The Weathervane of Growth

April 10, 2016

CWPI (Constant Weighted Purchasing Index)

March’s survey of Purchasing Managers showed a big upsurge in new orders for the manufacturing (MFR) sector. Export orders were up 5.5% in both the manufacturing and services (SVC) sectors and overall output increased 2% or more.  After contracting for several months, MFR employment may have found a bottom.  The total of new orders and employment is still growing but below five year averages.

The broader CWPI is still expanding but at a slightly slower pace for the past seven months.  The cyclic pattern of declining growth followed by a renewal of activity has changed. While there is no cause to make any strategic changes to allocation, it does bear watching in the months ahead.

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IRA Standard of Care

Financial agents – investment advisors, stock brokers and insurance agents – have had different standards of care when they deal with their clients.  The first and highest standard is fiduciary: the agent should operate with the best interests of the client in mind.  Registered Investment Advisors (RIA) are registered with the SEC and follow this strict standard. The second and more lax standard is suitability: the agent should not sell the client anything that is not suitable for the client based on what the client has told them about their circumstances.  Here’s a short paper on the difference between the two standards.

This week the Obama administration issued new guidelines for agents servicing IRA account holders, requiring agents to maintain the higher fiduciary standard starting in 2017.  This requirement was left out of the Dodd-Frank finance reform bill because many in the investment industry lobbied against it.  Here is the first rule proposal in February.

Opponents will criticize the Obama administration for this “new” set of regulations but this policy has been recommended by some in the industry, on both sides of the political aisle, for at least 25 years.  During the 1980s Congress made several changes that made IRA accounts available to a wide swath of savers, most of whom were unfamiliar with the marketplace of financial products now available to them.

Some in the insurance and investment industries fought against the imposition of a stricter fudiciary standard because it would require more training and would likely reduce the sales commissions of agents.  The growing volume of tax deferred employee retirement plans has generated a steady stream of fees for those in the financial industry.

Keep in mind that the new policy only applies to retirement accounts.

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Debt

Banks are in the business of loaning money, meaning that they must loan money to stay in business.  Most of the time some part of the economy wants to borrow money.  Borrowers come in three types:  Household, Corporate and Government.  If households cut back on their borrowing, corporations may increase theirs.

A historical look at total debt as a percent of GDP shows several trends.  Keep in mind the leveling of debt since the financial crisis.  We’ll come back to that later.

In the thirty years following World War 2, debt levels remained fairly consistent with the pace of economic activity.  The three types of borrowers offset each other.  Households and corporations increased their borrowing while government, particularly the Federal government, paid down the high debt incurred to fight WW2.

In 1980 the Reagan administration and a Democratic House began running big deficits, contributing to a spike in the the total level of debt.  By 1993, when President Clinton took office, Federal and State Debt as a percent of GDP was about the same as it was at the end of WW2.

A combination of higher tax rates and cost cutting by a Republican House elected in 1994 led to a reduction in government spending as household and corporations increased their spending.  Total debt levels flattened during the late 1990s.

Following the 9/11 tragedy and a recession, government debt levels increased but now there was no offset in household borrowing as mortgage debt climbed.  Helping to curb the pronounced rise in total debt levels, a Democratic House at odds with a Republican president dampened the growth of government borrowing in the two years before the financial crisis.

Arguably the most severe crisis in eighty years, the financial crisis caused both households and corporations to cut back on their borrowing.  Offsetting this negative borrowing, the Federal government assumed an often overlooked role – the Borrower of Last Resort.  We are accustomed to the role of the Federal Reserve Bank as the Lender of Last Resort, but we might not be aware that some part of the economy has to be the Borrower.  That role can only be filled by the Federal government because the states and local governments are prohibited from running budget deficits.

Look again at the second chart showing the huge spike in government borrowing following the financial crisis.  Now remember the leveling off of total debt shown in the first graph.  The Federal government has increased its debt level by more than $10 trillion.  Almost $4 trillion of that has come from the lender of last resort, the Fed, but the rest of that borrowing has offset a significant deleveraging by corporations and households.  Had the Federal government not borrowed as much as it did, many banks would have experienced significant declines in profits to the point of going out of business.

