Employment Curves

January 15, 2023

by Stephen Stofka

For millennia people have claimed a power of divination by various methods, including the casting of bird bones on the ground, the magic of numbers or certain word incantations. As the New Year begins, there is no shortage of predictions for 2023. Will the Fed taper its rate increases now that inflation has moderated? Will the U.S. go into a recession? Will falling home prices invite a financial crisis like the one in 2007-9? Will bond prices recover this year? Other animals see only a few moments into the future. We have developed forecasting tools that try to time-travel weeks and months into the future, but we should not judge a tool’s accuracy by its sophistication.

Statistics is a series of methods that constructs a formula explaining a relationship between variables. Each data point requires a calculation, a tedious task for human beings but a quick operation by a computer. Before the introduction of the computer in the mid-20th century, investors used simpler tools like the comparison of two moving averages of a time series like stock prices. These simple tools are still in use today. An example is the MACD(12,26) trend that compares the 12-day and 26-day moving averages, noting those points where the short 12-day average crosses the long 26-day average (Stockcharts.com, 2023). We can apply a similar technique to the unemployment rate.

In the chart below I have graphed the 3-month and 3-year moving averages of the headline U-3 unemployment rate. The left side of each column faintly marked in gray marks the beginning of a recession has noted by the NBER (2023). These beginnings roughly coincide with the crossing of the 3-month (orange) above the 3-year (blue) average. With the exception of the 1990 recession, the end of the recessions is near the peak of the 3-month orange line, after which unemployment declines. Today’s 3-month average is well below the 3-year trend, making a recession less likely. However, except for the pandemic surge of unemployment, the 3-month average is quite low and has been below the 3-year average for the longest period in history.

I did not do any laborious trial and error of various averages to find a fit. I chose these periods because they fit my story, something I wrote about last week. A 3-year average should provide a stable long term trend line of unemployment. A 3-month average should reflect current conditions with some of the data noise removed. The crossing should capture an inflection point in the data.

The low unemployment rate implies that workers have more wage bargaining power but wage increases have lagged inflation, robbing workers of purchasing power. If inflation continues to decline in 2023, some economists predict that wage increases may finally “catch up” and surpass the inflation rate.

There are two trends that have weakened the wage bargaining power of workers. Since World War 2, an economy dominated by manufacturing has transitioned to a service economy with lower average wages. In that time, the percent of workers employed in agriculture fell from 14% to less than 2% as production and harvesting became more mechanized. The labor market has undergone structural changes that may invalidate or weaken the lessons of earlier decades.

Since WW2, self-employment has declined. Half of those employed now work for large companies with 500 or more employees (Poschke 2019, 2). Few are unionized and able to bargain collectively for wages. According to the Trade Union Dataset (2023), most European countries enjoy much higher trade union participation than in the U.S. where only 10% of workers belong to a union. Large American companies enjoy a wage-setting power that smaller companies do not have and this enables them to resist wage demands. American workers do not have enough wage bargaining power to make a significant contribution to rising prices. Stock owners, able to move money at the stroke of a computer key, hold more bargaining power.

To keep their stock prices competitive, publicly traded companies must maintain a profit margin appropriate to their industry. Investors will punish those companies who do not meet consensus expectations. Company executives rarely take responsibility for falling profit margins. Instead, they blame rising wages or material costs, shifting consumer tastes or government regulations. Interest groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a private lobbying organization funded by the largest companies in America, champion a narrative that inflation is the result of rising wages, not rising profit margins. Like any interest group, their job is to assign responsibility for a problem to someone else, to convince lawmakers to act favorably to their cause or industry. The Chamber has far better funding than advocates for labor and it uses those funds to block policies that might favor workers.

There are economists and policymakers who still believe in the Phillips Curve, a hypothetical inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation. High unemployment should coincide with low inflation and high inflation with low unemployment. Shortly after Bill Phillips published his data and hypothetical curve, Guy Routh (1959), a British economist, published a critique in the same journal Economica, pointing out the flaws in Phillips’ methodology. The chief flaw was Phillips’ lack of knowledge about the labor market itself. Despite that, American economists like Paul Samuelson, who favored an activist fiscal policy, liked the implications of a Phillips Curve. Policy makers could fine tune an economy the way a car mechanic tuned a carburetor.

In the past year, some economists and policymakers have advocated policies to drive unemployment higher and wring inflation out of the economy. Despite rising interest rates, the labor market has been strong and resilient. In January 2020, Kristie Engemann (2020), a coordinator at the St. Louis Fed, explored the debate about whether this relationship exists or not. For the past five decades, the “curve” has been flat, a statistical indication that there is no relationship between inflation and unemployment. Policymakers will continue to cite the Phillips Curve because it serves an ideological and political purpose.

We don’t need statistical software to debunk the Phillips curve. In the chart I posted earlier, there were several points where the 3-month average unemployment rate was near or below 4%. These were in the late 1960s, the late 1990s, and the late 2010s. The inflation rate was 3%, 2.5%, and 1.4% respectively. If the Phillips Curve relationship existed, inflation would have been much higher.

As our analytical tools become more sophisticated we risk being fooled by their power. With a few lines of code, researchers can turn the knobs of their statistical software machines until they reach a result that is publishable. We should be able to approximate if not confirm our hypothesis with simpler tools.  


Photo by Augustine Wong on Unsplash

Engemann, K. M. (2020, January 14). What is the Phillips curve (and why has it flattened)? Saint Louis Fed Eagle. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://www.stlouisfed.org/open-vault/2020/january/what-is-phillips-curve-why-flattened

National Bureau of Economic Research. (2022). Business cycle dating. NBER. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://www.nber.org/research/business-cycle-dating

Poschke, M. (2019). Wage employment, unemployment and self-employment across countries. SSRN Electronic Journal, (IZA No. 12367). https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3401135

Routh, G. (1959). The relation between unemployment and the rate of change of money wage rates: A comment. Economica, 26(104), 299–315. https://doi.org/10.2307/2550867

Stockcharts.com. (2023). Spy – SPDR S&P 500 ETF. StockCharts.com. Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://stockcharts.com/h-sc/ui?s=spy  Below the price chart is the MACD indicator pane.

