Thursday, November 15, 2018

Are Higher Interest Rates Ahead?

Popular Economics Weekly


The benchmark 10-year Treasury Bond Yield that determines mortgage and other long term rates ended at 3.13 percent today from 3.11 percent last week with the continued stock market selloff. It was as high as 3.22 percent at times. The Fed is on track to raise short term interest rates another one-quarter percent in December, which will boost the Prime Rate used for credit card and installment debts to 5.50 percent. What does that mean for continued job and economic growth?

The jury is out on the answer, but market interest rates are barely moving. Consumer confidence is booming, but stocks are fluctuating madly because investors are fretting over what happens next year, which is what investors always attempt to predict—i.e., how much to discount future corporate earnings.

A majority of S&P 500 companies reported higher earnings than predicted in Q3, so there should be a minimal discount. And corporations are using most of their extra profits from the December tax cut to buy back stock. But that is a one-time booster shot that investors worry will soon end the stimulus.

If interest rates continue to rise, it will cut into consumer spending, while bond traders worry about incoming inflation. But the Producer Price Index and Consumer Price Index show inflation remaining below 3 percent—hardly a level that could diminish asset valuations. Both indexes continue to hover around 2.5 percent before seasonal adjustment and inflation are factored in.

Econoday

The U.S. economy isn’t overheating, in other words. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that the Personal Consumption Expenditure Index of inflation has been basically flat for months; at 2.0 percent, right on the Fed’s inflation target. Robust growth with little inflation is the Goldilocks economy we all yearn for, and the stock market should be applauding, not fearing, as I’ve been saying.
Consumers’ holiday spirits are also cheery, with the U. of Michigan sentiment survey close to its 12-month high. “Inflation expectations are mixed with the year-ahead reading down 1 tenth to 2.8 percent, said Econoday, “but the 5-year outlook up 2 tenths to 2.6 percent. These levels have been steady all year and, for the Federal Reserve, confirm that inflation expectations remain fully anchored.”
What about jobs? The economy looks to be fully employed for another year, at least. The Labor Department’s most recent JOLTS report indicates the gap between openings and hires, which had been widening in previous months and reached a record high of 1.386 million in August, shrank in September—to a still wide 1.265 million. 

That means 1.265 million jobs lack applicants, which could put a brake on future growth. Employers aren’t finding enough qualified workers to expand production, but wages are finally rising above inflation and consumers are spending more as a result.

What’s not to like about this economy? Even the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB); made up mainly of small business owners that are the creators of most new jobs; reported record-high optimism in its October survey.
“Small business optimism continued its two-year streak of record highs, according to the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index October reading of 107.4,” per its press release. “Overall, small businesses continue to support the three percent-plus growth of the economy and add significant numbers of new workers to the employment pool. Owners believe the current period is a good time to expand substantially, are planning to invest in more inventory, and are reporting high sales figures.”
It seems U.S. consumers aren’t yet reacting to the higher tariffs on imported wash machines and other appliances hit by rising aluminum and steel prices. But higher vehicle prices are sure to follow. Total vehicle sales are booming at the moment, topping 18 million units in October, according to the St. Louis Fed.

What can go wrong, you ask??

Harlan Green © 2018

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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

What Will 1% Do with Demo's Blue Wave?

The Mortgage Corner 


Now that the Democrats will be taking back the US House of Representatives in January, can they enact programs that improve the record income inequality in America? American citizens have the least equal incomes in the developed world, as the EPI graph shows. And that has been a major reason for the sluggish recovery from the Great Recession, when 25 percent of Americans still live below the poverty line for a family of four, incredible as that may seem.

The Economic Policy Institute, a labor think-tank reports newly available wage data for 2017 show that annual wages grew far faster for the top 1.0 percent (3.7 percent) than for the bottom 90 percent (up only 1.0 percent). The top 0.1 percent saw the fastest growth, up 8.0 percent—far faster than any other wage group.

This fast wage growth for the top 0.1 percent reflects the sharp 17.6 percent spike upwards in the compensation of the CEOs of large firms, thanks to the massive stock buyback programs.

There is much evidence that the Republicans’ December 2017 tax cuts are largely responsible for the surge in buybacks. That has been little noticed because of the initial 3.5 percent GDP growth estimate for Q3, when consumer spending shot up 4 percent, and inventories were replenished that boosted growth.

Apple, for instance, in May announced a $100 billion share repurchase program and so far in 2018 it's tripled its share repurchases over the first half of last year. S&P 500 companies are on track to return a record $1 trillion (via buybacks and dividends) to shareholders.

Cisco Systems said earlier it would bring back to the United States $67 billion of overseas cash in response to the tax package, using $25 billion to finance additional share repurchases. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, authorized up to $8.6 billion in stock purchases. PepsiCo announced a fresh $15 billion in planned buybacks. Chip gear maker Applied Materials disclosed plans for a $6 billion program to buy shares. And late last month, home improvement retailer Lowe’s unveiled plans for $5 billion in purchases.

Nancy Pelosi, who will be returning as the House Majority Leader, has said one of the Democrat’s priorities is a new infrastructure bill that would require $1 trillion of federal spending. Where would that money come from with a projected federal deficit of $1 trillion in coming years due to reduced tax revenues from the Republican tax cuts?

Another Democratic House leader has said they will want to boost the nominal corporate tax cut from its current 21 percent rate. In fact, the actual tax rate is far below that for most major corporations, because of the various loopholes and tax shelters available to corporations, including having headquarters in low taxation countries, such as Ireland.

Josh Bivens, the EPI research director, estimated that “the effective rate will all but surely dip below 15 percent and get close to 10 percent.” An analysis from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School Budget Model, the average effective tax rate for corporations will be about 9 percent in 2018 but go up to 18 percent by 2027, thanks to some of the provisions that will expire over the next 10 years.


There are in fact many other ways to divert federal funds from overfunded programs, such as reducing the defense budget. Estimated U.S. military spending is $716 billion, according to the Washington Post, now 17 percent of the $4 trillion federal budget. That's part of the spending bill signed by President Trump on August 13, 2018. It covers the period October 1, 2018 through September 30, 2019. Military spending is the second largest item in the federal budget after Social Security.  The United States spends more on defense than the next nine countries combined

More important was the 3.1 percent rise in wages in the Q3 GDP report that may mitigate the record income inequality, as do the various minimum wage boosts is some cities and states. But the overall picture remains bleak, as the EPI graph shows, unless other labor friendly legislation is enacted to strengthen, for instance, collective bargaining rights of unions in right-to-work states enacted by Republican legislatures since 2010 in particular.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Monday, November 5, 2018

On Tyranny

Answering The Kennedys Call


Whether or not President Donald Trump ever owned a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, stories abound of its existence with followers such as Steve Bannon, who was reported to have gifted him a signed copy when part of Trump’s campaign.