There is a potential bombshell waiting in the $2 trillion in corporate profits that businesses have parked overseas to delay taxes on the income.  If Congress and the President were to lower tax rates so that corporations could “repratriate” these dollars, two things would happen: 1) corporations could lower their debt levels, using the cash to pay back the rolling short term loans they use to fund daily operations; and 2) the Federal government would lower its debt levels as the corporations paid taxes on those repatriated profits.

Great.  Lower debt is good, right?  Unless households were to step up their borrowing, total debt could fall significantly, causing another banking crisis.  Although politicians on both sides like to talk about bringing profits home, such a move will have to be done slowly so that the economy and the banking system can adjust in slow increments.

Partisans cheer when candidates express strong sentiments in rousing words, but cold caution must quench hot spirits. We can only trust that candidates for public office will temper their campaign rhetoric with prudence if entrusted with the office.

Spring is springing

May 10, 2015

CWPI

The dollar’s appreciation against the euro and other currencies in the first quarter of this year caused a natural slowdown in exports, which has hurt manufacturing businesses in this country.  U.S. products are simply more expensive to customers in other countries because dollars are more expensive in other currencies. The PMI manufacturing survey showed a decline in employment for the month.  The non-manufacturing sector, which is most of the economy, rallied in April.  As I noted last month, the CWPI should have bottomed out in March-April, reaching the trough in a wave-like series that has been characteristic of this composite index during the past six years of recovery.  Any change to this pattern – a continuing decline rather than just a trough – would be cause for concern.

April’s resurgence in the non-manufacturing sector more than offset the weakness in manufacturing. In fact, there was a slight gain in the CWPI from March’s reading.

Employment and new orders in the non-manufacturing sector are two key components of the composite index and leading indicators of movement in the index.  They have been on the rise since the beginning of the year.  While the decline in the overall index lasted 5 – 6 months, this leading indicator declined for only 3 months, signalling a probable rebound in the spring. Now we get some confirmation of the rebound.

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Employment

Released at the end of the week a few days after the PMI surveys, the monthly employment report from the BLS confirmed a renewal in job growth after rather poor job gains in March.  April’s estimated job gains were over 200K, spurring a relief rally in the stock market on Friday.  Gains were strong enough to signal that the economy was on a growth track but not so strong that the Fed would be in any rush to raise interest rates before September.

March’s job gains were revised even lower to below 100K, but the story was that the severe winter weather was responsible for most of that dip.  As the chart below shows, there was no dip in year over year growth because the winter of 2014 was bad as well.  Growth has been above 2% since September of last year.

During the 2000s, the economy generated plus 2% employment growth for a short three month stretch in early 2006, just before the peak of the housing boom.  The past eight months of plus 2% growth hearkens back to the strong growth of the good ole ’90s.  Like the 90s, Fed chair Janet Yellen warned this week that asset prices are high, recalling former Fed chair Alan Greenspan’s 1996 comment about “irrational exuberance.” Prices rose for another four years in the late 90s after Greenspan’s warning so clairvoyance and timing are not to be assumed simply because the chair of the Federal Reserve expresses an opinion.  However, history is a teacher of sorts.  When Greenspan made that comment in December 1996, the SP500 was just under 600.  Six years later, in late 2002, after the bursting of the dot-com bubble, a mild recession, the horror of 9-11 and the lead up to the Iraq war, the SP500 almost touched those 1996 levels.  An investor who had pulled all their money out of the stock market in early 1997 and put it in a bond index fund would have earned a handsome return.  Of course, our clairvoyance and timing are perfect when we look backward in time.

For 18 months, growth in the core work force, those aged 25 – 54, has been positive.  This age group is critical to the structural health of an economy because they spend a larger percentage of their employment income than older people do.

Construction employment could be better.  Another 400,000 jobs would bring employment in this sector to the recession levels of the early 2000s before the housing sector got overheated.

In the graph below, we can see that construction jobs as a percent of the total work force are at historically low levels.

Every year more workers drop out of the labor force due to retirement, or other reasons.  The population grows by about 3 million; 2 million drop out of the labor force.

