “Well, we have to guard against fraud,” the teller responded.  “So it would have been better to have gotten cash?” George asked. “Well, yeh, but then I think you would have to fill out a form because it’s a large cash transaction,” the teller informed him.  “You know, to say you got the money by legal means, that you’re not a drug dealer,” he went on, “but I’d have to ask my supervisor about that.”
George was going to transfer the money that day to their brokerage but thought he should wait till Monday.  George was tempted to buy maybe a 1000 shares of USO, the commodity ETF that tracked West Texas Intermediate Oil.  OPEC was scheduled to meet Thanksgiving day to discuss the near term future of oil prices.  They had dropped by about a third in the past year as increasing barrels of U.S. shale oil were added to the supply for a weakening global demand.  U.S. oil production was now at 9 million barrels a day, the same level  as the mid-1980s, and rising toward the record production of 10 million barrels in the early 1970s.
Poorer countries in OPEC who funded their government with the sale of oil, wanted to set production cuts to halt any further declines in oil prices.  With their huge supply of oil and relatively inexpensive production costs, the Saudis were content to let the slide continue.  On Tuesday, oil prices had dropped a few percent.  But if the other members of OPEC prevailed and production cuts were announced, George reasoned, he could make a bundle of money in a short time by buying oil the day before.  That was the speculative angel, or devil, on his shoulder whispering in his ear.  His other angel simply asked, “Are we investing or gambling?”  George gave in to his cautious angel.  He could also lose a bunch of money really quickly if the Saudis prevailed.  
Thanksgiving dinner was a relatively muted affair, unlike those of past years.  Bob, George’s older brother, and his wife, Flo, had flown down to Cabo to work on an archaeological dig.  The digging part of that “vacation” didn’t sound appealing to George but this archaeological club, or group, would put them up for 10 days in exchange for their labor and they would still have time for sun and surf.  Bob had become fascinated with archaeology when he was about 60 years old and had pursued it with a passion since then.
Mabel, the oldest of five siblings, had taken on the Thanksgiving festivities.  Two of her sisters lived in Colorado but only Susan, the youngest, came to dinner this week.  Most unusual, George thought, that Charlie was the only child at the dinner this year.  The talk at the dinner table turned to Ferguson.  Robbie had read quite a lot of the testimony at the grand jury hearing and was full of facts.  Charlie got bored as the adults chattered on during the meal. He saw a squirrel coming down the trunk of the tree in the front yard and asked George if he could have some peanuts to feed them.  George had showed Charlie how to sit still on the back deck after putting peanuts out for the squirrels in the middle of the backyard.  He was quite surprised that a child of that age could be motionless and silent for that long as they waited for the squirrels to scurry out from the bushes to snatch up a peanut in their wiry paws.
As the talk and opinions swirled around the table, Mabel was quiet, chewing methodically while listening attentively to the others.  George had already had a few testy words with her earlier in the week so he knew how strong her opinions were.  Robbie’s wife Gail all but accused her husband of being a racist because he did not understand that the facts of the case had been carefully cultivated in favor of the police officer.  Robbie asked his mom for some affirmation.  Mabel finished a bite of sweet potato. 
“About fifteen years ago, I stayed a bit late after school, finishing up some paperwork,” she said to Robbie, then turned to the others around the table.  “It was late October,  maybe early November.  The sun had already set.  There were only a few cars left in the parking lot.  There was one of those parking lot lights, the high ones like street lights, near my car but it would go on for a few seconds, then go off for about a minute.  As I walked to my car in the semi-darkness, I noticed a figure walking to me from my right as though to intersect me as I got to my car.  A second glance up and I saw he was wearing one of those,” she paused, “hoodies, I think they’re called.  As he got closer, maybe twenty feet away, I realized that I couldn’t see his face, that it was a black man in a hoodie. My heart instantly started flippity flopping as I realized that I was going to be attacked.”  
Mabel had everyone’s attention, a difficult thing to do in an family that was not reluctant to share their opinions. “There was no one else in the parking lot that I could call out to for help,” she continued in a purposeful voice. “I hurried my step, reached into my bag, fumbling for the car keys as I approached the car.  I didn’t want to look panicked, fearing I don’t know what.  Maybe that my panic would provoke the attacker.  As I reached out my arm to unlock the car, the man’s voice broke the darkness.  All I heard was ‘Hey’ and I turned and I yelled back ‘Aaaaahhhhh,’ grunting it out like some Kung-Fu movie.  “Mabel?  Is that you? I didn’t mean to startle you,” the voice from the hoodie said.  He brushed back the hood of his parka and I could see that it was James, the biology teacher. 
He was so apologetic and I pretended that I had not noticed him until just that minute. ‘My battery’s dead and I was wondering if you have some cables, could give me a jump,’ he explained to me.  ‘I was going to call AAA and then I saw someone come out of the school entrance and I thought it might be you but I wasn’t sure,’ he went on.  I had cables in the trunk, but I was so upset that I lied and told him no, I didn’t have any.  He thanked me and went back across the parking lot to his car.”  Mabel took a quick sip of water from her glass.  George had never heard this story.  After 35 years of marriage, that rarely occurred.
“I started up the car, then sat there crying,” she continued, her lips tense.  “It’s as though my ideals, my view of myself, was a cloak that I had worn and then, that night, I looked in the mirror without my cloak on.  I wasn’t racist in spirit,” she paused, searching for the words to complete the thought, “or intention, but I realized that I was a racist in perception. Racism is embedded in our culture, in me, whether I like it or not.”  
She stopped and there was silence around the dinner table, a rare event at a Liscomb family gathering.  Robbie, sitting close by his mother, reached across the table to grasp his mother’s hand. From the far end of the table, George was struck by her – what would he call it? Her forthrightness. She had an ability he lacked, and perhaps that’s why the seeing of it in her gave him a sense of admiration.  The moment snapped like a crisp carrot as the front door swung open and Charlie burst through the doorway.  “The squirrel was eating a peanut this far from me!” he yelled excitedly and spread wide his arms.

On Friday, George learned that the Saudis had prevailed at the OPEC meeting.  By the end of the day, USO had dropped more than 8%.  We bear the fruits of what we do and don’t do, George reminded himself, then wondered if that was a line from Shakespeare or maybe Leonard Cohen?

While the stock market stayed relatively quiet during the week, ten year bond prices continued to gather strength.  Stocks and bonds tended to move opposite each other in a dance of risk and return. When they both gained in strength, something had to give.  The last time they met at this strong level was at the end of August, when bonds faltered first, falling  about 5% over two weeks while the SP500 remained fairly stable.  In mid-September they flipped.  Bonds rallied up 8-9% as stocks fell the same amount.  Then stocks rallied to all time highs in the past four or five weeks but bond prices had not fallen more than a few percent.  George resolved to watch this dance during the following week.  It was the first week of the month, filled with a number of reports including the employment report that could renew or drain confidence in the stock market. 

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.

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Productivity

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.

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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.

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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.