What is most disturbing to Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History at Yale University and a scholar of the Holocaust, is that so many of Donald Trump’s supporters espouse Hitler’s program of white (instead of Aryan) nationalism, which could lead to a similar outcome if such a demagogue ever rose to power in the United States of America.

You say that’s not possible with our 229-year old democratic institutions enshrined in the U.S. Constitution?
Professor Snyder writes in his Prologue: “History does not repeat, but it instructs…Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
And he has listed 20 signs that help us to learn how to remain free from past tyrannies:
  1. 1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. 2. Defend institutions.
  3. 3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. 4. Take responsibility for thr face of the world.
  5. 5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. 6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. 7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. 8. Stand out.
  9. 9. Be kind to your language.
  10. 10. Believe in truth.
  11. 11. Investigate.
  12. 12. Make eye contact and small talk
  13. 13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. 14. Establish a private life.
  15. 15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. 16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. 17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. 18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. 19. Be a patriot.
  20. 20. Be as courageous as you can.
Many of these maxims may seem self-evident, but are necessary for a participatory democracy to exist. “Believe in truth” may seem to be self-evident, but only works if one is willing to “Investigate” untruths, or truthiness, or alternative facts; terms coined by Trump administration officials to deny reality—whether it be the reality of damage done by Republican tax cuts, trade wars, and immigrant caravans that are made up mostly of women and children fleeing terror in their own countries, rather than criminals.

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” says Professor Snyder. “If nothing is true then no one can criticize power.”

“Be kind to your language” is a corollary maxim, which means think for yourself and not be bound up in mass media language and thoughts. Read books, rather than be mesmerized by the Internet. Radio was the medium Hitler’s propaganda chief Goebbels used to hypnotize the German people with Hitler’s speeches.

“Listen for dangerous words” is another corollary. Words have meanings. How many times have we heard President Trump use the words ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ to mischaracterize Muslims and Hispanic immigrants?

They give license to President Trump to invoke emergency declarations, which justified his use of emergency powers to slap aluminum and steel tariffs on our allies, while withdrawing from existing trade agreements that in fact protected us from unfair competition, and call up U.S. Troops to supposedly defend our southern border from the approaching immigrant caravans.
“Modern tyranny is terror management,” says Professor Snyder. “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives…The sudden disaster that requires the end of checks and balances, the dissolution opposition parties, the suspension of expression.”
Nothing is more dangerous to Democracy than an immoral and lawless leader who cares only to enhance his own power and wealth, or an adult citizen that doesn’t vote.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Friday, November 2, 2018

U.S. Wages At 9-Year High

Popular Economics Weekly


Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 250,000 in October, and the unemployment rate was unchanged at 3.7 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Job gains occurred in health care, in manufacturing, in construction, and in transportation and warehousing—in basically all sectors of the U.S. economy.
“The rapidly growing economy generated a sizzling 250,000 new jobs in October, keeping the unemployment rate at a 48-year low and pushing the increase in worker pay to the highest level in more than nine years,” said MarketWatch’s Jeffery Bartash.
The large increase in worker pay highlighted the unemployment report, as did government reports such as the BLS Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) that showed more than 7 million job openings, and a high Quits rate of voluntary separations that usually means workers are finding better jobs.
“The number of job openings reached a series high of 7.1 million on the last business day of August, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in October. Over the month, hires and separations were little changed at 5.8 million and 5.7 million, respectively. Within separations, the quits rate was unchanged at 2.4 percent and the layoffs and discharges rate was little changed at 1.2 percent.”
The 5.8 million hires really highlights the incredible jobs turnover rate each month in the $20.7 trillion U.S. economy. A major component of the unemployment report was the 32,000 new manufacturing jobs created in October that was highlighted in the BEA’s report on new factory orders.

“Up a higher-than-expected 0.7 percent, factory orders in October added to September's very strong gain which is now revised 3 tenths higher to 2.6 percent,” said Econoday. “October's increase for durable goods, also at 0.7 percent, is revised 1 tenth lower from last week's advance report with orders for non-durable goods, which are the fresh data in today's report, up 0.6 percent reflecting gains for petroleum and chemical products.”
Why the lowest unemployment rate in many years? A major reason is the percentage of able-bodied Americans in the labor force from the ages 25 to 54 rose to 82.3 percent in October from 81.8 percent in the prior month. That marks the highest level since April 2010.

How about interest rates? The 10-year Treasury Bond yield rose to 3.15 percent once again, and the Fed is sure to raise their Fed Funds rate another one-quarter percent in December to 2.25 to 2.50 percent, which means the Prime rate will go to 5.50 percent. That hasn’t dented consumer spending yet, but it might in the New Year.

What with the election uncertainty, trade wars, jittery financial markets, and an administration fearful of its own survival, we don’t see how 2019 can be as good.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Mr. President, Please Don’t Shoot Anyone!

Financial FAQs


Where is President Obama and other national leaders when we need them? Where is someone to refute the neo-Nazi lies of President Donald Trump, who no longer has to brag that he can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, because his followers and those who believe his lies of Jewish conspiracies and immigrant invasions are carrying out the mass shootings and violence for him; with the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooter and Florida bomber the latest examples?

Any national leader’s voice will do, as this is happening because Donald Trump has been inciting his followers to avoid impeachment from a Democratic-elected congress in the upcoming November election.

Are there not even voices from his own Republican Party who will stand up to his relentless incitements of age-old fears?

It will take a clarion call from a moral national leader to refute the lies that there is an “invasion” of several thousand Central Americans seeking asylum from their own country’s violence, and who are about to overwhelm 325 million American citizens. There is no invasion of immigrants, as even a Fox News host has said.

The number of mass shootings around the country in 2018 continues to climb.  According to data from the Gun Violence Archive, a total of 293 mass shooting incidents have occurred as of October 27.

Saturday's mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, with 'multiple casualties' and multiple officers injured, marks the 294th mass shooting. In 2017, the U.S. saw a total of 346 mass shootings. 

Where are our national leaders, including past presidents, who still believe in the rule of law and want to stop this President’s call to violence, a man who will do and say anything to stay in power?

