Personal Debt

April 15, 2018

by Steve Stofka

Until the financial crisis, I thought that other people’s debt was their problem. In 2008, debt became a nation’s problem and a national conversation with two aspects – the moral and the practical. Moral conversations are not confined to church; they drive our politics and policy. Many laws contain some language to contain moral hazard, which is the danger that language loopholes in a law or policy promote the opposite of the intended effect of the law. This is particularly true of many entitlement policies. Let’s leave the moral conversation for another day and turn to the practical aspects of current policy.

Bankers learned their lesson during the financial crisis, didn’t they? Maybe not. A decade of absurdly low interest rates has starved those who depend on the income earned by owning debt. Even a savings account is money loaned to a bank, a debt that the bank must pay to the account holder. In their hunger for income, investors have turned to less prudent debt products. So long as the economy remains strong, no worries.

A fifth of conventional mortgages are going to people whose total debt load, including the mortgage, is more than 45% of their pre-tax income. By comparison, at the market’s exuberant peak in late 2007, 35% of conventional mortgages were going to such households, who were especially vulnerable when monthly job gains turned negative in early 2008.

The real estate analytics firm Core Logic also reports that Fannie Mae has started backing mortgages to those with total debt loads up to 50%. FICA, federal, state and local income taxes can amount to 25% of a paycheck (Princeton Study). Add in 45% of that gross pay for mortgage and debt payments, and there is only 30% left for food, gas, home repairs and utilities, child care, etc.

I’ll convert these percentages to dollars to illustrate the point. A couple grossing $80,000 might have a take home pay of $60,000. The couple has $36,000 in mortgage and other debt payments (45% of $80,000). They have $24,000, or $2000 a month for everything else. This couple is vulnerable to a change in their circumstances: a layoff or a cut back in hours, some unexpected expense or injury.

For those who get a conventional loan despite their heavy debt load, where is the money coming from? Banks suffered huge losses during the financial crisis. The Federal Reserve tightened capital requirements for banks’ loan portfolios, forcing them to improve the overall quality of their debt. As a result, banks turned away from their most lucrative customers – subprime borrowers and those with heavy debt loads who must pay higher interest on their loans. Profits in the financial industry fell dramatically. A broad composite of financial stocks (XLF) has still not regained the price levels of 2007.

The banking industry employs some very smart people. What solution did they create? The big banks now loan money to non-financial companies who loan the money to subprime borrowers. After bundling the consumer loans into securities, the non-financial companies use the proceeds to pay the big banks back. In seven years this kind of borrowing has expanded seven times to $350 billion. Doesn’t this look like the kind of behavior that almost took down the financial system in 2008? The banks say that this system isolates them from exposure to subprime borrowers. If large scale job losses cause a lot of loan defaults, it is the investors who will bear the pain, not the banks. Same song, different lyrics.

The 2008 financial crisis is best summed up with a chart from the Federal Reserve. In the post WW2 economy, the weekly earnings of British workers rose steadily. The growth is especially strong when compared to the earlier decades of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2008, earnings peaked.
WeeklyEarnUK

Developed countries depend on the steady growth of tax receipts generated by weekly earnings. An assumption of 3% real GDP growth underlies the health and continuation of post-war social welfare policies. For more than a decade, the U.S. and U.K. have had less than 2% GDP growth.  Both governments have had to borrow heavily to fund their social support programs.  How long can they increase their debt at such a rapid pace?

I am reminded of a time more than 40 years ago when New York City held a regularly scheduled auction to sell  bonds to fund their already swollen debt load.  None of the banks showed up to bid for the bonds.  The city is the financial center of the world.  The lack of interest stunned city officials.  To avoid a messy bankruptcy, the city turned to the Federal government for a loan (NY Times).

The Federal government is not a city or state, of course. It has extraordinary legal and monetary power, and its bonds are a safe haven around the world.  But there could come a time when investors demand higher interest for those bonds and the rising annual interest on the debt squeezes spending on other domestic programs.

