A Lack of Giddyup

May 3, 2015

The first estimate of GDP growth in the January to March quarter was almost flat.  Not a big surprise given the severe winter in the eastern part of the U.S. but an annual rate of just .2% growth was lower than most estimates.  It would be a mistake to attribute all of the slow down to the weather.  Lower gas prices have delayed new drilling projects and idled more costly operations.  Some economists have not fully appreciated the positive influence that shale oil drilling has had on a tepid economic recovery.

Growth has not only slowed. It has shifted lower.  The Shiller P/E ratio, or CAPE, uses a 10 year period as a base.  A common measure of inflation expectations is the 10 year Treasury bond.  Let’s look at the change in real per capita GDP over rolling ten year periods starting in 1970.  Below I’ve graphed the logarithm, or log, of current GDP using the GDP 10 years ago as a base.  We can see a fairly consistent trend over forty years until 2008.

Some economists build models – partial derivatives – in which quantity of output fluctuates as a function of price, or F(p).  The thinking goes that price changes are part of a self-reinforcing mechanism. The problem is that price is a reaction to events, not a cause of them.  Prices distribute the effects of changes in supply, demand, and expectations in an economy or market.

The Fed believes that the economy has too much inventory – of savings, of caution.  Just as any store merchant would do, the Fed has lowered the price of savings, the interest rate, in the hopes that  customers will come in and borrow some of that savings.  Blue light special in Housing, Aisle 3!  The sale has been going on for almost seven years but demand in some sectors, particularly housing, is still very low.   The total of outstanding mortgage debt remains subdued no matter how much the price, or interest rate, is lowered.

Last week I showed a chart of new home sales per 1000 people.  I’ll overlay the thirty year mortgage rate over it.

Higher mortgage rates reduce the demand for new homes.  The exceptionally low rates of the past few years should accelerate the demand for new homes.  Let’s do a quick and dirty adjustment by multiplying new home sales by 1 + the interest rate.  This will have a greater effect on sales when interest rates are higher, helping offset the lowered demand.  The actual amounts are not relevant- it’s the comparison.  This chart shows the exceptionally low demand of the past several years.

The total of loans and leases has been growing about 2% annually on average since the end of 2008, from $7.2 trillion to $8.1 trillion, a total of a little over 12% during the period.  To put that in perspective, that total grew by 75% in the previous 6 year period 2003 through 2008, rocketing up from $4.1 trillion to $7.2 trillion.  Since 1995, our economy has shifted and has been running on borrowed money more than in past decades.  These loan totals don’t include the huge, no strike that, call it prodigious, government borrowing that has propped up GDP growth in the past dozen years.

The Fed finished its April meeting this week and decided to keep the fire sale going. “The Committee currently anticipates that, even after employment and inflation are near mandate-consistent levels, economic conditions may, for some time, warrant keeping the target federal funds rate below levels the Committee views as normal in the longer run.” Fed statement 

Even if conditions do meet labor market and inflation targets, the Fed wants to make sure they can stay stable at those targets for a few months before taking action on interest rates.  The sale has been going on for so long now that the anxiety over the end of the sale has acted as a counter balancing force to the sale price.  Models of thinking as well as patterns of behavior are habit forming. One of the greatest scientists of all time, Isaac Newton, continued to believe in the principles of alchemy until he died.  Like other central banks, the Fed believes in the alchemy of interest rates, the price of money – that they can turn a leaden economy into gold.

Income, Housing and Durable Goods

In this week’s downturn, prices of the SP500 almost touched the 26 week, or half year, average of $203.90.  Since August 2012, when the 50 day average crossed above the 200 day average, these price dips have been good buying opportunities as the market has resumed its upwards climb after each downturn.


Manufacturing and Durable Goods

Preliminary readings of March’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) showed an uptick back into strong growth.  Survey respondents were concerned about weak export sales as the dollar’s strength makes American products more expensive overseas.  The full report will be released this coming Wednesday.

This past Wednesday’s report that Durable Goods had dropped 1.4% in February caused an already negative market to fall another 1.5% for the day and this marked the close of the week’s activity as well.  New orders for non-transportation durable goods have steadily declined since the fall.  Although the year-over-year comparisons are consistent with GDP growth, about 2.3%, the downward trend is concerning.


Existing home sales in February rose almost 5% in a year over year comparison, the best in a year and a half but still below the 5 million annual mark. The positive y-o-y gains during the past six months has prompted some optimism that sales may climb back above the 5 million mark in the spring and summer season.

