Portfolio Performance & Presidents

October 6, 2019

by Steve Stofka

The employment report released Friday was a Goldilocks gain of 136,000 jobs for the month of September. Why Goldilocks? Not as weak as some feared following news this week that manufacturing was getting hit hard in the trade war with China (Note #1). Not so strong that it ruled out the possibility of another rate cut from the Fed this year. Just weak enough to speculate on another rate cut by year’s end. After several days of big losses, the market rallied on Friday.

Although manufacturing has been contracting, a report on the rest of the economy was more encouraging, although a bit lackluster (Note #2). Service businesses are continuing to hire but the pace has slowed. New export orders have accelerated but new orders in total slowed significantly from August. Something to like, something not to like.

Billions of dollars around the world are traded as soon as the employment report is released each month. During Mr. Obama’s tenure private citizen Donald Trump accused Obama of fudging the employment numbers. Larry Kudlow, now Mr. Trump’s economic advisor, took him to task for that. Mr. Kudlow worked in the Reagan administration and knew well how sacrosanct the employment numbers were. The BLS is an independent agency working in the Department of Labor and its 2400 employees try to collect and publish the most accurate data it can accomplish. The agency’s Commissioner is the only political appointee in the BLS and once confirmed by the Senate, serves four years, the same as the head of the Federal Reserve (Note #3). According to Mr. Kudlow, the White House gets the number the night before only to prepare a press release when the report is released.

Mr. Trump’s reckless behavior helped him take out 16 other Republican presidential candidates in the 2016 election. He acts quickly and aggressively. That lack of caution has led to several bankruptcies, and because of that, no bank in the world will loan him money (Note #4). What if, on an impulse, Mr. Trump tweeted out the employment number shortly before its official release time? Some traders pay a lot of money so that the news will hit their trading desk a split second faster than a conventional news release. It’s that important. An early leak of the employment numbers would cost a lot of influential people big money around the world and would prompt a national if not a global crisis. Forget about the phone calls to foreign leaders to discredit Joe Biden. That would be an act of treason for sure – against the global financial community. Can’t happen? Won’t happen?

Mr. Trump knows no rules. His father protected him when his rash behavior got him into trouble as a child. The elder Trump sheltered Donald from his own mistakes in the real estate industry and his foolish foray into the Atlantic City gambling business. Now that Mr. Trump’s father is no longer there, he depends on others to protect him. He has enlisted a long line of people in that effort. They have come in the revolving door to the White House and left. The list is longer than I imagined (Note #5). John Bolton, the third National Security Advisor under Mr. Trump’s tenure, was the last high-profile team member to leave.

Mr. Trump has said that Americans would get tired of winning so much while he was President. To use a baseball analogy, when he takes the mound, the team doesn’t win very often. People who lose a lot either give up or blame everyone and everything else for their losses. They need to have an ideal environment or get lucky to win. Mr. Trump berates the independent Fed because he wants them to protect him. He needs every crutch he can get. He couldn’t succeed in a war or in the financial crisis because he is not disciplined or organized.

What does this mean for the average investor? Take a cautious approach and keep a balanced portfolio. Betting that Mr. Trump will pitch a good game is a poor bet.

Or is it? At an event on Friday, he claimed that the stock market has gone up 50% since he was elected. Not quite but it is up 42% since the day after he was elected (Note #6). It’s been about 35 months. That’s pretty good. A 60-40 stock-bond portfolio has gone up 30% in that time. Under Obama’s tenure the market only went up 27%. A balanced portfolio went up almost 40% and he had to deal with the worst recession since the Great Depression. The budget battles with Republicans put a big dampener on investor enthusiasm during Obama’s first term.

35 months after the Supreme Court awarded the presidency to George Bush, the market was down 25% but a balanced portfolio was up 21%. Even Mr. Clinton could not best Mr. Trump, although he comes close. 35 months after the 1992 election the market was up 38%. A balanced portfolio was up 40%. The winner? A balanced portfolio.

What might an investor expect? At today’s low interest rates and inflation, a break-even return might be 5% a year, for a total gain of 22% in four years. Will Mr. Trump’s first four years be one of his few wins? Check back in a year. It’s bound to be a tumultuous year.



  1. Institute for Supply Management (ISM). (2019, October 3). September 2019 Manufacturing ISM Report on Business. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.instituteforsupplymanagement.org/ISMReport/MfgROB.cfm
  2. Institute for Supply Management (ISM). (2019, October 3). September 2019 Non-Manufacturing ISM Report on Business. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.instituteforsupplymanagement.org/ISMReport/NonMfgROB.cfm?navItemNumber=28857&SSO=1
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). About the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/bls/infohome.htm
  4. Business Insider. (2019, August 28). The world is talking about Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/trump-tax-returns-deutsche-bank-relationship-drawing-intense-scrutiny-2019-8-1028482268#why-it-matters2
  5. Wikipedia. (n.d.). List of Trump administration dismissals and resignations. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Trump_administration_dismissals_and_resignations
  6. Prices are SPY, the leading ETF that tracks the SP500. Clinton: 42 to 58 (approximately) – up 38%. Bush: 138 to 103 – down 25%. Obama: 91 to 116 – up 27%. Trump: 208 to 295 – up 42%. Balanced portfolio returns from Portfolio Visualizer calculated using a mix of 60% U.S. stock market, and 40% of an evenly balanced mix of intermediate term government and corporate bonds. Dividends were reinvested and the portfolio re-balanced annually.