Debt causes stress.  Stress causes anxiety.  Anxiety weakens confidence in the future and causes investment to shrink. Falling investment leads to slower job growth. That causes profits and weekly earnings to fall which reduces tax receipts to the government.  That increases debt further, and the cycle continues.  Other people’s debt is everyone’s problem after all.

Sacred Cow

October 22, 2017

Moo. One of the sacred cows of tax law has been the mortgage interest deduction. There is talk that the proposed Tax Reform law will erase this deduction. Who benefits from the deduction? Before I look at that, here’s some groundwork.

Two months ago the IRS released aggregated income tax data for 2015. Pew Research analyzed the data and produced this  chart of who pays how much in individual income taxes.   I took the liberty of marking up  their chart.

TaxAnalysis2015Pew

The Tax Reform bill that is being tortured to death in the back rooms of Congress proposes to double the standard deduction, making the first $50K that a couple earns tax-free. About 50% of tax returns will pay little or no federal income tax. That leaves the other half to pick up the tab for the 5% of taxes paid by the lower half of incomes. 1% of tax returns paid 40% of taxes in 2015 and they will argue that they are already paying their fair share.

As the Congress tries to craft a Tax Reform bill, one of the hot button topics is the mortgage interest deduction. According to IRS analysis of 2015 tax data, 33 million returns, about 20% of total returns, took the mortgage interest deduction totaling $304 billion, averaging over $9000, or $770 a month. The annual cost to the Treasury is about $70 billion in taxes not paid.

The bulk of this tax giveaway goes to wealthy families, but the program is popular among middle class families in expensive housing markets, particularly on the east and west coasts. The Tax Reform package proposes to double the standard deduction.  For many married couples, this would exclude another $25K of their income. This $25K is far more than the $9K average mortgage interest deduction.  However, there will be about 8 million returns, mostly wealthier Americans, who will pay more.  Those 8 million will certainly raise a campaign of alarm and outrage as they try to convince the vast majority of Americans that this reform is so un-American. Those in the real estate sector will claim that this will cripple a recovering homebuilding sector and prevent many American families from owning a home.  It won’t.  Each sector of the economy wants to preserve their tax carve outs because their business model has come to depend on it.

Notice that the analysis included effective, not marginal, tax rates. What is the difference? The effective rate is the net tax divided by adjusted gross income. It is the average tax paid for all the income received. For those who use tax preparation software, the program calculates the effective rate and prints it out on the summary page.

The marginal rate is the highest tax rate paid on the last dollar. When we hear someone complain that they are in the 33% tax bracket, for example, we think that the person pays 33% on all their income. They don’t. A two-earner family making $130K, filing jointly, two deductions, would be in the 25% bracket in 2017, but their effective tax rate is 12.89%, almost half of the marginal rate. (Dinky Town calculator)

Why is this important? Let’s return to the difference between effective and marginal tax rates. Let’s say our hypothetical couple making $130K wants to buy a new house for $300K. After $60K down, they will pay about $7800 per year in interest for the first 20 years of a 30-year mortgage (Zillow mortgage calculator). What they tell themselves is that they are “saving” over $160 per month, almost $2000 per year, because they are in the 25% tax bracket.

What is the fallacy? The couple assumes that the first dollars they earn buy the groceries, buy clothes for the kids, or make the car payment. It’s the last money earned, the money that is taxed at a 25% rate, that they will use to pay the mortgage. It’s sounds silly, but it’s effectively what we do when we use the marginal rate to analyze costs. Real estate salespeople sometimes use this technique to upsell a couple into a more expensive house, one that earns the salesperson a higher commission. If our couple uses the effective tax rate of less than 13%, the savings on that monthly mortgage payment is only $83. Many financial decisions are made “at the margin” but this is not one of them.

Also on the cutting board is a reduction in the amount of pre-tax contributions a person can make to a 401K retirement program.  Higher income earners would be trading in that tax break for lower tax rates, but the finance industry is sure to balk.  They make billions of dollars in administrative and trading fees for these retirement programs. In addition to the taxpayers who receive the benefits directly, tax breaks have protectors who benefit indirectly from the break. Together, this minority fights for their interests.

