Category Archives: The Economy

The Economy In One Chart

Source: WSJ

Illinois And The Tsunami

Apparently the standoff between Governor Rauner and Speaker Madigan continues. As it should. Madigan’s willingness to dispense unfunded largesse to his supporters is largely responsible for the state’s financial woes. Today also the state was ordered by a Federal court to pay its backlog of Medicaid bills, which will be interesting as the state is already cash flow negative.

However the biggest issue is the unfunded state employee pension obligations. This article from Bloomberg contains a nice graphic ostensibly showing the funding levels of most states (no data for California? Really? just check this blog)

These reported funding levels are a cruel joke. These funds continue to assume 7-8% returns, despite the fact that they have not achieved them for years. Just look at the column showing the decline in funding ratio from 2014 to 2015. Not only are the assumptions high, but they are for long-term averages, so that they adjust future return estimates higher to compensate for below-average realized returns. John Hussman’s work shows more or less zero returns for the next 12 years, with the high likelihood that there will be a major drawdown in that period. Drawdowns are lethal to pension funds because the payment of benefits continues, sapping the capital base and making recovery to previous levels nearly impossible.

Pension funds used to invest in bonds. The trustees would meet once a quarter, review the actuarial forecast of liabilities and approve adjustment of the laddered bond portfolio’s maturities to exactly meet the liability schedule. Then there would be lunch and golf. The future returns would be locked in and the contributions needed to fund the bond portfolio would be obtained from the sponsor. Everyone got to sleep at night.

Then Wall Street decided that pension funds had a lot of money, and not enough was being siphoned off into Wall Street pockets. So the sales force went out, armed with charts showing that stocks had historically offered higher returns than bonds. Higher returns mean that less contributions would be needed, so fund sponsors bought the pitch. Yes, stocks have offered higher returns but for a reason – much higher risk. Well, we’ll just assume a long-term average return and surely it will average out. GLWT.

Unexpected Outcome

People seem to be surprised that the Fed’s rate hikes have resulted in rates declining. Really? It seems pretty clear that the Fed’s outlook is at odds with reality, and that rates are responding to the real outlook, which is that Fed rate hikes are a negative for an economy that is already tanking.

The Future Is Now

Debt pulls demand forward in time. Borrowers use debt to pay for consumption today and commit future income to service the debt.

The amount available for consumption today represents the present value of that committed income, discounted by the prevailing interest rates.

The further that borrowers reach into the future, the more that discount lessens the amount available today. The Fed wants consumption today, so it attempts to induce inflation in order that borrowers are more confident of their future nominal incomes, while holding interest rates low so that the discounting of that income is minimized.

This strategy has sustained consumption in the short term, at the expense of reducing future income available for consumption.

The problem is that the future is now.

As consumption slows, so does production and inflationary pressure. Defaults rise – just look at the subprime auto loans. Yes, defaults eliminate debt – but only at the expense of the creditor who takes an immediate hit to income, charged against net worth or equity capital. Lenders are forced to reduce their assets.  Borrowers find that debt service takes more of their income than they had expected. Purchasing power erodes and deflation sets in. Spending capacity falls even more rapidly and the economy slides into recession and depression.

The larger the accumulation of debt, the longer it takes to purge the financial system and restore it to stability. Debt – credit – is a necessary and healthy part of the economic system. But the economy cannot depend on consumption funded by the continuous growth of debt. Debt must revolve, expanding and contracting within limits proportional to the size of the economy.

A Bit Of Math

Simon Mikhailovich of Tocqueville Bullion Reserve reminds us of the deadly numbers with a sobering tweet:

A bit of math. With the global debt / GDP ratio at 320% and the cost of average debt service at 2%, it takes 6.4% growth per annum just to service the debt. Not happening.

No Joy In Mudville

Well the employment report this morning was a big miss to expectations on all fronts. The household report showed a net loss of jobs, and overall the quality of jobs declined as part-time, minimum wage jobs replaced full-time. However, the VIX sellers strode in to pump up stocks, leaving Treasuries as the main beneficiary of the report, with the 30-year yielding 2.86% as I write. TRIN at 2.03 shows that while the VIX sellers hold up the mega-caps, there’s a lot of distribution going on.

Oil is trading weak, in the low 47s. Wages disappointed as the employment mix changed unfavorably, even though shortages of skilled workers are widespread.

 

Tipping Point

I think we’re close. Very close. Oil gave up the 50s again today, down about 4.5% as I write. Could be a tell. How about this:

Still, dip-buyers as enthusiastic as ever. It works until it doesn’t, then folks get trampled in the rush for the exits. Markets are making no sense because of massive government intervention. Markets are a voting mechanism, but government doesn’t like the results so it suppresses them.

Macflation

I was able to find the March 2002 Big Mac price for the US, $2.49.

Using the BLS calculator, it “should” be $3.38 in 2017, instead it is $5.06. So while CPI-U inflation for the period was 2.06% annually,  BMI (Big Mac Index) inflation was 4.84% annually.

So basically if you didn’t make 5% a year after tax, you weren’t keeping up. Scary.

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.