May 21, 2017

Last week I mentioned the 20 year CAPE ratio, a modification of economist Robert Shiller’s 10 year CAPE ratio used to evaluate the stock market. This week I’ll again look at equity valuation from a different perspective.  The results surprised me.

The date of our birth is circumstance.  When we retire is guided by our own actions and the circumstance of an era. We have no control over market behavior during the twenty year savings accumulation phase before we retire or the distribution of that savings during our retirement.   Let’s hope that we live long enough to spend twenty years in some degree of retirement.

The state of the market at the beginning of the distribution phase of retirement can have a material effect on our retirement funds, as many newly retired folks found out in 2008 and 2009.  Some based their retirement plans on the twenty year returns  prior to retirement.

I’ll use the SP500 total return index ($SPXTR at stockcharts.com or ^SP500TR at Yahoo Finance) to calculate the total gain including dividends. The twenty year period from 1988 through 2007 began just after the stock market meltdown in October 1987 and ended just as the 2007-2009 recession was beginning in December 2007. The total gain was 742%, or 11.3% annualized. Sweetness! Sign me up for that program.  Those high returns led many older Americans to believe that they didn’t need to accumulate more savings before retirement.  Then came the double shock of zero interest rates and a 50% meltdown in stock market valuation.

Now let’s move that time block one year forward and look at the period 1989 through 2008. Still good but what a difference one year makes. The total gain was 404%, or 8.4% annualized. That’s a drop of 3% per year! Investors missed the 16% bounce back in 1988 after the October 1987 crash, and the time block now included the 35% meltdown of 2008. There was even more pain to come in the first half of 2009 but I’ll come back to that.

1995 through 2014 was a good period with total gains of 550%, or 9.8% annualized. Shift that time block by two years to the period 1997 through 2016 and the gains fall off significantly. The total gain was 340%, or 7.7% annualized.

We can make a rough approximation of total returns during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, an ugly period for equities. In 1980, someone quipped “Equities are dead.” Twenty year periods ending during this time did not fare so well but still notched gains of more than 6%. Bonds, CDs and Treasuries were paying far more than that at the time. In today’s low interest environment, 6% seems a lot better than it did during the double digit inflation of 1980.

In past weeks I have written about the overvaluation of today’s stock market based on trailing P/E ratio and the smoothed 10 year CAPE ratio. Let’s look at the current valuation from the perspective of this twenty year return. It would come as no surprise that the total twenty year gain hit a low at the end of February 2009 when the market was about a 1/4 of its current valuation. That 20 year annualized gain was 5.7%. What surprised me was that the current valuation shows the same 20 year gain! Using this metric as an evaluation guide, the market sits at a relatively low level just like it was in 1988 and 1989.

The historical evidence shows that stock returns may be erratic but consistently make over 5% over a twenty year retirement period. Those who are newly retired or about to retire might understandably desire more safety. The safest approach is not to suddenly shift one’s portfolio entirely to safe assets.


Income Inequality

Much has been written about the growth of income inequality. The GINI coefficient is the most popular but there are other measures (for those who want to get into the weeds of inequality measures). The Social Security Administration offers a simple indicator of the trend. They track the average and median incomes of millions of earners every year.

When the median and average are fairly close to each other, that indicates that the numbers in the data set are uniformly distributed. As the ratio percentage of the median to the average falls, that indicates that a few big numbers are raising the average but do not raise the median.

Here’s a simple example of an evenly distributed set. Consider a set of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The average is 3.5. The median is also 3.5 because there are three numbers in the set below 3.5 and three numbers above 3.5.  The percentage of the median to the average is 100%.

Let’s consider an unevenly distributed set: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 12. The median is still the same value as the earlier example: 3.5. But the average is now 4.5. The ratio of the median to the average is 3.5 / 4.5 = about 78%.

The ratio of the median to the average income has fallen from 71% in 1990 to 64% in 2015. This indicates that there is a growing number of large incomes in our data set.

Here’s the data in a graph form

Median wages have doubled, or grown by 100%, while average wages have grown by more than 150% in the last quarter century.

Next week I will look at a hypothetical income tax proposal based on income. It might just blow your mind.


Dividend Payout Ratio

FactSet Analytics grouped dividend paying stocks in quintiles (20% bands) by the dividend payout ratio (Chart). This is the percentage of profits that are paid to shareholders in the form of dividends. Over the last 20 years of rolling one month returns the stocks that had the highest and lowest payout ratios had the lowest total return. Think about that. Both the highest and lowest quintiles did the worst. What performed the best? Those stocks that were in the middle quintile, the companies who balanced their profit distributions between investors (dividends) and investment (future sales and profits).



Each month I compute a Constant Weighted Purchasing Index built on a combination of the two Purchasing Manager’s surveys (PMI) each month. For the six month in a row, this composite has shown strong growth and the three year average first crossed the threshold of strong growth in January 2015.

