THE JOB MOB The Societal Impact of the Next Downturn, Danielle DiMartino Booth

The Job Mob – The Societal Impact of the Next Downturn

Before there was the mob, there was the gabelloti. It would seem that these Sicilian estate managers, employed by the church or feudal lord, were not above corruption.

As the nobility’s penchant for the provocative Palermo night life circa 1700 grew and proper pied-a-terres secured, more responsibilities were handed over to the gabelloti, who were charged with the overseeing of the day-to-day operation of the fiefdoms. A primary task for the gabelloti was ensuring the necessary number of hired hands were satisfactorily shepherding, farming and foresting the lands with which they’d been entrusted.

Continue Reading >>

Member Login >> 

Danielle DiMartino Booth, Money Strong LLC, Bitcoin, Blockchain

CRYPTIC CURRENCY — From Blockchain to Daisy Chain and Beyond

W. A. Saltford was a dexterous dandy ahead of his time. In 1898, Vassar College commissioned the Poughkeepsie florist to carry out a cherished charge as the first designated outsider to weave and wield the seminal symbol of Commencement Day, the Daisy Chain.

For the procurement of requisite raw materials, Saltford relied on who else but the “Daisies,” those senior-class designated and specially selected sophomores who scoured Dutchess County for thousands of the long-stemmed flowers. In Vassar’s early days, every graduate merited her share, or to be precise, a 100-pound length of shoulder-draped Daisy Chain. As graduating classes grew, scarce daisy supplies and bench-pressing limitations required Saltford innovate. Regal laurel leaves, he discovered, lightened the load and filled the gaps nicely, much to the Daisies’ delight and relief. Today, the chain is fixed at 150 feet. The alternative, given society’s love affair with liberal arts would be a chain of over 600 feet and some very sore sophomores.

Continue Reading >>

Member Login >> 

Economy, Pensions, DiMartino Booth, Danielle DiMartino Booth, Money Strong LLC, Fed Up: An Insider's Guide to why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America,

Retirement in America: The Rise of the Velvet Rope

Before there was the One Percent, there was the velvet rope at Studio 54.

Gaining entry to the divine disco, with its adherence to a strict formula, was just as exclusionary. This from Mark Fleischman, the Manhattan haunt’s second owner in a memoir released to mark the 40th anniversary of the club’s opening:  “A movie star could bring unlimited guests, a prince or princess could invite five or six guests, counts and countesses four, most other VIPs three, and so on.”

Andy Warhol called it the, “dictatorship at the door.” Brigid Berlin, one of Warhol’s Factory workers and guests, once described to Vanity Fair how she, “loved getting out of a cab and seeing those long lines of people who couldn’t get in.” If beauty alone could sway the dandy doorman, famed for flaunting his fur, a different kind of cordon awaited you once you set foot inside the cavernous strobe-lit mecca, that is a screen hung across the dance floor to separate the chosen from the common. The scrim summarily dropped at midnight, but not a minute before, affording elites ample opportunity to make their escape to the VIP floors above.

Subscribe to Continue Reading >>

@dimartinobooth, Danielle DiMartino Booth, Fed Up: An Insider's Guide to why the Federal Reserve is Bad for America, Money Strong LLC, economy, federal reserve, William Safire

Channeling Safire: “If it’s broke, fix it.”

Bert Lance must have left office thinking his legacy was in the soup.

Instead, the wise words of one of the country’s shortest-serving Directors of the Office of Management and Budget would go on to first merit inclusion in Random House’s Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings and then today, Google status. The expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” achieved such acceptance, conservative legend William Safire would go on to crown Lance’s idiom, “a source of inspiration to all anti-activists.”

For Safire, a gifted word spinner if there ever was one, his acknowledgement of pith perfected in no way implied admiration of the source. Indeed, Safire’s crowning glory as a New Yok Times columnist arrived with his 1978 Pulitzer Prize for “Carter’s Broken Lance.” …

Subscribe to Continue Reading >>

ICYMI.ddb, In Case You Missed It — August 4, 2017

In Case You Missed It — August 4, 2017

Dear friends,

Happy Nonfarm Payrolls Friday from Grand Lake Stream, Maine! Grand Lake Where, you may be asking? THIS is where you fish, for small mouth bass, that is, in paradise. It’s a bit tricky to get here from Dallas, but it’s worth the trek to spend time with David Kotok, who organizes the annual campout. I also get to visit with some of the brightest minds in economics and finance I’m delighted to now call friends seven years into this annual tradition.