Soon after the last tax reform was passed in 1986, members of Congress began adding tax exclusions. Republicans may be able to pass a reform bill under a Budget Reconciliation rule in the Senate, which requires only a 50-vote threshold. Their slim majority in the Senate and a lack of cooperation from Democrats means that passage of a reform bill is vulnerable to just a few Republican defections. This is how health care repeal or reform was defeated earlier.  It can happen again.

Vulnerable

September 3, 2017

Hurricane Harvey invaded the lives, homes and businesses of so many people in Houston and the surrounding area of southeast Texas. People around the world watched the plight of so many who were caught in the rising waters. I was cheered by the dedication of first responders, by those who came from near and far to help with their boats, with food and clothing. I have never been in a flood. Some of those interviewed had been in several. Why do they stay there, I wondered? The answer is some or all of these: their family, their church, their job, their school, their culture.

Watching so many vulnerable people reminded me of my own. If given a few minutes to leave my house, what would I put in a garbage bag? In the urgency and stress of the moment so many people in Houston forgot their medications.  My list: Pets, papers, clothes, medications. Food? Will the shelter have food? Pet food, as well? Where are we going? Oops, what about a phone charger? And the laptop. What about the list with all the passwords? That too. What about the photos in the closet? I was going to get those scanned in and uploaded. No time now. Take a few of the smaller framed photos on the shelf in the living room. Out of time. Gotta go. All the questions that must have been bouncing around inside the heads of those forced to evacuate as the brown water took possession of their house.

If I don’t call it Climate Change, I could call it Flood Frequency, or Flood Freak for short. Here is a chart showing the increased frequency of flooding during the past century. This was from an article in the WSJ (paywall).

FloodFrequency
This week’s theme – vulnerability. The signs of it and what we can do to lessen it. Debt is a vulnerability. For the past three years, households have been increasing their debt load in mortgages, auto and student loans. Here’s a breakdown of household debt from the NY Fed. (As a side note, this report gives a breakdown of the different types of debt by credit score. For example, the median credit score for an auto loan is about 700).

DebtBalance2016.png
Mortgage debt is more than 2/3rds of total debt. Despite the rise in home prices, more than 5 million homes, or 7%, are still badly “under water.” (Consumer Affairs)

Credit card debt has stayed stable for the past thirteen years. Households are only using 10% of their after-tax income to service their debt.

DebtService2016

Despite low interest rates, households are continuing to deleverage, to decrease their vulnerability. The ratio of household debt – the total of that debt, not the payments – to income climbed above 2.5 in late 2007. It has fallen below 2.2 but is still high. We are still up to our eyeballs in debt.

HouseholdDebtIncomeRatio

Debt reduction will curb economic growth for the near future. According to several cabinet members, Trump is focused on GDP growth in discussions about trade policy, defense policy, infrastructure spending, and the regulatory environment. How does this or that policy get us to 3% growth? he asks.

2/3rds of the nation’s economy is based on the public willingness to spend money. Jobs helps. Higher wage growth helps. Low interest rates help. But without the willingness to take on more debt relative to income, policymakers may feel like they are trying to goad a stubborn mule to go faster. Tough to do.

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Unemployment

Continuing the theme of vulnerability.  As a percentage of the unemployed, the number of long-term unemployed remains stubbornly high at close to 25%.  I call them the 27ers because 27 weeks of unemployment is the cutoff that the BLS uses to determine whether someone is categorized as long term unemployed. 27 weeks or six months is a long time to be actively looking for work and not finding a job.  Eight years after the end of the recession, today’s percentage of 27ers is at the same level as the worst of most past recessions.

LTUnemploy

During any recession the number of long term unemployed climbs higher. When these past few recessions have ended, the number of 27ers doesn’t start to decline.  Instead, they continue to increase and reach a peak several months after the recession is officially over. In the last three recessions, the peaks came later than previous recessions.

UnemployLTPctCLF
This more vulnerable cohort in the labor force struggles to recover after a recession.  Manufacturing is the more volatile element in the business cycle.  As manufacturing has declined, recessions are less frequent. However, manufacturing used to put a lot of people back to work at the end of recessions.  In a recovery, the service sectors are not as quick to add jobs.