Trade Union Dataset. OECD.Stat. (2023, January 13). Retrieved January 13, 2023, from https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=TUD

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Level [CE16OV], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/CE16OV, January 11, 2023.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Level – Agriculture and Related Industries [LNS12034560], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNS12034560, January 11, 2023.


Price Illusion

January 8, 2023

by Stephen Stofka

This week’s letter is about price illusions. The past two weeks I have written about the need to sort through past events to find the lessons. The past is a teacher, not a goal. Those who idealize and revere the past must eventually be swept down the drain of time. During this week’s struggle to elect Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker, the more conservative members of the Republican Party voiced their desire to return the country to the past of more than a hundred years ago when the population of 112,000,000 was a third the current size. Instead of learning from the past, we often use elements of history to tell a story. We discard events that do not fit our narrative. Historical analysis serves political interests. Asset analysis suffers from similar distorting strategies.

Technical analysis studies price movements with little regard for the circumstances that prompted the supply and demand, the buying and selling that underlie those movements. I will pick a few such variants at random. Elliott Wave theory bases its interpretation of price movement on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers. Beginning with 1, 1 this number series is constructed from the sum of the previous two numbers in the series. Thus 1 + 1 = 2, 2+1 = 3, and so on. This simple rule produces a sequence found in plant growth and the development of nautilus shells, for example.

Elliot Wave analysis claims that price movements come in waves. Understanding the current position within a wave can help an investor predict subsequent price action. The system is famously prolific in its prophecy, indicating several interpretations. It is better suited to a post hoc narrative. An investor can believe that if they just got better at interpreting the waves, they could time their buying and selling. As the physicist Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Another technical system relies on the recognition of price trends, identifying those to follow and those that signal a likely reversal. These are visual and geometric, full of rising wedges, head and shoulders price patterns, double tops and bottoms. Much human behavior is repetitive, tempting an investor to perceive a pattern then extend it into the future. The repetition hides the recursive or evolutionary nature of human thinking. Inertia, Newton’s First Law of Motion, may apply to inanimate objects but not to human behavior. Biological systems have built-in dampeners that counteract a stimulus. Without repeated stimulus, the formation of any possible pattern decays.

Price behaves like a biological organism, not an inanimate object. We can see beautiful symmetries in graphical chart analysis but each pattern formation has a unique history. Price is the visible point of a response to events, needs and expectations. Price is a story of people. George Soros, a highly successful investor, constructs a predictive story, then watches price only as a confirmation or refutation of the story. If Soros thinks his story is not unfolding as he predicted, he exits his position.

In school we encountered various branches of mathematics where we were given formulas and plotted data points or intersections, the solutions to a set of equations. Statistics is the reverse of that process. We are given data sets and try to derive formulas to explain relationships within the data. A data set might be the test scores of students before and after the initiation of a certain curriculum. We may represent the test scores on a graph, but the scores reflect a complex set of individual behavior and circumstances, institutional policies, cultural background and economic resources. A statistical analysis tries to include some of these aspects in its findings. A student population is likely more homogenous than the companies in the SP500 stock index who represent a variety of industries. Just as test scores cannot fully explain the efficacy of a school policy or curriculum, asset prices do not reflect the complexity of a day’s events. In our longing for predictability and our fondness of patterns, we prefer analysis that explains price action as a rational sequence of responses to economic, political and financial events. Much financial reporting is happy to oblige.


Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

Bray and Begone

January 1, 2023

by Stephen Stofka

This week’s letter is about an unusual year and the lessons we can and can’t learn from it. As I wrote last week, we must carefully sift through the unique circumstances in a time series to learn any lessons that we can carry into the future. Sometimes we bray at the passing of an unusual year and continue on our course. Other times, like 9-11 and the 2008 financial crisis, we sort through the debris of an unusual year to understand how we can avoid a repeat occurrence.

What made this year so unusual was the bond market’s loss of almost 13% in addition to the stock market’s loss of 18%. Normally, bonds zig when stocks zag but not this year. This year’s loss in the bond market was the steepest drop ever. This year has been a good test of an investor’s allocation but a long term perspective is encouraging.

During our working years we accumulate assets. In retirement we distribute the price appreciation and income from those assets. In a down market like this past year, a younger investor must balance the opportunity to buy assets at lower prices with the probability they will need liquidity, i.e. cash for living expenses. A basic recommendation is to have six month’s income in cash for emergencies and loss of job. Someone in an executive position might store up to two years of cash or highly liquid investments in anticipation of a much longer job search to find a comparable position.

This past year has tested retired investors who have relied on the historical stability of bond prices. An aggregate bond mix lost 12.8%, surprising investors who may have used bond funds as a substitute for cash funds that paid little interest in the previous years. A bit of historical perspective – in 1994, after five years of relatively low rates, the Fed began raising rates. An intermediate term bond fund lost 4.2%, while an average treasury bond lost 8% that year. The Fed has kept rates far lower and far longer than that five year period and the market reaction has been greater as well. A 60-40 portfolio (60% stocks, 40% bonds) has moderate risk and good long term returns, making it a choice of many money managers. That typical portfolio weighting lost 16.5% this year.

An asset’s ultimate value is measured in the goods and services that they can buy. Today’ retiree might live 20 – 25 years or more, tapping their assets for their income needs. A few months ago, Gupta et al (2022), researchers at McKinsey & Company, found that the SP500 index has returned about 9% since 1994, including the dot-com frenzy of the late 1990s. To measure the purchasing power of the SP500 index over a 23 year period, I adjusted the index by the CPI index in January 2000, near the height of the dot-com bubble. In that span of time, we have endured a dot-com meltdown, the Great Financial Crisis and its slow recovery, followed by a once-in-a-century pandemic and a disruption of the global supply chain. The wide adoption of the internet in commerce has prompted a fundamental shift in jobs and revenue. Despite those disruptions, the purchasing power of stocks has increased 1.8% above annual inflation since 2000. Including an average dividend return of 2.02%, the broad stock market has grown in purchasing power almost 4% every year.

