Marching Forward

April 28, 2019

by Steve Stofka

When former President Obama took the oath of office, the economy was in the worst shape since the Great Depression 75 years earlier. Tax receipts plunged and benefit claims soared. Millions of homes and thousands of businesses fell into the black hole created by the Financial Crisis. In sixteen years of the Bush and Obama presidencies, the country added $16 trillion to the public federal debt, more than tripling the sum at the time Clinton left office in early 2001.

Although growth has remained slow since the financial crisis (see my blog last week), the economy has not gone into recession. Despite the fears of some, a recession in the next year does not look likely. The chart below charts the annual percent change in real GDP (green) against a ratio called the M1 money multiplier, the red line (Note #1). Notice that when the change in GDP dips below the money multiplier for two quarters we have been in recession.

The money multiplier seems to act like a growth boundary. While some economy watchers have warned of an impending recession, GDP growth has been above 2.5% for more than a year and is rising. In 2018, real disposable personal income grew nearly 3%. This is not the weak economic growth of 2011 or the winter of 2015/16 when concerns of recession were well founded.

The number of people voluntarily quitting their job is near the 1999 and 2006 highs. Employees are either transferring to other jobs or they feel confident that they can quickly get another job. An even more important sign is that this metric has shown no decline since the low point in August 2009.

In 2013, the Social Security disability fund was in crisis and predicted to run out of money within a decade. As the economy has improved, disability claims have plunged to all-time lows and the Social Security administration recently extended the life of the fund until 2052 (Note #2).

Approximately 1 in 6 (62 million) Americans receive Social Security benefits and that number is expected to grow to 78 million in a decade. However, the ratio of workers to the entire population is near all time highs. The number of Millennials (1982-1996) has surpassed the number of Boomers. This year the population of iGen, those born after 1996, will surpass the Millennial generation (Note #3). Just as a lot of seniors are leaving the work force, a lot of younger workers are entering. The ratio of worker to non-worker may reach 1 to 1. 45 years ago, one worker supported two non-workers.

As the presidential cycle gets into gear, we will hear claims that there are not enough workers to pay promised benefits. Those claims are based on the Civilian Employment Participation Rate, which is the ratio of workers to adults. While the number of seniors is growing, the number of children has been declining. To grasp the total public burden on each worker, we want to look at the ratio of workers to the total population. As I noted before, that is at an all time high and that is a positive.

Raising a child is expensive. The average cost of public education per child is almost $12K (Note #4).  Public costs for housing, food and medical care can push average per child public cost to over $20K annually.

Let’s compare to public costs for seniors. The average person on Social Security receives $15,600 in benefits (Note #5). In 2018, the Medicare program cost an average of $10,000 per retiree (Note #6). The public cost for seniors is not a great deal more than those for children.

As a society, we can do this.

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Notes:

  1. The M1 money multiplier is the ratio of cash and checking accounts to the amount of reserves held at the Federal Reserve.
  2. SSDI solvency now extended to 2052. Here’s a highlight presentation of the trustee’s report.
  3. Generation Z will surpass the numbers of Millennials in 2019. Report
  4. Public education costs per pupil
  5. Social Security costs
  6. Medicare program cost $583 billion. There are approximately 60 million on the program. CMS

The Green Divide

March 24, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Half of the country’s voters live on 80% of the land, which the political analysts color red. Half of voters live on the remaining 20% of land, which is colored blue. The needs, values and outlooks of those in the red are not the same as those in the blue. As the country’s population continues to migrate from rural to metropolitan areas, the country becomes ever more divided. As economist Paul Krugman wrote this week, no one knows how to fix the continuing economic decline in rural areas (Note #1).

A person’s views on an issue may depend on the state they live in. In the past several decades, immigration has had much more impact on California and the southern states. In 1980, 15% of California’s population was foreign born, almost four times the national average of 4.3%. In 2015, that share had doubled for both California and the nation as a whole. However, the national average is only a third of California’s numbers (Note #2). How does the nation adopt a single policy toward immigration when there are such differences in circumstances?

Regardless of our different experiences and outlooks, we are dependent on each other. 20% of Americans are on the Social Security and Medicare programs (Note #3). 24% are on CHIP and Medicaid (Note #4). 40% of the two million farms in America receive subsidies (Note #5). The transfers of money between Americans has reached 14% of GDP.

TransfersPctGDP

In 1962, Ronald Reagan took a stridently conservative tone when he warned that the Medicare program being developed in the Democratic Congress would lead to socialism and the destruction of American democracy (Note #6). Having married into wealth, he could afford a dramatic interpretation of social policy. Few Americans hold such extreme views today (Note #7).

The reasonable arguments of today might look oppressive to future generations, and progressive ideas seem natural to our descendants. Our ancestors had different views toward slavery, racism, voting rights and social programs than we have today. What has not changed is our distrust of those we regard as “other,” and our desire to make our principles universal for our fellow Americans. We want everyone to play by our rules, or our interpretation of the rules.

In the debates on the ratification of the US Constitution, some asked what the terms “provide for the …general welfare” meant (Note #8). Was the new government to become a national charity? The Federalists argued for the inclusion of the term to give the government a degree of latitude in changing circumstances. The anti-Federalists argued that this new government would eventually become the home of beggars and lobbyists wanting to promote their own welfare as the “general welfare.” In the past century, the phrase has become a constitutional bedrock of Supreme Court precedent underlying social programs. A person could argue that the size of social welfare spending and the extraordinary power of lobbyists in Washington has proven the anti-Federalist’s case.