The structural shift in the labor force will continue to leave more workers and families vulnerable and needing help just as many older workers are claiming retirement benefits. More than half of voters, both Republican and Democrat, have received benefits from at least one of the six entitlement programs (Pew Research). Elected officials offer promises of future benefits in exchange for taxes, and votes, today. When circumstances force a clash of priorities and promises, Congress seems incapable of resolving the conflict. President Trump’s approval ratings are in the low thirties, but his popularity far exceeds the public’s dismal ratings of Congress.

In a crisis, Americans come together to help each other but why do we wait till there is a crisis? Have we always been a nation of drama queens?  Maybe that’s the American charm.

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).

Investment Allocation and Housing

December 1st, 2013

While cleaning up some old files, I found a 1999 “Getting Going” column by Jonathan Clemens in the Wall St. Journal.  That year was rather turbulent, rocked by Y2K fears that the year 2000 might play havoc with older computers still using a two digit date,  and a intensifying debate about the valuation of stocks.  Looking away from the hot internet IPOs of that year,  Clemens interviewed several professors about the comparatively mundane subject of home ownership.

 “A house is not a conservative investment,” says Chris Mayer, a real-estate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’sWharton School. “Any market where prices can fall 40% in three years is not a safe investment.” 

Remember, this is 1999.  At that time, what 40% decline is he talking about?  It would not be till 2009 or 2010 that house prices tumbled down the hill.  In the past, declines of this magnitude were confined to particular areas of the country where a fundamental shift  in the economy occurred.  The Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania, the Pueblo area of Colorado and the Detroit area of Michigan come to mind. In the first two examples the collapse of the steel industry had a profound effect on home prices as people moved to other areas to find work.  In case a homeowner thinks “it can’t happen here,” I’m sure many homeowners in Detroit felt the same way during the 1960s when the car industry was at its peak.

“William Reichenstein, an investments professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, suggests treating your mortgage as a negative position in bonds.”  

What does this mean?  Let’s say a person has $100K in stock mutual funds, $100K in bond mutual funds, owns a house valued at $200K with $100K still left on the mortgage.  Subtract the remaining balance of the mortgage from the amount in bonds and that leaves $0 invested in bonds.  Why do this?  When we buy a bond we are buying the debt of a company, or some government entity.  A mortgage is a debt we owe.  So, if a person were to pay off the mortgage, trading one debt for another, they would sell their bonds to pay off the mortgage.

Should the house be included in the investment mix?  There is some disagreement on this.  An investment portfolio should include only those assets which a person could access for some cash flow if there was a loss of income or some other need for cash.  An older couple with a 5 BR house who intend to downsize in five years might include a portion of the house in the portfolio mix.

For this example, let’s leave the house out of the investment portfolio to keep it simple. Using this analysis, this hypothetical person has 100% of their assets in stocks, not a 50/50 mix of stocks and bonds.

Now, let’s fast forward ten years from 1999 to 2009.  An index mutual fund of stocks has lost a bit more than 20%.

A long term bond fund has gained about 100%.

[The text below has been revised to reflect the above bond fund chart.  The original text presented numbers for a different bond fund.]

Let’s say the mortgage principal has been paid down $60K over those ten years.  Assuming that no new investments have been made in the ten year period, what is this person’s investment mix now?  The stock portion is worth $80K, the bonds $200K less $40K still owed on the mortgage for a total of $240K, with a net exposure in bonds of $160K.  The person now has 33% (80K / 240K) in stocks and 67% in bonds, a conservative mix.  If we didn’t account for the mortgage as a negative bond, the mix would appear to be 29% (80K / 280K) for stocks and 71% for bonds.  What is the net effect of treating a mortgage balance as a negative bond?  It reduces the appearance of safety in an investment portfolio.

