Friday, March 16, 2018

A Gangbuster Employment Report

Popular Economics Weekly

The U.S. added 313,000 new jobs in February, the biggest gain in a year and a half and clear evidence that a strong economy has plenty of room to keep expanding, said Marketwatch. The unemployment rate of 4.1 percent remained at a 17-year low.

And despite the big increase in hiring, wage growth did not keep up. Hourly pay rose 4 cents to $26.75 an hour, but the yearly increase in wages tapered off. The 12-month increase in pay slipped to 2.6 percent from a revised 2.8 percent in January.

Construction companies hired 61,000 people to mark the biggest increase in 11 years. Retailers added 50,000 jobs, as did professional-oriented businesses. And manufacturers filled 31,000 positions. Workers also put more time in on the job, reversing a weather-induced decline in the first month of the year.

What’s more, the economy added 54,000 more jobs in January and December than previously reported. Altogether, the economy has gained an average of 242,000 new jobs in the past three months. That’s much stronger than the 182,000 monthly average in 2017.

Hourly pay is still not rising fast enough to cause inflation. We have to watch the 10-year T Bill for any signs of future inflation. Its yield is still below 3 percent, so the Fed might not raise their rate as quickly. The Chicago Fed’s Charles Evans just suggested the Fed could wait until mid-year before hiking short term rates.

But effects of the steel and aluminum tariff hikes will be the big unknown for inflation. If this initiates a trade war with the EU and China, in particular, all bets are off for continued high growth as rising primary metal prices will boost inflation with a vengeance, and endanger the jobs of those 6 million workers that make products from those metals.

There is also a problem with our national savings rate. Marketwatch’s Rex Nutting points out it has sunk to a post-WWII low, which means more foreign investment than ever is needed to fund our balance of payments problem; something better trade agreements won’t cure. Because Americans still like to import more consumer goods than they export manufacturing goods and services, as I said yesterday.

Consumer products and automobiles are the primary drivers of the current $566 billion trade deficit. In 2017, the United States imported $602 billion in generic drugs, televisions, clothing, and other household items. It only exported $198 billion of consumer goods. The imbalance added $404 billion to the deficit. America imported $359 billion worth of automobiles and parts, while only exporting $158 billion.

So there are many caveats to continued strong jobs growth in 2018. Firstly we can’t have a trade war, and secondly, foreign investors still must buy enough US stocks, bonds, and Treasury securities to keep long term interest rates stable.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Where is the Inflation, and Higher Growth?

Financial FAQs

The drumbeat for a higher inflation target is picking up. The Chicago Fed’s Charles Evans recently advocated a less hawkish Fed stanch on maintaining the 2 percent inflation target with few signs of inflation even on the horizon.

Elizabeth Sawhill, a Senior Fellow at Brookings in a New York Times Op-ed, on the heels of February’s almost record 313,000 job creation number, is also saying that higher inflation would be desirable after many years of too low inflation.
“In fact, a high-pressure economy, with wages and prices a little higher than we’ve become used to, might actually do a lot of good for the people who need it most,” said Sawhill. “Working families need a tight labor market — and higher wages — to get ahead. It would be a costly mistake to raise rates too much or too soon.”
I have been saying this for years, as we know that higher growth and higher inflation go hand-in-hand, which in turn boosts wages. The Fed’s preferred PCE and retail CPI indexes have remained below 2 percent since 2008, while the GDP growth rate has also averaged just 2 percent.

Why don’t we have higher growth? Because higher GDP growth requires corporate profits reach those that will invest or spend them, including governments, working folk, and corporations have been better at buying back their own stock rather than investing their profits, as I’ve also been saying in past columns. While governments have been living on austerity budgets since the Great Recession.
“We are in the midst of a big fiscal and monetary experiment, says Sawhill. “And as with any experiment, the consequences are unknown. What we do know is that the costs of the Great Recession were enormous — at least $4 trillion in lost income, or about $30,000 per household, according to my calculations. The biggest losses were experienced by those in the bottom and middle portions of the income distribution who lost jobs and saw much of the equity in their homes destroyed.”

What is the best way to boost growth and wages? It is to boost labor productivity, which is a measure of the amount produced per hours worked, and largely depends on capital investment.  The productivity chart above portrays it’s fluctuations over the years with Q4 2017 showing no change in labor productivity at all.

How do we improve productivity?  It is very basic economic theory--improve capital investment. Taxing those that don’t invest their profits in productive uses—the wealthiest among us and corporations—would allow governments to spend more on education, infrastructure, environmental protection, R&D, health care; need I go on? By doing so, we boost extremely low labor productivity, and even a slight boost in productivity can boost everyone’s standard of living.

So it really means reversing the politics du jour in Washington that is paid for by Big Business lobbyists, and the Fed policy of raising interest rates before there are any real signs of inflation.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

How Bad Is Our Trade Deficit?

Financial FAQs

President Trump just announced a 25 percent tariff (tax) on imported steel, and 10 percent tariff on aluminum. Will this improve our 2017 $566 billion trade deficit? Can we lower our trade deficit with higher tariffs on such strategic products? Is the deficit so dangerous to our economic health that we have to lower it in this way?

No, because most of the trade deficit comes from US consumers’ love of imported goods--$54.3 billion in January, according to Econoday. In 2017, the total U.S. trade deficit was $566 billion. It imported $2.895 trillion of goods and services while exporting $2.329 trillion.

Graph: Econoday
Whereas the trade gap in primary metals is minuscule. This gap totaled $3.8 billion in the latest data for this reading which is November. Econoday says, “But here it's important to note that this deficit isn't only one way. U.S. firms actually exported a very sizable $4.0 billion in primary metals to foreign buyers in the month as tracked in the blue columns of the graph, a sum that could be at risk should a trade battle for metals begin to open up. What the administration is of course aiming to reduce is the graph's red columns, the roughly $8 billion in monthly imports of primary metals.”

