Free Stuff

January 21, 2018

by Steve Stofka

I like the 21st century. I get a lot of free stuff. Opinions, news and information, and directions to anywhere on the planet. Free apps and games for my phone. Free porno and free sermons.

I get so much free stuff that I can afford to pay for fancy coffee and smart phones, television and internet access. I can now afford a personal guru to align my chakras. My personal assistant, Alexa, listens to me and answers my questions.

Goodbye and good riddance to the 20th century with its clunky records, cassettes and DVDs. I say “Alexa, play me blankety-blank song,” and millions of tiny electrons do my bidding, and out comes my song!

My real personal income has doubled since 1973 (Average per capita income ) so I got all this extra free money. I’m getting paid more at work than 45 years ago. My total compensation has gone up 44% (Total real compensation per employee ). My employer provided benefits have doubled (Real employee benefits ). My employer kicks in more free money into my retirement program, and into my health care insurance. That’s real dollars, after inflation.

I got so much extra free money coming in that I’m living like royalty. My income has gone up 100% in 45 years, but my spending has increased 137% because I’m a first class 21st century person that banks want to loan money to.


Since 2000, I eat out a lot more – like 75% more (Real restaurant sales ). I deserve it cause I’m making all this extra money and I’m too busy to cook. In 2000, I was spending $11.50 a day for shelter but I needed more personal room and modern conveniences. Now I got more room but I’m spending $16 a day.


Living first class means that I’m saving a lot less of my free extra money.  45 years ago, I was saving 12% of my income.  Now it’s 3%. But there’s an easy fix to that. More free stuff!

Farming Communities

This past summer, my wife and I joined the many thousands of solar eclipse watchers who visited western Nebraska, where the totality and length of the eclipse was near its peak.  At hotels, shops and restaurants we were greeted with a cordiality that is typical of Nebraskans.  They worked extra hours to accommodate the influx of visitors. At one restaurant, our waitress remarked that the extra business would make up for the slack earlier in the year.  The reason?  Not the food and service, which were both excellent. The locals weren’t eating out as much. And why was that?

Last week, I wrote about the seven-year downturn in commodity prices that has affected many rural communities.  Although agriculture contributes about 6% to GDP (USDA) the changing fortunes of the people who produce our food gets little attention in urban areas.

A few hundred miles away, Denver is booming.  Gentrification and rising housing costs have stressed the pocketbooks of some families.  In Nebraska, it is declining prices that have caused stress fractures in the community (Denver Post ). Land values declined 4% in 2015, and another 9% in 2016 (U. of Nebraska-Lincoln report).

Despite a strong export market for corn, soybeans and other agricultural products, Iowa has had falling land prices for three years. In a recent survey, 40% of responding Iowa farmers reported lower sales in 2017.  However, there was a slight uptick in land values this past year and the hope is that the Iowa agricultural community may be turning a corner.

As land values decline, banks lower lending limits, refinancing terms become more strict.  Families sit at the kitchen table and try to pay higher bills with less money.  Property taxes decline so that there is less money for schools and other public infrastructure.  Seeing the stress that their parents face, younger folks are attracted to urban areas where there is more economic opportunity.  Farms that have been in the family for several generations get sold to large farm management companies.

The governors of western states must understand that they serve all the people of their state.  As people concentrate in the urban centers, they demand more resources from the state.  Those in rural areas feel as though they are being left out.  They will form elective coalitions within state legislatures to offset the growing urban power.

To those in the dense population centers of the coastal states, the shifting political and economic alliances in the fly-over states might earn a shrug.  Our federalist system of voting was a grand bargain to offset the dominance of high population states.  The 2016 election was a good lesson in the power of electoral federalism.  State and federal politicians must build a bridge that crosses the divide between the fortunes of those in urban and rural areas.


by Steve Stofka

December 3, 2017

What can I expect from my portfolio mix? Portfolio Visualizer has a free tool  to analyze an asset mix. We can also get a quick approximation by looking at a fund with that mix.
An investor with a 40/60 stock/bond mix might go to the performance page of Vanguard’s Wellesley Income fund VWINX. It’s 50-year return is close to 10% but that includes the heady days of the 1970s and early 1980s when both interest rates and inflation were high. The ten-year performance of this fund includes the financial crisis and is close to 7%.

An investor with a slightly aggressive 65/35 stock bond mix could look to Vanguard’s Wellington Fund VWELX, which has a similar weighting. It’s 90-year return is 8.3% but that includes the Great Depression and WW2. It’s 10-year return is – wait for it – close to 7%.

Two funds – a conservative 40/60 and a slightly aggressive 65/35 – both had the same ten-year returns. All it took was one bad year in the stock market – 2008 – to even up the returns between these two very different allocations. On a year-by-year comparison of the two funds we see a trend. During the two negative years of this fifteen period, I charted the absolute value to better show that trend. Also, compare the absolute values of the returns in 2008 and 2009. The collapse and bounce back was about the same level.


During this fifteen year period, the cautious mix earned 88 cents to the $1 earned by the slightly aggressive mix. Looking back thirty years, cautious made only 75 cents. In the past fifteen years, the difference between positive and negative years was important. In good years, cautious earned 20 cents less. But in negative years, like 2002 and 2008, cautious made 73 cents more by losing that much less.


Personal Saving Rate

The savings rate is near all-time lows. We’ve seen a similar lack of caution in 2000 and 2006. As housing and equities rise, families may count those gains in their mental piggy bank. Asset gains are not savings. Asset prices, particularly equities, will decline during a recession. Jobs are lost. Without an adequate financial cushion, families struggle to weather the downturn. The rise in bankruptcies and foreclosures further exacerbates the downturn.