About those jobs…there are still plenty of them in the making. And they continue to be ho-hum in the income generation department, you know the drill – in the eating, drinking and getting sick sectors. Janet Yellen will be encouraged by the folks who’ve come off the sidelines to get the paltry paying positions. And away we go, to debate even more vigorously how the Fed’s balance sheet unwind will affect the bond market, or not.

Believe it or not, it’s not easy to get to the easternmost county in the United States. So, I made a stop in New York on the way and co-hosted a special Friends of Fermentation with my great friend, UBS’ Arthur Cashin. Friends, new and old, joined us to discuss the prospects for the market to continue moving up in 1,000-point increments and whether the Fed really will have the gumption to pull the trigger on shrinking its balance sheet (we really need to get out more and find some new materials over which to marinate ice cubes).

The consensus, if you must know, is that yes, the melt-up will continue, and that yes, the Fed seems hellbent on shrinking its mammoth balance sheet. Mind you, we also agree that the balance sheet will be blown up again in about a year’s time or so. That’s when most of us figure the economy will be in recession.

In the meantime, I’ve enjoyed writing my weekly column for Bloomberg, linked below. The editors are top notch and the readers, well – they’re well read.

Bloomberg: Back to School Means More Retail Agony

 

I also made a brief stop at the New York Stock Exchange to chat with CNBC’S Kelly Evans and Bill Griffeth, two journalists who can always be depended on to do their homework.

CNBC — Closing Bell Exchange: Underlying feeling the market is getting top heavy

 

Earlier in the week, I did a longer form interview on the job market, also linked below.

RT — Boom Bust — Re-Examining the Jobs Market

 

Signing off for now as my guide is itching to get going. The lake and fish (aka lunch) are a calling!

 

How could I not wish you well?

 

Danielle

 

 

 

The Smell of Dry Paint in the Morning, Danielle DiMartino Booth, Money Strong LLC

The Smell of Dry Paint in the Morning

Irish Playwright Oscar Wilde defied Aristotle’s memorable mimesis: Art imitates Life. In his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying, Wilde opined that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Jackson Pollock, the American painter, aesthetically rejected both philosophies as facile. We are left to ponder the genius of his work, which in hindsight, leaves no doubt that Art intimidated Life.

Engulfed in the flames of depression and the demons it awakened, Pollock’s work is often assumed to have peaked in 1950. The multihued vibrancy of his earlier abstract masterpieces descends into black and white, symbolically heralding his violent death in 1956 at the tender age of 44. Or does it? Look closer the next time you visit The Art Institute of Chicago. Greyed Rainbow, his mammoth 1953 tour de force, will at once arrest and hypnotize you. As you struggle to tear your eyes from it, you’ll ask yourself what the critics could have been thinking, to have drawn such premature conclusions as to his peak. Such is the pained beauty of the work. Rather than feign containment, the paint looks as if it will burst the frames’ binding. And the color is there for the taking, if you have the patience to slow your minds’ eye and see what’s staring back at you.

Perhaps it was the being written off aspect that drove Pollock to embark upon the final leg of his tour de force. We’ll never know. Renaissances to sublimity are the preserve of those with gifts beyond most our grasps. Hence the curious hubris driving so many pensions to reinvent themselves to full solvency by taking on undue risks. Heedless of what should be so many warning signs, so many managers continue to herd blindly into unconventional terrain hoping to find that perfect portfolio mix. The more likely upshot is their choices will drive them straight off a rocky cliff.

For now, the craggy landscape of pension canvases continue to be painted. Or in the case of the country’s largest pension, the stage continues to be set. This from Ted Eliopoulos, chief investment officer of the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS): “We will be conducting quite elaborate choreography, looking at asset allocation, our liabilities and the risk tolerance of our board in conjunction with our expected rates of return for our various candidate portfolios.”

Oh, but for the days of antiquated notions such as matching assets to liabilities. But that’s so 80s. Today, a given public pension’s portfolio is anything but dominated by the Treasury bonds once held to satisfy its future liabilities. Rather, half of a typical portfolio’s assets are invested in stocks, a quarter in bonds and cash, and the balance in ‘alternative investments,’ including private equity, hedge funds, real estate and commodities. (Yes, we are still on the subject of matching current and future retiree paychecks to appropriate investments.)

To CalPERS credit, this ‘elaborate’ mix turned in stellar performance in its most recent fiscal year ended June 30. The $323 billion fund generated a net 11.2 percent return buoyed by a 19.7 percent return on its stocks. Returns of 14 percent on its private equity holdings and 7.6 percent on real estate rounded out the outperformance.