The civilian labor force (CLF) consists of those who are employed or unemployed (and actively looking for work).  The particpation rate is that labor force divided by the number of people who can legally work, those who are 16 and over who are not in some institution that prevents them from working.  (BLS FAQ)  That participation rate remains historically low, dropping from 65% five years ago to under 63% for the past year.

That lowered rate partially reflects an aging population, and fewer women in the work force relative to the surge of women entering the work force during the boomer “swell.”  A simpler way of looking at things shows relatively stable numbers for the past five years:  those who can work but don’t, as a percentage of those who are working.  The population changes much more than the number of employed, and the percentage of those who are not working is rock steady at about 66%.  This percentage is important for money flows, the vitality of economic growth and policy decisions.  Those who are not working must get an income flow from their own resources or the resources of those who are working, or a combination of the two.

The late 90s was more than just a dot-com boom.  It was a working boom where the number of people not working was at historically low levels compared to the number of people working.  The end of the dot-com era and the decline in manufacturing jobs that began in the early 2000s, when China was admitted to the WTO, marked the end of this unusual period in U.S. history.  Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (Clinton administration) sometimes uses this unusual period as a benchmark to measure today’s environment.

Not only was this non-working/working ratio low, but GDP growth was rather high in the 1990s, in the range of 3 – 5%.

Let’s look at GDP growth from a slightly different perspective.  Real GDP is the country’s output adjusted for inflation.  Real GDP per capita is real GDP divided by the total population in the country.  Real GDP per employee is output per person working.  As GDP falls during a recession, so too do the number of employees, evening out the data in this series.  A 65 year chart reveals some long term growth trends.  In the chart below, I have identified those periods called secular bear markets when the stock market declines significantly from a previous period of growth.  I have used Doug Short’s graph  to identify these broader market trends.  Ideally, one would like to accumulate savings during secular bear markets when asset prices are falling and tap those savings toward the end of a secular bull market, when asset prices are at their height.

In the chart above note the periods (circled in green) of slower growth during the 1968-82 secular bear market and the last few years of the 2000-2009 secular bear market.  After a brief upsurge at the end of this past recession, we have continued the trend of slower economic growth that started in 2004.  A rising tide raises all boats and the tide in this case is the easy monetary policy of the Federal Reserve which buoys stock prices.  In the long run, however, stock prices rise and fall with the expectations of future profits.  Contrary to previous bull markets, this market is not supported by structural growth in the economy, and that lack of support increases the probability of a secular bear market in the next several years, just at the time when the boomer generation will be selling stocks to generate income in their retirement.

Earthquakes in some regions of the world are inevitable.  In the aftermath of the tragedy in Nepal, we were reminded that risky building practices and regulatory corruption can go on for decades.  There is no doubt that there will be  horrific damage and loss of life when the inevitable happens yet the risky practices continue.  The fault lines in our economy are slower per employee GDP growth and a greater burden on those employees to pay for programs for those who are not working. The worth of each program, who has paid what and who deserves what is immaterial to this particular discussion.  Growth and income flow do matter. Asset prices are rising on shaky growth foundations that will crack when the fault lines slip.  Well, maybe the inevitable won’t happen.

Labor and Purchasing Managers Index

September 7, 2014

Labor Report

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported net job gains of 142K in August, much lower than the 200K+ expected.  The private payroll processor ADP reported 204K net private job gains earlier this week.  Some economists predicted that the number will be revised upwards in the next month.  Some point to the difficulties of the seasonal adjustment factor in August.  Below is the monthly net change in jobs with and without seasonal adjustments.

As usual, I average the private net job gains reported by BLS and the payroll processor ADP to come up with net job gains of 169K, add in the 8K job gains in the government sector to get a total of 177K. Another approach to take out the variability is to use the year-over-year change or percent change in employment.  As you can see in the chart below, the monthly seasonal adjustment (in red, overlayed on the blue non-seasonally adjusted figures) attempt to replicate this year over year change on a monthly basis.

As the year-over-year job gains topped the 2 million mark at the start of 2012, the “Golden Cross” – when the 50 day average of the SP500 crosses above the 200 day average – occurred shortly thereafter.  Zooming in on the past year, we can see that the difference between the two series is relatively slight.  In fact, the economy is nearing the levels of late 2005 to 2006 when the labor market was a bit overheated in some regions of the U.S.  The difference between now and then is that workers have relatively weak pricing power.  The average wage has increased just 2.1% in the past year.