Harlan Green © 2018

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Monday, October 29, 2018

Government Is the Solution, Part II--Housing For the Homeless

Popular Economic Weekly


I said in an earlier column “that part of the solution to the housing and homeless crisis has to be the responsibility of governments.”

A recent Project Syndicate article by UC Berkeley economist Laura Tyson, and Lenny Mendonca, Chairman of New America, highlighted just how much government support will be needed to take some of the half million homeless off the streets, a number that has grown sharply just since 2017 as housing rents and prices have soared with the economic recovery.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there were roughly 554,000 homeless people living somewhere in the United States on a given night last year. “A total of 193,000 of those people were "unsheltered," meaning that they were living on the streets and had no access to emergency shelters, transitional housing, or Safe Havens. Despite a booming stock market and strong economic growth, a large swathe of America is still struggling to make ends meet.”
And affordability is the real problem. “Of 3,007 counties in the US, a worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour can afford a one-bedroom rental in only 12,” said Project Syndicate. “In San Francisco, where the median house price is over $1.5 million, a single mother earning the minimum wage would have to work 120 hours per week to meet her basic needs. And even outside of high-cost regions, nearly two-thirds of US households lack the savings to cover a $500 shock such as a car repair or health-care expense. For these families, one bad turn can result in homelessness.”

The most common-sense solution would be to build more homes for all socio-economic strata, but surveys have shown that a majority of the home owning public thinks in NIMBY (Not-in-My-Backyard) terms; which means the most affordable housing is being built on least-desirable land usually far from population centers.

StrongTowns.org is one such advocate and clearing house for the building of affordable housing under its Mission Statement: “For the United States to be a prosperous country, it must have strong cities, towns and neighborhoods. Enduring prosperity for our communities cannot be artificially created from the outside but must be built from within, incrementally over time.”

For instance, California would need to build around 180,000 more new housing units each year – about 100,000 more than are currently being built – just to keep up with population growth. Since 2010, eight times as many jobs as housing units have been added in San Francisco, where the average cost of building “affordable apartments” has jumped to $425,000. King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, estimates that it would need 14,000 more units to house its homeless population.

Not providing lodgings and services for the homeless can be even more expensive. There are many studies that show how costly it can be to leave the homeless on America’s.

Many local and state governments have developed what have been called ‘Housing First’ programs to help subsidize the 30 percent of homeless with mental illnesses in particular. Chronically homeless people are regular visitors to emergency rooms, and each visit results in a hefty bill. They also frequently use mental health and addiction treatment services and tend to rack up arrests, leading to costly jail terms.
“Housing First is a homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life,” said its program statement. “This approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues.”
Philip Mangano, the former homeless policy czar under President George W. Bush was an early government official that had the foresight to expand housing-first programs -- with federal dollars behind them -- into cities around the country.

Using data from the 65 cities -- of all different sizes and demographics -- the cost of keeping people on the street added up to between $35,000 and $150,000 per person per year, said Mangano.
Conversely, after the housing-first programs had been established, Mangano said he looked at the cost of keeping formerly homeless people housed. That range: $13,000 to $25,000 per person per year.

We must find a way to care for the homeless and those rendered hopeless by the Great Recession, loss of good-paying jobs and record income inequality that has now lasted decades. Or, the richest country on earth risks becoming the poorest provider of care for our citizens, the hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Why Still A Housing Shortage?

The Mortgage Corner




A recent survey of California’s housing market reaffirmed the well-known fact that California has an affordability problem. The median home price is now $544,900, up 80 percent from 2011—though that’s a deceptive comparison because mostly due to bottoming of housing prices during the busted housing bubble when the median price sank below $400k.

And the California Association of Realtors (CAR) reports the California Housing Market Experiencing Shift as Home Sales Continue Descent in September, per Calculated Risk. “The California housing market posted its largest year-over-year sales decline since March 2014 and remained below the 400,000-level sales benchmark for the second consecutive month in September, indicating that the market is slowing as many potential buyers put their homeownership plans on hold,” said the CAR

California has always been a trend setter.  So what is causing the affordability problem? Most respondents (28 percent) in the USC survey thought the lack of affordability was due to the lack of strong rent control laws, while 24 percent said it was due to lack of low-income housing funds. Sixth on the list was insufficient home building.

There is a statewide rent control law that allows landlords to raise rents to market rates when tenants move out, but otherwise increases are capped at 2 percent annually. This obviously hasn’t been enough to slow rising rents in pricey California.

That’s in large part because the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act said any local rent control passed after February 1995 would not apply to large amounts of housing stock, including new apartment buildings occupied after that date, single-family homes, duplexes and condominiums. Local politicians and activists wanting to pass new laws could only limit rent increases for tenants living in housing built before that year.

Then what does that tell us about the housing shortage and affordability? Californian homeowners, at least, don’t want to see more homes built too close to them, or higher density zoning laws enacted that over crowd neighborhoods, but would rather be NIMBYs that want affordable housing built in someone else’s neighborhood.

National housing starts in September came in on the low side of expectations, down 5.3 percent to a 1.201 million annualized rate with completions very weak, down 4.1 percent to a 1.162 million rate that's the lowest since November last year. Hurricane Florence certainly didn't help the South where starts fell 13.7 percent but the Midwest, which was not affected by the hurricane, saw starts fall 14.0 percent.

Existing home sales were also disappointing. Sales of existing homes fell 3.4 percent in September to a 5.150 million annualized rate. September's result is the weakest in nearly three years, since November 2015.


This weakness on the national level happened despite price discounting by sellers, said Econoday. The median sales price for an existing home fell a monthly 2.8 percent in September to $258,100. A comparison of year-on-year rates, at plus 4.2 percent for prices, with the sales rate, at minus 4.1 percent, suggests that prices may have further down to go.

So despite the housing shortage, many neighborhoods are reluctant to add to their housing shortage. And rising mortgage rates are also denting demand. What about rents? Apartment List reports that nationally, real spending on new multifamily construction showed a long-term upward trend prior to the collapse of the housing bubble, and it has rebounded strongly in the aftermath of the collapse, such that it is currently near its 2006 all-time high.

This is resulting in lower rent increases in many large cities. Of the 25 biggest cities in the U.S., Apartment List found seven — Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Portland, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. — where median rental rates actually decreased year over year—another reason new homebuyers are holding back.

Economists at Freddie Mac that analyzed the pace of new housing construction found that years of underbuilding has left the U.S. with a cumulative shortfall — that is, supply compared to historical averages — of 4.6 million housing units in the years since 2000, as I said recently. That number is especially stark considering that builders constructed a 1 million unit surplus of homes in the bubble years of the last decade.

