The Fruits of Labor

March 6, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

In trips to the grocery store and gas station, many of us develop an inflation calculator that we trust because it tracks price changes in the unique basket of goods that we buy. If the price of mushrooms doubles, we only care if we buy mushrooms. Economists have the difficult task of computing the price changes of a common set of goods. They spend an extraordinary amount of time and expense surveying people in cities throughout the U.S. to construct a representative sample of the goods we buy (BLS, 2021). The price weighting that economists use to measure inflation differs from our instinctive approach. We assign weighting by the frequency we do something. What catches our attention gets more weight in our consumption basket.

Our sense of inflation can be guided by the price of gasoline when we fill up each week, but it is only 4% of the CPI measure of inflation (BLS, 2022). Many of us underweight the cost of housing that we provide to ourselves. Wait, what? In January, economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics computed a 4% increase in housing costs even for those who owned their home outright. They call this Owners’ Equivalent Rent (OER) and it makes up a whopping 25% of the calculation of inflation. In the BLS methodology, homeowners are both landlords and renters. Actual rental increases made up only 7% of the index but the BLS uses those rent increases to compute the market price of what a homeowner could rent out their home for each month. For a homeowner, that 4% increase in housing costs is actually a 4% saving. Even better, homeowners do not pay income taxes on that imputed income.

Like gasoline, we overweight the effect of grocery prices because we frequently shop. If we enjoy a sirloin steak once a week, we notice when it increases in price from less than $10 to $13 a pound (FRED series APU0400703613). In the years after the financial crisis many households ate more ground beef. Prices doubled in response to the increased demand (APU000070312). Ground beef is what economists call a Giffen good. Unlike normal goods, we buy more of a Giffen good when our income goes down.

Many of us measure inflation by comparing the prices we pay to the wages we receive. Workers have gained little in the past two decades, eking out an extra 8% in real earnings over that time. All of that gain has come in the past eight years. Workers should expect to share in the productivity increases of the past two decades.

An assumption of neoclassical economics is that workers’ wages reflect their marginal productivity. A BLS analysis (Sprague, 2014) of labor productivity showed an average gain of 2.2% in real output per hour from 2000-2013, yet workers’ real earnings declined slightly. In the past eight years, annual productivity gains have averaged about 1%, slightly below the annual 1.2% increase in real wages. Why have workers been able to command wages appropriate to their productivity in the past eight years but not in the 14 years prior? The problem began before the financial crisis when productivity rose 2.7% per year and real wage growth actually declined. The 2000s came after a period of reversal for the owners of capital. During the 1990s, much money was lost in the pursuit of profits promised by the developing internet. Owners and management recaptured those losses by keeping the productivity gains to themselves during the 2000s. Workers may not be able to regain those lost wages but at least they are securing the fruits of their labor.

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Photo by Timotheus Fröbel on Unsplash

BLS. (2021, December 9). Consumer price index frequently asked questions. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved March 5, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/cpi/questions-and-answers.htm

BLS. (2022, February 10). Table 1. Consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U): U. S. city average, by Expenditure Category – 2022 M01 results. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved March 5, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/cpi.t01.htm

Sprague, S. (2014, May). Definition, concepts, and uses. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved March 5, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-3/what-can-labor-productivity-tell-us-about-the-us-economy.htm

A Real Test

February 27, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

A central archetype of the American character is an individual who stands up to a large institution. America declared independence in defiance of the British Empire. The text and spirit of the Constitution shows a healthy distrust of institutional power. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart played an idealistic young man who wrestled with the power politics of the Washington elite. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg challenged the White House and Defense Dept when he released the details of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. In his 2016 Presidential campaign, Donald Trump played the newcomer, ready to challenge the institutional power of Washington. This week thousands of Ukrainian civilians volunteered to take up arms against the Russian Army’s assault on their capital, Kyiv. This was a defiant defense of democracy that most Americans could champion.