America is the land of debate because the Constitution was structured to promote debate. While Americans had a platform to argue with each other, it was hoped that there would be less bloodshed, rebellion, and dictatorship (Note #9). Some days we might be less sure of that premise. As the circumstances of urban and rural America diverge further, we will struggle ever more to reach consensus. Each side will feel the need to impose its will on the other.  As we debate these issues, we should be just as careful of our own instincts as we are about the instincts of those on the other side of the debate.

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Notes:

1. Krugman op-ed on lack of solutions for the economic decline in rural America
2. Four decades of immigration numbers – pdf page 6
3. 62 million Americans on Social Security and Medicare – numbers here
4. 74 million Americans on CHIP and Medicaid – numbers here
5. 39% of 2.1 million farms receive agricultural subsidies
6. Reagan warns against Medicare
7. During the debate before the passage of Obamacare, some Tea Party members advocated a return to the days when we just let old people die.
8. U.S. Constitution, Section 8.1 “provide for the common Defence [sic] and general Welfare of the United States” http://constitutionus.com/
9. Former colonies of Great Britain have struggled with free speech issues. South Africans has only had freedom of expression for twenty years . Canada still does not have complete freedom of speech

 

Grandma’s Kids

May 27, 2018

by Steve Stofka

The birth rate has touched a 30-year low, repeating a cycle of generational boom and bust since World War 2. The first boom was the Boomer generation born in the years 1946-1964 (approx). They were followed by the baby bust Generation X, born 1964-1982. The Millennials, sometimes called Generation Y and born 1982 – 2001, surpassed even the Boomers in numbers. Based on the latest census data, Generation Z, born 2002- 2020, will be another low birth rate cohort.

These numbers matter. They form the population tide that keeps the entitlement system afloat. Social Security and Medicare are “pay as you go” systems. Older generations who receive the benefits depend on taxes from younger generations for those benefits. As the population surge of Boomers draws benefits, the surge of Millennials is entering their peak earning years.

To maintain a steady population level, each woman needs to average 2.1 births. During the Great Recession, the birth rate for native-born Hispanic and Black women fell below that replacement level. White and Asian women fell below that level during the recession following the dot-com boom in the early 2000s. Foreign born Hispanic and Black women are averaging a bit more than 2-1/2 births. The average of foreign born White and Asian women is just about replacement rate.

Around the world, birth rates are falling. Social welfare programs depend on inter-generational transfers of income. When a smaller and younger generation must pay for a larger and older cohort, there is an inevitable stress.

I will distinguish between social welfare programs and socialist welfare programs with one rule: the former require that a person pay into the program before being entitled to the benefits from the program. In this regard, they are like insurance programs except that private insurance policies are funded by asset reserves held by an insurance company. Government “insurance” programs are “pay as you go” systems. Current taxes pay for current benefits. The Social Security “reserve” is an accounting fiction that the Federal government uses to track how much it has borrowed from itself.

Examples of social welfare programs that require the previous payment of dues are: Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment and Workmen’s Compensation Insurance. Although the latter two are paid directly by employers, they are effectively taken out of an employee’s pay by reducing the wage or salary that the employer pays the employee. Employers who fail to understand this go out of business early in the life of the business. I have known some.

Examples of socialist welfare programs that are based on income, or need: Medicaid, TANF (Welfare), WIC, Food Stamps, Housing and Education Subsidies. There is no requirement that a person pays “dues” into a specific program before receiving benefits.

Health care in America is primarily a social welfare program with socialist elements. The Federal government does subsidize all employer provided health insurance and most private insurance through the tax system or the Affordable Care Act. However, most beneficiaries must pay some kind of insurance to access benefits. Under the 1986 EMTALA act, emergency rooms are notable exceptions to this policy. They are required to treat, or medically stabilize, all patients insured or not.

As Grandma begins to draw benefits from Social Security and Medicare, she relies on the earnings of her kids who form the core work force aged 25 – 54. Grandma has paid a lifetime of dues into the social welfare programs and wants her benefits. Grandma votes.

Her grandkids want government subsidies for educational needs and job training. They depend on socialist welfare programs with no dues. The grandkids don’t vote.

The kids are caught in a generational squeeze.  Their taxes are paying for both their parent’s benefits and their kid’s benefits.

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Housing Trends

In the spring of 2008, there was an eleven month supply of existing homes on the market.
2010 – 8-1/2 months
2012 – 6-1/2 months
2014 – 5-1/2 months
2016 – 4-1/2 months
2018 – 4 months

In some cities, a median priced home stays on the market less than 24 hours.

Here is another generational shift.  Grandma and Grandpa now own 40% percent of home equity, up from 24% in 2006. Their kids, the age cohort 45 – 60, own 45%. Those under 45 have only 14% of home equity, down from 24% in 2006.

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Brave New World

E-Commerce is now 9.5% of all retail sales, almost triple the percentage ten years ago. (Fed Reserve series ECOMPCTSA). In 2000, the percentage was less than 1%.

Our Legacies

April 29, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Each generation bequeaths the benefits and costs of legislative programs to the following generations.  In the past one hundred years, Democrats have secured a dominant majority in the Congress three times. A dominant majority is one where one party controls the Presidency and both houses of Congress with a filibuster proof majority of sixty in the Senate (History of Shifting Political Power).

Each time, the Democrats have created an entitlement program, a legacy structured so that it would be difficult to undo when Democrats were out of power.  Under FDR in the 1930s, the Democrats created Social Security. Like all entitlement programs, coverage and benefits were expanded in the first ten years after creation of the program.