Consumer products and automobiles are the primary drivers of the trade deficit, according to, a personal finance website. In 2017, the United States imported $602 billion in generic drugs, televisions, clothing, and other household items. It only exported $198 billion of consumer goods. The imbalance added $404 billion to the deficit. America imported $359 billion worth of automobiles and parts, while only exporting $158 billion.

That added $201 billion to the deficit. So why is President Trump picking on the more strategically important primary metals so necessary for our defense and other manufacturing products, like automobiles that use steel and aluminum products and employ more than 6 million workers?

We should be taxing those imported consumer goods, or automobiles to bring down the trade deficit. But Americans love their cheaper imported consumer goods and automobiles.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Dangerous Treasury Yield Curve

Popular Economics Weekly

New Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has maintained that the Fed is on track to raise their short term interest rates at least 3 times this year. Why? It sees higher inflation down the road because of the huge federal budget deficit, and growing federal debt that now totals more than $20 trillion, combined with declining tax revenues due to the recent tax cuts.

But that’s not the real danger to continued growth, according to a new report by the San Francisco Fed. It is the danger than short-term interest rates may rise above long term bond rates, which would be what is called an inverted yield curve. And an inverted yield curve has correctly signaled all nine recessions, with only one false positive in the 1960s, says the SF Fed.

When short-term rates exceed long-term rates, the banks’ cost of money exceeds what they can earn, which makes it less profitable for them to lend. This can choke off available credit. The above graph shows the last 3 recessions when the yield curve was negative—in 1991, 2001, and 2007.

I maintain the inverted curve is not the only reason for the coincident recessions. It has as much to do with why long term Treasury bond rates are still so low in the ninth year of this economic recovery; the 10-year bond yield is still below 3 percent.

Rates are still low because there isn’t enough aggregate demand for the $trillions in excess cash being held by corporations, the Fed, and banks. That is to say, it’s not being used for investment purposes by the private or public sectors, or returned to the employees of those businesses. Instead, it’s being hoarded or used to buy back the shares of private businesses, which inflates stock prices but doesn’t increase the demand for their goods and services.  And government spending has been in a austerity mode since Republicans took over the US House of Representatives in 2010.

Boosting aggregate salaries of their employees would boost demand.  The incomes of wage and salary earners aren’t even keeping up with their spending, which is why the personal savings rate is just 3.2 percent, when it should be at least double at this stage of an economic recovery.

Macroeconomists look at aggregate demand to predict economic growth, which is the sum of activity in the private and public sectors. And they see weak demand, because average household incomes haven’t risen faster than inflation over the past 30 years, and government isn't upgrading our aging infrastructure, education system, R&Development--all necessary to boost productivity.

Average real household incomes have literally not grown at all when inflation is factored in as I said last week. This has been happening since the 1980s when trickle-down economics came into vogue, which said that the owners of capital and industry should receive the lion’s share of national income (via lower taxes and regulations), and that would create more jobs and growth for everyone.

So beware of another inverted yield curve, if the Fed continues to raise their rates as predicted. And stock traders know that. Hence the extreme price volatility of late. They see the same shrinking credit and declining growth picture, if long term bond rates don’t begin to rise soon.

But that won’t happen unless corporations and our government actually begin to spend their monies on productive uses, not tax cuts and share buybacks.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Friday, March 2, 2018

Where Have All the Profits Gone?

Popular Economics Weekly

I first wrote about the reasons for the huge stock selloff in early February when the DOW plunged more than 1,000 points in one day. It seems to be repeating itself this week, with the DOW losing almost as much over the past 2 days when the economic news was good—GDP growth averaged 2.3 percent in 2017, and both the manufacturing and service sectors are booming. Then why the selloff with new tax cuts that will put more money into people’s (and corporate) pockets as well?

The short answer is investors fear inflation and higher interest rates will kick in later this year with continued growth and a very tight labor market. But the longer answer is that investors are looking at the wrong economic model, if they believe inflation is about to rise even when it isn’t. Nor are interest rates rising, which is another indicator of incipient inflation with the 10-year Treasury security yield declining of late and still below 3 percent.

Graph: Econoday

Core inflation with the PCE consumption index did rise 0.3 percent in January, but not enough to lift the year-on-year rate which holds at an as-expected 1.5 percent. Total prices, reflecting a rise in gas, rose 0.4 percent with this year-on-year rate also unchanged, at 1.7 percent. 

That is barely a hint of inflation, folks, and certainly no reason for the Fed to move up its interest rate forecast, even with the good economic news. Then why the inflation fears? It’s really the Fed Governors, which are usually bankers, which means they listen mostly to business economists.

Whereas, they should be listening to macroeconomists such as Nobelist Paul Krugman or the IMF’s Olivier Blanchard, that study what is behind the larger picture of national and international economic growth.

Macroeconomists look at aggregate demand to predict economic growth, which is the sum of activity in the private and public sectors. And they see weak demand, because average household incomes haven’t risen faster than inflation over the past 30 years.

In other words, average real household incomes have literally not grown at all when inflation is factored in. This has been happening since the 1980s when trickle-down economics came into vogue, which said that the owners of capital and industry should receive the lion’s share of national income (via lower taxes and regulations), and that would create more jobs and growth for everyone.

This is also when labor laws were weakened that has resulted in 25 red states having right to work laws that mean members of a union don’t have to pay union dues, if they don’t like their policies. Yet they enjoy the benefits. This has weakened the bargaining power of ordinary workers, needless to say. Several states like Wisconsin even ban most public service employees of the state from collective bargaining. So their salaries have actually declined, rather than grown.

Therefore, better-paying jobs and higher growth never materialized. This is something conservative economists don’t want to believe, because it means government regulations are needed to tame the greed of corporate and hedge fund managers who do little to boost aggregate demand, so that very little trickles down to the 80 percent of our workforce that earns wages and salaries. And that 80 percent are the drivers of real economic growth.