New home sales in February surged back above a half million.  In a more healthy market, sales of new homes are 6% – 7% of existing homes.  In 2006, that ratio started climbing above the normal range, getting increasingly sicker until it reached almost 18% in May 2010.  February’s ratio was 9%. If the ratio were in the normal range, existing home sales would be over 8 million, far above the current 4.9 million units actually sold.

In a 2014 report the National Assn of Realtors noted that boomers tend to buy new or newer homes to avoid maintenance headaches while younger buyers buy older homes because they are less expensive (page 3).  38% of all home buyers are first timers but the percentage is double for those younger than 33 (Exhibit 1-9 in the report).  As the supply of existing homes is inadequate to meet the demand, prices climb and suppress the demand, forcing first timers to either buy a smaller new home or continue renting.

Sales of new homes and the fortunes of home builders are based on the churn of existing homes.  Since October, the stocks of home builders (XHB) have climbed 20% in anticipation of growing sales, but weak existing home sales may prove to be a choke point for growth.

The larger publicly traded homebuilders also build multi-family units.  Real investment in this sector has tripled from the lows of early 2010 but are still below pre-crisis levels.

The housing market in this country is still wounded.  63% of the population are white Europeans (Census Bureau) but are 86% of home buyers (Exhibit 1-6).  While few will admit to racial prejudice in the current housing market, the numbers are the footprints of this nation’s long history of racial discrimination and socio-economic disparity.  Mortgage companies that made – let’s call them imprudent – credit decisions that helped precipitate the housing crisis are especially cautious, making it more difficult for younger buyers to purchase their first home, despite the historically low mortgage rates.  This market will not heal until mortgage companies relax their lending criteria just a bit and that won’t happen while rates are so low.


The Bee Gees might have sung “Words are all I have to take your heart away” because they were singing about love, not economics and finance.  Graphs often tell the story much better than words.  A milestone was passed a few years back.  For the first time since World War 2, the growth in income crossed below the growth in output.

This past week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a revision to their initial estimate of multi-factorial productivity in 2013.  There is a lot of data to gather for this series.  An often quoted productivity growth rate calculates the GDP of the nation divided by an estimate of the number of hours worked, a statistic that is accessible through payroll reports submitted monthly and quarterly.  The contribution of capital to GDP is much more difficult to assess and is largely disregarded by those like Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, who have a political axe to grind.  Truth is on a path too meandering for politics.

Total output in the years 2007 – 2013 was just plain bad, growing at an annual rate of only 1%, a third of the 2.9% growth rate from the longer period 1987 – 2013.  In the BLS assessment, the growth rates of both labor and capital inputs were poor by historical norms but capital input accounted for all of the meager gains in non-farm business productivity.  People’s work is simply not contributing as much to growth as before.  That reality means that income growth will be meager, which will prompt louder political rhetoric to make some kind of change, any kind of change, because voters like to believe that politicians have magic wands.

A Surprise Guest

October 26, 2014

Shortly after Monday morning’s sunrise, George sat on the back deck, coffee in hand.  Some brilliant, utterly mad painter rushed around the neighborhood, dabbing the trees with what seemed like the entire palette of warm colors. Armies of invisible elves set up accent lights in the branches, highlighting the hues of rust-orange-yellow-gold.  As George absorbed the movie magic moment, a van from the local cable company pulled up on the grass alleyway behind the backyard fence. “Starting early,” George thought as he glanced at this watch.  7:30.

He opened the backyard gate to the alley, meaning to ask the service guy if repairs on the pole would interrupt his and Mabel’s service this morning.  A guy who looked too trim, too neat, and too fit to be a repairman opened the passenger door of the van and called out to him, “Sir, stay inside the yard.”  George took a step backward and looked up above.  Was there a loose wire or something dangerous?  Cable wire carried low voltage so what could be the problem?  He glanced back at the man and the van.

From the rear of the van, two men hopped out.  Like the guy in front, they were both dressed in black windbreakers over blue polo shirts, black slacks.  It was like a SWAT team of rugged fashion models.  One of the men came to the rear gate.  George stepped back another step.  The man scanned the yard to the left and right of George, looked past George at the rear of the house.  George noticed that the other two men scanned the alley, the nearby houses.  The man at the gate glanced at a phone in the palm of his hand, then looked at George.  “George Liscomb?” he asked in the commanding tone of one who routinely asks questions and expects answers.  George nodded.  “Is there a Mabel Liscomb living here?”  George nodded again.  “Is she here?” Another nod.  “Your wife?”  One more nod. “Any other residents inside the house?”  George shook his head.  The man turned his head sideways, keeping one eye on George.  “Bravo,” he called to the two other men.