There is still a housing shortage, in other words, with affordability the main problem holding back sales.  So no housing bubble, yet!

Harlan Green © 2018

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Government Is the Solution, Not the Problem

ANSWERING THE KENNEDYS CALL

“With clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems, limiting global warming to 1.5ºC compared to 2ºC could go hand in hand with ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),” said on Monday in its prelease.
And that can’t happen without the support of governments. Ninety-one authors and review editors from 40 countries prepared the IPCC report in response to an invitation from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) when it adopted the Paris Agreement in 2015.

This means the U.S. should rejoin the Paris Agreement on global warming, or voters select a more climate-friendly administration as soon as possible. The Trump administration is doing everything in its power to deny and defeat any support for mitigating the effects of global warming, even recently transferring funds from FEMA that aid hurricane and tornado victims occurring with more frequency to fund its border wall and zero immigration policy.


Best-selling author Michael Lewis in his latest book, The Fifth Risk, details how the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to neuter any government functions that hinder the profitability of his mega-donor supporters at a time when government is most needed to protect Americans from any number hazards—not only the environmental hazards from global warming, but growing costs of healthcare, and record income inequality.

Lewis says the risk a society runs in thinking short term, rather than long-term solutions, “…is the innovation that never occurs and the knowledge edge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it.”

“Government is the problem” was President Reagan’s call to downsize government, which he characterized as full of waste and inefficiency, then tried to convince Americans private enterprise was a paragon of efficiency and prosperity for all.

Yet history has shown that none of this prosperity and progress would have happened without government research and support. We wouldn’t have built our highway system, gone to the moon, invented the internet, or even constructed the energy grid without government mandates.

Such progress has always required strong national leadership, with an ethos that it should benefit all Americans, not just the wealthiest. “Government is the problem” has always meant cutting taxes that take away programs lifting the many, and benefit the few most favored by circumstances or birth.

Now we have the dangers arising from global warming that scientific research tells us is man-made, and only leadership from governments can mitigate.
A recent New York Times article highlighted the necessity of government support. “None of the major technological transformations of the 19th and 20th centuries were the product of the private sector acting alone and responding only to the market. Railroads, radio, telegraph, telephone, electricity and the internet were all the result of public-private partnerships,” said its authors, science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. “None was delivered by the “invisible hand” of the marketplace (a favorite rationale of conservative economists). “All involved significant interventions by the visible hand of government.”
In fact, “The internet was created by scientists funded by the federal government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency,” said the authors. “Al Gore didn’t build it, but he did sponsor the 1991 legislation that made it public, which laid the foundation for the World Wide Web, Silicon Valley, smartphones and our information-driven society.”


Australia, the U.S., and Canada lead the world in per capita emissions of CO2, yet the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Accord within months of his inauguration in a sop to the fossil fuel magnates that funded much of his campaign. It was pay-and-play, politics as usual, in a deeply cynical ploy that endangers not only Americans, but the rest of the world, as Americans with only 5 percent of the world’s population consume 25 percent of its resources.
“Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon the agreement for environmental action signed by 195 nations is a remarkable rebuke to heads of state, climate activists, corporate executives and members of the president’s own staff, who all failed to change his mind with an intense, last-minute lobbying blitz,” said the NYTimes then. “The Paris agreement was intended to bind the world community into battling rising temperatures in concert, and the departure of the Earth’s second-largest polluter is a major blow.”
Need we say more about the necessity to make government the solution to our problems, not the problem?

Harlan Green © 2018

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Record Income Inequality = U.S. Credit Downgrade?

Financial FAQs


The current debate whether the U.S. will escape the ‘new normal’ of slower economic growth since the Great Recession (when homeowners lost a collective $9 trillion in value) is taking a new turn with Moody’s Investor Services now warning of a credit rating downgrade of U.S. Treasury securities from its AAA rating, something Standard & Poor’s had already done in 2011 when Republicans threatened to shut down the Federal government over their refusal to raise the debt ceiling.

Why the Moody’s downgrade now, when it has kept U.S. sovereign debt at AAA rating? America’s income inequality has worsened since the Great Recession and more pressure will be put on our government to increase so-called transfer payments—especially social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other government benefits paid to seniors and lower income household just to keep them out of poverty—at a time of record federal debt, said Moody’s.

Only the top 10 percent income earners have seen their incomes increase since the Great Recession. Most American households have seen either flat income growth or an actual decline for the bottom 40 percent of income earners.

In fact, the income declines have been happening since the 1970s, as globalization of the workforce by multi-national U.S. corporations have steadily shipped many of the best paying manufacturing jobs to cheaper countries and regions, while American workers’ salary bargaining rights have been steadily chipped away by more conservative congresses and compliant Republican and Democratic administrations.

Now new evidence has surfaced of another reason for decline in higher-paying jobs—robots, mainly concentrated in manufacturing regions. The Brookings Institute originated a study on the effects of robots replacing mainly manufacturing jobs. To no one’s surprise, most of the robots are concentrated in ‘rust-belt’ manufacturing right-to-work states in the Midwest and South that severely restrict union collective bargaining rights.


Brookings’ analysis of data from the International Federation for Robotics determined that more than half of more than 233,000 industrial robots in the country are found in just 10 Midwestern and Southern states, led by Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. As of 2016, the overall national average for red states” was 2.5 robots per thousand workers. The national average for blue states that mainly vote Democrat was 1.1 per thousand.

Moody’s has become decidedly pessimistic about the future of America’s credit worthiness because it sees little that the U.S. can do to mitigate the increased income inequality, the worst in developed countries “…fiscal consolidation efforts that attempt to reduce the burden of entitlement spending, by hiking payroll taxes or cutting benefits, would ultimately exacerbate inequality,” said Moody’s.

What can be done to reduce the worst household income inequality since 1928, just prior to the Great Depression? The CIA World Factbook ranks the U.S. 39th from the bottom in the distribution of family income based on the Gini Coefficient Index that measures income inequality.

I respectively disagree with Moody’s pessimism about the prospects for improving U.S. credit worthiness. Cutting benefits would certainly harm growth, taking away incomes that increases consumer spending of the bottom 40 percent; spending that in turn increases tax revenues. And states with the political will to restore bargaining rights of union and government workers would restore some of the lost wages that increase tax revenues.

Then there is a need for massive investments in public infrastructure in all the sectors that increase efficiency and labor productivity—from physical structures to education and R&D that sent us to the moon and created the Internet. Studies show they more than pay for themselves, which also increases tax revenues and pays down federal debt.