Americans have long been conflicted in their attitudes to the institutions that form the web of civic life. Our faith in government has been sorely tested in the past two decades. The pretext for the war in Iraq was founded on faulty intelligence and political passion. The fall of Enron and the discrediting of a large accounting firm, Arthur Anderson, led many to question what the attention and motives of the many agencies that took up office space in Washington. The financial crisis confirmed our worst fears. Corruption, incompetence and political impotence had helped bring the global financial system to its knees. When the pandemic touched the shores of America in early 2020, there was not much belief left in the reservoir of American trust.  

In late 2018, the Pew Research Center interviewed 10,000 Americans about their trust in government (Rainie et al., 2021). Trust in government was at historic lows and ¾ of respondents thought it had become much worse in the past twenty years. A supermajority of Americans can’t distinguish truth from lies when politicians speak. At that time, only 42% of those interviewed thought that a lack of trust was a big problem. The pandemic has revealed just how big a problem it is. Parents have threatened school board officials. Thousands of airline passengers have threatened fellow passengers and airline employees. Americans have reacted violently not to an invading army but to mask mandates. Is this what we fight for?

A lack of trust in government may be very low but it is not new. More troubling is the growing lack of trust we have in other Americans, an unraveling of social cohesion that takes years to develop and decades to repair. Under the pretense of fostering connection with others, social media helps drive us apart with carefully written algorithms that promote conflict as a form of social engagement. We need an enemy other than our neighbors. As Ukrainians escape with their children to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Moldova – as they sleep in subway tunnels to escape bombardment by Russian troops – as they take up arms to protect their capital – let’s remember that the real test of freedom is not whether we have to wear a mask in a grocery store or on a plane.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Rainie, L., Keeter, S., & Perrin, A. (2021, July 27). Trust and Distrust in America. Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. Retrieved February 27, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america/

Good Hands Government

January 20, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Socialist policymaking is founded on an aspirational principle of equal outcomes. Central to that approach is an expanded role for government as an insurance company, the insurer of last resort. Should government be the insurer of first resort? Some would prefer that but others are uncomfortable with the lack of privacy that entails. A characteristic of insurance is what economists call asymmetry of information. The insured knows more about their situation and risks than the insurer. Do we want to give government an incentive to pry into our private lives? Can government protection create a moral hazard? Will people be less careful or less industrious because they trust that government has their back? Student loan debt brings a pointed focus to some of these issues.

According to 39 state Attorney Generals, Navient was a predatory servicer of high-interest loans for students attending for-profit colleges (Settlement Administrator, 2022). In the mid-2010s, the Obama administration put its foot down with many  for-profits – if they could not meet minimum graduation rates, they would be cut off from federal funds. Many folded. Recently, 39 states  reached a settlement with Navient that gave relief to many thousands of student borrowers. Who was given no relief? Students who had been paying their loans on time.

In many areas of our lives, we disagree about who is responsible for the risks of unwelcome outcomes. A person who gets an education assumes a certain risk that higher lifetime earnings will be greater than the cost of an education. Such a risk cannot be quantified or insurance companies would sell policies to college students. However, the federal government provides some guarantee for federal student loans. Colleges, including for-profit schools, are usually accredited. That accreditation provides some assurance – but not insurance – to a student that a school’s curriculum has sufficient quality to earn the accreditation. However, conventional non-profit colleges are supervised by regional accrediting organizations that have higher standards than the accrediting bodies of for-profit colleges (The Best Schools, 2022). Without the regional accreditation, for-profit students often discover that they cannot transfer their credits to a 2-year or 4-year college. Employers may doubt the worth of their educational credentials.

Is this a case of buyer beware? How is a college education different than starting a small business? Students have a wealth of research available to them before they enroll in a for-profit college. Should taxpayers pick up the tab for students who may not have done adequate research before committing to a student loan?  Every year hundreds of thousands of small businesses go out of business for the same reason. They did not research the market. They didn’t have adequate management experience. Many people may be stuck with 2nd mortgages used to fund the business. Should taxpayers bail out small business owners? 