Shouldn’t the new Republican tax bill that repatriates overseas profits and lowers the corporate tax rate be helpful? Not really, because history shows most of those increased profits buy back stock to enrich their shareholders and corporate CEOs, rather than ‘trickle down’ to substantial pay raises.

The New York Times reported that historically, American companies had paid out profits with a quarterly check, known as a dividend. But after the S.E.C. changed its rule in 1982, companies started using more of their profits to buy their own shares, in the process giving their shareholders a bigger piece of the company.
“Buybacks soon soared,” reported the Times. “That was about 5 percent less than those companies spent on new plants, research and development and other investments. By contrast, 20 years ago, companies spent four times as much on such investments as they did on buybacks.”
And hedge fund managers are still taxed at the lower capital gains tax for carried trades on the 20 percent they earn from any profits their hedge funds earn, rather than at the higher personal income tax rate.

Unfortunately, this means the siphoning of profits to nonproductive uses will continue, and stagnation of household incomes will depress any potential for higher growth and wages.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Lower Inventory = Fewer Home Sales

The Mortgage Corner

WASHINGTON (February 21, 2018) — Existing-home sales slumped for the second consecutive month in January and experienced their largest decline on an annual basis in over three years, according to the National Association of Realtors. All major regions saw monthly and annual sales declines last month.

Total existing-home sales, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, sank 3.2 percent in January to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.38 million from a downwardly revised 5.56 million in December 2017. After last month’s decline, sales are 4.8 percent below a year ago (largest annual decline since August 2014 at 5.5 percent) and at their slowest pace since last September (5.37 million).

Graph: Econoday
Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says January’s retreat in closings highlights the housing market’s glaring inventory shortage to start 2018. “The utter lack of sufficient housing supply and its influence on higher home prices muted overall sales activity in much of the U.S. last month,” he said. “While the good news is that Realtors in most areas are saying buyer traffic is even stronger than the beginning of last year, sales failed to follow course and far lagged last January’s pace. It’s very clear that too many markets right now are becoming less affordable and desperately need more new listings to calm the speedy price growth.”
Total housing inventory at the end of January rose 4.1 percent to 1.52 million existing homes available for sale, but is still 9.5 percent lower than a year ago (1.68 million) and has fallen year-over-year for 32 consecutive months. Unsold inventory is at a 3.4-month supply at the current sales pace (3.6 months a year ago).

“Another month of solid price gains underlines this ongoing trend of strong demand and weak supply. The underproduction of single-family homes over the last decade has played a predominant role in the current inventory crisis that is weighing on affordability,” said Yun. “However, there’s hope that the tide is finally turning. There was a nice jump in new home construction in January and homebuilder confidence is high. These two factors will hopefully lay the foundation for the building industry to meaningfully ramp up production as this year progresses.”

First-time homebuyers are being squeezed because of the housing shortage, as just 29 percent were buyers, down from 32 percent last month.

The median existing-home price for all housing types in January was $240,500, up 5.8 percent from January 2017 ($227,300). January’s price increase marks the 71st straight month of year-over-year gains, according to the NAR.

New-home sales and construction are beginning to catch up with demand, but interest rates have to remain at their historic lows for this to continue. The 30-year fixed conforming rate is still 4.0 percent for 1 origination point, just 0.50 percent above its historic low. And several Federal Reserve Governors have said the Fed may not hike short term rates anytime soon, if inflation rates don’t move above the current 2 percent target rate.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Monday, February 19, 2018

Who Is Killing Our Children?

Popular Economics Weekly

The fact that the NRA contributed $30 million to Donald Trump’s campaign is all we need to know about who is responsible for deaths of 14 high school children and 3 adults in Florida, or the 58 killed and 851 wounded in Las Vegas.

What made the NRA the killing machine it has become, from the sporting association it once was? The NRA contributed a total of $55 million to 2016 presidential campaigns.

We can thank the Second Amendment of our Constitution that enshrined gun ownership as an unalienable right, and to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the 2008 opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller that interpreted its original wording: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” to mean every individual has the right to bear arms. But he added, that does not prevent the state from banning “dangerous and unusual weapons.”

We can also thank the gun manufacturers themselves that fund the lobbyists that keep Republican congressmen opposing all forms of gun control. We really should be talking about gun safety, rather than gun control, since gun owners aren’t required to have a license or training to own a gun, as is required for operators of other dangerous machines, like car owners.

We also know the carnage that guns can wreak. In 2016 alone there were more than 38,000 gun-related deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control. Just-released autopsy reports from the Las Vegas carnage show the damage done by military-style assault rifles at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival.

A military-style assault rifle bullet travels 3,000 feet per second—more than 3 times the speed of a pistol bullet because it is meant to kill instantaneously. It has such power that many bodies of the Las Vegas victims were literally torn apart by bullets that were probably tumbling by the time they reached the victims more than 500 yards away from Stephen Paddock, the Mandalay Bay Hotel’s 32nd story shooter.

Military-style assault rifles have been banned before; during the Tommy gun era of 1930’s gangster wars, and in 1994 after a series of similar mass shootings with semi-automatic weapons. But it had a ten-year sunset clause that was never renewed when Republicans again dominated Congress.

There have been 1600 mass shootings since the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre of elementary school children, according to Maureen Dowd.

When will American children again feel protected? When a Congress is elected that admits military-style, semi-automatic guns of all shapes and sizes are “dangerous and unusual weapons” needed only by those trained to use them—the police and members of our military.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

2018 Housing Market To Stay Strong

The Mortgage Corner

Total existing-home sales,, which are completed transactions that include single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and co-ops, increased 1.1 percent in 2017 to a 5.51 million sales pace and surpassed 2016 (5.45 million) as the highest since 2006 (6.48 million).

This is a sign that 2018 could be a record year for housing sales, in spite of the housing shortage that slowed sales in the fourth quarter, and builders hard put to find enough construction workers to ramp up housing construction.