A good explanation of the various types of annuities.  The graphics that the author presents might help some readers understand the role of annuities, and the advantages of deferred vs. immediate annuitues.  I have also posted this on the Tools page for future reference.

Saving Trends

May 1, 2016

Macroeconomists define saving as Income Less Consumption and Taxes.  There are two distinctions – public, or government savings, and private, or household, savings.

From 1986 to 2000 inclusive, a 15 year period, gross private savings grew 78%.  In the same length of time, from 2001 to 2015, it grew 112%.  So why the higher savings rate?

Lower interest and inflation rates have persisted during this later period.  One would think that consumers would be more likely to save when interest rates were higher in the earlier period.  However, the reverse is true.  Households respond to lower interest rates by saving even more.  Why?  Because their savings will grow more slowly at lower interest rates, they must save more, which only keeps interest rates low.  Like so much of human activity, the process is self-reinforcing.

What else contributes to higher savings rates?  80 million Baby Boomers is more than a third of the population.  As they neared retirement age, they saved more of their income.  In 2012, the first boomers turned 66, a high point in the chart of savings below.

Richard Koo is the chief economist at Nomura, a gigantic Japanese financial holding company similar to Goldman Sachs.  He introduced the idea of a balance sheet recession instigated by a large number of people and businesses paying down their debts to repair their balance sheets.  Here is a recent paper.

Because trends in savings are affected by the decisions of mutiple generations, the primary causes can be difficult to establish.  As the Boomers begin to spend down their savings in retirement, the equally large Millennial generation will start saving but it is unlikely that they will completely offset the spending rate of the Boomers.  The glut of savings will be slowly draw down until new investment puts enough demand for savings, which will spur interest rates higher.


Cadillac Purchasing Power

Last week, I looked at the relative purchasing power to buy a Ford F-150 pickup.  In a trip to a car museum lately, I learned that a new 4 door Cadillac model cost $2000 in 1913.  The average hourly wage was $2 per hour per the NBER, so it took the average person 1000 work hours, about half a year, to buy that Cadillac.  A 2016 Cadillac 4 door ATS Sedan costs about $40,000, an amount that would take 1573 hours, about nine months, at an average $25.43 per hour (BLS).


College Bound

A recent BLS study found that 70% of 2015 HS grads enrolled in college.  Recent NAEP results show that only 37% of test takers are prepared for college reading and math.


Investment, Savings and Income

August 18th, 2013

Gross Private Domestic Investment (GPDI) consists of capital spending on factories and equipment, improvements in rental properties, and changes in inventory.  Changes in GPDI reflect expectations by the business community.  Companies and landlords continue to increase investment after the precipitous fall of 2008.  Below is the long term view.

Let’s zoom in on the past five years to show some comparisons.  In 2010 there was a slight decline in investment.  In 2011 and 2012 came short periods of a levelling off of investment.  So far this year, the trend is upward.


Declines in investment accompany recessions but do not consistently precede recessions.  However, declines in the year over year (y-o-y) percent change do signal an aggregate caution among businesses.  The attentive investor would do well to notice these signals.  Investment growth remains positive.

Percentage changes in investment and the market loosely track each other, as we can see below.  Both investment and the market ride on anticipation of future business conditions but the market reacts and overreacts much more than investment. I dampened the percent change of the market to show a bit more clearly both the correlation and the divergences.

The y-o-y gain in investment has been positive since the latter part of 2009, indicating that business owners and managers have enough confidence in future business to increase their investment. A key component of the business landscape is the willingness of consumers to buy.  This past Tuesday came the monthly report on Retail Sales showing a .2% monthly gain for total retail sales, including food services.  At an annualized growth rate of 2.4%, sales  are positive but annualized gains of 3% or more would indicate strong consumer demand.  So far this year, earlier forecasts of negative real retail sales growth in response to sequestration policies have proved unfounded.  Below I’ve excluded the food services component which accounts for approximately 10% of retail sales.

When we look at retail sales as a percent of GDP, the total economic activity of the country, retail sales excluding food is still below 20 year averages.

Adjusting for inflation and population, we can see that it is food services that continues to show strong growth over a two decade period.  While the recession put a dent in that growth, it is more than 25% higher than it was two decades ago.

Each month the U. Of Michigan releases a consumer sentiment survey.  This past Friday’s report showed a surprising fall in sentiment from 85 to 80.

In the U.S. we can take a rough reading of the willingness of consumers to spend by looking at savings patterns – we don’t save as much.

We are down below a 5% savings rate again, indicating that people are confident enough to spend most of their income.  That is one reading.  Another is that many households have responded to the increase in the Social Security tax this year by reducing their savings.  The lack of savings by Americans has a long history.  Before the Social Security Act was passed in the 1930s, George Washington Carver wrote: “We have become ninety-nine percent money mad. The method of living at home modestly and within our income, laying a little by systematically for the proverbial rainy day which is due to come, can almost be listed among the lost arts. ”  Perhaps that is why some felt that Americans had to be put on a mandatory retirement program called Social Security.

The upward spike in savings at the end of 2012 has been attributed to higher dividend payouts and bonuses in anticipation of the “Fiscal Cliff” in 2013.  Per capita Disposable Personal Income continues its subdued but steady march upward, also rising dramatically in the last part of 2012 as a one time anomaly before the onset of higher taxes and sequestration.

On an inflation-adjusted basis, we are 10% higher than we were ten years ago.

But a longer term picture is a bit more sobering.  The decades longs rising trend of real income has clearly plateaued since the recession began at the end of 2007, over five years ago.

The recession has been a sobering experience for everyone, including the business community. While the growth signs are mildly positive, an underlying watchfulness seems to be the order of the day.