Financial and medical risks can be substantial and we may vehemently disagree about government’s responsibility for absorbing these risks. Government now insures us against loss of income due to injury (workmen’s compensation) or permanent inability to work (disability insurance), old age (Social Security), protects our pension funds (ERISA), insures our homes against flooding (Flood Insurance Program). It pays our medical bills if we are poor (Medicaid) and when we are old (Medicare).

Should government have a minimal or expanded role in our lives? If we want government to have our back, what is the limit? What are the boundaries between government and our lives? What is the extent of our personal responsibility? How much risk must we shoulder? There are many strong opinions on the subject.

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Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

Settlement Administrator. (2022, January 13). 39 State Attorneys General Announce $1.85 Billion Settlement with Student Loan Servicer Navient. Home. Retrieved February 20, 2022, from https://navientagsettlement.com/Home/portalid/0

The Best Schools. (2022, January 6). Guide to for-profit colleges: What you need to know. TheBestSchools.org. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://thebestschools.org/resources/for-profit-colleges/

Unfolding Story

February 13, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Trying to find the cause of inflation is like looking for a car in a big parking lot. Science is a process of ruling out causes. The latest release of the Employment Cost Index (ECIWAG) from the BLS rules out higher wages and salaries as a key driver of rising prices. During the financial crisis wages fell below trend and have stayed below the trendline for 12 years until this past year.

The average pay increase this past year has been 4.0%. Workers who have gained the most in this past year have been those with lower wages. Customer facing workers in leisure and hospitality workers are up 8% and retail workers have gained 6.3%. Other service jobs and whole sales are up over 5%. Industries with the lowest increases are in education 2.5%, state and local government (2.5%), utilities 3.0%, and financial activities 3.2%.

Two times a year the Philadelphia Federal Reserve (2022) surveys a number of economic forecasters and publishes the consensus outlook for inflation over the next decade. The current projection is 2.5%. Expectations for inflation among the public are on a shorter time frame. Once a month the University of Michigan publishes their survey of customer inflation expectations. December’s reading was 4.8%.

Housing costs could be a culprit for rising prices. The vacancy rate is very low at 5.6% and that has helped support a 5.7% increase in housing costs (CPIHOSSL). The growth rate has been swift in the past year, an aftereffect of the pandemic. For several years, the growth rate of housing costs had been about 2.7%, then fell to 2% during the pandemic. This erratic growth of the past months is unlikely to last.

The lack of new car inventory has led to sharp increases in used car prices, with smaller cars leading the pack. When the pandemic hit, auto manufacturers canceled their orders for semiconductors. As the tech factories in Asia resumed production, the auto manufacturers dedicated what chips they could get to larger SUVs and trucks with the highest profit margins. That has left a severe shortage of smaller cars. That has resulted in sharply higher prices for the used models.

The pandemic has been an experiment that would be unethical if done by anyone other than mother nature. For decades economists will try to understand the interlocking price and supply mechanisms. Economists still argue about the causes of the stagflation of the 1970s, almost fifty years ago. Human society and our interactions are at least as complex as the human mind. As economists sort through the dynamics of evolving relationships they can only hope to understand what is not true.

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Federal Reserve. (2022). First quarter 2022 survey of professional forecasters. Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Retrieved February 13, 2022, from https://www.philadelphiafed.org/surveys-and-data/real-time-data-research/spf-q1-2022

A Voting Booth

February 6, 2022

By Stephen Stofka

How important are energy prices? British homeowners are paying almost 60% more than last January’s prices to heat their homes with natural gas (https://tradingeconomics.com/commodity/uk-natural-gas). They are upset at government officials and the party in power. In the U.S., the annual January increase to residential consumers was only 2.6% (https://www.eia.gov/dnav/ng/hist/n3010us3m.htm). The UK imports most of their natural gas while US consumers enjoy the benefits of US gas reserves. Americans drive far more than Brits so the weathervane of popular sentiment  in the US is the movement of gasoline prices. In general people don’t like rising prices – period – but when gasoline prices rise faster than paychecks, the public has the sense that something is broken and they want government to fix it. A gas pump can be a voting booth.