In the 1960s, LBJ and the Democrats created Medicare and Medicaid. Before these programs, the Federal government paid 11 cents of every health care dollar. In 2013, that 11 cents had grown to 26 cents (CMS history PDF).  As with Social Security, coverage and benefits were greatly expanded the first decade after creation. In 1960, the U.S. spent 5.1 cents for every $1 of GDP. OECD countries spent only 3.7 cents. By 2013, Americans spent 16.4 cents of each $1 of GDP, twice as much as the 8.7 cents spent by OECD countries.

For fifty years, the annual growth of health care spending was 50% more than the growth rate of the economy.  With a dominant majority after 45 years, Obama and the Democrats tried to pass single payer health care in 2009. Democratic politicians in conservative leaning districts balked at the idea. Obamacare was a compromise solution that has been compared by opponents and advocates alike to a Frankenstein contraption of legislation that needs to be fixed. Expansion was embedded in the legislation from the start through the Medicaid program.

When the BLS and Census Bureau compute the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a measure of inflation, they consider the shifting patterns of consumer spending. Since 2000, the Medical spending component of the CPI has doubled its share of the index to about 17%. Increased medical spending is affecting most American families. Regardless of one’s opinion of the solution, Obamacare was a compromised attempt to deal with this trend.

The American health care system is like the 50-year old cars in Cuba that have been patched together with duct tape and ingenuity. The system runs on policy payoffs to stakeholder groups and it will fail most of us because it cannot adapt to the extraordinary advancements in medical care. As technological changes accelerate in the coming decades, this cobbled together system born of World War 2 wage and price controls will grow ever more unwieldy.

Entitlement programs invariably cost a lot more than the designers calculate. Program benefits are easier to sell to voters than raising the funds to pay for them. Following December’s tax reform bill, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office revised their ten year budget and deficit estimates.

For the past fifty years, the Federal government has collected an average of $17.40 for every $100 of GDP.  The CBO projects Fed revenue will be over $18.00. Here’s the problem: the Federal government has been spending $20.30, almost $3 more than it collects. That’s how the country has run up a debt of $20 trillion. It’s about to get worse. Because of increased Medicare and Medicaid spending, the CBO projects spending will increase to $22.40 for every $100 of GDP. A $3 shortage will soon turn to a $4 shortage. The interest on that steadily increasing debt? By 2023, almost $3, a sixth of what the government collects and more than the defense budget.

Nations can not declare bankruptcy.  Instead, they become failed states and descend into anarchy.  Venezuela has become a failed state and its people are fleeing the country.  Most of the institutions have failed.  Most of the daily necessities of life are in short supply. The government claims that it doesn’t even have the paper to print exit Visas.  Under the Maduro government, truth was the first to abandon the country.

The economy is strong yet Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings have reached the same level as April 2011 when there was talk of another recession. That year, the unemployment rate was still above 9% and housing starts remained at all-time lows. Then-President Obama and Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner battled over a budget compromise and the stock market dropped nearly 20%. In a strong economy like today, we should have lower levels of bankruptcy.

 

A Graduated System of Benefits

October 29, 2017

My kids will learn that they are the sons and daughters of charity parents.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the measurement of the poverty rate in America. Why is our standard different than the one adopted by all other developed countries? What efforts have we made to alleviate poverty, and have those programs helped or hurt the poor?

Qualifications for benefits under various programs rely primarily on paid income. As a person exceeds certain thresholds of income, benefits are reduced or stopped entirely. Regardless of how we define a reduction in benefits, it feels like a tax to the recipients. Under these programs, the poor pay the highest tax – 100%. $1 earned above a certain threshold results in a $1 reduction in benefits. There is a very real incentive to hide reported income.

As I showed earlier, the poverty standard adopted by the U.S. undercounts the number of poor. On the other hand, income earned in the underground economy is not counted and results in an overcount of the poor.

We may associate “underground” with “illegal” but it includes both legal and illegal activities. A better synonym would be “unreported.” Workers in the unreported economy may include the kid down the block who mows our lawn, the guy who repaired our fence, the woman who walks our dog when we work late.

Almost all of us are part of the unreported economy whether we realize it or not. Recent estimates of the size of this shadow economy in the U.S. are from 7% to 11%. In dollar amounts, that’s $1.4 trillion to over $2 trillion. In less developed economies, it can be as much as 25%.

The tragedy of current programs is that they often discourage recipients from getting more work, or better paid work. The loss of Medicaid benefits dissuades a single mom with children from taking on employment unless she can find an employer who provides health insurance for her and her children. Many don’t.

Income above a certain threshold may disqualify someone from housing benefits. Under a Section 8 housing program, a low-income person pays 30% of their monthly income for housing (Section 8 FAQs). HUD, a Federal agency, and state agencies pay the rest of the rent. Section 8 housing is in short supply. The amount of paperwork and inspections required by HUD dissuades many real estate owners from enrolling their properties in the program.

These programs would improve by paying benefits on a graduated scale rather than using a qualifying threshold. Under the current system, a person making less than half the area’s median income, let’s say $24,000, gets housing assistance and other benefits. If they make above that, they may receive nothing under some Federal and state programs. That is the equivalent of a 100% – or higher – tax.

This graduated scale should apply to everyone. That includes the richest people on the planet like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who would also be eligible for housing vouchers, food stamps, for supplemental income and Medical benefits. As income increased, benefits would be gradually decreased. Bill Gates would be eligible for housing assistance, but his monthly benefit would be $0. For many of us, there would be no incentive to apply.