Now let’s imagine that this person is going to retire and collect a monthly Social Security check of $1500.  To get a 15 year annuity paying that monthly amount with a 3% growth rate, a person would have to give an insurance company about $220K (Calculator)   There are a lot of annuity variations and riders but I’ll just keep this simple.  Throughout our working lives our Social Security taxes are essentially buying Treasury bonds that we start cashing out during retirement.

If we were to add $220K to our hypothetical investment mix,  we would have a total of $460K: $80K in stock mutual funds, $200K in bond funds, -$40K still owed on the mortgage, $220K effectively in Treasury bonds that we will withdraw as Social Security payments.  The $80K in stock mutual funds now represents only 17% of our investment portfolio, an extremely conservative risk stance.  If we have a private pension plan, the mix can get even more conservative.

The point of this article was that many people in their 50s and 60s may have too little exposure to stocks if they don’t account for mortgages, pensions and Social Security payments into their allocation calculations.

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In October 2005, the incoming Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, indicated to Congress that he did not think there was a bubble developing in the housing market. (Washington Post Source)

In September 2005 – a month before – the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a report on the rapid housing price increases of the past decade:

Between 1975 and 1995, real [that is, inflation adjusted] single-family house prices in the United States increased an average of 0.5 percent per year, or 10 percent over the course of two decades. By contrast, from 1995 to 2004, national real house prices grew 3.6 percent per year, a more than seven-fold increase in the annual rate of real appreciation, and totaling nearly 40 percent in one decade. In some individual cities, such as San Francisco and Boston, real home prices grew about 75 percent from 1995 to 2004, almost double the national average. 

Remember, these are real, or inflation adjusted prices.  Now it is easy, in hindsight, to go “ah-ha!” but it should be a lesson to us all that we can not possibly hope to consume all the information needed to mitigate risk.  There is just too much information.  A professional risk manager, Riccardo Rebonato, discusses common flaws in risk assessment in his book “Plight of the Fortune Tellers” (Amazon). Written before the financial crisis, the book is surprisingly prescient.  The ideas are accessible and there is little if any math.

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On Monday, the National Assn of Realtors released their pending home sales index. These are signed contracts on single family homes, condos, and townhomes. The index has declined for five months but is still slightly above normal (100) at 102.1.  At the height of the housing bubble, this index reached almost 130.  At the trough in 2010, the index was below 80.

This chart was clipped from a video by an economist at NAR (Click on the video link on the right side of the page).  The clear and simple explanation of trends in housing and interest rates is well worth five minutes of your time.  Sales of existing homes have surpassed 2007 levels and are growing.

Demographia surveys housing in m ajor markets around the world and rates their affordability.  Their 2012 report found that major markets in the U.S. are just at the upper range of affordable.  As Canada’s housing valuations have climbed, their affordability has declined and are now less affordable than the U.S.  Britain’s housing is in the severely unaffordable range.

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Next Friday comes the release of the monthly employment report.  I’ll also cover a few long term trends in manufacturing and construction employment that may surprise you.

Tidbits

It’s the beginning of the year and I am cleaning up – not the house, but my notes – scribbles of factoids which I, and maybe you will as well, find interesting.  Those of you who like graphs will be disappointed this week.  😦

In 2009, 55% of income in the S&P500 companies was generated overseas.

The Eurozone is set up very similar to the Senate in the U.S.  Despite being 30% of the Euro economy, Germany only has one vote. 

It will cost an estimated $175B for the payroll tax cut in 2012.

A rule of thumb that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) uses – 1/10% of GDP growth over 10 years = $300B in revenues over 10 years to the Federal Government.

One of the problems with the federal mortgage agencies FHA, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae is that they buy mortgages which originate in states where there is little or no regulation.  If people want a government agency buying mortgages, why don’t the various states institute such agencies?

A CNN article about doctors going broke:
http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/05/smallbusiness/doctors_broke/index.htm?iid=Popular

This year, 2011, the USDA estimates that for the first time, this country will produce more corn for fuel than for food.

In 2009, total lending by U.S. banks fell 7.4%, the steepest drop since 1942. As of March 15, 2010, approximately half of Obama’s $787 billion stimulus program had been distributed but the flow of federal money into the economy could not keep up with the $700 billion that banks pulled out of the economy in the 6 months from mid-September 2008 to mid-March 2009.