Eliopoulos stressed that, “as pleased as we are with this one-year return, our focus is always on the long-term. We invest for decades, not years.”

As pointed out in Barron’s, it’s been touch and go for the past few decades. CalPERS returned 4.4 percent compared to the S&P 500’s 7.1 percent, and over the past 20 years, 6.6 percent vs. the market’s 7.1 percent. Neither achieved return, it should be pointed out, exceeds the fund’s currently assumed rate of return of 7.5 percent or the assumed rate to which it will be lowered, seven percent, by the end of 2019.

The ultralow interest rate environment engineered by the Federal Reserve and unattained return goals leave CalPERS 68 percent funded. That puts it just about in line with Wilshire Consulting’s most recent calculations, which found the average aggregate funding ratio for state pension plans to be 69 percent.

So very few pensions are where they need to be. And fewer still will ever get there. Pension managers are deluding themselves into believing creativity in asset allocation holds the key to greatness in the after-working-life.

Afraid to say the miracle of alternative investments cannot make up for the average four-percent differential required to make pensions whole – just this year. How so on the math? A blended portfolio of cash, investment-grade and junk bonds today earns 3.5-percent; this compares to pensions’ average assumed rate of return of 7.5 percent. Of course, this gap has been widening for years care of dim-witted central bankers who excel at calculus but can’t manage simple math.

How unfair is it to leave out portfolios’ spice girls of equities and alternatives? Hate to turn down the party music, but starting points do matter. So do fees (hold that thought).

There’s nothing to say pensions won’t eke out another exceptional year of stock gains. The Fed could well be tantalizing investors with chatter of QE4 if the economic data continue to soften. But there’s no silver lining in that potential outcome. Remember that rocky cliff over which current reckless allocations can drive returns? Let’s just say the cliff gets taller, and the fall longer, for every year into which this aged-bull-market rally stretches.

As for those alternatives, for better or for worse, commodities are passé. Meanwhile, pensions have been abandoning hedge funds for years as passive investing takes victim active managers who dare value an asset and invest accordingly. And real estate is on fire. As in, valuations have never been this steep in the history of mankind. You can draw your own conclusions on that front.

That leaves us with private equity, that darling of asset classes and the issue of those pesky steep fees. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, states bled $10 billion in fees and investment-related costs in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. Not only is this lovely line item funds’ largest expense; fees are up by about a third over the past decade, which conveniently coincides with the greater adoption of alternatives. Gotta love being a taxpayer!

But surely pensioners are privileged to have access to these tony private equity funds? Over the long haul, PE always outperforms those stodgy asset classes every Tom, Dick and Harry can buy online. So what if they’re illiquid. Right?

It’s hard to imagine the shivers sent down the spines of many pension fund managers when they heard the news that EnerVest Ltd, a $2 billion PE fund, had lost all its value. “Though private-equity investments regularly flop,” the Wall Street Journal reported, “industry consultants and fund investors say this situation could mark the first time that a fund larger than $1 billion has lost essentially all of its value.”

Well at least the oil bust is long over. Ill-fated, ill-timed, ill-valued energy investments are to blame for EnerVest’s demise. And surely that’s a comfort. It positively proves the fund’s evisceration is an isolated idiosyncratic incident.

Those other Wall Street Journal (WSJ) headlines don’t mean a thing. Why worry that, “Shale Produces Oil, So Why Doesn’t It Produce Cash, Too?” To wit, over the past decade, eight of the most established shale players have generated a respectable $414 billion in revenue but nary a penny in free cash flow. In fact, this eightsome has had negative cash flow of $68 billion.

Still think EnerVest will be a one-off event? Try this other WSJ headline from early July: “Wall Street Cash Pumps Up Oil Production Even As Prices Sag,” an article that went on to cite one analyst’s observation of, “insufficient discrimination on the part of sources of capital.”

Why, the question must be posed, bother discriminating when you’re sitting on $1.5 trillion in dry powder? Wait, are we still talking about energy? Well, no. That’s the point.

Go back to that last WSJ article for a moment, to what the reporters wrote: “Wall Street has become an enabler that pushes companies to grow production at any cost, while punishing those that try to live within their means.”

Set aside the fact that the analogy strikes closely to that of a drug dealer. Now nix the word, ‘production’ and fill in the blank with whatever your heart desires. THAT is the power of $1.5 trillion in private equity dry powder in all the forms it has the capacity to assume.

Again, starting points matter. That is, unless you are a deep-pocketed price agnostic buyer, one that collects fees for assets under management, regardless of how well the investment decisions fare. Being valuation-insensitive, however, also means you can incinerate your investors, especially pensions, and still walk away all the richer for it.