A graduated scale would help eliminate the quiet shame that some people experience when they receive public assistance. Like it or not, there is a stigma attached to being poor and receiving benefits.

A person with a disability can receive Social Security and Medicare. They can be quick to point out the fact. They are not on SSI, a program for low-income people. They are on Social Security. They paid into the insurance system. They got hurt. They are collecting on the insurance payments they made during a lifetime of work. Because they are disabled, they are on Medicare, not Medicaid. Medicaid is for poor people. If they are poor, it is only because they became disabled.

If I am a worker with a family to support and I make $11 per hour, or about $450 a week, my family is qualified to receive housing, food, medical and other assistance programs. I may be experienced in a few construction trades, but my tools were stolen last year. Perhaps I don’t have reliable transportation. I could make more money if I could get some tools or a more reliable car, but I can barely take care of my family. How can I get ahead?

A concrete contractor offers me a job paying $20 an hour for a project that will last the summer months for sure. However, the winter months may be a bit lean. The additional income will put me over the income threshold and my family will lose most of the benefits.

If I calculate the benefit my family currently receives in addition to my current $11 per hour wage as a janitor, I am receiving the equivalent of about $20 an hour. Even though I prefer to take the new job, I should continue to work at my current job for the sake of my family. Perhaps I can find a few jobs on the side, or “under the table,” but these are sporadic.

If I continue to stay out of the construction trades, my skills will atrophy. My self-confidence will erode. My kids will learn that they are the sons and daughters of charity parents.

The example above is all too common. If we had a gradual system of benefit awards, such a worker would be more inclined to take that better paying job. With a higher income, they might be able to get a loan for more reliable transportation. Their family might be able to afford more housing choices.

Who benefits under the current system? Whenever a poorly performing system stays in place, there is usually a small group of people who benefit under that system. They don’t want it to change.

Am I being a bit too cynical? No. It is Realpolitik. The practical benefits for one group of people outweigh any moral considerations by that group. In a later blog, I’ll look at who benefits from the current system.

Young Beasts of Burden

October 8th, 2017

The Federal Reserve recently released their triennial survey of household income, debt and wealth. Rising asset values have lifted the fortunes of many, but younger families are struggling.  I’ll show a reliable indicator of recessions as well as some trends peeking out behind the numbers. The incomes below are denoted in inflation adjusted 2016 dollars.

The good news is that lower income workers have recently seen some income gains, which the Federal Reserve attributes to the enactment of minimum wage laws in 19 states at the start of 2017. However, single parent families have struggled with income gains, as they have for three decades. The decade from the late 1990s to the financial crisis in 2008 lifted the incomes of single parents but they have struggled during the recovery. Median incomes for this group remain below the 2007 level.

RealMedIncSglParent

That this group needed back-to-back historic asset bubbles in order to see some income gains shows just how vulnerable they are.

Much has been written about income inequality among households. During booms, there is a growing inequality even among those in the top 10% of incomes. The median in any data set is the halfway point in the numbers, and is usually less than the average of the numbers. If the numbers are evenly distributed the median is closer to the average and the percentage of median to average is high.  When there are a lot of outliers that raise the average far above the median, as in home prices, the percentage is lower.  During boom times there is growing inequality, even among the top 10%  of incomes. (Data from survey)

RealMedMeanIncomeRich

The growth of inequality of income obeys a power law distribution. Think of a 1’x1’ square. The area is 1. Now double the sides to 2’x2’. The area quadruples to 4. Triple the sides to 3’x3’ and the area increases by a factor of 9. Let’s imagine that the area inside of a square is money. How fair is it that the 2’ square has four times the money that the 1’ square has? Politicians may pass tax and social insurance laws to take some of that money from the 2’ square and give it to the 1’ square.  The redistribution of income and wealth can’t change the fundamental characteristics of a power law distribution. Despite the political rhetoric, solutions are bound to be temporary.

The income figures most cited are for households but this data has only been collected since the mid- 1980s. A fall in real median income usually precedes a recession except for the latest fall in 2014 when oil prices began to slide.

RealMedHHInc

Let’s turn to the data for family household income that has been collected since the mid-1950s. What is the difference between a household and a family? By the Census Bureau definition, a family household consists of at least one person who is related to the householder by blood, marriage or adoption. A fall in family income has preceded every recession except a mild one in the 1960s. Family incomes rose very slightly just before that recession, due in part to a new optimism about the presidency of JFK and the promise of tax cuts.

RealMedinc

Because this family income data is released annually at mid-year, this indicator is usually coincident with the start of a recession. However, it has proven quite reliable in marking the start of recessions.

Non-family households are not related. This includes roommates or a childless couple living together but not married. Non-family households are generally younger and their income is less than the income of family households. Over the past three decades, the ratio of the incomes of all households to family households has declined.

RealMedHHIncVsFamilyInc

Although younger people are experiencing slower growth in incomes, they will face increasing pressure to meet the demands of older generations expecting social insurance benefits like Social Security and Medicare. As the oldest Americans begin living in nursing homes in increasing numbers, they are expected to put an ever-growing burden on the Medicaid system (CMS report).  It is the Medicaid system, not Medicare, which covers nursing home costs for seniors after they have depleted their resources. Although the number of nursing homes and certified nursing home beds have declined slightly in the past decade (CMS Report page 21), Medicaid spending still increased a whopping 10% in 2015 as enrollment expanded under Obamacare.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has said that many states are expecting an increase in Medicaid spending on nursing home care as the first of the large Boomer generation turns 75 at the beginning of the next decade. CMS expects total health spending to increase 5.6% per year for the next decade. The last time we had nominal GDP growth that high was in 2006, at the peak of the housing boom.