There is in fact no reason for pessimism if such ‘antidotes’ are applied to America’s ailing fiscal health, and Moody’s as a responsible credit rating agency should be the first to recommend them.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Thursday, October 11, 2018

What Is ‘New Normal’ U.S. Growth?

Popular Economics Weekly


There is a current debate whether the U.S. will escape the ‘new normal’ of slower economic growth since the Great Recession, when American households lost a collective $9 trillion in value and consumers cut back on their spending to make up for the losses.

It is part of the debate among economists whether the U.S. and other so-called ‘mature’ economies are locked into what is called secular stagnation, an era where markets can no longer expand enough to boost economic growth that benefits all segments of the population.

The answer, alas, is slower growth in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, unless the 80 percent of wage-earning consumers find a way to bring back their lost incomes that have barely kept up with inflation since the 1970s, or governments find a way to raise enough taxes to make up for the shortfall in household incomes by funding more public sector benefits, such as increasing the social safety net and public investments in education, infrastructure, and basic research that increase future productivity.

Why have workers’ wages and household incomes remained stagnant for so long? There has been a sharp shift of incomes and wealth away from the working classes to rentiers, or the owners of capital and their managers.

There was a sharp decline in labor productivity since 2007, for the same reason. Along with the Great Recession, businesses invested even more of their profits to enhance their own stock prices (and CEO salaries), rather than in new equipment and factories that would expand labor’s productivity, which is the preferred way to boost workers’ standard of living.

Economists also postulate that economic growth is the sum of the growth rates of labor productivity and population—the working-age population, in particular. The working-age population began its decline as baby boomers began to retire in 2001, and another six million of those workers have elected not to return to work since the Great Recession.

Graph: Seeking Alpha

The above graph illustrates that equation. When the worker population increased—particularly when women and baby boomers entered the workforce from the 1970s onward—the U.S. had 3 percent plus economic growth. But in 2001 the boomers began to retire and we have the current worker shortage.


Real vs. Potential GDP charts as above show the departure from what would be its potential—when GDP growth averaged 3.25 percent, historically. Consumer spending makes up roughly two-thirds of aggregate demand, which is the economic term for total dollars spent for goods and services that make up U.S. Gross Domestic Product. When its other elements—net exports, capital investments, and government expenditures—also decline, we have slower growth, which has been the case since 2007.

Today we have an even worse labor problem—the current White House wants to cut back immigration quotas by 50 percent and deport as many undocumented workers, as possible—including Dreamer children who have grown up in the U.S.—when only immigrants and their offspring will provide enough working age adults to make up for the loss of the baby boomer workforce.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Tuition-Free College Is Possible

ANSWERING THE KENNEDYS CALL


Yes, an excellent, tuition-free college education is possible. In fact, it’s become a movement supported by non-profit organizations, as well as cities and states that support their institutions of higher learning with taxpayer monies. Nationally, the College Promise Campaign is making news with its message and outreach stated on its website, CollegePromise.org.
“The College Promise Campaign is a national, non-partisan initiative to build broad public support for funding the first two years of higher education for hard-working students, starting in America’s community colleges. We want the first two years of college to become as universal, free, and accessible as high school has been for nearly a century,” said College Promise on it website.
That’s a start. College students have borrowed some $1.5 trillion to date with an average debt load of $35,000 per student. This wasn’t always the case for public colleges and universities. Until the 1960s, taxpayers paid most of the cost for state-run higher education, such as at the University of California system of nine UC universities and the 23 California State college campuses created to take in all eligible students that weren’t accepted to the nine UC campuses.

The programs vary, from scholarships that pay for 2 years of community college, to grants and scholarships that pay for all four years. But many of those colleges and universities are in smaller, out of the way locations, where educational costs are cheaper, and said institutions are eager to lure students away from the major metropolitan centers.

The above MarketWatch graph shows the huge cost disparities between public and private colleges, and many studies confirm that a public college or university education breeds as much success on reaching student life goals as do private schools.

The College Promise Campaign, a clearinghouse and advocacy organization for free-college initiatives, counts more than 200 programs across the country offering some version of a promise program. But that is hardly enough, when most other developed countries offer a tuition-free higher education.

In fact, most EU and non-EU Nordic countries offer tuition-free college education to foreigners, as well as their own citizens. They can be found on the Top Universities website, and include France, Germany, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, and Sweden. Even South American countries, such as Argentina offer a tuition-free college education to foreign students.

These countries put the American educational system to shame. They seem to understand the importance of higher education in improving the productivity and prosperity of their citizens. What could be more important that educating our workforce in an ever-changing world, where a college degree becomes even more important?

Cornell University is the only major U.S. land-grant institution that is tuition-free for students from low and middle-income families earning less than $60,000 annually. Its description is heartening—if only other large, public universities would follow:
“Established in 1865, Cornell University is a privately endowed research university and a partner of the State University of New York. As the federal land-grant institution in New York State, Cornell has a responsibility—unique within the Ivy League—to make contributions in all fields of knowledge in a manner that prioritizes public engagement to help improve the quality of life in New York state, the nation, the world. Cornell is located in Ithaca, New York and enrolls nearly 22,000 students. With an acceptance rate of over 10%, Cornell is the Ivy League institution with the highest acceptance rate.”
America needs more such education programs, if we are to compete in the modern world.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Friday, October 5, 2018

A Weak Jobs Report?

Popular Economics Weekly

“The unemployment rate declined to 3.7 percent in September, and total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 134,000, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Job gains occurred in professional and business services, in health care, and in transportation and warehousing.”
Why fewer jobs this month? A special mention of Hurricane by the BLS attempted to explain the low job formation number, said the survey. “Hurricane Florence affected parts of the East Coast during the September reference periods for the establishment and household surveys. Response rates for the two surveys were within normal ranges.”

It is possible the east coast hurricane affected Leisure and hospitality and Retail trade, which lost -37,000 jobs cumulatively. White-collar firms added 54,000 job and health-care providers filled 26,000 positions. Builders hired 23,000 workers and manufacturers 18,000.Pundits and economists are saying this happened during prior bad weather episodes as well.
“We have seen this time and time again after big hurricanes (last September being a very good example after Hurricane Harvey, when payrolls fell 33K in the initial print),” said Thomas Simons, senior money market economist, Jefferies LLC as cited by MarketWatch. “So, ignore the weakness in payrolls.”
A lack of skilled workers is holding back more job gains, particularly in construction. The number of people working in construction was 315,000 higher compared to a year earlier. But there were 273,000 open construction jobs at the end of July, according to a separate Labor Department report. And the pay is better, with average hourly wages now $30.18 per hour vs. $27.24 for all hourly workers.