A sub-index composite that I build from the new orders and employment components of the services survey (NMI) shows moderate growth. Its three year average has shown moderate growth since early 2014.


Caution: Strong Growth Ahead

This week, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released their estimate of the fiscal impact of the AHCA, the draft version of the Republican health care reform plan. I’ll take a look at the CBO methodology later in this post. For those who may be tiring of the almost constant focus on the AHCA, let’s turn our attention to some economic indicators.


CWPI (Constant Weighted Purchasing Index)

February’s survey of purchasing managers (PMI) indicated a broad base of confidence among purchasing managers in most industries. New orders in manufacturing are surging, an expansion more typical in the early stages of recovery after recession. Regardless of how one feels about Trump, there is a sense of renewal in the business community. Consumer Confidence is at record highs. Confident of finding another job, the number of employees who are quitting their jobs is at a 16 year high.

The CWPI is a composite of both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing PMI surveys and is weighted toward the two strongest indicators of future growth, employment and new orders. Since October, the composite has been rising from mild to strong growth.


For most of 2016, new orders and employment were below their five year average.  Since October, they have been above that average.




The Housing Market Index released by the National Assn of Homebuilders just set a multi-year record. Housing starts are strong and single family homes under construction are the best in ten years. A popular ETF of homebuilders, XHB, is nearing a recovery high set in August 2015. 58,000 construction employees found work during a particularly warm February. Now the big picture. As a percent of the working age population, housing starts are still at multi-decade lows.


There has been an upshift toward multi-family units in some cities but, in a broad historical context, these are also near all time lows as a percent of the working age population.


A primary driver of new housing construction, both single and multi-family, is the growth in new households, which is still soft. In 2016, households grew by 1%, below the 30 year average of 1.2%, and far below the 70 year average of 1.7%.


Consumer Credit

Here’s an interesting data series from the FRED database at the Federal Reserve: the percent of people with subprime credit in each county. Click on the link and zoom in to see the data for a particular county. In New York City, Manhattan has a 16% subprime rate, less than half the 35% rate of the nearby Bronx. Give the link a few seconds to load the data and display the map.


On July 1st, the credit rating agencies will remove tax liens and judgments from their records if liens do not include the full name, address, SSN or date of birth of the debtor. This will raise the credit scores of hundreds of thousands of subprime consumers.


Real Estate Pricing Tool

Trulia has a heat map, by zip code, of the median home price per square foot. I will include this handy tool on the tool page.


IRS Data

Of the 145 million returns filed, 46 million itemized deductions. Under the Republican draft of tax reform (PDF), almost all deductions would be eliminated in favor of a standard deduction that is almost twice as large as current law, $12,000 vs. $6300. (Deductions, Child Credits ). Half of capital gains, interest and dividends would not be taxed. For most filers, the dreaded 1040 tax form is only 14 lines. Publishers of tax software like Intuit are sure to lobby against such simplicity.

Health insurance reform is the prerequisite to tax reform.  If House Speaker Paul Ryan encounters strong resistance in his own party to health insurance reform, his tax reform plan will be stymied as well.



This past Monday, the Congressional Budget Office released their “score” (summary report and full PDF report) of the American Health Care Act, or AHCA. Score is a euphemism for the 10 year cost estimate that the CBO customarily gives on proposed legislation.

The CBO was careful to stress the uncertainty of their estimate. A critical component is the human response to changing incentives and the tentativeness of future state legislation. With most major legislation, the CBO estimates the macroeconomic effects. They did not include such an analysis in this report and note that fact. In short, the CBO is saying “take this estimate with a grain of salt.”

The headline number was the amount of people estimated to lose their health insurance over the next ten years – a whopping 24 million. Democrats used this ballpark estimate as a defining fact as they bludgeoned the plan. How did the CBO come up with their numbers?

Medicaid is the health insurance program for low income families and individuals.  When the program was introduced in 1965, enrollment was 1/4 million.  Today, 74 million are on the program.  The federal government and states share the costs of the program; the federal share averages 57%. Under the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, low income individuals younger than 65 without children could enroll.  An increase in the income threshold enabled more people to qualify for the program.  The federal share was guaranteed to not fall below 90% of those individuals enrolled under the expansion guidelines.

Medicaid (CMS) reports that 16.3 million people were added to Medicaid under the ACA expansion program and represent almost 75% of all enrollment under ACA. California has 12% of the U.S. population, but accounts for more than 25% of additional enrollees under Medicaid expansion. (State-by-state Medicaid enrollment ) Only 31 states adopted Medicaid expansion. The CBO estimates that those 16.3 million are 50% of the total pool of individuals that would be eligible if all states adopted the expansion program. So the CBO estimate of the total pool is almost 33 million.

Undere current law, the CBO estimates that additional states will adopt expansion so that 80% of the estimated total pool, or 26.4 million, will be enrolled under Medicaid expansion by 2026.  Under the AHCA, the CBO estimates that only 30% of that eligible population of 33 million, about 10 million, will be enrolled as of 2026. 26.4 million (under ACA) – 10 million (under AHCA) equals 16 million whom the CBO estimates will lose coverage under Medicaid. Note that this is a lot of blue sky math.

To summarize the ten year loss estimate under the rollback of Medicaid expansion: 6 million current enrollees and 10 million anticipated enrollees.

Medicaid expansion accounts for 16 million fewer enrollees. Where are the remaining 8 million missing? In the non-group private market. Currently, there are 11.5 – 12 million enrolled in these individual plans, an increase of about 5 million over the 6.6 million enrollees in 2007 (Health and Human Services brief) . The CBO estimates that, in 2018 and 2019, 2 million additional enrollees would take advantage of the ACA subsidies to buy policies. That results in a potential pool of about 14 million. Under the AHCA, the CBO estimates that the non-group private insurance market will return to its former level of 6 – 7 million, a loss of about 8 million.

Voila! 16 million under Medicaid expansion + 8 million in non-group private insurance = 24 million loss.


Side Note

How do people get their health insurance?
74 million people, about 25% of the population, are enrolled in Medicaid. Half of Medicaid enrollees are children.
55 million, about 16% of the population, are on Medicare.
Over 150 million, or 50% of the population, are enrolled in an employer group plan (Kaiser Family Foundation).
Approximately 27 million, or 9% of the population, are uninsured.

Before the ACA, almost 50 million, or 16% of the population, were classified as uninsured. About 6 million of these uninsured had high deductible insurance plans called catastrophic plans. Offered by large insurance companies, they contained exclusions for pre-existing conditions, did not cover pregnancy, or mental disease, but were adequate for many self-employed tradespeople, contractors, consultants and farmers. (Info) In late 2013, the ACA redefined catastrophic plans by specifying the minimum benefits that a catastrophic plan must offer and, in 2014, began offering these plans through the state health care exchanges.

The Supply Chain Sags

September 11, 2016

Fifteen years ago almost three thousand people lost their lives when the twin towers crumpled from the kamikaze attack of two hijacked airplanes.  Over the fields of rural Pennsylvania that morning, the passengers of a another hijacked plane sacrificed their own lives to rush the hijackers and prevent an attack on Washington.  We honor them and the families who endured the loss of their loved ones.


Purchasing Managers Index

Each month a private company ISM surveys the purchasing managers at companies around the country to assess the supply chain of the economy. Are new orders growing or shrinking since last month?  Is the company hiring or firing?  Are inventories growing or shrinking?  How timely are the company’s suppliers?  Are prices rising or falling? ISM publishes their results each month as a  Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), and it is probably the most influential private survey.

ISM’s August survey was disappointing, especially the manufacturing data.  Two key components of the survey, new orders and employment, contracted in August. Both manufacturing and service industries indicated a slight contraction.

For readers unfamiliar with this survey, I’ll review some of the details The PMI is a type of index called a diffusion index. A value of 50 is like a zero line.  Values above 50 indicate expansion from the previous reading; below 50 shows contraction. ISM compiles an index for the two types of suppliers, goods and services, manufacturing and non-manufacturing.

The CWPI variation

Each month I construct an index I call the Constant Weighted Purchasing Index (CWPI) that blends the manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys into a composite. The CWPI gives extra weight to two components, new orders and employment, based on a methodology presented in a 2003 paper by economist Rolando Pelaez.  Over the past two decades, this index has been less volatile than the PMI and a more reliable warning system of recession and recovery, signaling a few months earlier than the PMI.

Weakness in manufacturing is a concern but it is only about 15% of the overall economy.  In the calculation of the CWPI, however, manufacturing is given a 30% weight.  Manufacturing involves a supply chain that produces a ripple effect in so many service industries that benefit from healthy employment in manufacturing. Because there may be some seasonal or other type of volatility in the survey, I smooth the index with a three month moving average.  Sometimes there is a brief dip in both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing sides of the data. If the downturn continues, the smoothed data will confirm the contraction in the next month.  This is the key to the start of a recession – a continuing contraction.

History of the CWPI

The contraction in the survey results was slight but the effect is more pronounced in the CWPI calculation. One month’s data does not make a trend but does wave a flag of caution. Let’s take a look at some past data.  In 2006 there was a brief one month downturn. In January 2008, the smoothed and unsmoothed CWPI data showed a contraction in the supply chain, and more important continued to contract. The beginning of the recession was later set by the NBER at December 2007. ( Remember that these recession dates are determined long after the actual date when enough data has been gathered that the NBER feels confident in its determination.)  The PMI index did not indicate contraction on both sides of the economy until October 2008, seven months after the signal from the CWPI.  During that time, from January to October 2008, the SP500 index lost 30% of its value.

The CWPI unsmoothed index showed expansion in June 2009 and the smoothed index confirmed that the following month. The PMI did not show a consistent expansion till August 2009.  The NBER later called the end of the recession in June 2009.

The Current Trend

Despite the weak numbers, the smoothed CWPI continues to show expansion but we can see that there is a definite shift from the wave like pattern that has persisted since the recovery began.

With a longer view we can see that an up and down wave is more typical during recoveries.  A flattening or slow steady decline (red arrows) usually precedes an economic downturn.  The red arrows in the graph below occurred a year before a recession.  The left arrow is the first half of 2000, a year before the start of the 2001 recession.  The two arrows in the middle of the graph point to a flattening in 2006, followed by a near contraction.  A rise in the first part of 2007 faltered and fell before the recession started in December 2007.  The current flattening (right arrow) is about six months long.

New Orders and Employment

Focusing on service sector employment and new orders, we can see the weakness in this year’s data.

With a long view, a smoothed version of this-sub indicator signals weakness before a recession starts and doesn’t shut off till late after a recession’s end.  The smoothed version has been below the 5 year average for seven months in a row.  If history is any guide, a recession in the next year is pretty certain.

The 2007-2009 Recession

 In August 2006 this indicator began consistently signaling key weakness in the service sectors of the economy (big middle rectangle in the graph below). Stock market highs were reached in June 2007 and the recession did not officially begin till December 2007, a full sixteen months after the signal started.  That signal didn’t shut off till the spring of 2010, about eight months after the official end of the recession.

The 2001 Recession, Dot-Com Bust and Iraq War

The recession in 2001 lasted only six months but the downturn in the market lasted three years as equities repriced after the over-investment of the dot-com boom.  The smoothed version of this indicator first turned on in January 2001, two months before the start of the recession in March of that year.   Although, the recession officially ended in November 2001, the signal did not shut off till June 2003 (left rectangle in the graph above).  Note that the market (SP500) hit bottom in September 2002, then nosedived again in the winter.  Weak 4th quarter GDP growth that year fueled doubts about the recovery.  Concerns about the Iraq war added uncertainty to the mix and drove equity prices near that September 2002 bottom.  In April 2003, two months before the signal shut off, the market began an upward trajectory that would last over four years.

No one indicator can serve as a crystal ball into the future, but this is a reliable cautionary tool to add to an investor’s tool box.


Stocks, Interest Rates and Employment

There are 24 branches of the Federal Reserve. This week, presidents of two of those banches indicated that they favored an interest rate hike when the Fed meets later this month (Investor’s Business Daily article).  On Friday, the stock market dropped more than 2% in response.  One of those presidents, Rosengren, is a voting member on the committee (FOMC) that sets interest rates.  I have been in favor of higher interest rates for quite some time so I agree with Rosengren that gradual rate increases are needed. However, Chairwoman Janet Yellen relies on the Labor Market Conditions Index (LMCI) to gauge the health of the labor market.

Despite an unemployment rate below 5%, this index of about 20 indicators has been lackluster or negative this year.  There are a record number of job openings but employees are not switching jobs as the rate they do in a healthy labor market.  This is the way that the majority of employees increase their earnings so why are employees not pursuing these opportunities?

The Federal Reserve has a twin mandate from Congress: “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.” (Source) There is a good case to be made that there are too many weaknesses in the employment data, and that caution is the more prudent stance.  The FOMC meets again in early November, just six weeks after the upcoming September meeting. Although the Labor Report will not be released till three days after the FOMC meeting, the members will have preliminary access to the data, giving them two more months of employment data. Yellen can make a good case that a short six week pause is well worth the wait.

Stuck in the Mud

In 18 months, the SP500 is little changed.  A broad index of bonds (BND) is about the same price it was in January 2015.  The lack of price movement is a bit worrying.  There are several alternative investments which investors may include in their portfolio allocation.  Since January 2015, commodities (DBC)  have lost 15%, gold (GLD) has gained a meager 1%, emerging markets (VWO) are down 5%, and real estate (VNQ) is literally unchanged.  A bright note: international bonds (BNDX) have gained almost 6% in that time and pay about 1.5%.  1994 was the last time several non-correlated assets hit the pause button.  The following six years were good for both stocks and bonds.  What will happen this time?  Stay tuned.

Small Hope Amid Tragedy

July 10, 2016

The horrific news from Dallas on Thursday night and Friday morning understandably drowned out this month’s extraordinary employment report. No one anticipated job gains of 287,000 that were far above the consensus average estimate of 170,000.  Like last month, the BLS numbers are way off from those from the private payroll processor ADP, which reported gains of 172,000.

The strike at Verizon that started in May and ended in June involved 38,000 workers and skewed the BLS numbers down in May, then reversed back up again in June.  BLS methodology does not adjust for a strike involving so many workers, leading some to criticize such a widely followed methodology.  Because these estimates are prone to error, I think we get a more reliable picture by averaging the two estimates from the BLS and ADP.  As we can see in the graph below, economic growth during the past five years has been strong enough to stay ahead of the 150,000 monthly gains needed to keep up with population growth.

Those working part time because they couldn’t find full time work have dropped by 1.4 million in the past year – a positive sign. Although the supposed recovery is seven years old, it is only since the spring of 2014 that the ranks of involuntary part timers have consistently decreased.  Today’s level is almost 7 million less than it was two years ago but is still 2/3rds more than pre-Crisis levels.

This month’s 1/10th uptick in the participation rate was a welcome sign that more people are coming back into the workforce.  Although the unemployment rate ticked up two notches to 4.9% this was probably due to more people actively looking for work. An important component of the economy is the core work force aged 25 – 54, which continued to show annual growth in excess of 1%, a healthy sign.


CWPI (Constant Weighted Purchasing Index)

Earlier in the week, the monthly survey of Purchasing Managers (PMI) foreshadowed a positive employment report. A surge in new orders in the services sector and some healthy growth in employment helped lift up the non-manufacturing PMI to strong growth.  The Manufacturing index grew as well.  The CWPI composite of both surveys has a reading of almost 58, indicating strong growth.  The familiar peak and trough pattern that has continued during the recovery has changed to a steadier level.  New Export Orders in both manufacturing and services reversed direction this month.  The strong dollar makes American made products more expensive to buyers in other countries and presents a significant obstacle to companies who rely on exports.

Last month’s survey of purchasing managers in the services sector indicated some worrying weakness in employment.  This month’s reading suggests that a surge in new orders has reversed the decline in employment, a trend confirmed by the BLS report later released at the end of the week.

A few months ago I was concerned that the familiar trough that had developed in the spring might continue to weaken.  This month’s survey put those fears to rest.


Housing Bubble?

Soaring home prices in some cities has led to speculation that, ten years after the last peak in the housing market, we are again approaching unaffordable price levels.  Heavy migration into the Denver metro area has made it the third hottest housing market in the U.S., just behind San Francisco and Vallejo (northeast of SF) in California (Source). Despite bubble indications in these hot markets, the Case Shiller composite of the twenty largest metropolitan areas does not indicate that we are at excessive levels.

In the period 2000 through mid-2006 when housing prices peaked, annual growth was more than 10%.  Ten years have passed since then.  In the 16.5 years since the start of 2000, annual growth has averaged 4%.  While this is almost twice the 2% rate of inflation, it is approximately the same as the rate of growth during the past century.


In the past two weeks following the Brexit vote in the U.K. the S&P500 has rebounded 6%, recovering all the ground lost and then some. It is near all time highs BUT so are Treasuries.  When both “risk on” (stocks) and “risk off” (Treasuries) both rise to new highs, it creates a tension that usually resolves in a rather ugly fashion as the market chooses one or the other.

Caution: Under Construction

June 12, 2016

As we travel the highways this summer we are likely to encounter many construction zones as crews repair wear and tear, and the damage that results from the temperature cycle of freeze and thaw. There are a few hitches on the economic road as well.


I look to the Purchasing Manager’s (PM) Survey each month for some advance clues about the direction of the economy.  Like the employment report, this month’s survey contains some troubling signs.  I had my doubts about the low numbers in the employment report until I saw the results from this survey.  PMs in the services sectors reported a 3.3% contraction in employment growth so that it is now neutral, matching the lack of growth in manufacturing employment.

New orders in both manufacturing and services are still growing but slowed considerably in the services sectors.  The slowdown in both employment and new orders in the services sectors is apparent from the graph below.  While this composite is still growing (above 50), it has been below the five year average for four out of five months.

This recovery has been marked by, and hampered by, a familiar peak and trough pattern of growth. Last month I wrote:

 “A break in this pattern would indicate some concern about a recession in the following six months. What is a break in the pattern? An extended trough or a continued decline toward the contraction zone below 50.”

The CWPI, a custom blend of the various parts of the ISM surveys, shows a continued weakening that is more than just the periodic trough.  If there are further indications of weakness this summer, get concerned.



A few years ago the Federal Reserve introduced the Labor Market Conditions Index, or LMCI, a composite analysis of the labor market based on about twenty indicators published each month by several agencies. Because the report is released a week after the headline employment report, this composite does not receive much attention from policy makers, which is a bit of puzzle.  Janet Yellen, chair of the Fed, has indicated that she and others on the rate setting committee of the Fed, the FOMC, rely on this index when determining interest rate policy.

One business day after the release of this month’s unexpectedly weak employment report, the LMCI showed an almost 5% decrease and is the 5th consecutive monthly decrease in the index.

Although this composite is fairly new, many of the underlying indicators have long histories and enable the Fed to provide several decades of this index.  As a recession indicator, the monthly changes in this index tend to produce a number of false positives.  However, if we shift the graph upwards by adding 7 points to the changes, we see a familiar 0 line boundary.  When the monthly change in the index drops below 0 on this adjusted basis (actually -7), a recession has followed shortly.

We are not at the zero boundary yet, but we are getting close and the pattern looks ominously familiar.  Don’t play the Jaws music yet, though.

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.


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.



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


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.



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.

Easter Egg

April 5, 2015

On this Easter Sunday, Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, Jews observe Passover, basketball fans await the final contest of the Final Four and baseball fans look forward to the start of the new season.  After Friday’s disappointing report of job gains in March, investors might be wondering what will happen Monday when markets in the U.S. reopen following Good Friday.  In overseas markets, yields on the 10 year Treasury bond fell on the employment news.  Job gains that were about half of expectations helped allay fears of a June rate increase.  We may see a positive response from both the bond and equity markets on Monday as the time table for rate increases might start in September.  On the other hand, the weekend might allow more rational judgment to prevail. One month’s disappointment does not a trend make.  Year over year gains in employment are especially strong.

April is usually a good month in the stock   market.  Since breaking the 2000 mark in August, the index has neither gained or lost much ground.  Gains in the technology companies that are included in the SP500 (Apple, for example) have been offset by losses in the oil sector of the SP500 (Exxon, Chevron, for example).  Long term Treasuries (TLT) have risen 10% in the past six months, despite the prospect of rising interest rates in 2015.

ICI reports that domestic long term equity mutual funds had an outflow of about $8 billion in March. Investors have not abandoned equity funds by any means but have changed focus. During this past month, $14 billion flowed into world equity funds.   Bond funds continue to post strong inflows – $10 billion in March.

The boomer generation amassed a lot of pension promises through their working years.  Pension funds must balance both equity and bond risk in their investment portfolios  and yet try to meet their assumed growth rates of 7% – 8%.  Caught on the horns of this dilemma, pension funds straddle both the equity and bond markets.  During the past ten years, many have become underfunded because they have not been able to match their projected growth rates.   This delicate balance of risk and reward sets the stage for a catastrophic decline in response to even a relatively small monetary shock because pension funds can not afford to wait out another three or four year decline.  Too many boomers will start cashing in those promises accumulated during the past decades.

The relatively low number of new jobs created in March was probably due to the severe winter in the eastern part of the country.  The BLS revised downward their previous estimates of employment gains in January and February.  Even with the downward revisions and this past month’s relatively anemic 126,000 gains, the average for the quarter is still about 200,000 per month, a particularly strong figure when one considers the impact that plummeting oil prices have had. In the first 3 months of this year, companies in oil and gas exploration have shed 3/4 of the jobs added during all of last year.  The strong dollar makes U.S. exports more expensive and hurts manufacturing.  The employment diffusion index in manufacturing industries dropped below 50, a sign that there is some contraction in the 83 industries included in this index.  However, March’s Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index showed some slight expansion still and employment in manufacturing is still strong.  Across all private industries, the diffusion index remains strong at 61.4.

Fed chair Janet Yellen has repeatedly said that interest rate decisions will be based on data.  If the data of subsequent months show a resumption of strong growth, an interest rate increase at the FOMC meeting in late July could still be in the cards.  The CWPI composite built on the PMI anticipated a declining trend in growth this winter and spring before resuming an upward climb.  When the non-manufacturing  PMI is released this coming Monday, I’ll update that and show the results in next week’s blog.  Based on the numbers already released, I do anticipate a further decline in March then an evening out in April.  The particularly strong dollar  has cast some doubt on growth predictions, particularly in manufacturing. Both oil and the dollar have made sharp moves in the previous months and it is the rate of change which can be disruptive in an economy.



New claims for unemployment were the lowest since the spring of 2000, just as the bubble of the dot-com boom began to deflate.  As a percent of those working, this is the third time since WW2 that new claims have reached these very low levels.  The last two times did not turn out well for the economy or the stock market.



Going back through some old notes.  Here’s an October 2009 article where Deutsche Bank estimates the price of oil at $175 in 2016.  2009 was just about the time that newer techniques in horizontal drilling were being developed.  The fracking boom was just about to get underway.  Whether you are an investor or a second baseman, the future is tough to figure out so stay balanced, stay prepared and keep your knees bent.

Net Worth, Labor Productivity And Political Pay

May 10th, 2014

This week I’ll look at some short term mixed signals in economic activity, and long term trends in labor productivity and household net worth.  In advance of the mid term election season in the U.S., I’ll look at several aspects of the money machine that drives elections.


For almost a year, I’ve been tracking a composite index, a Constant Weighted Purchasing Index, based on the Purchasing Manager’s Index produced by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM).  Based on key elements of ISM’s manufacturing and non-manufacturing monthly indexes, it is less erratic than the ISM indexes and gives fewer false signals of recession and recovery.  After reaching a low of 53.5 last month, the CWPI of manufacturing and service industries is on the rise again.  During this recovery this index of economic activity has shown a regular wave pattern.  If that continues, we should expect to see four to five months of rising activity before the next lull in late summer or early fall.  Any deviation from that pattern would be cause for concern if falling and optimism if rising.

The winter probably prolonged the recent downturn in the index.  In the manufacturing sector, new orders and employment are strong.  In the services sector, which comprises most of the economy, new orders are strong but employment growth has slowed to a tepid pace.

This week the Bureau of Labor Statistics released their estimate of Productivity growth for the first quarter.  One of the metrics is the per hour growth in productivity, which is key to the overall growth of the economy.  As seen in the chart below, the last time annual productivity growth was above 2% was in the 3rd quarter of 2010.  To show the historical trend, I took the 3 quarter moving average of the year over year growth rate.  We can see a remarkable shift downward in productivity.

Recovery after recessions are marked by a spike in growth above 3% simply because the comparison base during the recession is so weak. What the chart shows is the shift from steady growth of 3% to a much weaker growth pattern since the 2008 recession.  In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen stated that we may have to adjust our expectations to continuing slow growth.  The erosion of productivity growth has probably prompted concerns in the Fed Open Market Committee.


JOLTS – Job openings

Continuing on from labor productivity, let’s look at a trend in job openings.  With a month lag, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports on the number of job openings around the country. Preceding a recession, the number of job openings begins to decline.  Recovery is marked by an increase in openings. March’s report showed a slight increase in job openings, near the high of the recovery and closer to late 2005 levels.