The demands of both low income families and seniors on the Medicaid system will strain both federal and state budgets.  The federal government can borrow money at will; states are constitutionally prevented from doing so.

What will drive the high growth needed to sustain the promises of the future?  New business starts are at an all-time low (CNN money). How did we get here? The financial crisis caused the failure of many small businesses, many of which are funded with a home equity loan by an entrepreneur.  Home equity loans are down 33% from their peak in early 2009. At the end of last year, the Case-Shiller home price index finally regained the value it had in 2006. In the past decade there has been no home equity growth to tap into.

CaseShillerHPI201708

Imagine a couple in their late 30s or early 40s who bought a home 10 to 15 years ago. They may have only recently recovered the value of their home when they bought it. One or both may long to start a new venture but how likely are they to take a chance? In some of the bigger metro areas where home prices grew much stronger during the boom, prices are still below their peak ten years ago.

CaseShiller20City201708

The market has priced in a tax cut package that will lower corporate taxes. Investors are expecting a third or more of those extra profits in dividends. Investors are expecting a compromise that will enable companies like Apple to “repatriate” their foreign profits to the U.S. and for that money to be used to buy back stock or pay down debt, both of which are positive for stocks. The IMF projects 3.6% global GDP growth in 2018. There’s good cause for optimism.

Investors have not priced in the long term effects of this year’s hurricanes, the volatility of commodities, the future risk of conflict with North Korea, the risk that the debt bubble in China, particularly in real estate, could escape the careful management by the Chinese government. Add in the several fault lines in household finances that the Federal Reserve survey reveals and there is good cause to season our optimism with caution.

Individual investors surveyed by AAII are cautiously optimistic, a healthy sign, but the sentiment of actual trading by both individuals and professionals shows extreme optimism, a negative sign.  The VIX – a measure of volatility – just hit a 24-year low this past week, lower than the low readings of early 2007.  Sure, there was some froth in the housing market, investors reasoned at that time, but nothing that was really a problem.

Then, oopsy-boopsy, and stocks began a two year slide. So, don’t run with joy, Roy. Don’t go for bust, Gus. Pocket your glee, Lee. Stick with your plan, Stan. There are at least “50 Ways To Leave Your Money,”  and one of them is investing as though the future is predictable.

 

The Gravy Train

October 1, 2017

In the newly published “The High Cost of Good Intentions” author John Cogan relates a 230-year history of Federal entitlements, beginning with veterans’ pensions after the Revolutionary War. For 150 years the expansion of veterans’ benefits was prompted by budget surpluses brought on by high import tariffs. Each was targeted to a small number of soldiers who had died or become wounded during a war. Each program expanded into giant giveaways to any soldier or state militiaman and their wives.

Republicans expanded Civil War pensions to secure control of federal and state legislatures at the turn of the 20th century. Twenty years later, FDR and the Democratic Party used the same strategy of benefits to wrest control from Republicans.  First, the old system of service for benefits had to be curtailed. Like previous pension programs, benefits for WW1 veterans had been extended to those with non-service disabilities. Immediately after assuming office in 1933, FDR persuaded Congress to give him emergency authorization to alleviate the financial crisis. FDR eliminated almost a half-million veterans with non-service disabilities from the pension rolls and reduced pensions across the board. For the rest of the decade Congress tried to reinstate veteran’s benefits over the Presidential veto.

In 1934, the administration launched the New Deal, a series of programs to alleviate Depression-era hunger and unemployment. For 150 years, military service had been the prerequisite for federal benefits. Under FDR need, not service, became the primary requirement. An act of compassion quickly became a political tool that secured Democratic control at both the federal and state levels. Under the newly introduced Social Security program, a small amount of tax paid during the working years now entitled an older voter to federal pension benefits. No military service required.

For eighty years, benefit programs have become a political football. Two-thirds of the ten legislative increases to the Social Security program have occurred in election years. Today the total cost of entitlements is 60% of the $4.2 trillion in Federal spending.

If asked to list the federal entitlement programs, how many could we name? In addition to veteran’s benefits for service to the country, there are:
Income replacement programs like Social Security retirement and disability;
Income supplemental programs for poor families, such as the earned income tax credit (EITC), unemployment insurance, SSI and TANF;
Health insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and the ACA’s health insurance subsidies;
Food assistance and price support programs like food stamps (SNAP) and child nutrition (WIC);
Business and individual loan guarantees and subsidized insurance programs including Sallie Mae education loans, FHA mortgage programs, and flood insurance subsidies.
This list does not include the many tax subsidies handed out by Congress.

I found that I could open this book at random and be both informed and entertained. Mr. Cogan combines an engaging narrative style and extensive research to construct an epic story of human need and greed, and the politics of pork.

I’ll turn to another book, “The Framer’s Coup” by Michael J. Klarman for some related backstory. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, anti-Federalists objected to the “general welfare” clause of the proposed Constitution. What was to stop the Federal government from becoming a charity funded by taxes, they asked?

Nonsense, Constitutional delegates James Madison and Edmund Randolph countered, pointing to the enumerated powers in the Constitution as a restraint on the Federal government. Just as the anti-Federalists feared, the Court has long adopted a liberal interpretation of the Federal government’s enumerated powers. In the 1819 case of McCullough v. Maryland, Chief Justice Marshall set a precedent that the Congress could enact legislation that was “convenient or useful” to the exercise of its enumerated powers.  After that decision, then ex-President Madison admitted that if the Constitution had clearly stated the signers’ intention to firmly restrict the power of the Federal government, the Constitution would not have been ratified.