The SP500 index is a compilation of companies that have survived tough economic conditions. Companies that fail the adversity test are discarded from the index and replaced by another company. It is like a game of “King of the Hill” that we played as kids but the stakes and price volatility are far  higher. A broad index of bonds usually offsets that volatility, sacrificing a little return for a big reduction in the value of a portfolio. In the past 23 years, a 500 index fund had a standard deviation – or wag of the tail – of more than 15%. According to Portfolio Visualizer (2022), a simple 60-40 portfolio had less than 10% deviation. That lack of volatility cost .25% per year in return, about the same as the annual cost to insure a house. Investors with a 6-30-10 portfolio, setting aside 10% in cash, paid an additional .25% less return in exchange for a slight reduction in price volatility.

For the first time since records began, bonds did not offset the volatility of stock prices this past year. Depending on their age, health, location and available resources, some investors have a greater tolerance for risk than others. Investors with exactly the same circumstances may perceive their risk differently and comparisons between individuals are difficult and ill-advised. Some investors feel more fragile, giving greater weight to unique outcomes like this past year. Others give more weight to average trends, taking comfort in the probability that this year was an anomaly.


Photo by Mary Farrell on Unsplash

Backtest portfolio asset allocation. Portfolio Visualizer. (2022). Retrieved December 31, 2022, from https://www.portfoliovisualizer.com/backtest-portfolio#analysisResults. Stocks: an SP500 index fund. Bond: an intermediate term broad bond fund. Cash: money market.

Gupta , V., Kohn, D., Koller, T., & Rehm, W. (2022, August 4). Markets will be markets: An analysis of long-term returns from the S&P 500. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved December 31, 2022, from https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/prime-numbers/markets-will-be-markets-an-analysis-of-long-term-returns-from-the-s-and-p-500

The Ghost of the Past

December 25, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! This last letter of the year will be about choices and wishes, about means and ends. Aristotle distinguished between choice as a means and a wish as an end. A wish can be an illusion of choice, but it is not a choice. A choice is a path toward a wish. A wish is the reason for making a choice. Understanding the role of choice and wish in our lives can help us become more prudent investors.

A principle of economics is that choice involves an opportunity cost, the giving up of one thing for another. A child who wishes to be a basketball star soon learns that this requires many hours of layups and passing drills, shooting foul shots and other exercises that are the means to achieve that wish. The time spent doing those activities cannot be spent on some other activity and is an opportunity cost. An opportunity cost is a sunk cost that should not factor into our next decision but people have a natural aversion to loss. Investors are cautioned not to “marry” their investments, meaning that we shouldn’t stick with an investment simply because we don’t like taking a loss.

A post hoc analysis of a series of events may yield little useful information that will guide us in future choices because the pattern of events and choices will likely not be repeated. A seasoned executive of a bankrupt company may make a post-mortem comment, “We expanded too fast for our target market.” When we spend time analyzing a chain of decisions within a unique set of circumstances we do not spend time doing something else. We are lured by the illusion that the ghosts of past events can communicate with the ghosts from our future, that we can learn from the past. Most of the time, we can’t.

“I should have sold this spring when it was near 50 and rates were low,” a guy in front of me in the checkout line remarked to his friend, then they stepped forward to one of the self-checkout machines. I guessed they were talking about Bitcoin and mortgage rates. We judge the quality or accuracy of our choices by the information or insight we gain later. We can drive ourselves crazy with this type of time travel.

During the past two decades, the median sales price of a home has increased 4.7% per year. Disposable (after tax) personal income has risen only 4.1% per year. House prices in relation to disposable income is near the height of the 2000s housing bubble, as shown in the chart below.

A 20% down payment on a conventional house mortgage is a wish that takes a long reach. Choices include an FHA loan with a smaller down payment, cutting back on expenses or working an extra job for additional income. To some, Bitcoin was another choice, an asset whose value would increase faster than the average 10% annual gain in stocks or the paltry interest paid by savings accounts during the past decade. A $10,000 purchase of Bitcoin might grow to the size of a conventional down payment in just a few years. Even though Bitcoin’s price has fallen dramatically from the heady levels of $65,000 in November 2021, the price is still double its $8,000 price in January 2020. That is an annualized gain of almost 20%, double the 9.45% average annual gain of the SP500 total return (2022).

Each year is an unfolding narrative with no dress rehearsals. To alleviate the uncertainty, we look to the past and extrapolate into a future guaranteed to be unlike the past in significant ways. We wish we could predict the future, but our choices help construct our future. We can only look in front of us.


Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

S&P 500 Total Return Index, [SP500TR], retrieved from https://finance.yahoo.com/quote/%5ESP500TR/history?period1=1041292800&period2=1671753600&interval=1mo&filter=history&frequency=1mo&includeAdjustedClose=true, December 23, 2022.

U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Median Sales Price of Houses Sold for the United States [MSPUS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MSPUS, December 24, 2022.

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Disposable household income [W388RC1A027NBEA], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/W388RC1A027NBEA, December 24, 2022.

U.S. Census Bureau, Household Estimates [TTLHHM156N], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/TTLHHM156N, December 24, 2022.

The Misery Index

December 18, 2022

By Stephen Stofka

This week’s letter is about a measure of economic discomfort that economist Arthur Okun developed in the 1960s. In the early 1980s President Reagan renamed it the “misery index.” Weather forecasters calculate a misery index of temperature and humidity. Okun’s measure of discomfort added the inflation rate and the unemployment rate. How reliable is this weathervane of human misery? Let’s focus on those points where the index touched a medium term low.

We can begin in the mid-60s as society began to rupture. Young people protested the restrictive norms of the post-war society when employers regarded a man whose hair was longer than “collar length” as unkempt. Polite women wore white gloves to church and formal affairs. In northern cities black people rioted over the prejudice that prevented them from access to business loans in their own neighborhoods. By law, federal home loans were not available to people who lived in “redlined” majority black neighborhoods. The courts and Indian agencies disregarded the property and civil rights of Native American families. There was a lot of misery that was not measured by the misery index.

The late 1990s – another relative low in the misery index – were a heady time. The internet and Windows 95 was but a few years old and investors were exuberant about the “new internet economy.” Fed chairman Alan Greenspan warned of “irrational exuberance” and economist Robert Shiller (2015) wrote a book of that same name, introducing his cyclically adjusted price earnings, or CAPE, ratio. Investors based their valuations on revenues, not profits. In a rush to dominate a market space, companies spent more to acquire a new customer than the revenue the customer brought in. Investors rejected “old economy” manufacturing companies like Ford and GE and turned to the new economy stocks like  Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, CompuServe, AOL and Netscape, companies that connected computers and people. Neither Google nor Facebook existed. Amazon was a company that sold books online. Pets.com raised $83 million at its IPO on the promise of convenient pet food delivery. In the summer of 2000, the air started leaking from the “dot-com” bubble. By the spring of 2003, the SP500 was down 42% from its high. None of that investor misery was captured by the misery index.

The index touched another low in early 2007, a year before the beginning of the 2007-09 recession and the Great Financial Crisis. This time investors were exuberant over both housing and stocks. The top bond ratings companies, like Moody’s and S&P, dependent on the fees they collected from Wall Street firms, slapped Grade AAA stickers on the subprime mortgage backed securities their customers wanted to underwrite. Financial companies played regulatory agencies against each other, choosing the one with the most relaxed standards and supervision. Whiz kids in the back rooms of major financial firms developed trading models that blew up within a few years. Some of the largest companies in the world, champions of the free market who consistently fought regulations, ran to the government with their hands out, pleading for bailouts.  In the 3rd quarter of 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and threatened to take down the rest of the financial system. The misery index rose to 11.25%, slightly below our current reading of 11.88%. If the misery index were a tape measure, a carpenter would throw it in the garbage as an unreliable tool.

The collapse of oil prices in 2014 shifted the misery index to another low in 2015. After a decade of near zero interest rates, housing and stock prices had again reached nosebleed levels and the index dropped to another low in late 2019. Was that a harbinger of a coming financial crisis? We never did find out. Within six months, the pandemic crisis struck.  

The misery index is an unreliable measure of discomfort but a good measure of investor exuberance. Medium term lows are an indicator that investor optimism and asset valuations are too high. Relative index highs like the current 12% mark a period of excess investor pessimism. Sometimes a lousy tape measure can be useful after all.


Photo by patricia serna on Unsplash

Shiller, R. J. (2015). Irrational Exuberance: Revised and Expanded Third Edition. Princeton University Press.


A Money Evolution

December 11, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

This week’s letter is about biological and monetary evolution. Darwin proposed that biological evolution is a process of adaptation to one’s environment. Herbert Spencer, a contemporary, coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and Darwin adopted it but came to regret it. His theory argued that species survived not because they were the strongest or most able but because they fit the environment. Sean Carrol (2006) titled his book The Making of the Fittest but his book could have been more appropriately titled The Making of What Fits. The genetic process does not produce a series of super species because such a species would overwhelm or consume its environment. A species develops attributes that help it cope with its genetic defects and this adaptation helps it find a niche within its environment. 

As an example, the skin of dogs and cats cannot synthesize Vitamin D from sunlight. They must get it from their diet, from other creatures who can store Vitamin D (Zafalon et al., 2020). Dogs and cats partnered with a species who provides a steady diet of meat directly or indirectly. People store grain which attracts rodents and small mammals, a source of Vitamin D for cats and dogs. Cats and dogs have a far greater range and sensitivity of hearing and seeing, making them excellent sentries and hunters of small animals. Money is not a species, but a direct mechanism of exchange and an indirect property relationship. Still it has and continues to evolve.

Gold and other “hard” currencies have survived for centuries. Gold is durable yet malleable but so is iron which people have made into tools since the first cities and towns formed many millennia ago. Iron is a common element but in metal form, it oxidizes. Gold does not, but it is found in few places on earth, a characteristic defect that humans adopted as a money. However, the inflexible supply of gold produces deflation, a rise in its exchange value and a fall in the price of goods. Because of this, gold does not adapt well to growing economies. Investors are hesitant to support new ventures if the price of their produced goods are likely to fall. In Part 2, Chapter 2 of the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith noted the critical shortage of hard currency in the growing economies of the American colonies. In 1764 Parliament had passed a law making the issue of paper money illegal and this rightly angered the colonists. Because they were unrepresented in Britain’s Parliament, they had no say in policymaking.

Paper or fiat money solves the supply problem of hard currency. However, it’s characteristic defect is the opposite of hard currency – inflation brought on by the supply of too much money. That apparent ease of supply is deceptive. Fiat money requires a framework of financial institutions, a number of supervisory institutions to monitor the system and an enforcement force to punish counterfeiters. These institutional costs offset the relatively inexpensive cost of fiat money. To respond to inflation a central bank can increase the price of future money or credit. A sixty year regression of a key interest rate, the Federal Funds rate, and inflation shows that they respond to each other.

The model for Bitcoin (specifically, not just any digital currency) is more organic, exhibiting an S-curve growth path like rabbit populations and anything that is bounded by the resources of its environment. Bitcoin enthusiasts tout its strength as an exchange mechanism without the enabling framework of central bank and a network of financial institutions. It is democratic and trustless. Critics point out that the broader digital currency market is riddled with manipulators like Sam Bankman-Fried, the CEO of FTX and co-owner of Alameda Research, both of which owe billions to depositors. SBF has agreed to testify this coming Wednesday at both House and Senate committee hearings. Bitcoin advocates counterargue that crises unfold regularly in the current fractional reserve banking system because it is subject to fraud and poor risk management.

 Unlike fiat money, Bitcoin and gold share the characteristic defect of deflation. A rising exchange value of gold or Bitcoin attracts investors who support mining ventures for more gold or Bitcoin. When supply meets or exceeds demand, the exchange value falls and the miners may not be able to repay their loans.  Robert Stevens (2022) at Yahoo! Finance details the debt crisis of several Bitcoin miners who borrowed heavily to finance the purchase of mining machines during the crypto bull market but held onto what they mined. Clean Spark is a miner that sold more than two-thirds of what they mined. While the more aggressive firms may default on their loans, those like Clean Spark with cash can buy a mining machine for 10 cents on the dollar.

Like fiat money, Bitcoin exchange requires a global electronic and communications network. The mining of Bitcoin requires a vast network of suppliers of mining machines and a less expensive supply of electricity like hydropower or nuclear, both of which are in far greater supply than gold. Although Bitcoin is not physical, its shared location means that it is impervious to fire and easily portable. Like the U.S. Constitution, the rigidity of Bitcoin’s supply model gives it stability but makes it an inflexible instrument to address economic or social change.

Fiat money and gold have evolved together because they have opposite defects that complement each other. Fiat money depends on a trust in a government authority, is easily portable and tends toward inflation. Gold is physical and durable, does not rely on trust and tends toward deflation. Bitcoin is a mule, sharing characteristic defects with both fiat money and gold. Bitcoin shares gold’s tendency toward deflation, but is not physical. Bitcoin cannot replace gold until it can be made durable like gold. Bitcoin is more easily transported than fiat money but does not rely on trust in an authority. Bitcoin cannot replace fiat money unless it can be made to tend toward inflation. In the next century, fiat money, Bitcoin and gold may evolve together without replacing each other.


Photo by Krista Mangulsone on Unsplash

Stevens, R. (2022, December 9). Bitcoin miners took on billions in debt to “pump their stock,” leading to a crypto catastrophe. Yahoo! Finance. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://finance.yahoo.com/news/bitcoin-miners-took-billions-debt-113000061.html

Zafalon, R. V., Ruberti, B., Rentas, M. F., Amaral, A. R., Vendramini, T. H., Chacar, F. C., Kogika, M. M., & Brunetto, M. A. (2020). The role of vitamin D in small animal bone metabolism. Metabolites, 10(12), 496. https://doi.org/10.3390/metabo10120496

Wages and Services

December 4, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

This week’s letter is about the effect of wages on inflation. In an address this week, Fed (2022) chair Jerome Powell explained the Fed’s view of the latest trends and signaled that the Fed might ease up slightly on a rate increase at its December 13-14th meeting. Friday’s jobs report had stronger than expected gains so that may temper the Fed’s willingness to ease up on the “rate brake.” In his speech, Powell cautioned that “nominal wages have been growing at a pace well above what would be consistent with 2 percent inflation over time.”

The services portion of the economy consists of mostly labor so the Fed focuses on just that sector to gauge the underlying demand for labor. In the graph below are total wages and salaries (blue line) and the services sector (red line). Both series bent upward from their pre-pandemic trends but the Fed is focused on the upward momentum of wage increases (blue line) as an underlying driver of “core” inflation.

Core inflation does not include volatile food and energy prices. Those matter a great deal to consumers but the variance makes it more difficult to predict a future price path. Imagine walking a dog on a leash down a park path. The dog might dart from side to side to sample the smells along the path but the walker stays more centered on the path. An observer who could not see the path would likely watch the person rather than the dog to predict the direction they were taking. Below is a chart from Powell’s presentation.

On a long-term basis there are two trends that are likely to produce upward wage pressures. Growth in the working age population has slowed and the participation rate has declined. Since the beginning of 2021, wages have increased 11%. The labor force has increased only 3%, partly due to demographics and partly due to a participation rate that is 1% less than the pre-pandemic level. Should the trend continue, it will affect the supply of workers, causing employers to compete by paying higher wages or give up and abandon expansion plans. The first leads to persistent inflation. The second leads to a recession.  

While the Fed might moderate their rate increases, history has warned not to ease up on rate increases at the first sign of slowing inflation. In the early and late 1970s, the Fed eased and inflation resumed its upward climb. It’s like relaxing the tension on a leash and the dog immediately rushes ahead. The Fed’s tools are blunt instruments, relatively easy to deploy, but lack any surgical precision. Increasing rates dampen inflation, but both have the hardest impact on low income families who will welcome the relief of lower inflation. They can expect little help from a divided Congress as it struggles to enact any fiscal policy.

I worry about the next two years. Republicans have been out of power for a century. By that I mean that voters rarely given them the full reins of power, a trifecta where the same party controls the Presidency, the Senate and the House. They held power in the 83rd Congress from 1953-1955 and again in the two years of the 115th Congress, from 2017-2019. Their longest stint was the four years 2003-2007, a time of repeated failure and scandal – the mismanagement of the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the accounting and energy scandals. They are not a party that governs well because they do not respect governing, only the political power that accompanies governing. They have become a reactionary party whose strategy is a “Lost Cause” narrative familiar to the southern Democrats they absorbed into the party over the past five decades. Party leaders and conservative talk show hosts echo a constant refrain that Republicans are the last standing guardians of traditional American values. I worry because Republicans are a party who breaks things and people are more breakable in the aftermath of the pandemic.


Photo by Justin Lawrence on Unsplash

Federal Reserve. (2022, November 30). Speech by chair Powell on inflation and the labor market. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/powell20221130a.htm

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Cost Index: Wages and Salaries: Private Industry Workers [ECIWAG], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/ECIWAG, December 2, 2022.

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Personal consumption expenditures: Services (chain-type price index) [DSERRG3M086SBEA], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/DSERRG3M086SBEA, December 2, 2022.


A Broader Inclusion

November 27, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. This week’s letter is about a type of income that we don’t often think about, how that affects asset values and a proposal to increase homeownership. With left over buying power, people purchase assets in the hope that the buying power of the asset grows faster than inflation. There are two types of assets: those that produce future consumption flows and collectibles whose resale value increases because they are unique, desired and in limited supply. An example of the first type is a house. An example of the second type is a painting. Let’s look at the first type.