From the side door another man emerged, dressed much like the others. George felt a numbness inside like he was on a movie set.  “Move back a few feet, please.”  Finally a slim figure emerged from the side of the van. The ears were the dead giveaway.  George forgot that he was still holding his coffee cup as he instinctively jerked his hand to his face.  The coffee cup clipped his lower jaw.  “Ouhhhhh,” George barked. The sudden grunt drew everyone’s gaze.  “You OK?” President Obama called out to him. The lukewarm coffee had spilled on George’s shirt but he was hardly mindful.  “Uh, yeh,” George replied.

Like four points of a compass, the four men surrounded the President as the group seemed to flow through the backyard gate.  The front man stood aside and the President held out his hand to George. “Great morning here in Denver, isn’t it,” the President said, an upbeat easygoing smile on his face. George paused briefly to figure out the coffee cup thing.  He put the coffee cup in his left hand then held out his right hand to shake the President’s hand.  What does one say to the President, George wondered.  “Good morning, President.”  Ok, that worked.  “George, is it?” the President asked? “Yeh,” George replied in a monotone.  “I was wondering if Mabel – that’s your wife? – is she here?  Is she available?”  “Uh, yeh,” George replied, “she’s in the living room.”  “May we go in?” the President asked politely. “Uh, sure.”  George had barely drunk his first coffee before spilling it.  Maybe that’s why his brain seemed to be stuck in monosyllabic mode.

The front man strode to the house.  “Maybe George should go with you and we’ll wait a moment on the deck,” the President called out.  George joined the man, who opened the rear door and glanced inside before allowing George to go through the doorway.  “Hey, Mabel,” George called out.   “Are you decent?  We’ve got company.”  He could hear her get up from her easy chair.  “Be right there,” she called back.  She appeared at the far end of the kitchen, saw the man next to George and asked, “What’s the matter, dear?”  “You’re not going to believe this,” George replied.  Already the man was moving toward Mabel.  George forewarned her.  “This guy needs to ask you a few questions.”

The man went through the same procedure with Mabel.  She answered curtly as though she were about to throw this impudent intruder out of her house.  “You have a holstered weapon.  Are you with the police?”  she asked after answering the first two questions.  From a few incidents at the high school, she recognized the bulge at the man’s side.   “Secret Service, ma’am,” the man answered. “Secret what?” Mabel asked and the man opened his windbreaker enough to see the ID badge hanging from his neck.  She looked past the man and spoke to George, “What the hell is going on, George?”  He could tell she was upset.  “It’s OK, just answer the questions,” George called back to her.  No, there was no one in the house.  Yes, she was Mabel Liscomb.  She leveled her gaze directly at the man when he asked her birthdate.  She responded quickly but in a slightly menacing tone.  “You have the audacity to ask me to identify myself in my own home!”  Then the man’s voice softened as though he were an actual human being.  “Sorry, ma’am.  Have to do my job.”  He stepped back to where George stood at the rear door.   The man opened the screen door and nodded, “It’s allright.”

George joined Mabel in the kitchen as the group on the deck flowed through the rear doorway, keeping the President protected.  “Mrs. Liscomb,” the President greeted her with a warm smile, “good to meet you.  You wrote me a letter a few months back, didn’t you.”  Mabel stuttered.  Had he ever hear Mabel stutter, George wondered.  “I-I-I-I-did I?  I can’t muh-member,” Mabel answered.  “You had some good ideas that I’d like to talk to you about, if you have time?”  Mabel nodded.  George could see that she was recovering quickly from her shock.  She was good at that.  The habits of a high school principal asserted themselves and Mabel told the President, “I’m flattered that you are interested, of course.  Why couldn’t your staff make an appointment?”  Geez, George thought, she’s using the command voice with the damn President of the U.S.  He noticed that each member of the security detail had moved to a window.  George glanced to his right and saw that one had gone into the living room.  The fourth guy – had he gone up the stairs to check the bedrooms?

“I was supposed to be golfing with your Senator Udall but he had to cancel,” the President explained.  “I offered to appear at a fundraiser with Diana DeGette but her staff said she’d have to get back to us.  I don’t seem to be too popular for this election.”  Mabel made a brushing gesture.  “Don’t worry about it.  Same thing happened to Eisenhower ,Reagan and Bush at the midterm of their second terms,” Mabel told him.  “With a recession still going on, Mamie Eisenhower was a lot more popular on the political circuit leading up to the ’58 mid-terms.”  “Oh, Michelle is on everyone’s dance ticket,” the President replied.  “Me, not so much.  The quarterback takes the blame when things go wrong.  When things go right, it’s the offensive line that gets the credit.  Just part of the game, I suppose.”