A comparison of the monthly growth in jobs, as reported by the BLS, to the Employment index of the ISM Non-Manufacturing Survey shows that the ISM number charts a less erratic path through the variability of the employment data.  The index has been positive and rising since the hard winter dip.

The unemployment rate ticked down slightly in August, but the more significant trend is the decreasing number of involuntary part timers, those who are working part time because they can’t find full time work.

The widest measure of unemployment, which includes both these part time workers and those who have become discouraged and stopped looking for work, finally touched the 12% mark this month.

In short, this month’s employment report was good enough but not so good that it would shorten the period before the Federal Reserve begins to hike interest rates.

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Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI)

Each month for the past year, I have been doing a little spreadsheet magic on the Purchasing Managers Index published by ISM to weight the employment and new orders components of this index more heavily.  This has proven to be a reliable and less erratic guide to the economic health of the country.

The manufacturing component of the ISM Purchasing Managers Index was particularly strong in August.  Because the CWPI weights new orders and employment heavily in its composition, the manufacturing component of the CWPI is at levels rarely seen in the past 34 years.  Levels greater than this have occurred only twice before – in November and December 1983 and December 2003.  Both of these previous periods marked the end of a multi-year malaise.

The services sector, which comprises most of the economic activity in the country, is strong and rising as well. New orders declined slightly but are still robust and employment is growing.  The composite of these two components is near robust levels.

This month the CWPI composite of manufacturing and service industries topped the previous high of 66.7 set in December 2003 and is now at an all time high in the 17 years that ISM has been publishing the non-manufacturing index. If the pattern of the past few years continues, this overall composite will probably decline in the next month or two.

Takeaways
Strong economic activity was muted somewhat by a lower than expected monthly labor report.

Labor’s Journey

January 12th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Wonderland

December 8th, 2013

The Bureau of Labor Statistics rode down like Santy Claus on the arctic front that descended on a large part of the U.S. The monthly labor report showed a net gain of 203,000 jobs in November, below the 215,000 private job gains estimated by ADP earlier in the week, but 10% higher than consensus forecasts.  Thirty eight months of consecutive monthly job growth shows that either:

1) President Obama is an American hero who has steered this country out of the worst recession – wait, let me capitalize that – the worst Recession since the Great Depression, or

2) American businesses and Republican leadership in the House have overcome the policies of the worst President in the history of the United States. 

Hey, we got some Hyperbole served fresh and hot courtesy of our radio and TV!

The unemployment rate dropped to 7.0% for the right reasons, i.e. more people working, rather than the wrong reasons, i.e. job seekers simply giving up.  The combination of continued strong job gains and a big jump in consumer confidence caused the market to go “Wheeee!”

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A broader measure of unemployment which includes those who want work but haven’t looked for a job in the past four weeks declined to 7.5%.  This is still above the high marks of the recessions of the early 90s and 2000s.

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Construction employment suffered severe declines after the collapse of the housing bubble.  We are concerned not only with the level of employment but the momentum of job growth as the sector heals.  A slowing of momentum in 2012 probably factored into the Fed’s decision to start another round of QE in the fall of last year.

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Job gains were broad, including many sectors except federal employment, which declined 7,000. Average hours worked per week rose by a tenth to 34.5 hours and average hourly pay rose a few cents to $24.15.

Discouraged job seekers are declining as well.  The number of involuntary part time workers fell by 331,000 to 7.7 million in November.  As shown in graph below, the decline is sure but slow.

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There are still some persistent trends  of slow growth.  Job gains in the core work force aged 25 -54 are practically non-existent.

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The percentage of the labor force that is working edged up after severe declines this year but the trend is down, down and more down.

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The number of people working as a percent of the total population has flatlined.

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Let’s turn to two sectors, construction and manufacturing, which primarily employ men.  The ratio of working men to the male population continues to decline.  Look at the pattern over 60 years: a decline followed by a leveling before the next decline, and so on.  Contributing to this decline is the fact that men are living longer due to more advanced medical care and a fall in cigarette smoking.