House Equals Future Shelter

A house is a present embodiment of current and future shelter. The value of that utility depends on environmental factors like schools, crime, parks, access to recreation, shopping and entertainment. These affect a home’s value and are outside a homeowner’s control. A school district’s rating in 2042 may be quite different than its current rating. Our capitalist system and U.S. tax law favors home ownership in several ways. The monthly shelter utility that a home provides is capitalized into the value of a property. Every consumption requires an income, what economists call an imputed rental income. Two thirds of homes are owned by the person living there (Schnabel, 2022) and a little more than half are mortgage free. Unlike reinvested capital gains in a mutual fund, this imputed income is not taxed to the homeowner. Let me give an example.

If the market rate for renting a similar home were $2000 a month, that is an implicit income to the homeowner. Because there is no state or federal tax on that income, the gross amount of that $2000 would be about $2400. That’s almost $30,000 a year. After monthly costs for taxes, insurance and maintenance, the annual implicit operating income of the property might be $25,000. At a cap rate of 5% (to make the math easy), the capital value of the property is $500,000. Each year, Congress requires the U.S. Treasury to estimate the various tax expenditures like these where Congress excludes certain income items from taxes. The implied income on owning a home is called “imputed rental income” and in 2021 the Treasury (2022) estimated that the income tax not collected was $131 billion. How much is that? A third of the $392 billion paid in interest on the public debt. If we did have to pay taxes on that imputed income, it would lower the value of our homes. For many decades, Congress has not dared to include that implied income.

Mutual Fund Capital Gains

Let’s return to the subject of reinvested capital gains in a taxable mutual fund held outside of an IRA or pension type account. Some of what I am about to say involves tax liability so I will state at the outset that one should consult a tax professional before making any personal buy and sell decisions. When some part of a fund’s holdings are sold, a capital gain is realized from the sale and paid to the investor who owns the mutual fund. If the investor has elected to have dividends and capital gains reinvested, the money is automatically used to repurchase more shares of the mutual fund. The balance of the account may change little but there is a taxable event that has to be included in income when the investor completes their taxes for the year. Many mutual fund holdings recognize capital gains in December.

Mutual fund companies provide the tax basis or unrealized gain/loss for each fund but often do not include that information on the statement. The unrealized gain is the price appreciation has not been taxed yet. For example, the dollar value of a fund may be $50,000 and the unrealized gain $5,000. This is more typical of a managed fund than an index fund which does not adjust its portfolio as frequently as a managed fund. If an investor were to sell the fund to raise cash, they would pay taxes on the $5,000, not the $50,000. The unrealized gain in an index fund might by 70% of the value of the fund. If the fund value is $50,000, the unrealized gain could be $35,000 and the investor would owe taxes on that amount. An investor can minimize their tax liability with a judicious choice of which fund to sell. Again, consult a tax professional for your personal situation.

Affordable Homeownership

Let’s visit an imaginary world where people do not have to pay property taxes outright. Each year they can elect to sell a portion of their property to the city or other taxing authority. Cities sometimes place tax liens on properties when a tax is not paid. This would be like a voluntary lien making the city a temporary part owner of the property until the homeowner sells it.

Imagine that a homeowner owns a home worth $400,000. For ten years, they have elected to have the city deduct an annual $2000 average property tax from the value of the home. Over the ten year period, the accrued sum is $20,000 plus an interest fee that is added to the principal sum of the tax. These voluntary tax liens would be visible to a lending institution so that the sum would lower the home’s value for a HELOC, or second mortgage. The city would report that annual amount each year as an imputed income to the homeowner and the homeowner would have to pay income taxes on it. At a 20% effective federal and state tax rate, the out-of-pocket expense would be about $480 on $2000. After the 2017 tax law TCJA, property taxes are no longer deductible so the homeowner has to earn $2400 to pay the $2000 tax outright. There is a slight change in income tax revenue to the various levels of government. When a home is sold those tax liens would be paid back to the city.

Why don’t we have such a system in place now? In the U.S. private entities own most of the capital. Some people would be uncomfortable knowing that a government authority had some legal claim to their property but they could opt out. In a pre-computer age, the accounting would have been a nightmare. Such a system is feasible today. Mutual fund companies have demonstrated that they can track the complex capital positions of their customers. Cities can do the same.

Such a system would make home ownership more affordable for a lot of people without affecting those homeowners who preferred to pay the property tax outright as we do under the current system. Investment companies would be eager to amortize those voluntary tax liens held by city governments. In the event of another financial crisis, a decline in housing prices and a rise in foreclosures, the city would be first lienholder, first in line to get paid when the property is foreclosed. Interest groups that advocate for affordable housing would be joined with investment and pension companies who wanted to underwrite the bonds for such a program.

A Capitalist System of Greater Inclusion

Some blame our capitalist system for the inequities in our society. The fault lies in us, not the capitalist system. Feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism, socialism, communism and fascism are systems of rules that embody a relationship of individuals to 1) property and the manner of production, both current and future, 2) the society, our families and communities, 3) the government that recognizes those relationships. The capitalist system is the most versatile ever invented and yes, it has been used to exclude people just as the other systems have been used to weaken some classes of people. The capitalist system can be extended to include and strengthen more of us. This homeownership policy could broaden that inclusion.  


Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Schnabel, R. (2022, August 19). Homeownership facts and statistics 2022. Bankrate. Retrieved November 24, 2022, from https://www.bankrate.com/insurance/homeowners-insurance/home-ownership-statistics/

U.S. Treasury . (2022, October 13). Tax expenditures. U.S. Department of the Treasury. Retrieved November 24, 2022, from https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/tax-policy/tax-expenditures. Click FY2022 for the current year PDF estimates.