“Well, come on in and sit down,” Mabel turned toward the living room.  In a brief exchange, Mabel and the President had become buddies of a sort.  George still wasn’t sure how it happened but each of them had recognized something in the other that they both had in common.  Mabel sat down in her favorite chair, then motioned the President to sit on the couch nearby.  She turned to George and said, “Do you want to make some coffee? I think I took the last of the first pot.”  George nodded. “Yeh, I haven’t even had my first cup.”

The President was different in person.  When interviewed on 60 Minutes, he had showed a casual aloofness that George didn’t like. The folded legs, the studied composure didn’t ring true for George.  Now, here in this living room, he sat, legs unfolded, leaning slightly forward in an attentive pose, earnestly having a conversation with Mabel.

For the next hour Mabel discussed education policies with the President. She didn’t like the implementation of educational standards. Yes, she understood the desire for uniformity.  No federal department can understand local educational needs. Too much politics in education already.  Washington makes it worse.   “How did you come to read my letter?” she asked.  “Kind of a mistake,” the President replied. “It should have gone to Arne’s people but it got in my pile by mistake. I left it on the table and Michelle saw it.  She told me, ‘you need to hear this.  This woman’s been there her whole life.  She understands.  You’re not hearing this in Washington.’  And, to tell you the truth, it’s just been sitting in the policy pile for months.  The first thing I found out as President – probably every President faces this quickly – is that there is never enough time to get to everything on his plate.”

George stayed out of the living room for much of the time, preferring to give Mabel the opportunity to discuss her ideas with the President.  He actually served coffee to the President. The kids wouldn’t believe it when they told them. There was a woman out on the deck, talking into the air.  “Do you want some coffee,” George asked. Had she been there all along?  “No, thanks.  You’re Mr. Liscomb?” she asked.  “George,” George nodded.  “Sherry, personal assistant,” she shook his hand.  George started to invite her in but she held up her hand and started talking to the air again.

After too short a time, the assistant came in, excused herself, leaned over and whispered something in the President’s ear.  The President stood up. “I’ll have to go.  It was wonderful meeting you and talking with you, Mrs. Liscomb,” he said and bowed slightly.  Mabel rose up from her chair, “A great pleasure, Mr. President, and thank you for your insights,” Mabel responded and – you gotta be kidding me, George thought – did a slight curtsy.  The President laughed.  George shook hands with the President, then they were gone.  “Holy mackeral,” George said as he sat down on the couch. “I’m sitting in the same seat as the President of the United States.  It’s still warm.”  Mabel gave him a look.  “Oh, damn!” George remembered.  “We forgot to take a picture!”  They both laughed.  George ran out on the back deck, hoping that they had not driven away yet but the van was gone.  The story of a lifetime and no picture to prove it.

Then George remembered that he had hit the buy button the past Friday.  He sat down at the computer. The market had opened up that morning slightly lower but several earnings reports were positive.  Apple and IBM were scheduled to announce earnings after the close.  Later that day, Apple’s earnings and sales were above consensus estimates. To offset Apple’s upbeat numbers, IBM announced a chilling quarterly report. For the 10th consecutive quarter, revenue at the technology giant had declined.  The death blow: earnings for 2014 were projected to be less than 2013’s earnings, something that hadn’t happened since 2002.  This stalwart of so many institutional portfolios was continuing to stumble.  If September’s Existing Home Sales, due to be released the following morning, declined any further, Tuesday could be a seriously down day.

George woke up again before sunrise on Tuesday.  Mabel was already awake as usual.  Thankfully, sales of existing homes  showed a bounce back in September to an annual pace of close to 5.2 million homes, the benchmark for a healthy churn.

George checked earnings stats at Zacks.  Before the opening bell, the staffing giant Manpower, announced better than expected earnings.  Although sales declined in some areas, McDonald’s earnings were 10% more than expectations.  Aircraft giant Northrup Grumman reported better than expected earnings as well. Yahoo reported earnings that were more than double the consensus.  Most of the extra profits came from the sale of shares that it owned in Alibaba’s IPO.  The market opened up sharply, closing the day with a 2% gain.  Their son, Robbie, called that evening and they told him all about the visit from the President. “How many pics did you get?  You should put them up on Facebook,” he told them. “We forgot,” George informed Robbie. “Daaaad,” came the exasperated reply.  “Well, we’re old people. We’re not used to recording every event in our lives, I guess.”

On Wednesday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that inflation had grown 1.7% in the past year, in line with expectations.  The Federal government closes its fiscal year at the end of each September.  Each October, the Social Security Administration sets the inflation adjustment to Social Security checks for the coming calendar year.  A 1.7% increase meant an average $20 increase in monthly benefits.  For too many seniors depending on Social Security as their primary source of income, the low annual increases in payments did not keep up with increases in drug and food costs.  Retired folks on the lower rungs of the economic ladder then had to apply for food stamps to make up for the low yearly increases in benefits.