The smaller Household Data survey that calculates the unemployment rate was more upbeat. “The unemployment rate declined by 0.2 percentage point to 3.7 percent in September, and the number of unemployed persons decreased by 270,000 to 6.0 million. The unemployment rate and the number of unemployed persons declined by 0.5 percentage points and 795,000, respectively, over the year,” per the BLS.

We could be reaching the lower limits of the unemployment rate, now at 3.7 percent, in other words, the lowest in 48 years. This could in itself prevent further GDP growth as hiring stagnates and more than 6 million job opening go unfilled, per U.S. Labor’s JOLTS report.
“The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was little changed at 1.4 million over the month; these individuals accounted for 22.9 percent of the unemployed. In September, the labor force participation rate remained at 62.7 percent, and the employment-population ratio, at 60.4 percent, was little changed,” said the BLS.
“The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) increased by 263,000 to 4.6 million in September. These individuals, who would have preferred full-time employment, were working part time because their hours had been reduced or they were unable to find full-time jobs."
There will also be workers either unable or unwilling to return to work, in part because of our aging workforce. The baby boomers are retiring en masse, and the native-born U.S. population isn’t growing fast enough to replace them. So it will be up to newly arrived immigrants or the children of immigrants to continue economic growth, as I said in my last blog.

The current administration seems to know very little of basic economics, if they don’t understand this basic fact—economic growth largely mirrors population growth. Labor productivity is the other part of the economic equation for GDP growth, but labor productivity has been declining steadily since 2000, mostly because corporations have used their record profits for increased stock buybacks and stockholder dividends rather than boosting labor productivity—even after the latest corporate tax cuts.

This is not a formula for the prosperity of future generations.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Housing Supply Still Lacking

The Mortgage Corner


Most of the construction activity is in the commercial sector, at the moment, though sales of newly-constructed homes rose 3.5 percent compared to July. The pace of new-home sales in August was 12.7 percent higher than a year ago. But large revisions to prior months were all downward, a reminder that the housing recovery still can’t satisfy the demand for single-family housing, in particular.

Economists at Freddie Mac that analyzed the pace of new housing construction found that years of underbuilding has left the U.S. with a cumulative shortfall — that is, supply compared to historical averages — of 4.6 million housing units in the years since 2000. That number is especially stark considering that builders constructed a 1 million unit surplus of homes in the bubble years of the last decade.

The median selling price in August was $320,200, 1.9 percent higher than year-ago prices. Year to date, sales were 6.9 percent higher than the same period last year. The year-to-date comparison has declined over the course of the year, a sign of flagging momentum, as higher mortgage rates and home prices are discouraging some buyers and pushing up the supply of available homes to 6.1 months at the current sales rate.
Commercial construction held most of the action. “In August, the estimated seasonally adjusted annual rate of public construction spending was $316.7 billion,” said the Census Bureau, “2.0 percent (±2.8 percent) above the revised July estimate of $310.5 billion, with much of it in education, a good sign that states are spending on their public infrastructure.”
Strongest in the report was highways & streets, up 1.7 percent in the month. Educational spending was also strong with a 1.0 percent gain. Government spending was also very active in August, up 5.9 percent at the Federal level and up 1.7 percent for state & local, reported the Census Bureau.

The Fed made good on its promise to raise their overnight rate one-quarter percent to 2.25 percent, boosting the Prime Rate used in most revolving credit to 5.25 percent. This hasn’t dampened consumer enthusiasm yet, as consumer spending is rising at 3.8 percent in the latest revision to Q2 GDP growth, which held at 4.2 percent. Maybe it’s one last holiday fling before reality and higher inflation set in from the tariff wars?
Fed Chair Powell said in his announcement after the latest FOMC meeting: “I see the current path of gradually raising interest rates as the FOMC's approach to taking seriously both of these risks. While the unemployment rate is below the Committee's estimate of the longer-run natural rate, estimates of this rate are quite uncertain. The same is true of estimates of the neutral interest rate. We therefore refer to many indicators (my bold) when judging the degree of slack in the economy or the degree of accommodation in the current policy stance. We are also aware that, over time, inflation has become much less responsive to changes in resource utilization.”
It’s good to see commercial construction making a comeback, even with congress seemingly unable to pay its fair share of infrastructure spending that will be needed just to upgrade the federal highway system, as well as our energy grid that is being seriously threatened by Russian cyber attacks, according to our spy agencies.

Housing starts are attempting to catch up, as starts ran at a 1.282 million seasonally adjusted annual rate in August, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. That was 9.2 percent higher than July’s pace, and 9.4 percent higher than a year ago. But that still won’t be enough to satisfy demand.
Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Amherst Pierpont, Securities interviewed by MarketWatch’s Andria Riquier, was more blunt: “To be clear, there is fundamental softness in housing. Industry sources suggest that the relentless torrid home price appreciation in recent years has finally reached a point that numerous prospective buyers are balking. In addition, high-end homes in high-tax states are starting to see some effect from tax law changes implemented in December. On top of that, new home construction has been impacted by a run-up in materials costs this year, squeezing builders in a vice between rising costs and a diminishing appetite of prospective buyers to pay up.”
Add to that we will be soon entering the tenth year of this boom cycle, which would put it on a par with the 1991 to 2001 boom years that paid down our national debt. If only that were the case today, instead of the surging federal deficit and debt that is squeezing future public sector investments and growth.
Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

America's Concentration Camps for Children

ANSWERING THE KENNEDYS CALL 


There should no longer be any doubt that the Trump administration is pursuing policies last used in Nazi Germany—concentration camps that now house up to 13,000 young Hispanic refugees—mostly unaccompanied minors who are seeking asylum in America.