Turn the dial forward to the present. In the expansion of the welfare state during the 20th and 21st centuries, the Supreme Court has never found that the Federal government has exceeded its enumerated Constitutional powers. The most recent example was the Court’s finding that, under the enumerated power of taxation, the federal government could force people to buy health insurance under the ACA program.

The liberal interpretation of those two clauses – “convenient or useful” and “general welfare” – has unleashed the Federal government, whose agencies have become an omnipresent force in every American’s life. Each month, politicians in Washington take tax money from one set of voters and give benefits to another cohort of voters. Everyone  who receives benefits convinces themselves that they have paid into the system in some way. When it comes to tax money, it has always been better to receive than to give.

As the benefits to the receivers slowly exceed the taxes from the givers, there will be a crisis, and then some urgent half-baked legislative fix will be passed. I wish there was a better way.  Oh wait, I forgot.  There is a better way.  Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, introduced the plan last year. Now that Republicans control the Presidency, Senate and House, they will fix the problem and avert a looming crisis of entitlements.  Silly me.  I can focus on the baseball finals now and stop worrying.

An Interest-ing Debt

February 12, 2017

Republicans used to talk about the country’s debt load but such talk is so inconvenient now that they control the House, Senate and Presidency. Perhaps it was never more than a political ploy, a rhetorical fencing. Now there is talk of tax cuts and more defense spending, and a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure spending bill. 48 states have submitted a list of over 900 “shovel-ready” projects.

House Speaker Paul Ryan used to be concerned about the country’s debt. Perhaps he has been reading that deficits don’t matter in Paul Krugman’s N.Y. Times op-ed column. For those of us burdened with common sense, debts of all kinds – even those of a strong sovereign government like the U.S. – do matter. The publicly held debt of the U.S. is now more than the country’s GDP.

debt2016q3

In 2016, the Federal interest expense on the $20 trillion publicly held debt was $432 billion, an imputed interest rate of 2.1%. Central banks in the developed world have kept interest rates low, but even that artificially low amount represents 11% of total federal spending. (Treasury)  It represents almost all the money spent on Medicaid, and more than 6 times the cost of the food stamp program. (SNAP)

The latest projection from the CBO estimates that the interest expense will double in eight years, an annual increase of about 9%. The “cut spending” crowd in Washington will face off against the “raise taxes” faction at a time when a growing number of seniors are retiring and wanting the Social Security checks they have paid toward during their working years.

In the past twenty years the big shifts in federal spending as a percent of GDP are Social Security and the health care programs Medicare and Medicaid. These are not projections but historical data; a shift that the CBO anticipates will accelerate as the Boomer generation enters their senior years. Ten years ago, 6700 (see end of section)  people were reaching 65 each day. This year, over 9800 (originally 11,000, which is a projection for the year 2026) per day will cross that age threshold.

cbospendcomp1996-2016
CBO Source

A graph of annual deficits and federal revenue shows the parallel paths that each take. The trend of the past two years is down, promising to accelerate the accumulation of debt.

fedreceiptsdeficit1998-2016

More borrowing and higher interest expense each year will crowd out discretionary spending programs or force the scaling back of benefits under mandatory programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. President Trump can promise but it is up to Congress to do the hard shoveling.  They will have to bury the bodies of some special interests in order to get some reform done.

[And now for a bit of cheer.  Insert kitten video here.]

We already collect the 4th highest revenue in income taxes as a percent of GDP. Canada and Italy head the list at 14.5%.
South Africa 13.9%,
U.S. 12.0%,
Germany 11.3,
and France 10.9 all collect more than 10%. (WSJ) Those who already pay a high percentage in income taxes will lobby for a VAT tax to increase revenues. Income taxes are progressive and impact higher income households to a greater degree. Poorer households are more affected by a VAT tax.  Cue up more debate on what is a  “fair share.” Many European countries have a VAT tax and the list of exclusions to the tax are bitterly debated.

Adding even more social and financial pressure is the lower than projected returns earned by major pension funds like CALPERS. For decades, the funds assumed an 8% annual return to pay retirees benefits in the future. In the past ten years many have made 6% or less. Several years ago, CALPERS lowered the expected return to 7.5% and has recently announced that they will be gradually lowering that figure to 7%.

Each percentage point lower return equals more money that must be taken from state and local taxes and put into the pension fund to make up the difference. Afraid to call for higher taxes and lose their jobs, local politicians employ some creative accounting to avoid the expense of properly funding the pension obligations. In a 2010 report, Pew Charitable Trust analyzed the underfunding of many public pension funds like CALPERS and found a $1 trillion gap as of 2008. (Pew Report) The slow but steady recovery since then may have helped annual returns but the inevitable crisis is coming.

In December 2009, I first noted a Financial Times Future of Finance article which quoted Raymond Baer, chairman of Swiss private bank Julius Baer. He warned: “The world is creating the final big bubble. In five years’ time, we will pay the true price of this crisis.”
That warning is two years overdue. Sure hope he’s wrong but … here’s the global government debt clock. The total is approaching $70 trillion, $20 trillion of which belongs to the U.S.  We have less than 5% of the world’s population and almost 30% of the world’s government debt.  As Homer Simpson would exclaim, “Doh!”

Correction:  Posted figure for 10 years ago was originally 9000.  Current figure was originally posted at 11,000.  Projected for the year 2026 is 11,000.)

