Friday, June 30, 2017

Interest Rates On the Rise!

Financial FAQs

Central Banks everywhere seem to be following our Federal Reserve in selling bonds they had accumulated to keep interest rates low for so long—in fact, since the end of the Great Recession. They also seem to be crossing fingers that it won't hurt growth.

The 10-year Treasury yield rose 1.8 basis point to 2.285 percent, contributing to a 14 basis point jump over the past week. The 30-year bond, or the long bond, gained 1.7 basis point to 2.831 percent, according to Marketwatch.

Our Fed Chair Janet Yellen took the lead in calling for more Fed rate hikes this year at the last FOMC meeting; as well as beginning to sell some of the $4.5 billion in Treasury bonds it had accumulated during the various Quantitative Easing programs first initiated by former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke.

The QE programs and extremely low inflation have kept long term rates below 3 percent for several years. The Fed’s actions in tightening credit mean they see higher inflation and growth ahead. But so far it’s just words. They are hoping that talking up interest rates will have the effect of boosting growth, for some reason.

I don’t see how, since consumer spending and business investment are still at post-recession lows. First quarter GDP’s final growth estimate rose from 1.2 to 1.4 percent and it’s averaged 2 percent annually since 2009, the end of the Great Recession. That’s the reason for the various QE bond buying programs that have taken so many bonds out of the market.

So the question is, as the Fed begins to sell them back into the bond market will interest rates rise? They are taking a gamble, since consumers aren’t spending as they should, and inflation is falling, rather than rising—another sign of weak demand.

Graph: Econoday

Real disposable personal income has fallen precipitously since 2014, and the Fed’s preferred PCE inflation index is down to 1.4 percent annually. That should be a danger sign, rather than a sign of higher growth.

Maybe the Fed is looking at consumer optimism, still holding at November post-election highs. Both the University of Michigan sentiment survey and Conference Board’s confidence survey show extreme optimism about future prospects.

Why such optimism? We are nearing full employment, or perhaps there is the hope that Republicans may be able to pass an infrastructure bill that would boost state and federal work projects.

But then Congress has to begin work on legislation that both Republicans and Democrats can agree on. They shouldn’t wait on much more partisan legislation that isn’t likely to pass—like reforming health care and cutting taxes, which no one seems to be able to agree on.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

What Healthcare System Do Americans Want?

Popular Economics Weekly

This is a quiz. What country had the second-highest mortality from noncommunicable conditions — like diabetes, heart disease or violence — and the fourth highest from infectious disease? Also, from adolescence to adulthood to old age, what country has the highest chance of dying an early death?

The United States of America—where else, since the U.S. is the only developed country in the world without universal health care? A recent New York Times Business Insider article by Eduardo Porter highlighted a recent study by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of 16 of the richest countries in the world that set out to assess our nation’s health.

The results are devastating, and show how far America has fallen behind in caring for its citizens. And the new Senate version of repeal and replace Obamacare strips even more benefits and money from Obamacare

This problem should have nothing to do with ideology, and whether access to affordable health care should be a privilege or a right. Too many Americans are dying of drug overdose and violence. Too many Americans suffer from depression, a major cause of drug abuse.
And too many Americans are obese, making them less productive and more prone to accidents in the workplace. “The United States ranks in the bottom fourth among the 30 industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of days lost to disability,” says Porter. “Women will lose 362 days between birth and their 60th birthday; men about 336. Mental health problems like depression will account for most.”

But all of these statistics hide the real problem—rampant income inequality. The U.S. ranks 106th of the 149 countries in income inequality as ranked by the CIA’s World Factbook; with a Gini inequality index of developing countries like Peru and Cameroon. Finland and the Scandinavian countries are at the top of equality, Germany and France are 12th and 20th, respectively. The higher the index, the greater the gap between wealthy and poorer citizens of a country’s population.

And the poorer the person, family, or community, the more prone to illness and drug use is that person, or family, or community. This is where the Senate version of repeal and replace Obamacare hurts the most—in the poorer red states that voted for President Trump.
“What’s more, the United States’ higher tolerance of poverty undoubtedly contributes to higher rates of sickness and death,” says Porter. “Americans at all socioeconomic levels are less healthy than people in some other rich countries. But the disparity is greatest among low-income groups.”
Finally contributing to our health crisis is the incredible amount of violence—both due to guns (33,000 per year killed by guns), workplace accidents, and drug abuse, that a universal health care system could treat via mental health coverages as well.

In other words, there are much higher costs because we don’t have a healthy healthcare system and we the citizens are paying those costs, rather than those that are pushing the $1.1 trillion in tax cuts that Obamacare utilizes to pay for many of those costs.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Housing Shortage Continues

The Mortgage Corner

It was very good news that new-home sales rose nearly 3 percent in May to a 610,000 annualized rate. The report, always volatile, included a big upward revision to April which however, at 593,000, is still the year's low. But that isn’t close to the 1 million plus new homes built annually during the housing bubble.

Existing home sales also proved better than expected, up more than 1 percent to a 5.620 million rate. Low unemployment and low mortgage rates are major positives for housing. But that only exacerbates the shortage of homes on the market.

Graph: Econoday

And that doesn’t even take into account the 1 million prospective homebuyers who could buy a home, if Fannie and Freddie would ease their qualification standards to that which prevailed throughout the last 2 decades. But because the U.S. Treasury won’t release its stranglehold on supervision of the GSE’s, for fear that taxpayers might again be at risk if another housing bubble materializes, there is little prospect of this aid coming to first-time and entry-level buyers, in particular, that must then rely on the more expensive FHA alternative.

This is while the housing shortage continues, even though prices are up a median $252,800 for resales and $345,800 for new homes, a 6 percent rise, whereas household incomes are rising just 2.4 percent annually. The FHFA house price index is another of the week's highlights, up sharply in April to a year-on-year rate of 6.8 percent.

This should boost housing construction, but housing starts are also lagging. And we are hardly in bubble territory. Bubbles occur when there is too much of something—whether housing, or credit—so that the resulting oversupply causes prices to plummet at they did during the Great Recession.

Calculated Risk shows the “Distressing Gap” that occurred with the housing crash, when oversupply of distressed housing caused new-home construction to plummet. It hasn’t yet recovered, but “in general the ratio has been trending down since the housing bust, and this ratio will probably continue to trend down over the next several years,” says Calculated Risk’s Bill McBride.

The National Association of Home Builders reported builder confidence in the market for newly-built single-family homes weakened slightly in June, down two points to a level of 67 from a downwardly revised May reading of 69 on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI).

New-home inventories remain too low to satisfy surging demand that comes from low interest rates and full employment. Full employment is a two-edged sword, however, as it also means labor shortages and unfilled jobs. Where are those workers, when just 2 million are currently employed in construction, and there were as many as 6 million employed during the housing bubble? It could be the recession hangover, such as memories from the housing crash that has discouraged many from re-entering the workforce. Hence the 4 percent drop in labor participation rate since the end of the Great Recession.
“As the housing market strengthens and more buyers enter the market, builders continue to express their frustration over an ongoing shortage of skilled labor and buildable lots that is impeding stronger growth in the single-family sector,” said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz.
Builders can’t keep up with the housing demand, in other words—especially now that the Millennials, those between the ages of 18 to 36, are coming into adulthood and outnumber all other population groups. A good percentage will want to own a home someday as their primary asset.

he younger baby boom generation dominated in 2010.  By 2016 the millennials have taken over.  “The six largest groups, by age, are in their 20s - and eight of the top ten are in their 20s,” reports Bill McBride and the U.S. Census Bureau

Harlan Green © 2017

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why Home Sales Rising Fast, Construction Lagging?

The Mortgage Corner

We are once again in a housing conundrum. May Existing-home sales just surged 1.1 percent to 5.62 million units, after falling for several months. And housing starts fell for the third straight month an unexpected 5.5 percent in May to a far lower-than-expected annualized rate of 1.092 million with permits for future construction likewise very weak, down 4.9 percent to a 1.168 million rate.

So where is housing to come from with soaring prices, historically low unemployment, and interest rates? At the current sales rate, it would take 4.2 months to clear inventory, down from 4.7 months one year ago. That means a severe shortage of available housing.

The median number of days homes were on the market in May was 27, the shortest time frame since NAR began tracking data in 2011. Housing inventory has dropped for 24 straight months on a year-on-year basis, reports the National Association of Realtors.

Graph: Econoday
"Home prices keep chugging along at a pace that is not sustainable in the long run," said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun. "Current demand levels indicate sales should be stronger, but it's clear some would-be buyers have to delay or postpone their home search because low supply is leading to worsening affordability conditions."
There is declining affordability because incomes are not keeping up with rising home prices. The median existing-home price has risen 6 percent April-to-April, says the NAR, while median household income rose just 2.4 percent over that time.

The hottest housing markets with the shortest sales’ times in May were Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Wash., 20 days; San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, Calif., 24 days; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif., 25 days; and Salt Lake City, Utah and Ogden-Clearfield, Utah, both at 26 days, said the NAR.
"With new and existing supply failing to catch up with demand, several markets this summer will continue to see homes going under contract at this remarkably fast pace of under a month," said Yun.
Affordability is becoming an acute problem, in other words. The majority of Americans and Canadians say their nations are not doing enough to address and solve affordable housing needs, according to just published Habitat for Humanity’s Affordable Housing Survey. Escalating costs remain a top barrier preventing families from accessing decent homes with affordable mortgages, the survey says.

One major barrier to homeownership cited among survey respondents: the high costs of rent. Eighty-four percent of survey respondents said the high cost of rent was preventing them from buying, followed by 75 percent who said obtaining a mortgage was proving to be a big barrier.

We know why obtaining a mortgage is still a high barrier, even with historically low interest rates. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the major guarantors of residential mortgages are still in government conservatorship, which really means the U.S. Treasury Department is in charge, though the Federal Housing Finance Authority is supposed to be the supervisor. And because Treasury maintains taxpayer monies are still ‘at risk’, it won’t relax credit standards to allow more borrowers to qualify.

The median FICO credit score is still 750 for approved loans, whereas it was closer to 680 during the last decade. It was a much lower bar since most fully-employed Americans have some kind of late charge in their past. And easing the qualification standard could bring 1 million more homebuyers into the housing market, said the Urban Institute in a recent study.

We believe such strict qualification standards are because the U.S. Treasury Department doesn’t want to part with the cash flow from raking in all of their profits—some $5 billion in Q2—so that no capital will be left to cushion any downturn.

Why? Because Treasury Secretary Mnuchin says they are working on a plan to dissolve Fannie and Freddie and come up with something better. But Treasury has been promising the same thing since 2008, and then Obama’s Treasury in 2012 when it decided to put all their profits into the general fund. That amount paid to Treasure has now climbed to more than $271 billion, vs. the $187.5 billion it cost to take over Fannie ane Freddie, making them cash cows at the expense of prospective homebuyers.

We have still not seen an outline of what a future Fannie and Freddie organization might look like. Nor has Congress been able to agree on whether they should be returned to the private sector as stockholding corporations or in a form that more resembles highly regulated VA and FHA loan programs.

So Habitat For Humanity is right in calling for more government action to increase affordability options for home owners and prospective homebuyers.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Consumers Not Shopping Anymore?

Popular Economics Weekly

What has happened to second quarter economic growth? Economists had been predicting 3 percent plus GDP growth for Q2, but consumers are cutting back instead. Retail sales have fallen with inflation, not a good sign for demand, while consumer sentiment is barely holding onto the optimism after President Trump’s election. Maybe it’s because nothing is getting through Congress that Trump can sign into legislation.

Graph: Econoday

Econoday reports that consumers aren’t remaining very optimistic about present or future conditions; an indication there isn’t a quarter-end bounce. June's preliminary consumer sentiment index is 94.5, down from several months at the 97 level and the least optimistic reading since the November election. The current conditions component, which offers a specific gauge on month-to-month consumer spending, shows a similar decline.

Graph: Econoday

Lack of inflation is a serious indication that demand in general is weak, as I said. Consumer spending makes up 69 percent of GDP and has been this year's big flop, but the FOMC in its June statement said "household spending has picked up in recent months". Really? Consumer spending did rise 0.4 percent in April and 0.3 percent in March but that's no better than average. And the first piece for May spending, retail sales, fell 0.3 percent which is far below average.

The housing market seems to be holding up, as long as interest rates stay at historic lows. The 10-year Treasury bond yield is still hovering at 2.15 percent, and 30-year fixed rate mortgages are still below 4 percent.

Housing had been sliding but May's very solid 1.1 percent rebound in existing home sales to a higher-than-expected 5.620 million annualized rate is hopeful and will be covered in a following column. Today's report is mostly solid throughout and includes gains for single-family homes, up 1.0 percent to a 4.980 million rate, and also condos, up 1.6 percent to a 640,000 rate.

So what’s next?  Tomorrow the Conference Board’s Index of Leading Indicators may give us more signs of future growth, and new-home sales come out on Friday. Both are leading indicators, so stay tuned.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why Did Fed Raise Rates Again?

Popular Economics Weekly

U.S. growth cycles have averaged about 8 years since WWII, yet the Federal Reserve just announced they were raising their overnight rate for the third time—to 1.25 percent. It also forecast that the unemployment rate could fall further, and economic growth continue for another one to two years, before the inevitable downturn.

What is the basis for their very optimistic prognosis with this growth cycle already 8 years old, and as Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius says 8 years has been the average length of recoveries since WWII? We have a 4.3 percent unemployment rate, and one million fewer workers were hired (5 million in May) than the number of job openings (6 million) in the Labor Department’s latest JOLTS report, so what comes next?

Graph: Hatzius-Goldman Sachs

Fed Chair Yellen said that because of the tight labor market, price pressures are more likely to intensify. The unemployment rate fell in May to a 16-year low of 4.3 percent amid widespread reports that businesses are running out of qualified workers to hire, as I said.

In some cases, firms have sharply boosted pay to attract or retain workers, and the Fed believes that is always a red flag for incipient inflation. “Conditions are in place for inflation to move up,” Yellen said in a press conference after the Fed action.

But inflation is nowhere in sight, nor are wages on average rising more than 2.5 percent, still to low to boost economic activity. The May Consumer Price Index was basically unchanged, which may be why retail sales fell in May, but are still rising some 5 percent. Retail sales aren’t corrected for inflation, so when prices fall, it can affect retail sales.

The annual CPI core rate without volatile food and energy prices is just 1.7 percent. The Fed just can’t seem to boost inflation, no matter how hard it tries to talk it up, so it has announced it will begin to sell its $4.5 billion cache of Treasury securities that were accumulated during the various Quantitative Easing programs that have driven interest rates to historic lows. The ten-year bond yield had sunk to an unheard of 2.11 percent, which is why mortgage rates are still at historic lows.

Republicans seem to want to improve the chances of another Great Recession with their passage of the Choice Act that rolls back all the Dodd-Frank regulations that are designed to prevent another Great Recession.

The New York Times just reported on its passage in the House last Thursday, “…a sweeping deregulation of the financial sector. It passed 233-186, with no Democratic support. One Republican, Walter Jones of North Carolina, voted no. This bill rolls back or weakens most of the protections put in place since the 2008 financial crisis through President Barack Obama’s Dodd-Frank Act.”

In their attempts to please Wall Street (how quickly they changed their tune once in power), they are doing everything in their power to remove any oversight, even putting the consumers main protection, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, back into the hands of those regulators that allowed the Bush era excesses to happen by looking the other way.

In their purview, the Lehman Brothers failure that started the panic and consequent Great Recession was “market cleansing”. Republicans are saying someone should be punished for the excesses, rather than those excesses be prevented with regulation, and it has to stockholders and homeowners (Lehman had funded all those liar loans without adequate collateral), rather than the banks which were bailed out by the Bush administration’s TARP program, and are now bigger than ever. So what happened to Too Big To Fail?

So the Federal Reserve seems to be operating in its own bubble of unreality. It is anticipating higher growth and inflation, whereas there are no signs of either. Or, it could be anticipating another downturn, and wants to be prepared for it by clearing out its portfolio of bonds. But in selling those bonds into the open market it will surely raise long term bond rates, and mortgages.

But in pushing up interest rates, it could in fact create the slowdown it seems to believe is about to happen.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Friday, June 9, 2017

What, Too Many Job Openings?

Financial FAQs

We are now seeing real evidence of the need for more working adults, if the US economy is to continue to grow. The Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS report, said April job openings are nearly 1 million ahead of hirings in a widening spread pointing to skill scarcity in the labor market.

“Job openings totaled 6.044 million in April which is well outside Econoday's high estimate for 5.765 million and up from a revised 5.785 million in the prior month. Hirings totaled 5.051 million which is well down from March's 5.304 million with the spread between the two nearly 150,000 higher at 993,000,” said Econoday.
What to do about it, since infrastructure upgrades are needed to boost economic growth? Private industry has not increased capital expenditures on anything for more than one year, choosing to either hoard their increased profits, or invest overseas. Both state and federal governments have to increase their public works spending as well, which is not yet happening because states have to run on balanced budgets.
And many chose to cut taxes like Kansas in the belief that trickle-down economics was the conservatives’ answer to adversity; which has instead prolonged the pain.
The ultra-conservative Tea Party is in control of Congress and many states, in other words, and they have focused on tax cuts, such as those incorporated in the so-called repeal and replace Obamacare House bill that was passed without updating its CBO scoring, because up to 24 million could lose health coverage, while coverage costs would skyrocket.
The Center For Budget Policies Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank, has been asking states to boost their infrastructure spending for years:
“But rather than identifying and making the infrastructure investments that provide the foundation for a strong economy, many states are cutting taxes and offering corporate subsidies in a misguided approach to boosting economic growth.  Tax cuts will spur little to no economic growth and take money away from schools, universities, and other public investments essential to producing the talented workforce that businesses need.”

As I’ve reported in past columns, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in its 2017 report card on the condition of America’s infrastructure gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ or “poor” rating.  The engineers estimated the cost of bringing America’s infrastructure to a state of good repair (a grade of B) by 2020 at $4.59 trillion, of which only about 55 percent has been committed. 

Improving roads and bridges alone would require almost $850 billion more than states, localities, and the federal government have allocated.  Schools need another $270 billion beyond what’s been invested. 

CBS News reports that the Trump plan specifies only $200 billion in new federal spending even as the administration's budget includes "enormous cuts to public investment," according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute. The administration also did not specify just where the remaining $800 billion would come from and how the spending increases would jibe with the huge cuts in infrastructure spending envisioned in its proposed budget. 

The question now is not only how will these projects be financed, but where will we find the workforce?

Harlan Green © 2017

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Republicans Are About to 'Make America Last'

Popular Economics Weekly

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change is symbolic in more ways than one. In bringing back the white nationalist call to make America great again, he could set us back decades in bringing cleaner air and reducing global warming, not to speak of what would happen to economic growth.

In fact, he wants to Make America Last in the developed nations in caring for not only our environment, but economic growth as well. The agenda of Trump and his Tea Party supporters seem to want is to knock out the main pillars that grow the economy—a better social safety net (fewer workers lose work time), restriction of immigration and the importation of new workers needed for higher growth, as well as cutting huge chunks out of the budget for education and R&D, which are needed for a more educated workforce and the development of new products, the seed corn for future productivity and prosperity.

We currently have the second highest carbon emissions per capita after China, but could become the highest emitter if Republicans succeed in rolling back 30 years of environmental protection, becoming the country with the least amount of environmental protections.

Why leave the Paris Accord, when it is a voluntary accord to reduce carbon emissions? It was to help the coal industry, where Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is heavily invested in coal and has already made $millions with the 50 percent bumpup in coal stocks since Trump took office.

And the Koch Brothers $millions that were spent to elect Tea Party candidates is paying off as Trump initiated an immediate review of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants, the main vehicle for reduction of U.S. emissions that was promised in the Paris Accord.

Surrounded by coal miners, the president described that plan as a “crushing attack” on workers and vowed to nix “job-killing regulations. We’re going to have safety, we’re going to have clean water, we’re going to have clean air, but so many [regulations] are unnecessary, so many are job-killing,” he said.

The withdrawal process takes a total of 4 years, beginning in 2020 after the next congressional elections. It is totally voluntary, with all but 3 countries now on board, except the US, Nicaragua, and Syria.

But it’s symbolic in another way, as well. Trump and his Republican supporters seem to want to be left out of collective agreements of any kind, and this will hurt us economically as well as isolate US from future attempts to lower carbon emissions.

America will also be last in health care if Republicans succeed in repealing Obamacare, because Repubs want to slash spending on Medicaid and social security disability coverage, needed predominately by the poorer states that supported Trump. Why? So they can use the $1.11 billion is savings to pay for the repeal of the Obamacare taxes that benefit the wealthiest.

Need we say more of why the Trump Team wants to Make America Last? So their own wealthy supporters gain even more wealth, and Trump’s supporters—most of whom reside in the poorest states—will continue to suffer from his sleight of hand.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Friday, June 2, 2017

We Have Reached Full Employment!

Financial fAQs

The U.S. added a modest 138,000 new jobs in May and hiring earlier in the spring was weaker than initially reported, adding to evidence that the tightest labor market in years is making it harder for companies to fill open jobs. So is this as good as it gets for employment and jobs?

The unemployment rate dropped to 4.3 percent because 429,000 workers dropped out of the civilian labor force, while the number of employed fell by 233,000 in the Household survey—one of two reports put out today by the Labor Department.

This was the lowest unemployment rate since 2001, while in March the private payroll (or Establishment) jobs total was revised downward to 50,000, and April was revised downward to 174,000 for a total of 66,000 fewer jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

But a very good total of 2.23 million jobs were created over the past 12 months, yet there are 5.7 million unfilled jobs in April, according to the BLS JOLTS report. In fact 429,000 fewer looked for work, either because they couldn’t find the job they liked, or more women are leaving the workforce to raise families according to one survey. Jobs are going begging, in other words, which is another sign of full employment.

As recently as 1990, the United States had one of the top employment rates in the world for women, says a 2014 NYTimes Upshot article, but it has now fallen behind many European countries. “After climbing for six decades, the percentage of women in the American work force peaked in 1999, at 74 percent for women between 25 and 54. It has fallen since, to 69 percent today.”
The reason? The lack of maternity leave and other social programs that would support child raising. In a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of nonworking adults aged 25 to 54 in the United States, conducted last month in the same Upshot article, “61 percent of women said family responsibilities were a reason they weren’t working, compared with 37 percent of men. Of women who identify as homemakers and have not looked for a job in the last year, nearly three-quarters said they would consider going back if a job offered flexible hours or allowed them to work from home.”
So where do we go from here? What will draw those back into the labor force the approximately 6 million working age adults that no longer want to work at the moment? There is plenty of job growth in Health, Leisure and Hospitality, Professional and business services, and construction, since the housing market is still perking along.

Graph: Econoday

Maybe we should forget about that magical 3 percent GDP growth goal the Trump administration says we can reach with their proposed tax and regulation cuts. The US population isn’t growing as fast as during the baby boom and labor productivity is stuck in the 1 percent range, in part because businesses aren’t investing in new plants and equipment, as we said yesterday.

Harlan Green © 2017

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