During the eight years of slow recovery following the financial crisis in 2008, paychecks struggled to keep up with the rise in gasoline prices. Income growth finally rose above gasoline price growth in the middle of 2016. As incoming Presidents do, Mr. Trump took credit for some of the gains and policies of his predecessor. Until the pandemic struck, paycheck growth stayed above the growth in gasoline prices. These annual growth rates erase most of the seasonality of gasoline prices, which fall in the winter and rise in the spring when the refineries must switch to a more expensive blend for the heat of summer.

That trend took a “wheelie” in the spring of 2020 when the entire country responded to the swell of pandemic deaths in New York City. Headed by a soapbox President with little organizational skill, the Trump administration struggled to cope with the daily demands of the pandemic. Mr. Trump himself cared little for the research his staff brought him. He has admitted that he is not a reader, trusting his instincts more than information. Had he shown more consistency during this singular pandemic, he might have retained enough college educated male voters to tip the 2020 election in his favor. As with many of us, Mr. Trump cannot come to grips with his own failings so he blames others. He has turned that nasty habit of self-deception into an art form of grand deception.

As the chart shows, the annual growth in gasoline prices was far above the growth in paychecks when Mr. Biden took office in the beginning of 2021. Both growth rates reached 10% in the 3rd quarter of last year, but people pay more attention to the sticker price on the pump as they fill up their cars. In the fourth quarter, paycheck growth edged up while gasoline prices growth edged down, a heartening trend if it continues.

Presidents have little effect on gasoline prices, a global commodity dependent on supply and demand around the world and subject to geopolitical tensions. However, the public holds Presidents responsible. If gasoline prices are high, reporters at White House press briefings ask what the administration is going to do about it. Occasionally, they release some of the government’s strategic gasoline reserves to show some action. That release has only a small effect on global prices but it shows the administration’s attention and good intentions. Until the country went off the gold standard during the Depression, each President had to answer for movements in the price of gold. Gasoline powers our daily lives. It is our daily gold.

Mr. Biden is mindful of the electoral beating that Mr. Obama took in the 2010 elections when the Tea Party led a Republican movement to forcefully take the majority gavel from the House Democrats. Most Presidents suffer election losses in the midterms but it was a devastating turnaround in a census year. Mr. Obama was more skilled at rhetoric than taking the tiller of a national political party. As a politician with decades of experience, Mr. Biden is already in campaign mode, moving funds to battleground states to get out the vote in November. He will be mindful of the public’s sensitivity in the final months leading up to the midterms.

Gasoline prices are higher in the summer months and people drive more so they notice high prices. The press is quick to point out Mr. Biden’s low approval ratings, currently in the low 40s. Mr. Biden’s low was Mr. Trump’s high. In a country evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and Independents, a President will struggle to gain and hold a majority favorable public opinion above 50%. According to Gallup (https://news.gallup.com/poll/116500/presidential-approval-ratings-george-bush.aspx) George Bush did not enjoy a majority opinion after 2005, his first year of his second-term. His ratings fell near 30%, lower than Mr. Trump’s lowest ratings. When did those lows come? During the summer months of 2008 when gasoline prices rose above $4 per gallon. Voters carried their sticker shock at the pump into the voting booth a few months later and gave Democrats a resounding majority.

If gasoline prices are moderate this summer, that will give a boost to Democratic chances at the polls but Mr. Biden should be savvy enough not to count on that. He must assume that prices will not be friendly to him or his party this summer. The Republican strategy is to use pocketbook issues to regain a majority in both the House and Senate. Their divisive stance on moral issues only antagonizes Independent voters in the suburbs so Republicans must focus on practical issues. Midterm elections suffer from low turnout. Voters shrug. The party that can energize their voters can command the political field for the next two years. Gasoline prices energize voters.