Small companies, those with fewer than 100 employees, accounted for 45% of net jobs created from 1992 through the end of 2007, according to Labor Dept data.

In the U.S., diabetes costs about $174 billion annually in medical costs and lost production In the U.S., according to the American Heart Association.  That is a little more than a 1% impact in a $15 trillion economy, or about 25% of the defense budget.

This past week, Standard and Poors downgraded the credit ratings of nine countries in the Eurozone.  In assessing sovereign credit, Moody’s, another leading credit ratings firm, uses a metric called “debt reversibility margin.”  This measures a government’s ability and willingness to get their debt level under control over the next five to seven years.  Generally, it is the ratio of interest payments on a country’s debt to their revenues with a “benefit of the doubt” margin of 1 – 4% based on the resilience of the country’s economy, its politics and tax policies  When this metric rises above 10%, Moody’s considers a downgrade to the country’s credit rating. 

In 2008 New York spent $16K per student, top in the nation.  It’s student-teacher ratio of 13.1 was the eighth lowest among the 50 states.  From 2000 to 2009, the state added 15,000 teachers as student enrollment fell by 121,000 students.

Global warming is the latest in a series of hoaxes on the American people.  Earlier scams include: smoking can kill you, lead in gasoline and paint is bad for children’s brains, chemical discharges in rivers and lakes are bad for your health, cholesterol is bad for your heart, smog is bad for your lungs, and acid rain is bad for trees and plants. In my lifetime, all of the above have been dismissed by critics at some point as scams on the American public.

In 2010, a USA Today analysis of data from the federal Office of Personnel Management showed that a federal worker makes 77% more than a private sector worker when benefits are included.

In 2010, the Boston Consulting Group issued its Global Wealth Report which found that the top 0.5% of households (those with $5 million or more) owned 21%, or $23 trillion, of global wealth, up from 19%.

A Goldman Sachs analysis of mortgage refinancing found that homeowners took out $358 billion in home equity loans in 2005, the most of any year.

J.P. Morgan Chase and two other banks now hold more than 33% of all U.S. deposits.

Based on 2007 data, the Energy Information Administration reported the various U.S. government subsidies per megawatt hour for the different sources for generating electric power.  Coal got $.44, natural gas received $.25, nuclear enery $1.59 and the whoppers were solar at $24.34 and wind at $23.37 per MWH.  Over the course of a year, at an average consumption of 10,000 KWH per year, a 100 homes will consume a MWH.  In 2010, Google used the equivalent of 260 million homes of electricity.

When enacted in 1916, the income tax affected only the top 2% of incomes.  With the popularity of beards and other creative facial hair statements among younger men, it might be time to resurrect an old Russian revenue raiser – a beard tax.

New York bills Medicaid about $2 million per year for each mentally disabled patient.  The governor is reviewing the state’s billing procedures.

How much do all the tax breaks – or tax expenditures – cost the federal government?  Health Insurance premiums not taxed – $659 billion, mortgage interest deduction – $484 billion, capital gains and dividends taxed at lower rates – $403 billion, pensions – $303 billion, earned income tax credit – $269 billion, charitable donations – $241 billion, state tax deductions – $237 billion, 401K plans – $212 billion, capital gains basis adjustment at death – $194 billion, social security benefits not taxed – $173 billion.  The total is over $3 trillion, or almost the entire federal budget.  If tax breaks were eliminated, the federal debt would be gone in 5 years.

Lending Latitudes

The horse latitudes often refer to a section of the Atlantic ocean where there was little wind for a period of time, causing sailing ships to get “stuck” in the middle of the ocean.  There are two winds that drive a developed economy like that in the U.S – the demand for loans and the willingness of banks to make those loans.

Every 3 months the Federal Reserve Board (FRB) interviews a number of bank loan officers on their lending practices, risk management of and demand for commercial, industrial, mortgage and consumer loans.  The latest October 2010 survey  shows small increases in demand for commercial and industrial loans.