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Market Valuation

Comments by President Trump indicating a “sooner than later” schedule for tax cuts helped lift the stock market by 1% for the week. The Shiller CAPE ratio currently stands at 28.7, just shy of the 30 reading on Black Tuesday 1929. (Graph) Since the average of this ratio is about 16, earnings have some catching up to do. Today’s reading is still a bargain compared to the 44 ratio at the height of the dot com boom. Still, the current ratio is the third highest valuation in the past century.

The Shiller Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings (CAPE) ratio
1) averages the past ten years of inflation adjusted earnings, then
2) divides that figure into the current price of the SP500 to
3) get a P/E ratio that is a broader time sample than the conventional P/E ratio based on the last 12 months of earnings.

The prices of long-dated Treasury bonds usually move opposite to the SP500.  In the month after the election, stocks rose and bond prices went lower.  Since mid-December an ETF composite of long-dated Treasury bonds (TLT) has risen slightly.  A number of investors are wary of the expectations that underlie current stock valuations.

The casual investor might be tempted to chase those expectations.  The more prudent course is to stick with an allocation of various investments that manages the risk appropriate for one’s circumstances and goals.

 

Inauguration 2017

January 22, 2017

Mr. Trump’s inauguration marks the first time in almost a hundred years that a business person assumes the highest political position in the country.  His cabinet choices share that same characteristic. There will be an inevitable clash of cultures.  Many civil servants are lifers, drawn to the generous benefits of government service, and the stability of employment.  Some may be drawn to the work because it gives them a sense of self-worth.

Many have little experience in private industry and distrust the motives of business owners.  Former President Obama was one of these.  An inspirational figure to some, his antipathy to business interests of all sizes antagonized political foes who challenged him for most of his two terms.

Mr. Trump has a similar weakness – his antipathy to and unfamiliarity with the insular culture of civil servants who work in a massive bureaucracy characterized by a thicket of rules and a lack of transparency.

Work in the private sector is characterized by competition, a striving for efficiency, the changing winds of people’s preferences, and the quality of the services and products we provide.  Employment in the public sector requires patience with burdensome procedure, a tolerance of a heirarchy of both the competent and the undeserving, and a willingness to work in a system that relies less on merit and more on seniority.

What will happen when these two diametrically opposed cultures mix?  Stay tuned.

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Obamacare Kaput?

Since FDR began the custom, Presidents have signed executive orders on their first day in office to signify that they are on the job for that portion of the American electorate that put them in office.  One of the highlights of Mr. Trump’s campaign was the repeal of Obamacare.  Shortly after his inauguration President Trump signed an order stating his intention to repeal the ACA.  The order freezes any further promulgation of rules and regulations pertaining to the act.   I thought it would be appropriate to republish a blog I wrote in April 2011, a year before the Supreme Court ruled that most of the ACA was constitutional.  Like Social Security, ACA premiums and penalties were a tax.

The problems of providing health care and the insuring of that care have not gone away: rising costs, more sophisticated and expensive therapies, more demand for care from an aging population.  The problem is a knotty one:  how to distribute health care costs.  We all benefit from the availability of medical resources, yet these resources are very expensive.  The 24 hour care and equipment that stays idle in an urban hospital must be paid for with funds from other parts of the health care system.

It might surprise readers that more than 50% of the $3.5 trillion in Federal outlays is for Social Security benefits ($930B), Medicare ($600B) and Medicaid and Community health programs ($500B).  Eighty years ago, FDR initiated a new role for the Federal Government: an economic support system. To do that, FDR had to threaten and cajole a Supreme Court reluctant to stretch the meanings of several clauses in the Constitution.

Even FDR would be appalled to learn that the Federal Government has become an insurance company whose chief function is the collection of insurance premiums through taxes in order to pay insurance claims in the form of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid Benefits.

Readers who would like to read more on a pie chart breakdown of government spending can visit the Kaiser Family Foundation’s fact sheet. Dollar amounts are from the latest White House budget.

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MM Bash

I’m about to bash criticize some of the reporting in mainstream media (MM) publications, whose budgets rely on viewership.  When that audience was more predictable, flagship publications like the NY Times, Washington Post and Wall St. Journal could wait to verify facts before running a story.  In the current 24 hours news cycle and the rush to print, fact checking sometimes comes after the story is published online – if at all.

MM channels rested on their decades old reputations for thorough journalism and were willing to cut off at the knees any reporter compromising that reputation.  More than a decade ago, Dan Rather lost his anchor job with CBS for running with a story about George Bush that had not been properly vetted. News (fact-checked) and opinion (not checked) were clearly defined when they were in separate sections of the newspaper. In this new age when most information is delivered digitally, we are quoting blogs or other opinions that are not fact checked as reputable news sources without verifying the information.

A lie travels around the world by the time the truth gets its boots on. Something like  that.  In today’s lightning fast world of information flow, an apocalyptic news item that can move markets can be tweeted, webbed, facebooked, and retweeted.  “China fires on U.S. destroyer in South China sea!”  “N. Korean missle hits Alaska!” Sell, sell, sell, buy, buy, buy signals can flash instantly to world markets.

Later, it’s no, China didn’t fire on a U.S. destroyer.  China said it would fire if fired on by a U.S. vessel in the S. China Sea.  No, the North Koreans didn’t actually fire a missle.  Instead they said that they had a missle that could fire a nuclear payload on Alaska.  They’ve been saying that for several years.  Most defense analysts remain skeptical.  Oops, nevermind stock and bond markets.