Dow Chemical surprised to the upside as did industrial manufacturers Graco and General Dynamics.  The positive mood on Wall Street was interrupted by the news of an attack on the Canadian Parliament.  George was cleaning leaves out of the front gutter when Mabel opened the door to tell him the news.  The market reacted negatively to the news but did not give up all of Tuesday’s gains, a positive sign.

On Thursday, the BLS reported that new claims for unemployment had risen slightly the previous week but that the four week average had fallen to the lowest level in 14 years.  Positive earnings reports from 3M and Caterpillar, both of whom had a large international customer base, propelled the market higher, trading above the range of Tuesday’s rally.

On Friday, September’s new home sales of 467,000 were the best of the recovery.  August’s robust sales figures were reduced by almost 50,000 to a revised 466,000, giving George a WTF frown.  A 10% revision?  The drug manufacturer Bristol Meyers and consumer giant Colgate reported higher than expected earnings.  Ford surprised with significantly higher than expected earnings but the details in the report were not encouraging.  Revenues in both North and South America had declined and Ford expected flat earnings growth for the full year.  The market gained almost 1%.  In the past seven trading days, it had gained back all the ground lost the six days prior, closing near the level of October 8th.

For 2-1/2 years, each decline had been followed by a sharp upturn.  “Buying on the dip” had become a often used phrase.  Anticipating a bounce with each dip, investors had been coming back into the market after a short decline.  Since mid-September, investors who had bought in on the bounce had been disappointed when the market continued to decline.

Despite all the positive earnings reports, George was still concerned that stock valuations were just a bit on the high side.  Earnings gains, as well as the growth in profit margins, were becoming slower.  There had been two brief fallbacks in 2013, and already three fallbacks and a correction of more than 5% in 2014.  Frequent small fallbacks were healthy for the market, shaking out excess optimism.  The last real correction – a 10% decline in price – had last occurred in May 2012.  The market of the mid-2000s had gone for several years without a 10% correction and that did not end well.  George worried that the Feds low interest policy, kept in place for almost six years, gave investors too few choices and herded them into the riskier stock market. Gotta stay watchful, he thought.

Housing and Bond Trends

August 24, 2014


The week began with a bang as July’s Housing Market index notched its second consecutive reading of +50, growing a few points more than the 53 index of last month.  Readings above 50 indicate expansion in the market.  The index, compiled by the National Assn of Homebuilders, is a composite of sales, buyer traffic and prospective sales of both new and existing homes.  The index first sank below 50 in January and stayed in that contractionary zone for a few months before rising again in June and July.

Housing Starts rose back above the 1 million mark but the big gains were in multi-family dwellings.  Secondly, this number needs to be put in a long term perspective. We simply are not forming new households at the same pace as we did for the past half century.

After monthly declines in May and June, new home sales popped up almost 16% in July.  Existing home sales rose in July but have now shown 9 consecutive months of year-over-year decreases.

The number of existing home sales is at the same level as 1999-2000.  On a per capita basis, we are about 11-12% below the rather stable level of those years, before the housing bubble really erupted in the 2000s.

During the 1960s and 1970s, households grew annually by 2.1% (Census Bureau data).  That growth slowed to 1.4% in the 1980s and 1990s and has declined in the past decade to 1% per year.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the number of households with children headed by women exploded by over 3% per year, leading to a growing economic disparity among households.  During the 1980s, growth slowed but still hit 2.5%.  In the past two decades, this growth has stabilized at 1.2 to 1.3% per year, just a bit above the total rate of growth of all households.

The trend of slower growth in household formation shows no signs of changing in the near term.  We can expect that this will curtail any historically strong growth in the housing industry.  The price of an ETF of homebuilders, XHB, has plateaued since the spring of 2013.  The price has tripled from the dark days of 2009 but is unlikely to reach the formerly lofty heights of the mid-$40s anytime soon.


Interest Rates

As the long days of summer wane and children return to school, central bankers gather in the majestic mountains of  Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Let’s crank up the wayback machine and return to those yester-years when fear and despondency continued to grip the hearts of many around the world.  In August 2010, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, announced that the Fed would continue to buy Treasuries and other bond instruments to maintain a balance sheet of about $2 trillion dollars, which was already far above normal levels. Bernanke hinted that the Fed would be ready to further expand the program should the economic recovery show signs of faltering. This speech would later be viewed as a pre-announcement of what would be dubbed QE2, or Quantitative Easing Part II, which the Fed announced in November 2010.  The promise of Fed support helped fuel a 30% rise in the market from August 2010 to the spring of 2011.

Like the announcement of a new pope, investors look toward the mountain and try to read the smoke signals rising up from this annual confab.  Financial gurus practiced at linear regressions and Bayesian probabilities struggle to  parse the words of Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen. Did she use the word “likely” or “probably” in her speech? What coefficient of probability should we assign to the two words?  Did she use the present perfect progressive or the past perfect progressive verb tense?

Here’s the gist of Ms. Yellen’s speech – essentially the same gist that she has given in several testimonies before Congress:

monetary policy ultimately must be conducted in a pragmatic manner that relies not on any particular indicator or model, but instead reflects an ongoing assessment of a wide range of information in the context of our ever-evolving understanding of the economy.

Investors like simple forecasting tools – thresholds like the unemployment rate or the rate of inflation.  In 2012 and 2013, former chairman Ben Bernanke reminded investors that thresholds are benchmarks that may guide but do not rule the Fed’s decision making.  Ms. Yellen reiterated several points:

Estimates of slack necessitate difficult judgments about the magnitudes of the cyclical and structural influences affecting labor market variables, including labor force participation, the extent of part-time employment for economic reasons, and labor market flows, such as the pace of hires and quits….the aging of the workforce and other demographic trends, possible changes in the underlying degree of dynamism in the labor market, and the phenomenon of “polarization”–that is, the reduction in the relative number of middle-skill jobs.

 Each month I have encouraged readers to go beyond the employment report headlines, to look at these various  components of the labor market.  The Fed uses a complex model of 19 components:

This broadly based metric supports the conclusion that the labor market has improved significantly over the past year, but it also suggests that the decline in the unemployment rate over this period somewhat overstates the improvement in overall labor market conditions.

Long term bond prices are at all time highs, leading some to question the reward to risk ratio at these price levels.  Prices took a 10% – 12% hit in mid-2013 in anticipation of a rate hike in 2014, indicating that investors are that jumpy. Since the beginning of this year, prices have risen from those lows of late last year.  Will 2015 be the year when the Fed finally begins to raise interest rates? Investors have been asking that question for four years.

Since the spring of 2009, 5-1/2 years ago, an index of long term corporate and government bonds (VBLTX as a proxy) has risen 65%.  From the spring of 2000 to the spring of 2009, a period of nine years, this index gained the same percentage.  Perhaps too much too fast?  Only time will tell.



Housing growth will be constrained by the slower growth in household formation.  Further valuation increases in long term bonds seem unlikely.

GDP and Education

June 29, 2014

This week I’ll review some of this week’s headlines in GDP, personal income, spending and debt, housing and unemployment.  Then I’ll take a look at some trends in education, including state and local spending.

Gross Domestic Product First Quarter 2014

The headline this week was the third and final estimate of GDP growth in the first quarter, revised downward from -1% to -2.9%.  This headline number is the quarterly growth rate, or the growth rate over the preceding quarter.  A year over year comparison, matching 2014 first quarter GDP with 2013 first quarter GDP, shows an annual real growth rate of 1.5%, below the 2.5 to 3.0% growth of the past fifty years.  The largest contributor to the sluggish GDP growth was an almost 5% drop in defense spending.  Simon Kuznets, the economist who developed the GDP concept, did not include defense spending in the GDP calculation.

Contributing to the quarterly drop was the 1.7% decline in inventories.  Businesses had built up inventories a bit much in the latter half of 2013 in anticipation of sales growth only to see those expectations dashed by the severe winter weather.  Final Sales of Domestic Product is a way of calculating current GDP growth and does not include changes in inventory.  Let’s look at a graph of the annual growth in Real (Inflation-Adjusted) GDP and Real Final Sales of Domestic Product to see the differences in the two series.

Note that Real GDP growth (dark red line) leads Final Sales (blue line) as businesses build and reduce their inventory levels in anticipation of future demand and in reaction to current and past demand.
The Big Pic: if we look at these two series since WW2, we see that ALL recessions, except one, are marked by a year over year percent decline in real GDP.  The 2001 recession was the exception.

Secondly, note that in half of the recessions, y-o-y growth in Final Sales, the blue line in the graph, does not dip below zero.  We can identify two trends to recession: 1) businesses are too optimistic and overbuild inventories in anticipation of demand, then correct to the downside, causing a reduction in employment and a lagging reduction in consumer spending; 2) consumers are too optimistic and take on too much debt – selling an inventory of future earnings to creditors, so to speak – then correct to the downside and reduce their consumption, causing businesses to cut back their growth plans.  In case #1, a decrease in consumer spending follows the cutbacks by businesses.  In case #2, businesses cut back following a downturn in consumer spending.