To deal with the surging shelter populations, which have hovered near 90 percent of capacity since May, according to the New York Times, mass reshuffling is underway and shows no signs of slowing. Hundreds of children are being shipped from shelters to Tornillo in West Texas each week—mostly in the middle of the night to escape publicity--totaling more than 1,600 so far.
“Roughly 100 shelters that have, until now, been the main location for housing detained migrant children are licensed and monitored by state child welfare authorities, who impose requirements on safety and education as well as staff hiring and training,” said the NYTimes.
“The tent city in Tornillo, on the other hand, is unregulated, except for guidelines created by the Department of Health and Human Services. For example, schooling is not required there, as it is in regular migrant children shelters.
“The number of detained migrant children has spiked even though monthly border crossings have remained relatively unchanged, in part because harsh rhetoric and policies introduced by the Trump administration have made it harder to place children with sponsors.”
Does the Trump administration have no shame? What made America great is the fact that we are a land of immigrants, yet President Trump and his white-nationalist supporters want to restrict immigration to 50 percent of what it was historically—“to more like those from Norway,” he has said.
“Traditionally, most sponsors have been undocumented immigrants themselves, and have feared jeopardizing their own ability to remain in the country by stepping forward to claim a child. The risk increased in June, when federal authorities announced that potential sponsors and other adult members of their households would have to submit fingerprints, and that the data would be shared with immigration authorities.”
There is a reason America and Americans have always welcomed immigrants. America has been a nation whose innovation and new industries have outdistanced its labor workforce, historically, hence been always been in need of a new influx of workers.

For most of the past half-century, baby boomers — those born after World War Two and before 1965 — have been the main driver of the nation’s expanding workforce, but now that they’re heading into retirement only two groups of workers are projected to grow over the next two decades: immigrants and those whose parents are first-generation immigrants, a new report by the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., concluded. “The most important component of the growth in the working-age population over the next two decades will be the arrival of future immigrants,” it said.


Which is why it is so important to find a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers that fulfill jobs very few America citizens will take. And there have been several bills to give a path to those undocumented workers employed in agriculture, construction, and the hospitality industries. But, alas, congress has not been able to pass any of them.

Roughly 36 percent of plasterers and stucco masons were undocumented workers in 2014, the highest share of any occupation, according to a report released recently by the Pew Center. Some 30 percent of miscellaneous agricultural workers, 31 percent of drywall and ceiling tile installers and 28 percent of graders and sorters of agricultural products and 23 percent of sewing machine operators were also undocumented. Also 12 percent of miscellaneous personal appearance workers — manicurists and pedicurists and makeup artists — were undocumented.

Chart: PEW

More than 43.7 million immigrants resided in the United States in 2016, accounting for 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population of 323.1 million, according to American Community Survey (ACS) data.
And a recent CNBC report mentioned America’s chronic labor shortages, as the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession is now highlighting. “A report Thursday from ADP and Moody’s Analytics cast an even sharper light on what is becoming one of the most important economic stories of 2018: the difficulty employers are having in finding qualified employees to fill a record 6.7 million job openings,” said CNBC.

But chronic labor shortages have always been the case, and are part of our history. Trump’s, racist, anti-immigration policies are only making matters worse, not to speak of what can only be called his de-facto ethnic cleansing of non-Eurocentric populations.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Thursday, September 27, 2018

How Severe Will Be the Next Recession?

Financial FAQs


Why are we discussing the possibility of a severe recession when GDP growth is expected to average 3 percent this year, the highest annual average growth rate in several years? Because there is too much federal debt, to put it bluntly.

The very unpopular, all-Republican tax cuts of December, 2017 will add $1.5 trillion to the national debt over 10 years, while cutting approximately $1 trillion in Medicaid, food stamp (SNAP) and other aid to lower-income citizens.
“By 2028, America’s government debt burden could explode from this year’s $15.5 trillion to a staggering $33 trillion—more than 20 percent bigger than it would have been had Trump’s agenda not passed,” said a recent Forbes article. “At that point, interest payments would absorb more than $1 in $5 of federal revenue, crippling the government’s capacity to bolster the economy, and constraining the private sector too.”
Contrary to the claims of the President and his supporters, the U.S. can’t grow fast enough to shed this burden. Trump’s agenda on immigration and trade is more likely to stunt that growth, said Forbes. “This is almost like climate change,” remarked Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “It doesn’t do you in this year, or next year, but you’ll see the ill effects in a day of reckoning.”

In addition, Republicans in control of congress left no funds for spending on badly needed infrastructure repairs and upgrades, the spending that would actually increase overall productivity and future economic growth. Economists calculate such spending would add $1.25 to $1.50 to the GDP for every dollar spent on improving our roads, bridges, electrical grid, airports; not to speak of better water and sewer treatment facilities.

And the Federal Reserve announced today at the end of their FOMC meeting that they are raising interest rates one quarter percent for the third time this year and signaled it will raise the cost of borrowing again in December, ending the long period of accommodative credit policies enacted since the end of the Great Recession. This will constrict credit and reduce consumer demand by raising the cost of everyday borrowing on credit cards and installment loans that are based on short-term rates.

The Fed is doing this at the wrong time with inflation still low, personal incomes barely increasing, and no discernable benefits for most consumers from the tax cuts. Fed Governors on Wednesday increased its target for its benchmark lending rate to a range of 2 percent to 2.25 percent. Rates are now at their highest level since shortly after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008.

It will probably be those latest tax cuts and rising debt load that sinks the current 9-year recovery, just as the GW Bush tax cuts erased four years of budget surpluses at the end of the longest growth cycle ever—from 1991-2001—contributing to the Great Recession and record federal debt of today.

This is while a larger federal budget is about to be signed by President Trump with no new taxes enacted to pay for it. It is not how to run a successful business, or country.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Monday, September 24, 2018

Corporate Governance Reform—Women Make A Difference

ANSWERING THE KENNEDYS CALL


California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson’s upcoming Senate Bill SB826 on reforming corporate governance will make corporations more responsive to the needs of the societies in which they operate by requiring more women to serve on their boards.

This is heady stuff, as research has shown that women on a corporate board are more likely to “create a sustainable future” by, among other things, instituting strong governance structures with a high level of transparency.

A 2012 UC Berkeley Hass School of Business study entitled, Women Create a Sustainable Future, to list just a few of the benefits of adding more women to corporate boards, are more likely to be:
· Companies that proactively invest in renewable power generation and related services.
· Companies that proactively address the environmental risks embedded in their financing decisions.
· Companies that provide strong employment benefits and performance incentives and offer employee engagement and professional development programs.
· Companies that offer products with an improved nutritional or healthier profile and have sought credible verification for its healthier status.
“Women and sustainability are two sides of the same coin …. Corporations build better societies if they have balanced boards,” said Halla Tomadottir, executive chair and co-founder of Audur Capital in Iceland, interviewed in the study. Ms. Tomadottir was on the all-female board of the only Icelandic bank that didn’t go into bankruptcy in 2008 during the Great Recession.