Profits and Savings Diverge

November 20, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

This week’s letter is about household savings and corporate profits. As a share of GDP, savings are near an all-time low while profits are at an all-time high. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, appeared in court this week. No, this wasn’t about his acquisition of Twitter. It concerned a shareholder lawsuit against Tesla regarding the $50B stock option package the company awarded him in 2018. In 2019 the company’s total revenue – not profit – was less than $25B. In 2022, annual revenue was $75B. At a 15% profit margin, the company must continue growing its revenue at a blistering pace to afford Mr. Musk’s incentive pay package. Large compensation packages like this are only a few decades old. Let’s get in our time machine.

In 1994, Kurt Cobain, the 27 year old leader of the rock group Nirvana, died from an overdose of heroin. Something else was dying that year – corporations were breaking free of national boundaries and moving production to countries other than their home nation. This was the last stage in the evolution of multinational corporations, or MNCs. In earlier decades, companies had licensed or franchised their brand. Perhaps they had set up a sales office in a foreign country. Now they were becoming truly global. Fueling that expansion was an increase in equity ownership by large institutional investors. To accommodate these changes, their governance structures changed. Executives capable of leading this global growth were rewarded on a parallel with superstar sports talent. That was the conclusion of Hall and Liebman (2000, 3), two researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research. 

Let’s look at two series over the past sixty years – personal savings and corporate profits. If we think of a household as a small enterprise, personal savings is the residual left over from the household’s labor. Likewise, corporate profits are the residual left over from current production. In 1994, the two series diverged. Corporate profits (the blue line in the graph below) kept rising while personal savings plateaued for a decade. Each series is a percent of GDP to demonstrate the trend more easily.

Executive Compensation

In the mid-1990s, corporations began to issue a lot more stock options to their executives. Some think that a change in the tax code might have precipitated this shift in compensation.  In 1994, Section 162m of the IRS code limited the corporate deductibility of executive pay to $1 million (McLoughlin & Aizen, 2018). By awarding non-qualified stock options to their executives, companies could preserve the corporate tax deduction. However, the slight tax advantage did not account for the rapid increase in options awards. Hall and Liebman found that the median executive received no stock option package in 1985. By 1994, most did. The tax change was secondary – a distraction. Institutional investors wanted more growth and more profits and companies were willing to reward executives with compensation packages similar to sports stars (Hall & Liebman, 2000, 5). Some of these superstars included Jack Welch of General Electric,  Bill Gates of Microsoft, Michael Armstrong of AT&T.

Income Taxes – Less Savings

In 1993, Congress passed the Deficit Reduction Act that raised the top tax rate from 31% to almost 40%. Personal income tax receipts almost doubled from $545 billion in 1994 to almost $1 trillion in 2001. The booming stock market in the late 1990s produced big capital gains and taxes on those gains. For the first time in decades the federal government had a budget surplus. However, more taxes equals less personal savings so this contributed to the flatlining of personal savings during that period.

Household Debt Supports More Spending

During the 2000s, personal savings remained flat. On an inflation adjusted basis, they were falling. Too many people were tapping the rising equity in their home to pay expenses and economists warned that household debt to income ratios were too high. Savings as a percent of GDP fell to a post-WW2 low. As home prices faltered and job losses mounted in late 2007, people began to save more but their debt left them with little protection against the economic downturn. During 2008, personal savings began to increase for the first time in fifteen years. More savings meant less spending, furthering the economic malaise that began in late 2007.

Multi-National Corporate Profits

During those 15 years corporate profits rose steadily as companies increased their global presence. Beginning in 1994 U.S. companies began shifting production to Mexico where labor was cheaper. In 2001, China was admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and production outsourcing continued to Asia. Despite the profit gains, companies kept their income taxes in check. In 2021, corporate income taxes were at about the same level as in 2004. That contributed to the rising budget deficit during the first two decades of this century.

Federal Deficit

The prolonged downturn in 2001-2003 and the financial crisis and recession of 2007-2009 put a lot of people out of work. This triggered what are called “automatic stabilizers,” unemployment insurance and social benefits like Medicaid, housing and food assistance. The federal government went into debt to pay for the Iraq War, pay benefits to people and help fill the budget gaps in state and local budgets. The tax cuts of 2003 enacted under a Republican trifecta* of government control reduced tax revenues, further increasing the deficit. During George Bush’s two terms, the debt almost doubled from $5.7 trillion to $11.1 trillion.

In coping with the recovery from the financial crisis, the government added another $8.7 trillion to the debt. That negative saving by the government helped add to the personal savings of households but too much was spent on just getting by. Following the Great Financial Crisis (GFC), the trend of the government’s rising debt (blue line below) matched the trend in personal savings (red). Sluggish growth and lower tax revenues caused the two to diverge. While the debt grew, personal savings lagged.  

Before and During the Pandemic

Following the 2017 tax cuts enacted under another Republican trifecta, personal saving rose, then spiked when the economy shut down during the pandemic and the federal government sent stimulus checks under the 2020 Cares Act. In the chart below, notice the spike in debt and savings. By the last quarter of 2020, personal savings had risen by $600 billion from their pre-pandemic level of $1.8 trillion. In late December, President Trump signed the $900 billion Consolidated Appropriations Act (Alpert, 2022) but that stimulus did not show up in personal savings until the first quarter of 2021. In March 2021 President Biden signed the $1.7 trillion American Rescue Plan. Personal savings rose $1.6 trillion in that first quarter, the result of both programs.

After the Pandemic

Some economists have said that the American Rescue Plan was too much. In hindsight, it may have been but we don’t make decisions in hindsight. As more schools and businesses opened up, households spent far more than any extra stimulus. They spent $1.2 trillion of savings they had accumulated before the pandemic and savings are now at the same level as the last quarter of 2008 when the financial crisis struck. Thirteen years of cautious savings behavior has vanished in a few years. On an inflation-adjusted basis, personal savings is at a crisis, almost as low as it was in 2005. In the chart below is personal savings as a ratio of GDP.

The Future

In the past year savings (red line) and corporate profits (blue line) have resumed the divergence that began almost three decades ago. Profits were 12% of GDP in the 2nd quarter of 2022. Savings is near that all time low of 2005. Rising profits benefit those of us who own stocks in our mutual funds and retirement plans. However, the divergence between the profit share and the savings share is a sign that the gap between the haves and the have-nots will grow larger.


Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

  • A trifecta is when one party controls the Presidency and both chambers of Congress.

Alpert, G. (2022, September 15). U.S. covid-19 stimulus and relief. Investopedia. Retrieved November 19, 2022, from https://www.investopedia.com/government-stimulus-efforts-to-fight-the-covid-19-crisis-4799723. See Stimulus and Relief Package 4 for the December 2020 CAA stimulus. See Stimulus and Relief Package 5 for the American Rescue Plan in March 2021.

Hall, B. J., & Liebman, J. B. (2000, January). The Taxation of Executive Compensation – NBER. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved November 19, 2022, from https://www.nber.org/system/files/chapters/c10845/c10845.pdf. Interested readers can see Moylan (2008) below for a short primer on the recording of options in the national accounts. Until 2005, these options were recorded as compensation for tax purposes but not recorded on financial statements so they did not initially affect stated company profits.

McLoughlin, J., & Aizen, R. (2018, September 26). IRS guidance on Section 162(M) tax reform. The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance. Retrieved November 18, 2022, from https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2018/09/26/irs-guidance-on-section-162m-tax-reform/

Moylan, C. E. (2008, February). Employee stock options and the National Economic Accounts. BEA Briefing. Retrieved November 19, 2022, from https://apps.bea.gov/scb/pdf/2008/02%20February/0208_stockoption.pdf

The Change Changed

November 13, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

October’s CPI report released this week indicated an annual inflation of 7.7%, down from the previous month. Investors took that as a sign that the economy is responding to higher interest rates. In the hope that the Fed can ease up on future rate increases, the market jumped 5.5% on Thursday. Last week I wrote about the change in the inflation rate. This week I’ll look at periods when the inflation rate of several key items abruptly reverses.

Food and energy purchases are fairly resistant to price changes. Economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) construct a separate “core” CPI index that includes only those spending categories that do respond to changing prices. It is odd that a core price index should exclude two categories, food and energy, that are core items of household budgets.

Ed Bennion and other researchers (2022) at the BLS just published an analysis of inflationary trends over several decades. Below is a chart of the annual change in energy prices. Except for the 1973-74 oil shock, a large change in energy prices led to a recession which caused a big negative change in energy prices.

We spend less of our income on food than we did decades ago so higher food prices have a more gradual effect, squeezing budgets tight. Lower income families really feel the bite because they spend a higher proportion of their income on food. In the graph below a series of high food price inflation often precedes a recession. Unlike energy prices, there is rarely a fall in food prices. Following the 2008 financial crisis, food prices fell ½% in 2009. It is an indication of the economic shock of that time.

Let me put up a chart of the headline CPI (blue line) that includes food and energy and the core inflation index (red line) which does not. Just once in 75 years, during the high inflation of the 1970s, the two indexes closely matched each other. Following the 1982-83 recession, the core CPI has outrun the headline CPI.

A big component of both measures of inflation is housing. The Federal Reserve (2022) publishes a series of home listing prices calculated per square foot using Realtor.com data. You can click on the name of a city and see its graph of square foot prices for the past year. You can select several cities, then click the “Add to Graph” button below the page title and FRED will load the graph for you. Here’s a comparison of Denver and Portland. They have similar costs.

The pandemic touched off a sharp rise in house prices in both cities. Denver residents have attributed the big change to an influx of people from other areas. However, Census Bureau data shows that the Denver metro area lost a few thousand people from July 2020 to July 2021 (Denver Gazette, 2022). In the decade after the financial crisis, there simply wasn’t enough housing built for the adults that were already here.

The surge in home buying has not been in population but in demographics. As people approach the age of 30, they become more interested in and capable of buying a home. The pandemic helped boost home buying because interest rates plunged from 5% in 2018 to 2.6% in 2021.

Record low interest rates enabled Millennials in their 20s and 30s to buy a lot more home with their mortgage payment. That leverage caused housing prices to rise. A 30-year mortgage of $320K has a monthly mortgage payment of $1349 at 3%. At 5%, it is $1718 and at 7% it rises to $2129. Ouch!

Rising rental costs and home prices drive lower income families to less expensive areas in a metro area or entirely out of an area. Declining public school enrollment has forced two Denver area counties to announce the closing of 26 schools and transfer them to other schools (Seaman, 2022). As the number of students decreases, the schools infrastructure costs do not change, increasing the per student costs. Buses have to be maintained, drivers paid, schools staffed with guards, cafeteria staff, janitors and administrative personnel. Once schools are shuttered, the building may be sold and converted to other uses, either residential or commercial. The public schooling system is like a large ship that takes some time to change course.

During our lifetimes we experience many changes. They can happen quickly or emerge over time. The effects may be short lived or last decades. Families are still living with the consequences of the financial crisis fourteen years ago. Carelessly planned urban development isolates the residents of a community. The social and economic effects can last several generations. As we grow older, we learn to appreciate William Faulkner’s line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Photo by Davies Designs Studio on Unsplash

Bennion, E., Bergqvist, T., Camp, K. M., Kowal, J., & Mead, D. (2022, October). Why inflation matters. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved November 11, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-11/exploring-price-increases-in-2021-and-previous-periods-of-inflation.htm

Denver Gazette. (2022, March 25). Denver joins big city trend with pandemic population slip. Denver Gazette. Retrieved November 11, 2022, from https://denvergazette.com/news/local/denver-joins-big-city-trend-with-pandemic-population-slip/article_65c6393d-2a4d-5b91-837c-f8c3efce3778.html

Federal Reserve. (2022). Median listing price per square feet:Metropolitan Areas. FRED. Retrieved November 11, 2022, from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/release/tables?eid=1138280&rid=462

Seaman, J. (2022, November 10). Schools targeted for closure in Denver, Jeffco have disproportionately high numbers of students of color, data shows. The Denver Post. Retrieved November 11, 2022, from https://www.denverpost.com/2022/11/10/dps-jeffco-school-closures-students-of-color/