In this past quarter, employment was rising as businesses cut back inventory growth, indicating more of a rebalancing of resources by businesses rather than a correction.  Consumer spending may have weakened during the first quarter but, importantly, did not decline.  We have two hunting dogs and neither is pointing at a downturn.

For a succinct description of the various components of GDP, check out this article written for about.com by Kimberly Amadeo.  Probably written in the first quarter of 2014, her concerns about the inventory buildup in 2013 were proved accurate.


Income and Spending

Personal Income rose almost 5% on an annualized basis in May but consumer spending rose at only half that pace,  2.4%.  The spending growth is only slightly more than the 1.8% inflation rate calculated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, revealing that consumers are still cautious.

I heard recently a good example of how data can be presented out of context, leading a listener or reader to come to a wrong conclusion.  Data point: the dollar value of consumer loans outstanding has risen 45% since the start of the recession in late 2007. Consumer loans do not include mortgages or most student loan debt. If I were selling a book, physical gold, or a variable annuity with a minimum return guarantee, I could say:

My friends, this shows that many consumers have not learned any lessons from the recession.  They are living beyond their means, running up debts that they will not be able to pay. Soon, very soon, people will start defaulting on their debts and the economy will collapse.  This country will suffer a depression that will make the 1930s depression look tame.  Now is the time to protect yourself and your loved ones before the coming crash.

Data is little more than an opportunity to spread one’s political message.  Data should never lead us to reconsider our message, our point of view.  If I were penning a politically liberal message, I could write:

The families in our country are desperate.  Without enough income to satisfy their basic needs, they are forced to borrow, falling ever deeper into debt while the 1% get richer.  We need policies that will help families, not the financial fat cats on Wall Street.  We need a tax structure that will ensure that the 1% pay their fair share and not have the burden fall on the shoulders of most of the working Americans in this country.

Selling a political persuasion and selling a car brand often employ similar techniques.  Data should never lead us to question our loyalty to the brand.  If I were crafting a conservative message, I could write:

The misuse of credit indicates an immaturity fostered by cradle to grave social programs, which are eroding the very character of the American people, who come to rely less on their own resources and more on some agency in Washington to help them out.  People steadily lose their sense of personal responsibility, becoming more like children than self-reliant adults.

However, the facts behind the data point lead us to a different story. In the spring of 2010, consumer loans spiked, rising $382 billion in just two months.

That surge represents more than a $1000 in additional debt per person. Consumers did not suddenly go crazy.  Banks did not open their bank vaults in a spirit of generosity. Instead, banks implemented accounting rules FAS 166 and 167 that required them to show certain assets and liabilities on their books. $322 billion of the $382 billion increase in consumer loans during those two months in 2010 was the accounting change. If we subtract that accounting change from the current total, we find that real consumer loan debt increased only 5.5% in 6-1/2 years.  And that is the real story.  Never in the history of this series since WW2 have consumers restrained their borrowing habits as much as we have since December 2007.  We had to.  In the eight years before the financial crisis in 2008, real consumer debt rose 33%, an unsustainable pace.

About two years ago, loan balances stopped declining and since then consumers have added $80 billion, much of it to finance car purchases. $25 billion of that $80 billion increase has come only since the beginning of this year.  On a per capita, inflation adjusted basis, consumer loan balances are still rather flat.



New home sales in May were up almost 20% over April’s total, and over 6% on an annual basis.  Existing homes rose 5% above April’s pace but are down 5% on an annual basis.  Each year we hope that housing will finally contribute something to economic growth.  Like Cubs fans, we can hope that maybe this year….


Unemployment Claims

New unemployment claims continue to drift downward and the 4 week moving average is just below 315,000.  Our attention spans are rather short so it is important to keep in mind that the current level of claims is the same as what is was last September.

It has taken this economy six months to recover from the upward spike in claims last October.  The patient is recovering but still not healthy.


Minimum Wage

The number of workers directly affected by changes in the minimum wage are small.  We sympathize with those minimum wage workers who try to support a family.  The Good Samaritan impulse in many of us prompts us to say hey, come on, give these people a break and raise the minimum wage.  What we may forget are the implications of any minimum wage increase.  Older readers, stretch your imagination and remember those years gone by when you were younger. Workers in their early working years often see the minimum as a benchmark for comparison.  The much larger pool of younger workers who make above minimum wage may push for higher wages in response to increases in the minimum wage.