In questions 11 and 12 of the survey, loan officers were asked about residential mortgages. Demand for prime mortgages remains relatively unchanged.  34 loan officers responded that they do not originate non-traditional mortgages like interest-only or no income verification.  There were so few responses to questions about sub-prime mortgages that the FRB did not list the results.  If you anticipate being in the market for a mortgage in the coming years, you can conclude that it will be difficult to find a non-traditional or sub-prime mortgage.

Loan officers surveyed saw little overall change in demand for home equity lines of credit but a quarter of them said that they had tightened slightly their lending standards for these types of loans and 12% said that they had lowered existing lines of credit.

Consumer credit was largely unchanged but there was a hopeful sign for businesses.  Over 25% of smaller banks reported that they had increased business credit card limits.  The signs were not so hopeful for those in commercial construction as 20% of officers reported that they had decreased lines of credit for their existing customers and half of respondents anticipate that their lending standards for commercial construction will remain tighter for the foreseeable future. 

For consumers and homeowners the future does not look rosy.  The survey includes a category called the “foreseeable future”, not just the next two years, when asking loan officers about their anticipated lending standards.  40% of loan officers anticipate tighter standards for residential construction and 34% foresee tighter standards for prime mortgage homeowners (62% for sub-prime holders) wanting to borrow money against the equity in their house. Over half of loan officers see the same tightening for credit card and other consumer loans. 

Big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s that depend on remodeling and construction dollars have seen a 10%+ increase in their stock prices the past month.  Given the current lending environment, it may be difficult for these companies to maintain the sales growth that justifies the expectations implied by such a dramatic stock price increase.  The reluctance to lend will continue to suppress growth in the consumer market which accounts for over 2/3 of this country’s GDP. 

Debt Mountain

There has been a big rally in corporate bonds in the past few months. Decreasing fears of defaults has sparked a huge inflow of money into these bonds. The U.S. corporate bond market is large, with $9.8 trillion in outstanding debt – 1.5 times the amount of outstanding Treasuries, or about 70% of the nation’s GDP.

According to Federal Reserve data, the U.S. mortgage market is even bigger – $14.7 trillion at the end of 2008, of which $8.2 trillion is securitized. The three government agencies Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae now back 90% of mortgages.

Financial Regulation

In 1966, Congress passed the Fair Packaging and Labelling Act, which required manufacturers of retail products to list the contents and weights of their products. The food industry fought hard against it. Breakfast cereal makers were accustomed to packing their cereal in big boxes to trick the consumer into thinking that they were getting more product.

In 1969, Congress tried to pass a law mandating unit pricing but the food industry lobbied hard against it and the bill died in the Senate. The reasoning was that consumers could figure out the unit price or the price per ounce of a product by themselves or bring recently introduced battery powered calculators with them when they went shopping. In 1970, some grocery stores began to offer unit pricing as a convenience feature to lure customers. Unit pricing in grocery stores is now commonplace.

Many years ago there was one mortgage product, a 30 year fixed loan, making it fairly easy to compare mortgages. Because easy comparison by a customer is not always good for the seller, mortgage companies competed by introducing a complexity of “points”, closing fees and prepayment penalty packages to distinguish their mortgage product from their competitors.

The 15 year mortgage arose a few decades ago, followed by a variety of mortgage products. This profusion of choices can be a boon to a consumer but it can also be confusing. This variety and confusion is an effective sales tool, making it more difficult for a customer to compare products and prices.

Just as the food industry fought packaging regulations, the financial industry will fight similar regulations on their products. Under proposed financial regulations, teaser rates of “0% interest for 6 months” will have to be followed by plain English of what that teaser rate will reset to in six months. No longer will credit card companies be able to bury the truth in impossibly small print referencing the greater of the LIBOR rate (what’s that?, you ask) or the Federal Reserve discount rate (what’s that?, you ask again). Mortgage companies would have to offer at least 2 – 3 standard products, like a 30 year fixed loan, that a consumer could compare pricing with a competing mortgage company. While this legislation works its tortuous way through Congress, the finance industry will be busy lobbying against it and figuring out how to outsmart it.