Perhaps her most famous quote, made in the Michael Moore documentary, Where to Invade Next? was “One woman on a board is a token, two women a minority. It takes three women to make a difference.” (sic)

“Take for example, a company like Nestlé,” says the Hass study, “which has recently turned its focus toward creating shared value with its product offerings in three areas: nutrition, water, and rural development. Nestlé uses science-based solutions to improve the quality of life through food and diet. "This type of social initiative is well aligned with corporate sustainability for Nestlé. Our research findings to date suggest that having more women corporate directors is correlated with these types of strategies and outcomes. Nestlé’s Board of Directors has three women.”
Senator Jackson’s bill, “no later than the close of the 2019 calendar year, would require a domestic general corporation or foreign corporation that is a publicly held corporation, as defined, whose principal executive offices, according to the corporation’s SEC 10-K form, are located in California to have a minimum of one female, as defined, on its board of directors, as specified. No later than the close of the 2021 calendar year, the bill would increase that required minimum number to 2 female directors if the corporation has 5 directors or to 3 female directors if the corporation has 6 or more directors.”
The behavior of corporations and corporate boards has come under scrutiny particularly since the December 2017 massive corporate tax cuts that its supporters touted would repatriate some of the $3 trillion in overseas assets, as well as raise the incomes of its employees.

But that hasn’t happened to date, as the focus of corporations’ increased profits since then have been to return the windfall to investors and corporate CEOs—either by buying back more shares, going private, or indulging in Wall Street’s merger and acquisitions’ game, rather than creating sustainable programs that would profit society at large as well as themselves.

In a 1970 Times magazine article, the free market economist Milton Friedman argued that businesses' sole purpose is to generate profit for shareholders. Moreover, he maintained, companies that did adopt "responsible" attitudes would be faced with more binding constraints than companies that did not, rendering them less competitive.
“There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use it resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” -Milton Friedman, New York Times Magazine, September 1970.
How the world has changed since then! We now know that ignoring environmental and social issues can be bad for business. Companies that pollute their local communities risk poisoning their customers. Ignoring the state of the local school system can mean depleting the pool of qualified workers. Exploiting workers risks higher turnover and training costs, not to mention greater difficultly in attracting the most qualified candidates.

As part of its findings, SB826 provides some impressive supportive data about the benefits of board gender diversity, including the following:

“(1) A 2017 study by MSCI found that United States’ companies that began the five-year period from 2011 to 2016 with three or more female directors reported earnings per share that were 45 percent higher than those companies with no female directors at the beginning of the period.
(2) In 2014, Credit Suisse found that companies with at least one woman on the board had an average return on equity (ROE) of 12.2 percent, compared to 10.1 percent for companies with no female directors. Additionally, the price-to-book value of these firms was greater for those with women on their boards: 2.4 times the value in comparison to 1.8 times the value for zero-women boards.
(3) Credit Suisse conducted a six-year global research study from 2006 to 2012, with more than 2,000 companies worldwide, showing that women on boards improve business performance for key metrics, including stock performance. For companies with a market capitalization of more than $10 billion, those with women directors on boards outperformed shares of comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26 percent.”

The business world can no longer afford to ignore what it takes to create a sustainable future, a future in which our children can enjoy the fruits of our labor. How can we otherwise tolerate a world growing more populous with limited resources and a warming planet?

Harlan Green © 2018

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Friday, September 21, 2018

Homeowners Preserve Rising Equity

The Mortgage Corner

Graph: MarketWatch/Black Knight

American homeowners have amassed a record $6 trillion in equity in their properties, according to a study by real estate data firm Black Knight, a figure boosted by surging home prices and a trend of owners staying put longer. But rising interest rates and caution resulting from the housing troubles of a decade ago are limiting how much of that equity is getting tapped.
“As the second quarter came to a close, the total amount of tappable equity available to homeowners with mortgages surpassed the $6 trillion mark for the first time in history,” said Ben Graboske, executive vice president of Black Knight’s Data & Analytics division. “There is now $636 billion more tappable equity available than at the start of 2018, and nearly three times as much compared to the bottom of the market in 2012.”
Homeowners are staying in their homes longer in part because of fears of another housing bust that was part of the Great Recession, in other words. In 2016 and 2017 sellers had stayed in their homes a median 10 years, up from a median of six years all the way back to 1985. This is also because there are fewer homes to buy as housing inventories have shrunk drastically.

Inventory of starter and tradeup homes were down 12-13 percent compared to a year ago, one of the biggest drops in years, Trulia chief economist Ralph McLaughlin said. McLaughlin is hoping that rising home prices will entice more owners to sell, even though mortgage rates have risen from their low of 3.5 percent to 4.25 percent for a 30-year fixed conforming loan with a 1 point origination fee. But that is still historically low, when fixed mortgage rates were in the 6 percent range just a few years ago, and even as high as 16 percent in the mid-1980s.

Existing-home sales are still strong, however, according to the National Association of Realtors. Total existing-home sales, https://www.nar.realtor/existing-home-sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, did not change from July and remained at a seasonally adjusted rate of 5.34 million in August. Sales are now down 1.5 percent from a year ago (5.42 million in August 2017).  
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says the decline in existing home sales appears to have hit a plateau with robust regional sales. “Strong gains in the Northeast and a moderate uptick in the Midwest helped to balance out any losses in the South and West, halting months of downward momentum,” he said. “With inventory stabilizing and modestly rising, buyers appear ready to step back into the market.”


Higher interest rates aren’t stopping new homes from being built, either. August Housing starts jumped 9.2 percent to a 1.282 million annualized rate which is well above July's upwardly revised 1.174 million rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But permits, which are the forward looking component of the report, fell 5.7 percent to a 1.229 million rate.

Looking at starts, multi-family construction that has slowed 29 percent to a 406,000 rate for year-on-year growth, which had been in the negative column, was up 38 percent. Single-family homes, which are the more important of the readings, rose 1.9 percent to an 876,000 rate that, however, is fractionally lower than a year ago, down 0.2 percent.

Where do interest rates go from here? The Conference Board has predicted economic growth could average 3 percent or higher for the rest of this year, which will continue to boost interest rates somewhat. Their leading economic index rose 0.4 percent in August following even stronger gains in the prior two months, the Conference Board said Thursday. The LEI is a gauge of 10 economic indicators meant to signal peaks and valleys in the business cycle and the broader economy.

But our take is there just isn’t enough consumer demand to push rates much higher. Consumers have been paying down their overall debt as a percentage of household income, as well as borrowing less. It is corporations that loaded up on easy money the past several years and now have to worry about paying it back if there is a downturn.

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen