Category Archives: Economics

Consumer Prices

Everybody has a bias when it comes to measuring price inflation. Reports like the Devonshire one come out quite frequently, usually complaining that the government indexes understate inflation. They all say, well the numbers don’t reflect reality. The problem is, they don’t know what reality is any more than the government does. My reality and the next person’s are completely different because we buy different things. Cheap loans have allowed universities to raise prices in an outrageous fashion – but our kids have long since graduated so it doesn’t affect me, although anyone putting kids through college is being eviscerated. Consumers react to prices. Technology changes. Quality changes. Fashions change. And so on. All these things make any index pretty much useless, except for making political arguments. So one has to ask, in the famous words of Ms. Clinton – “What difference does it make?”

If you ask someone in Venezuela right now, of course, you would get an expletive for an answer. There is massive consumer price inflation because there are not enough consumer goods to meet demand, and so people are going hungry and without toilet paper. They are driving up prices, trying to outbid one another to compete for what little supply there is. But even in that desperate situation, there is no agreement on what consumer prices actually are, even by disinterested parties. The only way to fix the problem in Venezuela is to get goods back on the shelves. If the Venezuelan government can do that, then consumer prices will reflect the value of the bolivar and general world price levels.

There’s your clue. If you want to measure consumer prices, it is easy. Just use the Big Mac, as the Economist does. It works. 2016 USA Big Mac price inflation was 2.6%. Venezuela Big Mac prices in bolivars:

July 2014: 75

December 2014: 245

July 2015: 485

December 2015: 940

December 2016: 3550

Looks like a pretty decent metric. It tells you what you need to know – there’s a big problem.

But the economy does not run on Big Macs, and I’m interested in the inputs, not the outputs so much. And those are labor and energy. Nothing else much matters.

The End Of Volatility?

This morning, the VIX has a 9 handle. The stock market has gone 8 days without a move of more than 0.2%. Buffett, Grantham and others are arguing that this time really is different. In fact, they agree that the market has reached a permanently high plateau, although they do not dare us those words. Who are these people and what have they done with Warren Buffett and Jeremy Grantham?

Of course it is different. It is always different. History never repeats itself. In the first four months of 2017, according to Bank of America, central banks – mostly the ECB and BoJ – purchased more than $1 trillion in securities, a record rate. So of course that means blue skies forever.

And that blue sky is full of tree-tops. As the Chinese proverb goes, this too will pass. That massive liquidity pumping is not benign, it is a symptom of panic as economies refuse to respond to the therapy the bankers prescribe.

As John Hussman observes, these signs and portents are a call to lace up the gloves, not hang them up. Extended periods of low volatility and excessive bullishness are always followed by the converse. Commodities and trade are quietly collapsing, GDP barely has a heartbeat and subprime defaults are rising, especially in cards and autos, pension funds are struggling, valuations are beyond extreme.

Beware the gathering storm.

Fed Day

Fed says the economic weakness is “transitory.”

I say “We’ll see about that.” Of course, if “transitory” is referring to geological epochs, then I’ll agree.

The End Of Hope

I had hoped that Donald Trump’s presidency would see some change in Washington. The attack on Syria finally dashed this hope.  The neocons’ campaign to demonize Russia has shaken his confidence to the point that they are now back in charge. This is a catastrophe, for which there is no one to blame but Trump.

Almost as seriously, presumably at the urging of the Goldmanites, he has not only failed to even attempt to slow the financial bubble, of which his pre-election statements show he is well aware, but has cynically relished it as proof of his success. This failure is likely to be his downfall.

We are so screwed. Sauve qui peut.

Unsentimental

The Atlanta Fed GDPNow forecast for Q1 GDP now stands at 1.2% annualized growth. This despite outrageously bullish sentiment everywhere you look.

1937, anyone?

Pension Tsunami Sighted

NY Teamsters Pension Fund becomes first to run out of money.

Oh, and after the close the API announced that crude and product inventories continue to set new records. Not to worry, speculative buying continues. GLWT.

 

Socialism Is Good For You

If you need to lose weight, that is. Due to lack of food supply, Venezuelans have lost an average of 19lbs. over the last year. This despite having the largest proven oil reserves in the world.

Greece Again

Greece is back in the news. As a pretty much unbiased observer, a few points:

  • The IMF is right. Greece cannot pay its debts. Debt repayments come from surplus, profits in a sense. They’re not there, and they’re not coming.
  • Greece is a zombie. It needs a fresh start desperately, for humanitarian reasons if nothing else.
  • Apparently, there is no provision in the rules for a Eurozone member to go bankrupt. Therefore, the Eurozone rules need to be changed. It is foolish to believe that bad things don’t happen.
  • Germany has profited hugely from the Eurozone – on paper – but a lot of those profits are yet to be collected because they are in the form of unpaid debts.
  • Germany is, understandably, reluctant to write off any of those debts for fear that the whole racket will come apart, so it insists on the “nuclear option” of Grexit. As the French would say “Pour encourager les autres.”
  • Draghi is unwilling to take a leadership role in resolving the situation, because he knows that if Greece is given a less painful solution, then Italy is next in line. And Germany will be on the short end of the stick.
  • It is likely that nothing good will happen until Merkel and Schäuble are gone. The good news is that, because of the immigrant crisis, their departure from the scene is no longer unthinkable.

Welcome to 2017

Happy New Year. Well, probably not for a lot of people. Today is the first employment report of the year, and the bottom line is that the most optimistic view one could take from it is stagflation. The weakening employment trend does not support the bullish growth meme, especially as the “not in labor force” reaches a record 95.1 million. Adding back the “unemployed,” there are 102.6 million people not working – 0.675 for each employed person. Think about it.

Anyhow, the bubble lives on. US property prices are back to the previous bubble peak, and of course there are many other property bubbles around the world. The US stock market is by many measures the most over-valued in history. I could go on, but what’s the point. It will pop when it pops.

As previously explained in this blog, we are witnessing the death throes of liberal socialism. President-elect Trump is merely a symptom, as are the other “populist” political figures around the world. The liberal establishment that has benefited from the largesse is fighting back with every available weapon, but it is fated to be a losing battle. Que sera, sera.

Going Out On A Limb

I think the end of this bubble is beginning, as yields spike and the dollar soars:

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

― William Shakespeare, The Tempest

The economy is not strong. There are 100+ million adults not working (“not in the labor force”) out of a total population of 325 million, to say nothing of the myriad of government employees who are employed, but not contributing any value to the economy.

Consumption is being sustained by debt, both private borrowing and government money-printing. By January 2009, the United States had accumulated $10.6 trillion in debt. The gross national debt – just federal government debt – stands at $19.7 trillion as of the end of FY2016. Spending is on a pace to add another $2.4 trillion this fiscal year (2017), surpassing $21 trillion by next September. Krugman applauds, and of course this is Obama, not Trump. Yet.

Debt-funded consumption in excess of income has crowded out savings and therefore investment. As investment has declined, so, logically enough, productivity growth has fallen (see previous post). Simultaneously, government has been growing, making a lethal cocktail for real household disposable incomes, which have been declining for years. Pensioners who think they are in good shape are not noticing that defined-benefit pension funds are already starting to cut benefits and many, especially state and local government funds, are woefully under-funded. Social Security is in negative cash flow, and drawing on the general tax revenue pot to make up the difference. The stock market is ludicrously over-valued and promises zero or negative returns to pension funds for years to come. As Margaret Thatcher notably said “Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite a characteristic of them.”

Powerful deflationary forces are being unleashed. The world is awash in oil and efforts to keep the price up will eventually fail. OPEC in aggregate will not cut supply because its governments (as well as the non-OPEC ones) depend on the flow of oil money to stay in power. I expect oil to reach the lower $20s if not below. Most of the world is engaged in a race to the bottom, cutting interest rates to devalue their currencies and boost exports. They are therefore exporting deflation to the US. I expect to see CAD in the 0.60s and the EUR in the 0.80s. Consumer price inflation in the US appears comparatively strong due to the inclusion of OER¹ in the CPI, which is not done elsewhere, and due to the uncontrolled rise in healthcare and education prices, funded by government subsidies and debt. These prices end up being a form of taxation by the 0.01%, who are on the receiving end. The protest vote in the US election should be no surprise.

OER, a completely fictional number to start with, is high as a result of low interest rates financing housing bubbles. These will end as badly as the previous lot. I choose not to be a homeowner, largely because I don’t want to face a huge capital loss.

In short, the economy is a Potemkin village. Things are not as they are made out to be. Even a fractional increase in rates may trigger a deflationary crisis, especially considering the shortage of dollar liquidity outside the US.

¹ OER, Owner’s Equivalent Rent, is weighted about 25% of the CPI basket. It is estimated by a telephone survey of selected homeowners, asking them how much they think it would cost to rent their a property like theirs.It has nothing to do with what it actually costs them to own and live in their properties.  I am not kidding. Now do you think CPI means anything?