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The Leaving

January 30, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Every week I read about the Great Resignation. What is it? The number of people quitting their jobs is at a historic high. In the leisure and hospitality industry, the number of quits is up 20% from pre-pandemic levels. In retail jobs, quits are up 16%. People quit their jobs for a lot of reasons. In more normal times, a higher quit rate indicates a greater confidence in finding another job. As the quits rate goes up, the unemployment rate goes down. I’ve inverted the unemployment rate to show the historic trend between job quits and unemployment.

These are not normal times. Employees in public facing jobs are enduring abuse from patrons. We have lost a social cohesion, an agreement on the rules of civility. In response to physical threats to employees over mask wearing, Denver’s Children’s Museum closed for ten days. According to the FAA, the number of active investigations into unruly passengers climbed 7-fold in 2021. The number of quits in healthcare field, in the leisure and hospitality industry, education, and food services are all more than 1/3 higher than pre-pandemic levels. In professional services, quits have increased by 28%. In the retail sector, the growth is only 18%.

In the South and Midwest regions that the Labor Department surveys, the quits rate has climbed 30%. According to US Census data almost 40% of the country lives in the Southern region and is the fastest growing region of the country. The Midwest region has about half the population, has recently experienced a slight population decline, but is experiencing the same job churn. Are people moving from the Midwest to the South? In the Western and Northeastern regions, the quits rate has grown more modestly – at 20-22%.

The first estimate of last quarter’s real GDP growth was an annualized 5.5% growth (GDPC1). That’s real growth after subtracting the effect of inflation. Household purchasing grew by a strong 7.1% after inflation (PCEC96). How much have households borrowed to fund that buying spree? 3rd quarter real debt rose by only 2.5%, easing slightly after the first two quarters of last year (CMDEBT/PCEPI). We won’t have 4th quarter debt levels until early March but real debt levels are still below the peak of 2007 when households had gorged on debt. Until the financial crisis in 2008, real household debt was growing 7-8% per year then went negative for six years after the crisis. Household debt did not rise above a 1% growth rate until the final year of the Obama presidency.

Households have a historically low debt burden as a percent of disposable income (TDSP). If a household’s monthly income after taxes is $1000, the average debt payment is less than $100, near a four decade low. There is a lot of guesswork in this series but the important thing is the declining trend in the data. People are not borrowing beyond their means as they did during the 2000s. Do lower debt levels mean that buying pressures will remain strong? Will another Covid variant further strain hospital staff and resources?

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A Good Decade

January 23, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

As a year-end review I’ll compare risk and returns of the past ten years with the decade before. I submitted several standard portfolios to Portfolio Visualizer. These portfolio metrics are based on broad indexes with a yearly rebalancing. These are broad benchmarks and the performance metrics don’t include fees, taxes and transactions costs that would reduce an investor’s actual returns.

The CAGR is the compounded annual return. Worst Year measures the worry level that an investor might face. The first portfolio might be termed aggressive but would be typical for a person who is more than ten years from retirement. The 60/30/10 is a moderate portfolio allocation and the 50/40/10 is a balanced weighting, more appropriate for those who might need to draw funds from the portfolio.