The home ownership rate is back up to historical levels, for starters. Marketwatch’s Andrea Riquier reports the home ownership rate jumped in the fourth quarter of 2017 to 64.2 percent, the Census Bureau said Tuesday to a 3-month high, and in line with 1980 and 1990 averages, before rising into bubble territory in the 2000s.

There were 1.52 million more owner households compared to a year earlier, and 76,000 fewer renter households, according to Riquier. It hit an all-time high of 69.1 percent in 2004 as the housing bubble inflated. In the aftermath of the crisis, it skidded lower and lower, finally bottoming out at 62.9 Percent in 2016.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says the housing market performed remarkably well for the U.S. economy in 2017, with substantial wealth gains for homeowners and historically low distressed property sales.
“Existing sales concluded the year on a softer note, but they were guided higher these last 12 months by a multi-year streak of exceptional job growth, which ignited buyer demand,” said Yun. “At the same time, market conditions were far from perfect. New listings struggled to keep up with what was sold very quickly, and buying became less affordable in a large swath of the country. These two factors ultimately muted what should have been a stronger sales pace.”

That’s in part because total housing inventory3 at the end of December dropped 11.4 percent to 1.48 million existing homes available for sale, and is now 10.3 percent lower than a year ago (1.65 million) and has fallen year-over-year for 31 consecutive months. Unsold inventory is at a 3.2-month supply at the current sales pace, which is down from 3.6 months a year ago and is the lowest level since NAR began tracking in 1999.

What about new-home construction? A surprising but perhaps one-time drop in single-family starts masks what is otherwise a very solid housing starts and permits report for December. Starts fell 8.2 percent to a 1.192 million annualized rate and reflect an 11.8 percent plunge in single-family starts to an 836,000 rate that far offsets a 1.4 percent gain in multi-family starts to 356,000. But it’s probably the cold weather and snows that reach all the down to Florida in January. Starts are affected by the winter weather which along with related adjustments are always factors for this reading.

But the backlog behind future starts continues to build as permits came in very strong, virtually steady at a 1.302 million rate and showing a noticeable 1.8 percent gain for single-family permits to 881,000. Lack of homes has been holding down new home sales though new supply did move into December's market, as completions for single-family homes jumped 4.3 percent to an 818,000 rate.

We mustn’t forget interest rates either, which are still low in spite of the stock market panic over the possibility of higher rates. Guess what? That’s not happening, especially with the Fed’s preferred PCE core index still at 1.5 percent, and mortgage rates for the 30-year fixed conforming rate still @ 4.0 percent, just 0.50 percent above its low.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Wednesday, February 7, 2018

What is a Common Sense Stock Market?

Financial FAQs

Pundits and stock traders seem to believe Friday and Monday’s stock “massacre” was caused by too-quick trigger fingers—in computers controlled by algorithms, not people.

Whereas, investors and traders using their common sense would have seen the ‘yuge’ drop in valuations made no sense for many of the S&P 500 stocks of the largest US corporations that were making record profits.  Then they might not have oversold their holdings, as happened to those with the trigger-finger algorithms.

For instance, Boeing’s common stock price dropped $20 in a day when news came out that its profits are increasing and there are predictions of large future cash flows from its booming airline and defense businesses. And corporations such as Boeing will be saving $billions in future taxes due to the lower corporate tax rate.

What about the rest of the economy? Stocks have historically been a prediction of future economic activity, since they are priced at a discount to future earnings. So the total annual return of capital gains plus dividends can be a prediction of a company’s financial health.

Nobel laureate economist Robert Shiller in his best-selling Irrational Exuberance, a historical analysis of stock and bond yields, says stocks have earned $7 per year on average in capital gains plus dividends, bonds 4 percent per year for the past 100 years

And Dr. Shiller said Price-to-earnings ratios, another measure of stock values, averaged 15 to 1 historically. Today, the S&P P/E ratio is 17, meaning 17 times earnings, which is high, but not that high. In fact, the stock P/E’s reached 26 times earnings just before the Great Depression, and an oxygen-deprived 44 times earnings in 2000 on the eve of the dot-com crash.

That was why Dr.Shiller and Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan sounded the alarm over the  irrational exuberance that was “infecting” investors at the time. Dr. Greenspan’s famous warning was given in 1996, four years before the 2000 crash, when he said: “But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade?”

Japan has finally worked their way out of two decades of virtual deflation at a tremendous cost to growth, because of their spate of irrational exuberance. They now rank behind China and the European Union in the size of their economy.

Our stock market is in a similar circumstance today when too much money is chasing 50 percent fewer publicly listed stocks than in 1996, as I said in yesterday’s column. And there are already indications that corporations will be doing more of the same with the new tax savings.

But there is good news for employees. Friday’s unemployment report unveiled the largest pay increase in years. Average hourly earnings jumped to a year-on-year expansion best of 2.9 percent.  This is while the Fed’s core PCE inflation index is just 1.5 percent, way below its 2 percent stated target.

Graph: Econoday

Wages and salaries, the actual hourly incomes of normal working stiffs that excludes interest-bearing bank accounts, rental income, retirement benefits, stock dividends or annuities, actually rose year-on-year to 4.9 percent for its 5th straight climb and is now at its highest rate since November 2015.

And the just released JOLTS report of job hires and openings showed more workers quitting jobs voluntarily, which means they were finding better paying jobs. Job openings have slowed a bit, down 2.8 percent in December to 5.811 million, whereas Hires are steady, down fractionally in the month to 5.488 million. But that is keeping the spread between openings and hires also steady, at 323,000—which means 323,000 net job openings that haven’t been filled.

This might be why wages and salaries are finally increasing faster than the inflation rate, but it can also be that minimum wages in coastal states in particular are creeping toward $15 per hour by 2022, since 80 percent of the workforce depends on wages and salaries.

What should we make of the possibility of more irrational exuberance pushing stock valuations too high? Corporate profits will increase with the tax cuts, wages and salaries are soaring, and inflation is far away from the 2 percent target.

I believe investors should focus on price-to-earnings ratios, which also tell us whether stock prices have strayed too far from actual earnings.  Dr. Shiller warns irrational exuberance could infect investors again, if the S&P P/E ratio strays once more into the mid-twenties.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Why the ‘Yuge’ Stock Market Selloff?

Popular Economics Weekly

Stock indexes had the largest one-day drop in history today; what happened? The quick answer is that too much money is chasing too few stocks, believe it or not. The record low interest rates—the 10-year treasury yield just dropped back to 2.75 percent from 2.85 percent before Friday’s selloff—is an indication of the huge cash hoard held by corporations and Wall Street from the successive Quantitative Easing programs by Central Banks that have kept interest rates at record lows.

This is while a Credit Suisse report released last March titled “The Incredible Shrinking Universe of U.S. Stocks,” says between 1996 and 2016, the number of publicly-listed stocks in the U.S. fell by roughly 50 percent — from more than 7,300 to fewer than 3,600 — while rising about 50 percent in other developed nations.

Why do corporations and their Republican lobbyists keep pushing for lower taxes, as I said in an earlier column? They say it will create more jobs. But, alas, that isn’t shown by the record. An excellent New York Times Op-ed by Sarah Anderson at the Institute for Policy Studies points out that many corporations create very few jobs with those profits.

She reported on 92 public-held American corporations between 2008-15 that pay less than 20 percent in taxes. They had a median job growth rate of 1 percent vs. 6 percent for all private sector corporations during that time. And 48 of those companies actually cut 438,000 jobs, while their chief executives’ pay last year averaged nearly $15 million, compared with the $13 million average for all S&P 500 companies.

This should tell us who doesn’t use their profits to increase productivity and growth of their markets; as well as where corporate profits are spent; on stock buybacks that have reduced the number of outstanding publicly listed shares to enhance stockholder returns and CEO paychecks.

It means huge swings in stock prices from too much money chasing too few stocks, should traders panic; which is what they did today and Friday. Yet the panic selling had no underlying reason. Factory orders and the service sector economy is growing even faster than last year while the unemployment rate is still stuck at 4.1 percent and maybe going lower as fewer unemployed workers are even available to fill jobs.

The year-on-year growth for durable orders in the factory sector which has been sloping higher, is now 11.5 percent in December from 8.7 percent in November. This a sign that manufacturing growth is still trending higher, while the ISM non-manufacturing index is at an almost all-time high of 59; which means 59 percent of those surveyed see increased growth in the service sector.

The ISM non-manufacturing sample is also reporting some of the very best conditions in the 20-year history of this series, reports Econoday and the ISM. New orders are arguably more important than any composite result and the reading, at 62.7, is back at last year's peak. Employment is a special standout, up more than 5 points to a very rare plus 60 score of 61.6 which is by the far the best of the post-2008 expansion.

So what to make of the 'yuge' selloff? Some traders are saying it was a series of electronic trading “glitches” that sent prices plunging for no economic reason, and stock prices fall below their intrinsic valuations. Algorithms were at fault on selling billions of shares on the click of a button that had been pre-programmed to sell when prices dropped to a certain level, while other algorithms were programmed not to buy while stocks continued to fall.

It meant computers were chasing each other’s tails; as if they had them. That’s what happens when algorithms rule over common sense, and traders lose their common sense.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Monday, January 29, 2018

Q4 Growth Misses 3 Percent

Popular Economics Weekly

Consumers and businesses powered the economy to a 2.6 percent rate of gross domestic product growth in the final three months of 2017, according to the Commerce Department. But declining inventories and a wider trade deficit kept the U.S. from hitting the 3 percent mark for the third quarter in a row for the first time in 13 years. 

Q4 growth did not reach 3 percent as many pundits had hoped because producers produced less, depleting inventories. And imports grew faster than exports, because consumers are buying more, as more consumers are working in this full employment economy. Both numbers subtract from GDP growth, however.

On the plus side, consumer spending accelerated to a 3.8 percent annual pace of growth, the fastest pace in almost two years. Americans spent more on new cars and trucks, clothing and health care, among other things.

Businesses also invested more, after a long drought in capital expenditures. They increased spending on equipment by 11.4 percent, while investment in new housing jumped 11.6 percent. Inventories fell because companies slowed production in the fourth quarter. The value of unsold goods, or inventories, fell by $29.3 billion.

Imports rose 13.9 percent, while exports grew just 6.9 percent, and imports subtract from growth. That cut 1.1 percentage points off fourth-quarter GDP, and there is still very little inflation. The annual rate of inflation, measured by the PCE index is climbing; it rose to 2.8 percent, the highest pace since 2011. But the core PCE without more volatile food and energy prices rose at a slower 1.9 percent clip.

What does this mean? There is more room to grow, if consumers continue to spend as they have been, and businesses continue to invest in new plants and equipment, as they have in 2017, because more investment will increase worker productivity.

And economic growth needs higher productivity plus a growing population. Yet developed countries such as the US have slowing population growth, so robots, AI and other tech innovations have to replace the declining worker population. Republicans’ tax cuts should aid the corporate investment in more robots, which is good. But their wish to cut government spending is bad, because government is historically a 20 percent contributor to economic activity—and growth.

That’s because governments maintain our roads, bridges, energy grid, educational system, clean air and water; R&D for space exploration, Internet and airports—the list goes on and on. And government expenditures have been reduced since 2011, due to misplaced austerity measures in the US and Europe in particular.

This is a major reason GDP growth both here and in Europe has averaged just 2 percent since the end of the Great Recession. Corporations have garnered record profits over this time, but hoarded those profits, or returned them to their CEOs and stockholders, but not their employees.

That has to change for real economic growth to continue. Raising minimum wages in some states will help, but lower taxes don’t help with such a huge national debt and another $1.5 trillion being added over ten years in the new tax bill. Real wage growth has been declining for years, as collective bargaining and workers’ rights have been curtailed in the name of greater corporate profits.
We can hope GDP growth will continue, if paying down the national debt doesn’t become a priority.

The US dollar’s value has already declined 10 percent against other currencies, and the reason is not clear. But any further decline could motivate other countries to decide that investment in the US may not be a good idea; since much of our national debt is financed by other countries.

It is not a good idea to ignore what could happen to the $trillions in Treasury securities we have sold to the Chinese, in particular, that have financed that debt. Because it could suddenly become much more expensive to finance, should foreign governments and private entities no longer have confidence in the US economy.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Existing-Home Inventory Lowest in 18 years

The Mortgage Corner

There aren’t enough home to sell. Sales of previously-owned homes tumbled in December as an ongoing inventory crunch became more worrisome with few homes to sell in parts of the country. Existing-home sales were down 3.6 percent for the month, though they were up 1.1 percent from a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors. The NAR said November’s selling pace was revised down to 5.78 million.

The housing market performed remarkably well for the U.S. economy in 2017, said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist.
“Existing sales concluded the year on a softer note, but they were guided higher these last 12 months by a multi-year streak of exceptional job growth, which ignited buyer demand,” said Yun. “At the same time, market conditions were far from perfect. New listings struggled to keep up with what was sold very quickly, and buying became less affordable in a large swath of the country. These two factors ultimately muted what should have been a stronger sales pace.”
Graph: Econoday

There are two major reasons for the lack of inventory. Homebuyers are rushing to close deals before interest rates rise further. The 30-year conforming fixed rate is now 3.75 percent for a one point origination fee and climbing, with its maximum single-unit amount raised to $453,100 this January.
And there is a labor shortage with many workers having left the construction industry during the Great Recession, which is slowing the construction of new homes. The lack of inventory has also been driving up home prices, putting many first-time homebuyers out of the market.
“The lack of supply over the past year has been eye-opening and is why, even with strong job creation pushing wages higher, home price gains – at 5.8 percent nationally in 2017 – doubled the pace of income growth and were even swifter in several markets,” said Yun.
Those high-end markets include California, where the median home price now tops $500,000, vs. the new national median price for all housing types at $246,800. So who can afford to live in California these days?

That’s the reason Facebook unveiled plans for the massive new construction project at its Menlo Park, California corporate campus, which is part of Facebook's plans to expand its home base. The 56-acre site, which Facebook bought in 2015 for about $400 million, is located directly across the street from Facebook's headquarters. It will offer 1.6 million square feet of housing, or 1,500 units.
"Facebook is a strong supporter of its local community and consistently recognized as one of the best places in the world to work," said a Facebook spokeswoman. "This project advances both goals, by providing our employees an excellent new housing option within walking distance to campus while investing in new housing opportunities in our local community."
Must any new affordable housing in California and other high cost regions now depend on private corporations? California’s state legislators just passed a bill that would ask voters in November 2018 to approve $4 billion in general obligation bonds to build rental housing for low-income families and fund other existing housing programs. The bond would set aside $1 billion for the state’s veteran home-loan program, which would otherwise run out of money in 2018, according to SF Gate.

But that’s a drop in the bucket for what’s needed to keep up with the state’s population growth. The nonprofit California Housing Partnership estimates that California still needs about 1.5 million more subsidized housing units to meet current demand.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Monday, January 22, 2018

Shutdown vs. “S***hole” Countries

Popular Economics Weekly

The just ended government shutdown has little to do with 9 million children’s health insurance under the CHIP plan, or extending the Dreamers protection under DACA. It really has to do with President Trump’s insistence on shutting down immigration from non-white countries, as was evident from Trump’s “S***hole” comments that he wanted to limit immigration from African and other non-white countries.

What is so shocking about Trump’s comments is they repeat those of one who he claims not to admire. Adolf Hitler in 1928 openly admired America’s racist policies of that time that excluded non-whites and Jews from immigrating to the U.S.:
“The American Union feels itself to be a Nordic-German state and by no means an international porridge of peoples. This is revealed by its immigration quotas ... Scandinavians … then Englishmen and finally Germans have been accorded the largest contingent,” said Hitler even before the Nazi’s took power.
Specifically, Hitler admired the US Immigration Act of 1924 – also known as the Johnson-Reed Act – “which had erected openly racist barriers to immigration on the basis of a “national quota” system,” according to Yale Law Professor James Whitman.
“It was not until the 1965 US Immigration and Nationality Act that the US began to separate itself from the worst aspects of its racist past. And, as Trump’s presidency makes clear, that past has yet to be permanently overcome,” said Professor Whitman in a Project Syndicate article.
There is a reason why US immigration laws became more open. The US has always suffered from a labor shortage, so that it has been newly arrived immigrants that have filled the labor deficiency.

PEW Research states that More than 41 million immigrants lived in the U.S. as of 2013, more than four times as many as was the case in 1960 and 1970. By comparison, the U.S.-born population is only about 1.6 times the size it was in 1960. Immigrant population growth alone has accounted for 29 percent of U.S. population growth since 2000.

That is the most glaring sign that new workers are needed to maintain economic growth. US population growth cannot keep up with our demand for new workers. There is no other way to fill the 6 million job openings reported each month in the Labor Department’s JOLTS report.

Debate on the current House bill that doesn’t include an extension of the Dreamers’ protections was continued for 3 weeks, in the hopes that a bi-partisan bill keeping open the door for immigrants from what President Trump considers to be “S***hole”, non-white countries will be passed.

So this is important for economic reasons; as well as recognizing that America has always been a land of immigrants; that we keep a flow of qualified immigrants and their families coming from countries that can provide the workforce America has always needed to grow and prosper.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Immigration and Trump’s “S***Hole” Comment

Popular Economics Weekly

How should we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. on his holiday? That greater equality creates greater prosperity for all; as well as greater peace.

President Trump’s S***Hole comments were meant as a signal to his neo-nazi supporters that he wanted to exclude as many non-whites from immigrating to America as he could, and encourage more from European countries like Norway.

This means he isn’t interested in stronger economic growth over the longer term, since much of the economic growth today can be attributed to non-whites and women, according to an excellent column by the Conversable Economist, Tim Taylor, commemorating MLK Jr.’s holiday.

Non-whites and women have been contributing a larger share to our economic growth than White men since at least 1960 in high-skill occupations. Before then, many labored in the lower-skilled, unnoticed occupations that weren’t always included in growth statistics.

Professor Taylor quotes a policy brief from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research cited by Peter Klenow. The percentage of White men in the high-skilled occupations of Doctors, Lawyers and Managers, “defined as lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, architects, mathematicians, executives/managers,” has fallen substantially, while that of Black men, White and Black women has soared. The number of White women entering these professions has tripled, Black men quadrupled, and Black women grown eight times from 1960 to 2008.

The result? Klenow estimates that economic growth increased by 15-20 percent due to these minorities entering the higher-skilled occupation, just from the fact that their numbers increased as a share of the overall profession, while the percentage of White men has fallen by approximately one-third.

It also highlights another important fact. Economic growth depends on population growth plus labor productivity. And annual labor productivity has declined approximately 50 percent since 2007, as has U.S. population growth. So the only way to boost economic growth from its current 2 percent range is to increase the working age population via immigration.

The lesson therefore is that we need greater diversity in our workforce, not less as President Trump and his racist supporters want, since our birth rates are declining; a valuable lesson to remember on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Why Raise Interest Rates Now?

Financial FAQs

The Federal Reserve is warning about the consequences of the just passed tax reform bill, which includes adding some $1.5 trillion to the federal debt in ten years. New York Fed President William Dudley says it will put too much money into the economy (via drop in corporate tax rate to 21 percent, and maximum personal rate to 37 percent), which will boost inflation to unacceptable levels. Dudley said the U.S. central bank may have to “press harder on the brakes” at some point over the next few years, increasing the risk of a hard landing for the economy, because of the new tax bill.

Once again, we are seeing what the Fed might do to stop this economic expansion, just as Fed Chair Greenspan did in 2007 by raising the Fed’s rates 16 times to stop the GW Bush expansion (and housing bubble) that led to the Great Recession.

Greenspan’s actions raised interest rates too fast on all the so-called liar loans with negative amortization, and put house payments out of range for the less qualified; many of whom had never owned a home, or had to admit their real incomes; which led to the busted housing bubble.

The Fed could make the same mistake in the current growth cycle with retail sales booming and very little inflation. The Fed has been too occupied with inflation since the wild inflation years of 1970, when they should be more concerned about maintaining adequate economic growth, which has been averaging just 2.1 percent since the end of the Great Recession.

Retail sales rose 4.2 percent in 2017, with very little inflation even on the horizon. Retail sales rise 5 to 6 percent when the economy is growing for everyone, but inflation rates are also higher—in the 3 to 5 percent range historically. This is because the Fed is most sensitive to rising wages and salaries that make up two-thirds of product costs as an indicator of future inflation, as it did in the seventies.

By wanting to hold inflation to a 2 percent target, the Fed since the 1970s has been more concerned with tamping down household incomes, which is not the way to enable households to better themselves financially and move up the socio-economic ladder, as was possible prior to the 1970s.

Graph: Econoday

The Consumer Price Index, our best measure of retail prices, is still holding at 2 percent as it has for several years. But the core CPI index without food and energy prices plunged to 0 percent inflation in 2015 as the graph shows, and been slow to return to the 2 percent range. That’s hardly a sign of incipient inflation, but rather a sign of insufficient demand for goods and services, which in turn means household incomes are not rising fast enough to stay ahead of inflation, since consumers support two-thirds of all economic activity in the U.S. economy.

One can say the Federal Reserve has been too much in league with Big Business and multi-national corporations since the 1970s; which has kept production costs low and corporate profits at their highest levels in history as a percentage on national income.

This means we have to ‘modernize’ the Fed’s attitude about inflation, if we want to aid household incomes. Fed Governors should allow more inflation before raising interest rates further. Now is the time to be more concerned about the financial health of employees over corporate profits.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Aren’t Tax Cuts Wonderful?

Popular Economics Weekly

Those were President Trump’s words on the $3.2 trillion in tax cuts enacted by the Republican majority congress before Christmas. “These are the biggest tax cuts in history, even bigger than President Reagan’s.” He’s right that they will be wonderful for corporations, and the highest income earners, but not for most of U.S.

So President Trump will have to show that these cuts continue to create jobs.  He has promised 10 million jobs in the first four years. The numbers are looking good in his first year, the ninth year of this economic recovery from the Great Recession. But one ingredient is lacking; government job creation. Federal government job rolls shrank during Trump’s first 11 months, and history shows that governments have to hire enough to keep up the job numbers, and provide essential services that aid economic growth.

The real problem is tax cuts have never created many jobs. Though accounting for job creation under the various presidential administrations is tricky since business cycles don’t match presidential terms, they provide a superficial look at which tax policies have worked best.

Taxes were raised during President Clinton’s eight years with 20, 966,000 private payroll jobs created. President Reagan comes in second at 14,717,000, but had to raise taxes 11 times to reduce the ballooning deficit caused by the tax cuts. The difference is that Clinton had no recessions during his terms, while Reagan had two during his early years. But taxes were raised in both cases to create more jobs, in part to fund enough government jobs that are needed to create a fully employed economy.

Under Clinton, 1,934,000 public sector jobs (i.e., federal and state) were created, and 1,414,000 under President Reagan, whereas federal jobs declined 14,000 in Trump’s first 11 months, according to the Washington Post.

Graph: Calculated Risk

President Obama actually lost jobs during his first months as president due to the Great Recession, but ended up with 1,937,000 jobs in his first term and 11,756,000 jobs over eight years. And government payrolls actually declined 268,000 during Obama’s eight years due to a number of factors; which was when Republicans took over control of the House in 2010 and cut federal spending when they cared about deficits.

Alas, that is no longer so, as the new tax bill is actually programmed to add $1.5 trillion to the national debt, and President Trump wants to reduce government budgets by 30 percent in 2018.

It will not create the necessary jobs to keep job rolls full and deficits down. Government spending is necessary to fund all the programs that the private cannot or will not, including health care, public infrastructure, education, and R&D that fund future prosperity.

How did we build our highway system, go to the moon, and create the Internet? With government spending. But that was done before 1980 when government became the problem for Republicans and tax cuts the answer.

Now it seems that budget deficits are no longer a problem for Republicans, and President Trump is counting on those 10 million new jobs to justify the tax cuts. He may be off to a good start, but it is the ninth year of this recovery cycle, and the post- World War II record is ten years that included President Clinton’s term.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Friday, January 5, 2018

What Happens in 2018?

Popular Economics Weekly

The New Year will make some people very wealthy—mainly stockholders, corporate execs, and real estate moguls. And as minimum wages begin to rise this year in many cities and states (but not all), those at the lower income end will also get a boost.

But the middle class? They will be hit hardest by the limit to property tax and mortgage deductions in the new tax bill. And don’t forget the spending cuts to the social programs that will lower incomes of those dependent on Medicare and Medicaid.

However, this is a column about the prospects for higher paying jobs and economic growth. And it looks like upcoming statistics will show the ninth year of solid growth. But that is only if Congress finally enacts an infrastructure bill that would not only boost higher paying jobs, but productivity as well. The hurricane devastations and winter ‘bomb’ cyclones make that an obvious priority.

Just 148,000 new nonfarm payroll jobs were added to payrolls in December, according to the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics, down from the prior two months’ 232,000 average. But economists believe it was partly due to the extreme winter weather that has essentially snowbound the northern half of the U.S.

Everyone needs to see The Day After Tomorrow, a harrowing movie about extreme climate change that brings in a new Ice Age, to understand what can happen if such extreme weather conditions continue.

All else was strong with the unemployment rate holding at 4.1 percent. Job gains were led by the health care, construction and manufacturing sectors. Other industries had smaller gains. The only significant weakness was in the hard-hit retail sector, which shed more than 20,000 jobs.

The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) was essentially unchanged at 4.9 million in December but was down by 639,000 over the year. These individuals, who would have preferred full-time employment, were working part time because their hours had been cut back or they were unable to find a full-time job.

So this economy is putting people back to work, and could equal the Clinton recovery from 1991 to 2001 before GW Bush cut taxes and swelled the federal deficit once more; that had actually been in surplus for the last 4 years of the Clinton administration.

The lesson we learned then was Clinton had to raise taxes and cut back military spending, the largest portion of the federal budget. But Republicans once again are adding to the deficit and overall debt with their tax cuts.

So the real silliness in 2018 will be one party believing that cutting taxes and social programs will keep the federal debt from growing even larger. Not possible, because over the long term the monstrous federal debt will take even more money out of the economy and growth to pay the interest required to service said debt that could grow to $25 trillion in ten years, according to some projections.

And the Fed will keep raising interest rates at the same time to prepare us for the next recession.

Harlan Green © 2018

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

2017--A Year of Nightmares

Popular Economics Weekly

“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Jesus was to have said to his disciples. This should be the proverb that describes 2017, a year of lost souls.

What does it say about a country that elects a President who shows no sign of having a soul, but only wants profits for himself and his cronies?

Most Americans in 2017 have seen rock-bottom American values such as equality, justice, and tolerance assaulted to bring back a gilded age that profits a few. Instead of draining the DC swamp, President Trump has filled it with a record number of lobbyists; either writing the bills Republicans are pushing through congress, or installing lobbyists in the very government agencies they are tasked to regulate.

The 2017 nightmare began on the election of Donald Trump that will forever be tainted by Russia’s well-documented attempts to tilt the election to Trump and the Republican Party.
George Will, the conservative pundit, gave the best description of Trump’s inabilities in a Washington Post Op-ed: “It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence.”
Psychologists and psychotherapists have said more; that Trump is mentally ill, or has an untreatable Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but either way, he lives in a fantastical world of his own making the almost completely ignores the reality that most Americans live.

The nightmare grew when we learned Russia may have been behind many of the dirty tricks, and anti-Hillary chants of “Lock Her Up” made by Trump campaign advisers such as General Flynn. We now know the FBI began its counter-intelligence operation of the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016, when it learned that the Russians had hacked both Republican and Democratic Party emails.

But Russia only weaponized the Democrats’ hacked emails via WikiLeaks, Facebook, and Twitter, not those of the Republicans. Therefore the suspicion has to be that Russia could blackmail one or more Trump campaign operatives into spying for them because Russia didn’t publicize the Republicans’ emails—maybe even President Trump and his family? That is precisely what the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation wants to determine.

The greatest nightmare of 2017 may be the record income inequity that was exemplified in the just-passed tax cuts that are to be paid for with up to $3 trillion in added federal debt plus spending cuts to Medicare and Medicaid over the next ten years, which impoverish the poorest among US.
Professors Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez were the first to examine 100 years of income tax returns that highlighted the wide swings in income equality. They found that the periods of greatest inequality were just before a major recession, such the as the Great Recession, and the Great Depression itself.

Both were the result of record income inequality. The greatest prosperity was post-WWII, when the modern American middle class was formed due to rapid economic growth and unionization of the workforce.

Graph: CPBB

When will the 2017 nightmare end? Maybe in 2018, if a majority of Americans realize the fantasy world the current administration and congress has created is not theirs; but Americans see a world in which life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is available to all.

Harlan Green © 2018

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