Fifty years ago, Congress could have made the minimum wage rise with inflation, ensuring that workers in low paid jobs would get at least a subsistence wage and that increases would be incremental.  Of course, there are some good arguments against any nationally set minimum wage.  $10 in Los Angeles buys far less than $10 in Grand Junction, Colorado.  Ikea recently announced that they will begin paying a minimum wage that is based on the livable wage in each area using the MIT living wage calculator .  Several cities have enacted minimum wage increases that will be phased in over several years but none that I know of are indexed to inflation as the MIT model does.

Congress could enact legislation that respects the differences in living costs across the nation.  For too long, Congress has chosen to use the minimum wage as a political football.  Social Security payments are indexed to inflation because older people put pressure on politicians to stop the nonsense.  There are not enough minimum wage workers to exert a similar amount of coordinated pressure on the folks in Washington so workers must rely on the fairness instinct of the larger pool of voters if any national legislation will be passed.



Demos, a liberal think tank, recently published a report recounting the impact of rising tuition costs on students and families.  Student debt has almost quadrupled from 2004 – 2012.  Wow, I thought.  State spending per student has declined 27%.  More wows.  How much has enrollment increased, I wondered?  Hmmm, not mentioned in the report.  Why not?

The National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the Dept. of Education, reports that full time college enrollment increased a whopping 38% in the decade from 2001-2011.  Part-time enrollment increased 23% during that time.  Together, they average a 32% increase in enrollment. Again, wow!  Ok, I thought, the states have been overwhelmed with the increase in enrollment, declining revenues because of the recession, etc.  Well, that’s part of the story.  Spending on education, including K-12, is at the same levels as it was a decade ago.

From 2002-2012, states have increased their spending on higher ed by 42%.  Some argue that the Federal government should step up and contribute more.  In 2010, total Federal spending on education at all levels was less than 1% ($8.5B out of $879B).  Others argue that the heavily subsidized educational system is bloated and inefficient.  As much cultural as they are educational institutions, colleges and universities have never been examples of efficiency.  Old buildings on college campuses that are expensive to heat and cool are largely empty at 4 P.M.  Legacy pension agreements, generously agreed to in earlier decades, further strain state budgets.  We may need to rethink how we can deliver a quality education but these are particularly thorny issues which ignite passions in state and local budget negotations.

Although state and local governments have increased spending on higher ed by 42% in the decade from 2002-2012, the base year used to calculate that percentage increase was particularly low, coming after 9-11 and the implosion of the dot-com boom.  Nor does it reflect the economic realities that students must get more education to compete for many jobs at the median level and above.

Let’s then go back to what was presumably a good year, 2000, the height of the dot-com boom.  State coffers were full.  In 2000, state and local governments spent 5.14% of GDP (Source).  By 2010, that share had grown to 5.82% of GDP (Source). That represents a 13% gain in resources devoted to education.  But that is barely above population growth, without accounting for the rush of enrollment in higher education during the decade.

Let’s take a broader view of educational spending, comparing the total of all spending on education, including K-12, to all the revenue that Federal, state and local governments bring in.  This includes social security taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, etc.  As a percent of all receipts, spending on education has declined from 30% to under 18%.

Many on the political left paint conservatives as being either against education or not supportive of education.  Census data shows that Republican dominated state legislatures, in general, devote more of their budget to education than Democratic legislatures.  W. Virginia, Mississippi, Michigan, S. Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas devote more than 7% of GDP to education, according to U.S. Census data compiled by U.S.GovernmentSpending.com.  Only two states with predominantly Democrat legislatures, Vermont and New Mexico, join the plus-7% club (Wikipedia Party Strength for party control of state legislatures).

In the early part of the twentieth century, a high school education was higher education.  In the early part of this century, college may be the new high school, a minimum requirement for a job applicant seeking a mid level career.  What are our priorities?  In any discussion of priorities, the subject of taxes arises like Godzilla out of the watery depths.  People scramble in terror as Taxzilla devours the city. Older people on fixed incomes and wealthy house owners resist property tax increases.  Just about everyone resists sales tax increases.  Proposals to raise income taxes are difficult to incorporate in a campaign strategy for state and local politicians running for election.

Let’s disregard for a moment the ideological argument over Federal funding or control of education.  Let’s ask ourselves one question:  does this declining level of total revenues reflect our priorities or acknowledge the geopolitical realities of today’s economy?



Reductions in defense spending, inventory reductions and a severe winter that curtailed consumer spending accounts for much of the sluggishness in first quarter GDP growth.

A surge in new home sales is a sign of both rising incomes and greater confidence in the future.

Consumer spending growth is about half of healthy income gains.

Spending on education has grown a bit more than population growth and is not keeping up with surging enrollment in higher education.

The Market and Growth

March 2nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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


GDP and Savings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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