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The taxes of working people have to pay for a lot of social programs and benefits that they didn’t have to pay for thirty years ago.  Where will the money come from?  A talk show host has an easy solution: tax the the Koch Brothers, cut farm subsidies to big corporations and defense.  Taking all the income from the Kochs and cutting farm subsidies and defense by half will produce approximately $560 billion, not enough to make up for this year’s budget deficit, the lowest in 4 years.  What else?

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In a healing job market, those aged 16 and up who are not in the labor force as a percent of the total population  continues to climb.

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A familiar refrain is the steady decline in manufacturing employment.  Recently the decline has been arrested and there is even slight growth in this sector.  Although construction is regarded as a separate sector, construction is a type of manufacturing.  Both employment sectors appeal to a similar type of person.  Both manufacturing and construction have become more sophisticated, requiring a greater degree of specialized knowledge.  Let’s look at employment trends in these two sectors and how they complement each other.

During the 90s, a rise in construction jobs helped offset moribund growth in manufacturing employment.

In 2001, China became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) , enabling many manufacturers to ship many lower skilled jobs to China.  At the same time, a recession and the horrific events of 9/11 halted growth in the construction sector so that there was not any offset to the decline in manufacturing jobs.

As the economy began recovering in late 2003, the rise in construction jobs more than offset the steadily declining employment in the manufacturing sector.  People losing their jobs in manufacturing could transition into the construction trades.

As the housing sector slowed, construction jobs declined and the double whammy of losses in both sectors had a devastating effect on male employment.

In the past three years, both sectors have improved.

Although the Labor Dept separates two sectors, we can get a more accurate picture of a trend by combining sectors.

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In the debate over the effectiveness of government stimulus, there is a type of straw man example proposed:  what if the government were to pay people to dig holes, then pay other people to fill in the holes?  Proponents of Keynesian economics and government stimulus argue that such a policy would help the economy.  Employed workers would spend that money and boost the economy. Those of the Austrian school argue that it would not.  Digging and filling holes has no productive value.  Ultimately it is tax revenues that must pay for that unproductive work.  Therefore, digging and filling holes would hurt the economy.

So, let’s take a look at unemployment insurance through a different set of glasses.  Politicians and the voters like to attach the words “insurance” and “program” to all sorts of government spending.  Regardless of what we call it, unemployment insurance is essentially paying people to dig and fill holes – except that the holes are imaginary.  IRS regulations state that unemployment benefits are income, that they should be included in gross income just as one would include wages, salaries and many other income.

If unemployment is income, how many workers do the various unemployment programs “hire” each year?  Unemployment benefits  vary by state, ranging from 1/2 to 2/3 of one’s weekly wage. (Example in New Jersey)  As anyone who has been on unemployment insurance can verify, it is tough to live on unemployment benefits. I used the average weekly earnings for people in private industry and multiplied that by 32 weeks to get an average pay, as though governments were hiring part time workers.  I then divided unemployment benefits paid each year by this average.  Note that the divisor, average pay, is higher than the median pay, so this conservatively understates the number of workers that are “hired” each year by state and federal governments.

What is the effect of “hiring” these workers?  I showed the adjusted total (blue) and the unadjusted total of unemployed and involuntary part time workers.  The green circle in the graph below illustrates the effect that extensions of unemployment insurance had on a really large number of unemployed people.

At its worst in the second quarter of 2009, the unemployed plus those involuntary part timers totaled 24 million, almost 16% of those in the labor force.  8 million were effectively “hired” to dig imaginary holes.  In the long run, what will be the net effect of paying people to dig holes and fill them?  First of all, a politician can’t indulge in long run thinking.  In a crisis, most politicians will sacrifice long run growth so that they can appease the voters and keep their own jobs.

In the long run, ten years for example, paying people to do nothing productive will hurt the economy.  The argument is how much?   Keynes himself wrote that his theory of stimulus and demand only worked when there was a short run fall in demand.  At the time Keynes wrote his “General Theory,” the world economy was floundering around in a severe depression.  The severe crisis of the Depression birthed a theory that divided the economists into two groups: the tinkerers and the non-tinkerers.  Keynesian economists believe in tinkering, that adjusting the carburetor of the economic engine will get that baby purring.  Austrian or classical economists keep asking the Keynesians to stop messing with the carburetor; that all these adjustments only make the economy worse in the long run.

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The November report from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) showed strong to robust growth in the both the manufacturing and services sectors.  As I noted this past week, I was expecting the composite CWI index of these reports that I have been tracking to follow the pattern it has shown for the past three years.  Within this expansion, there is a wave like formation of surging growth followed by an easing period that has become shorter and shorter, indicating a growing consistency in growth.  The peak to peak time span has decreased from 13 months, to 11 months to 7 months.  The index showed a peak in September and October so the slight decline is following the pattern.   IF – a big if – the pattern continues, we might expect another peak in April to May of 2014.

To get some context, here’s a ten year graph of the CWI vs the SP500 index.

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As the stock market makes new highs each week, some financial pundits get out of bed each morning, saddle up their horses, load up their latest book in the saddle bags and ride through TV land yelling “The crash is coming, the crash is coming.”  Few people would listen to them if they shouted “Buy my book, buy my book.”  They sell a lot more books yelling about the crash.

How frothy is the market?  I took the log of the SP500 index since January 1980 and adjusted it for inflation using the CPI index.  I then plotted out what the index would be if it grew at a steady annualized rate of 5.2%.   Take 5.2%, add in 3% average inflation and 2% dividends and we get the average 10% growth of the stock market over the past 100 years.  The market doesn’t look too frothy from this perspective.  In fact, the financial crisis brought the market back to reality and since then, we have followed this 100 year growth rate.

Now, let’s crank up the wayback machine.  It’s November 1973.  Despite the signing of the Paris Peace accord and an act of Congress to end the Vietnam war, thousands of young American men are still dying in Vietnam.  The Watergate hearings continue to reveal evidence that President Nixon was involved in the break in of the Democratic National Committee and the subsequent attempts to cover it up.  Rip Van Winkle is disgusted.  “This country is going to the dogs,” he mutters to himself.  He lies down to take a nap in an alleyway of the theater district of New York City.  The SP500 index is just below 100.  Well, Rip doesn’t wake up for 20 years.  In November 1993, he wakes up, walks out on Broadway and grabs a paper out of nearby newspaper machine.  The SP500 index is 462.  Rip doesn’t have a calculator but can see that the index has doubled a bit more than twice in that time.  Using the rule of 72 (look it up), Rip estimates that the stock market has grown about 8% per year.  Which is just about normal.  But normal is what Rip left behind in 1973.  “Normal” is SNAFU.  So he goes back into the alleyway and goes back to sleep for another twenty years, waking up just this past month.  He walks out on Broadway and reads that the index has passed 1800.  “Harumph” Rip snorts.  That’s two doublings in twenty years, a growth rate of a little over 7%.  Rip reasons that eventually he’ll wake up, the country will have mended its ways and Rip will notice a growth rate of 9 – 10% in the market index.  He goes back to sleep.

In the 40 years that Rip has been asleep, we have had three bad recessions in the 70s, 80s and 2000s, a savings and loan crisis in the 80s, an internet bubble, a housing bubble, and the mother of all financial crises.  Yet the market plods along, slowing a bit, speeding up a bit.  Long term investors needs to take a Rip Van Winkle perspective.

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And now, let’s hop in the wayback machine – well, a little ways back.  Shocks happen.  During periods when the market is relatively well behaved as it has been this year, investors get lulled into a sense of well being.  From July 2006 through February 2007, the stock market rose 20%.  Steadily and surely it climbed.  Housing prices had already reached a peak and the growth of corporate profits was slowing. Some market watchers cautioned that fundamentals did not support market valuations. At the end of February 2007, the Chinese government announced steps to curb excessive speculation in the Shanghai stock market (CNN article).  The stocks of Chinese companies tumbled almost 10%, sending shocks through markets around the world.  The U.S. stock market dropped more than 5% in a week.

“Here comes the crash” was the cry from some. The crash didn’t come.  Over the next six months, the market climbed 16%.  Finally, continuing declines in home sales and prices, growing mortgage defaults and poor company earnings began to eat away at the market in October 2007.  Remember, there is still almost a year to the big crash in September and October of 2008.

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Next week I’ll put on a different shade of glasses to look at inflation.  Cold air, go back to the North Pole.