2012-2021                                           2002-2011                            

Stocks/Bonds/CashCAGRWorst YearCAGRWorst Year
70/25/512.2%-3.6%4.6%-24.6%
60/30/1010.7%-3.0%4.7%-20.6%
50/40/109.4%-2.5%4.9%-16.3%

The last decade stands in stark contrast to its predecessor, which included the great financial crisis of 2008-2009. The 7.5% difference in annual returns between the two decades was worth $106K extra return on a $100K portfolio. The more aggressive 70/25/5 portfolio gained an additional 1.5% during the past “good” decade but had only a .1% lower return during the previous “bad” decade. During that bad decade, however, the aggressive portfolio lost 25% of its value in one year. A 20% drop in value is considered a bear market. For investors with no need to sell any of their portfolio, those were “paper” losses. Some investors needed to tap their portfolio for living expenses in retirement or to recover from job loss. During the recovery from the financial crisis, some older investors continued to work past retirement age to replenish their portfolio. Many of them left the labor force when the pandemic struck. The number of workers over 55 is still 1.2 million less than it was at the onset of the pandemic (FRED Series LNS12024230).

The government learned valuable lessons from its response to the financial crisis in 2008-9. Both the fiscal and monetary response had been too moderate and that prolonged the recovery over many years. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, Congress and the Federal Reserve enacted strong relief measures that protected many families and some businesses from the economic fallout of pandemic restrictions. Occasionally, Congress can come together on a bipartisan basis and accomplish something.

It is unlikely that the 2020s will have the same high returns as the last decade. A younger investor can take a more aggressive stance and rely on the law of averages. Time is on their side. An investor who may need funds from their portfolio in the coming years might check their allocation and rebalance to a more appropriate level of risk.

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Wealth-Income Ratio

January 16, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

Analyses of wealth and income inequality engage policymakers and economists and provoke lively discussion on social media. Thomas Piketty (2013) stirred up debate with the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Five years later came the publication of After Piketty (Boushey et al., 2019), a series of essays by prominent economists. I wanted to tackle a different aspect of this subject – why the ratio of wealth to income has become so erratic in the past two decades. The answers are too complex for a blog post and beyond my capability to understand. But let’s take a short journey down the rabbit hole.

In the past ten years both stocks and housing prices have more than doubled, moving in a synchronized dance. In the graph below I’ve plotted the two series on top of each other to show the similarity in trend.

The Federal Reserve charts a ratio of household wealth to disposable income, which is income less taxes plus transfer payments like Social Security. Although there are some similar components, the ratio is different than the capital-income ratio that Piketty uses. Housing represents the majority of wealth for many households. Many workers own part of the stock market through mutual funds, 401K plans at work or IRA retirement plans. The doubling of these two asset classes has led to a rise in household wealth and raised the wealth-income ratio to historically elevated levels.

In the graph above I have highlighted past decades where this percentage found a level and remained there. For almost 50 years following WW2 household wealth was about 5x disposable income. Beginning in the mid-90s, this percentage turned erratic, unable to find any stability until the violent recession following the fiscal crisis. In 2013, stock prices and housing began a steady climb that endured the pandemic shock and continues to this day. Will we establish a new level of wealth at 8x disposable income in the next few years? I doubt it. Such a growth curve is unsustainable.

As I search for the underlying causes, I look back to the mid-90s when the wealth-income ratio first turned erratic. The internet first began to grow into our commercial and personal lives. Heady expectations of rocketing business profits led many investors to make wild bets on companies who had little history, a lot of hype and little profit. Out of the carnage of mis-investment emerged an internet platform that has transformed our personal lives. Apple and Amazon are two success stories. In 1997 giant Microsoft made a $150 million investment in failing Apple Computer that kept Apple out of bankruptcy. This year Apple’s valuation passed the $3 trillion mark, about 13% of the entire GDP of the U.S. That same year Amazon went public. It’s business model? Selling books. For years it struggled to make a profit. Amazon’s market capitalization is now over $1.6 trillion. The so called FAANG stocks of big tech have surpassed the industrial and financial giants of the 20th century. Two researchers at Morningstar studied the decade long impact of the ten largest stocks and the impact they made on the overall return of the entire stock market (Solberg & Lauricella, 2021). Perhaps that concentration of market power is contributing to a more erratic wealth-income ratio.

Low interest rates and leverage have affected household wealth. In the mid-90s, bankers at JP Morgan developed the collateralized mortgage to spread risk. In ten years, misuse and overuse of that idea led to a historic meltdown in housing prices and caused a worldwide fiscal crisis. Since then the supply of new housing has not kept pace with demand. Fueling that demand is a large Millennial generation which is settling down. Persistently low mortgage rates have increased the pool of qualifying buyers. Low rates have raised the present value of the future housing services a homeowner receives from the house they buy. Not enough supply to meet demand has led to higher housing prices.

High inflation this year has grabbed headlines and stirred up comparisons to the stagflation of the 1970s. There are too many differences between now and then but that is a subject for another blog post. A rising federal debt has certainly contributed to a rising level of wealth but does not account for the erratic behavior of the ratio itself. In the mid-90s, the federal debt began falling and the wealth-income ratio rose dramatically.

I suspect that finding an equilibrium in this ratio will be a painful process. To reestablish a sustainable ratio, there are two possibilities. The first is a hard landing where asset valuations fall more than incomes fall. The second scenario is a soft landing in which incomes rise more than valuations rise. Let’s hope for the soft landing.

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Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

Boushey, H., Bradford, D. L. J., & Steinbaum, M. (2019). After Piketty: The agenda for economics and inequality. Harvard University Press.

Cautero, R. M. (2021, December 28). What is disposable income? The Balance. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.thebalance.com/what-is-disposable-income-4156858

Piketty, T. (2013). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (A. Goldhammer, Trans.). The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Solberg, L., & Lauricella, T. (2021, December 1). The FAANG Market is Fading. Morningstar, Inc. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.morningstar.com/articles/1070180/the-faang-market-is-fading

A Man With No Blame

January 9, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

A 63 year old man came into a hospital because of a heart problem and found out that his condition was aggravated by Covid. He had not gotten the vaccine because he was fed some incorrect information, he said to a reporter. He was not on a ventilator yet but regretted not getting the vaccine. He was not to blame. One of the many rioters on January 6th a year ago cried that his intentions were honest – a protest against what he had been told was a stolen election. As the riot turned violent, he was swept up in the motion of the crowd. He was not to blame. In the song I Shall Be Released Bob Dylan wrote about a man who also was not to blame. We want others to take responsibility for their actions but are reluctant to shoulder responsibility for our own actions.

In the middle of the 20th century, many psychotherapists took a mechanistic approach to explaining behavior, helping their patients understand that their actions were the result of environmental and genetic factors (Maddison, 1959). Therapists wanted to avoid moral labeling because it did not present a constructive way to help a patient manage their behavior. Scholars like Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky argued that the mainstream media shaped public opinion to conform to corporate and institutional norms. When Noam Chomsky (1988) co-authored Manufacturing Consent there still was a mainstream media. Now we select the media that we want to listen to. We are the curators of our own information stream. Still we blame a conspiracy of misinformation for our own misfortune.

The formation of social media happened in America because it gave us an opportunity to form impromptu victim communities based on race, sexual orientations, political, economic and religious ideologies. We have become communities of umbrage, rallying in opposition to a stream of offenses. We form credential communities who challenge the right of others to call themselves victims.

We are drawn to conspiracy theories because there have been many of them throughout history. A small group of men – it is usually men – conspire in secret to pull the levers of power and affect the lives of many. Price fixing and asset bubbles are two examples. In the 19th century, Cornelius Vanderbilt busted up a cabal of New York politicians who kept railroad rates high and profited handsomely at the expense of merchants and consumers (Stiles, 2011). There was so much political corruption in America that taxpayers no longer trusted politicians with money. There was more transparency if the politicians contracted out the work to publicly held corporations, who had some accountability to their shareholders. By the dawn of the 20th century, corporations ruled America.

America has long been a country of victim communities. In the 18th century, colonists complained of British persecution while they persecuted black slaves, Native Americans and anyone thought to be a “loyalist.” In the Virginia colony, James Madison defended the Baptists who complained of religious persecution by the Anglican majority (Klarman, 2016, 566). Farmers complained of being exploited by “the rich and ambitious,” particularly northern bankers who seized upon every opportunity to repossess their land for failure to meet a payment deadline (Klarman, 2016, 385). In 1783, Pennsylvania farmers surrounded the statehouse demanding relief from their debts. In 1786-7, several thousand armed rebels occupied Massachusetts’ courthouses in an attempt to nullify tax liens and private debt contracts (Klarman, 2016, 88-90). This uprising, known as Shay’s Rebellion, showed a lack of respect for authority and the sanctity of contract that alarmed many leaders of colonial governments. The rebellion prompted the adoption of a stronger central government embodied in a new Constitution. The participants in the rebellion were dealt harsh sentences.

More than 200 years later, a former President, pampered since he was in diapers, claimed that he too was a victim. Like his predecessor, Richard Nixon, he claimed the role of Victim In Chief. He goaded his supporters to storm the Capitol building to deny the certification of an election which he had lost. One supporter carried a Confederate flag into the halls of Congress, a gesture of defiance and a repudiation of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox almost 150 years earlier. More than 700 of those who participated in the riot have been charged. Their leader, a man who has persistently avoided responsibility for any of his actions, faces no charges yet. He is the Victim, the Man Without Blame.

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Photo by Andrey Tikhonovskiy on Unsplash

Klarman, M. J. (2016). The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. Oxford University Press.

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The Old Normal

January 2, 2022

by Stephen Stofka

“We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Normal New Year” could be this year’s chorus. We left normal about 13 years ago when the global financial crisis erupted. Twenty schoolchildren were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. When Congress could not agree on any weapon restrictions, we knew we had veered onto the land of abnormal. In 2016, 60 million people voted for a candidate with no political experience. They had stopped believing in the normal and now embraced the abnormal. When the pandemic emerged in 2020, we stepped off the gangplank into the dark waters of the unnormal. That year a record number of people voted for a candidate who had spent most of his adult life in politics. They voted for normal.

On January 6th, 2021, the abnormals stormed the halls of Congress. They wore American flags and big bull horns and painted their bodies red and blue. They believed in a vast conspiracy. They had convinced themselves they were heroes. American cable and social media had created a funhouse of distorted reality and values. In that palace of crazy where everyone looked warped and bent, the warped and twisted looked like everyone else. Acting irrational became a strategy.

What is normal? In the past ten years, the SP500 has nearly quadrupled. Investors know the momentum can’t last but when will it end? Abnormal returns don’t return to normal. They pause then lurch in a different direction. The latest craze has been ESG funds, which grew by another $120B this year, according to Bloomberg. As the dot-com craze and the housing boom showed, investment flows can be fickle.

The flow of goods and services in the economy is more stable but the pandemic upset that dynamic balance. As we avoided close contact with others we diverted our purchasing power from services to goods. In April 2020, orders for durable goods fell 36% from the previous year’s level, comparable to the decline during the 2008-2009 recession (FRED, 2022). Production of gasoline fell 25%. National refineries did not return to their former level of production until April 2021(EIA, 2022). Durable goods boomed back in the spring of 2021. Federal relief supported many families but helped fuel inflation in a distorted economy. When and if the pandemic eases and people resume their habits, the economy may discover a more familiar equilibrium. That will help relieve price pressures.

What will relieve the erratic sentiments that drive investment flows? Casual investors who are young can afford to follow an investment theme. Older investors must protect their savings and avoid chasing the latest passion. A portfolio can protect us only if we protect it.

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Photo by Christophe Hautier on Unsplash

EIA. (2022). Weekly petroleum status report – U.S. energy information administration (EIA). Retrieved January 1, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/petroleum/supply/weekly/. Table 3.

FRED (Federal Reserve). (2020, November 4). Manufacturers’ New Orders: Durable Goods (DGORDER). Retrieved January 1, 2022, from https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/DGORDER#0