We can not prevent this, nor can we hide our savings under a mattress.  We can prepare by making sure that we have some emergency funds in place.  Most financial advisors recommend six months replacement income.  Only after those funds are in place should we consider that boat we want on Craigslist or the down payment on that house we want to flip.  Don’t just plan to have a plan.  Have a plan.

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Household Net Worth Ratio

The zero interest rates for the past eight years are not natural and have created distortions in business and residential investment as well as stock market valuations. Let’s look at the residential side of the picture.  Below is a sixty year chart of the percentage of household net worth to disposable income.

The majority of the net worth of households is in their home.  The value of stocks and bonds comes second.  One or both of the two factors in that ratio is mispriced.  Perhaps disposable income has not grown to match the growth in asset valuations.  When reality doesn’t match predictions for a time, assets reprice.

What affects the pricing of these assets? The stock market rises on the prospect of sales and profit growth.   Salaries and wages rise as businesses compete for workers in a faster growing marketplace.  Disposable income rises.  Home prices rise on the prospect that more workers can afford to buy a home.

Now, what happens when disposable incomes, the divisor or bottom number in this ratio, don’t rise as much as predicted?  Yep, the ratio goes up, just as it did in 1999-2000 and 2006-2008, the peaks in the graph.

Financial Obligations

February 22, 2015

Consumer Debt

On the one hand, the economy continues to grow steadily and moderately.  Sales of cars and light trucks are strong.

Housing Starts of new homes are slow.  While homebuilders remain confident, there is a noticeable decrease in traffic from first time home buyers.

The debt levels of American households have not reached the nosebleed levels of 2007 before the onset of the financial crisis.  However, they are more than a third higher than 2005 debt levels.

Historically low interest rates have enabled families to leverage their monthly payments into higher debt.  As a percent of disposable income, monthly morgage, credit card and loan payments are the lowest they have ever been since the Federal Reserve started tracking this in 1980. As long as the labor market grows at a moderate pace and interest rates remain low, families are unlikely to default on these higher debt loads.

In addition to household debt, the Federal Reserve includes other obligations – auto leases, rent payments, property taxes and insurance – to arrive at a total Financial Obligations Ratio (FOR), currently about 15%. (Explanation here)  The highest recorded FOR was 18% in 2007. The amount of income devoted to servicing the total of these obligations – 15.28% –  is near historic lows.  (Historical table ) In the past, when this rato has climbed above 17% there has been a recession, a stock market crash, or both.

So there are three components of a family’s monthly obligations: mortgage payments – currently less than 5%; credit card and loans, currently 5.25%; and other obligations, also about 5.25%.  Should interest rates rise in the next two years, credit card and loan payments will rise above the current 5.25% but are unlikely to cause a crisis in household finances.  The percentage of home mortgages which are adjustable have been rising in the past few years but the growing number of these mortgages have been so-called jumbo loans to households with larger incomes. (Daily News  and Wall St. Journal ).  Rising rates will put increasing pressure on homeowners with these types of mortgages but are unlikely to generate a crisis similar to 2008.

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Currency Market

When someone says the dollar is strong, what does that mean?  Investopedia has a fairly concise explanation of the foreign exchange market (Forex) and the history of attempts to structure this market, the largest in the world.

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Medicare Spending

Costs for Medicare and private insurance have grown at annual rates more than double inflation since 1969, as shown in a 2014 analysis of 35 years of Medicare (CMS) data by the Kaiser Family Foundation.  The only good news is that Medicare annual growth has been 2% less than private plans.

The majority of the benefits go to a small group of patients.  “Medicare spending per beneficiary is highly skewed, with the top 10% of beneficiaries in traditional Medicare accounting for 57% of total Medicare spending in 2009—on a per capita basis, more than five times greater than the average across all beneficiaries in traditional Medicare ($55,763 vs. $9,702).”

In its 2013 annual report (highlights) CMS noted that Medicare spending for the past five years had grown at a relatively tame 4% or less – almost double the inflation rate.  This is what passes for good news in federal programs – spending that is only slightly out of control.  Medicaid costs are growing at 6% per year.  Congress and CMS know that they have got to improve spending controls but the players in the health care industry spend a lot of money in Washington so elected and non-elected officials tread carefully when proposing any reforms.

Last month, Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that, by 2018, they would like to make half of Medicare payments to doctors based on the quality of care they provide, not the number of procedures they do.  Under the ACA, 20% of Medicare payments are based on outcomes, not fee for service.  Although HHS says it has saved $700 million over the past two years, few provider organizations meet the guidelines to share in the savings as originally designed.

When Medicare Advantage programs were introduced in 2003, Congress approved additional subsidies to health care providers to reimburse providers for promoting the new plans.  Like all “temporary” subsidies, no one wants to give them up. Because of the subsidies, the plans are relatively low cost and provide a good benefit for the dollar.  Uwe E. Reinhardt, a Princeton professor writing in the NY Times economics blog, referred to a 2010 report on the cost of the popular Medicare Advantage (MA) program: “In 2009, Medicare spent roughly $14 billion more for the beneficiaries enrolled in MA plans than it would have spent if they had stayed in FFS [Fee For Service, or regular] Medicare. To support the extra spending, Part B premiums were higher for all Medicare beneficiaries (including those in FFS).”

As the population ages, Medicare will consume an ever larger percentage of total health care spending.  CMS noted that Medicare’s portion of health care spending in 2013 has been relatively steady over the past few years. A pie chart from 2009 spending illustrates the cost breakdown.  In 2013, we spent 17.4% of GDP on health care, a figure that has remained stable for a few years.  In 2001, the U.S. spent a shocking (at the time) 13.7% of GDP on health care (CMS Source).