When we look at the ratio of job openings to the unemployed, the picture is less encouraging.  The unemployed do not include discouraged job seekers.  If we included those, we the readers might get discouraged.  Almost five years after the official end of the recession, we are barely above the low point of the recession of the early 2000s.

When Fed chairwoman Janet Yellen speaks of weaknesses in the labor market that will require continued central bank support, this is one of the metrics that the Fed is no doubt keeping an eye on.


Household Net Worth

For many of us, our net worth includes family, friends, pets, interests and passions but the Federal Reserve doesn’t count these in its quarterly Flow of Funds report.  In early March, the Fed released its annual Flow of Funds report, which includes estimated net worth and debt levels of households, business and governments in the U.S.  Below is a chart of household, business and government debt levels from that report.

Rising stock prices and recovering home values have boosted the net worth of households.

As you can see in the chart below, the percent change in net worth has only significantly dipped below zero in the last two recessions.

The severity of this last dip was due to the falls in both the housing and stock markets.  The curious thing is why earlier stock market drops in the 1970s and early 1980s did not produce a significant percentage drop in household net worth. In those earlier periods, increases in home prices were about 4%, similar to the level of economic growth, and not enough to offset significant drops in the stock market.

So what has changed in the past two recessions?  The introduction of IRA accounts in the 1980s prompted individuals to put more of their savings in the stock market instead of bonds, CDs and savings accounts. Downturns in the stock market in the past two recessions affected household balance sheets to a greater degree.  Inflation was greater during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, raising the value of all assets.  China’s growing dominance in the international market was not a factor in the stock market drop in 2000 – 2003.  It was only admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2001.  In an odd coincidence, the past twenty years and particularly the past 15 years are marked by a growing and pervasive inflence of the internet in all aspects of our lives.

If we chart the change in a broad stock market index like the SP500 along with the percent change in net worth over the past seven years, we see a loose correlation using 40% of the change in the stock market.  Rises and falls in the stock market produce a material change in the paper net worth of households and can significantly lead to a change in “mood” among consumers, something the economist John Maynard Keynes called “animal spirits.”

Because the swelling demographic tide of the Boomer generation has a significant part of their retirement nest egg in the stock market, price movements in the markets have probably had a greater effect on total net worth in the past decade.


Party Favors

Now for everyone’s favorite dinner topic – political contributions.  Who contributed the most to the 2012 Presidential campaign?
a) the evil Koch Bros
b) gambling king Sheldon Adelson who almost single-handedly bankrolled the Newt Gingrich campaign
c) hedge fund billionaire George Soros, the  “Octopus” of liberal causes
d) the socialist commie labor unions.

Answer:  Whatever answer suits your political message or opinion.

On the one hand, campaign contributions can be what economists call a “rich” data set so that an analyst can tease out several conclusions or summaries, sometimes contradictory, from the data set.  On the other hand, some “social welfare” organizations do not have to reveal donor lists.  An investigator wishing to discover the myriad channels of political contributions must don their spelunking equipment before descending into the caverns of political finance.   In some cases private IRS data is released by accident, revealing dense networks linking moneyed individuals.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) maintains a compilation of individual and group contributions to political campaigns.  OpenSecrets.org , a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, summarizes the data.  There we find that Sheldon and Miriam Adelson contributed $30 million through the Republican Restore Our Future PAC  and $20 million to the Republic PAC American Crossroads.

The Democratic PAC Priorities USA did not have a single donor as generous as the Adelsons.  George Soros ponied up $1 million along with many others, including Hollywood movie mogul Steven Spielberg, but the most generous donor contributed only $5 million, punk change when compared to the Adelson’s commitment to Republican causes and candidates.

In the 2012 Presidential race, the Obama campaign drew in so many more individual contributions than the Romney team that outside spending by political action groups was the only way to close the money gap.  Pony up they did, outspending the Obama campaign $419 million to $131 million. The NY Times summarized the outside spending with links to the various groups.

Despite their relatively low percentage of the work force, labor unions are major contributors to the Democratic effort.  A WSJ article in July 2012 revealed the extent of their political activity.  The bulk of union campaign spending is not reported to the FEC but is  reported to the Labor Dept. In total, unions disclosed that they spent over $200 million per year from 2005 – 2011.  54% of the spending reported to the Labor Dept was on state and local campaigns.

As a block then, are unions the largest contributors to Democratic campaigns?  Some “napkin math” would get us to a guesstimate of  $90 to $100 million a year on national campaigns, so surely they are at the top, aren’t they?  Not so fast, you conclusion jumper, you.

As transparent as the unions are, contributors to Republican causes are not.  Corporate political spending like that of the private U.S. Chamber of Commerce are not disclosed, as are many other corporate political and lobbying efforts.  These are some of the largest corporations in the world with vast resources and a strongly vested interest in policy decisions that will affect their bottom line.  Most of those contributions are hidden.

As this midterm election approaches rest assured, gentle reader, that you can confidently say – no matter what your political persuasion – that you have data to back up your opinion that the other side is buying the election.  You can hold your head high, confident in the soundness of your opinions.  And don’t we all sleep better at night, knowing that we are right?