To its credit, Pew expressed particular concern with respect to desperate pensions playing the game of returns catch-up, as in those that have most recently plowed headlong into alternatives. No surprise, they happen to be one in the same with those sporting the weakest 10-year returns.

Ever heard someone tell you to not put all of your eggs in one basket? This rule of thumb applies in spades to pensions, or at least it should. While alternatives may provide a degree of diversification, Pew reports that that the use of alternatives among the nation’s 73 largest state-sponsored pension funds ranges from zero to over 50 percent.

Arizona tops the far end of that range, with 56 percent of its assets in alternatives. Missouri and Pennsylvania are not far behind with over 50 percent in this ‘basket,’ and Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina and Utah stand out as having close to 40 percent in alternatives. Click for link to PEWTrusts.org report.

In the weeks to come, many pensions will excel in the back-slapping department, reporting double-digit returns for the fiscal year ended June 30th. Please keep your salt shaker handy.

For the third time, starting points matter. In late June, Moody’s ran some figures and scenarios to quantify where pensions are today, and where they’re headed. In 2016, total net pension liabilities (NPLs) surpassed $4 trillion. Looking ahead, Moody’s expects reported NPLs to fall one percent by 2019 in an upside scenario, but rise 59 percent in a downside scenario.

Perhaps the fine folks at Moody’s have contemplated what happens when, not if, pensions’ liquid equity and bond holdings lose 20 percent. Maybe they’ve even taken their scenarios one step further and envisioned the return implications for all of these elegant alternatives when a liquidity freeze takes hold amid plummeting valuations.

What’s a pension to do? Fraught managers are apt to throw more of your money at alternatives as tax revenues rise to compensate for what pensions cannot make up in returns. Know this: the more that $1.5-trillion store of dry powder grows, the more it devolves into that much napalm in the morning. The conflagration that spreads will not be containable, and you won’t be able to tear your eyes from it. As the tragic Pollock said of his paintings, and we will one day say of pensions, they have no beginnings or endings, they have lives of their own.

Central Banks to Investors: I Know Nothing

Central Banks to Investors: “I Know Nothing!”

“I know nothing! I see nothing! I hear nothing!”

So light was Hogan’s Heroes, one could easily forget the sitcom, which debuted September 17, 1965, was set in a Nazi P.O.W. camp. More than any one character, Sergeant Schultz deserves credit for the show’s laughable levity. His gregarious girth, sincere sympathy and wonderful weakness for tempting treats — let’s just say Shultz had anything but steely resolve, convincing affable audiences that war could be whimsical. For the prisoners of the Luft Stalag 13, Schultz made an ideal witness to their eternal escape endeavors. His robustly repeated response, “I know nothing!” faithfully failed to fulfill his German superiors’ suspicions.

One can only imagine the proliferation of late 1960s era’s pretentious political philosophers chafing at the bemusement beckoned by Schultz’s channeling Socrates. The Socratic paradox, “I know that I know nothing,” back-translated to Katharevousa Greek, was relayed by Plato in Apology.

Apparently, Socrates attributed his wisdom to not imagining that he knows what he does not. At the intersection of Schultz and Socrates, humility and hilarity collide.

It was neither humor nor humbleness, but rather hubris, being highlighted in London on June 27, 2017 when Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen managed to make light of a heavy subject in a live televised Q&A with British Academy President Lord Nicholas Stern. Chuckling in response to one query, Yellen offered up the following on our collective financial future:

“Would I say there will never, ever be another financial crisis? You know probably that would be going too far. But I do think we’re much safer and I hope that it will not be in our lifetimes, and I don’t believe it will be.

It was these last few words that ignited the ire of so many central banking detractors. Was she hoping we’d come to see the softer side of central banking?

Clearly, she takes faith in the radiation detection facilities the Fed has installed in the years since the worst of the financial crisis engulfed the global financial system. If not, why would she have also offered up these words of reassurance, that those at the Fed, “are doing a lot more to try to look for financial stability risks that may not be immediately apparent … in order to try to detect threats to financial stability that may be emerging.”

Though this particular quote got much less in the way of play in the media, marrying the two threads of thought helps explain why Yellen, who no doubt means well, was able to strike a jovial tone at the prospect of future financial crises. Blind faith in those who’ve been assigned tasks has long handicapped Fed leadership.

On a deeper level, one has to question the qualifications of the architects who’ve built out the risk monitoring system in recent years. The February 2015 McKinsey report Debt and (Not Much) Deleveraging did not gain the rank of ‘seminal’ without captivating most front-line veterans of the financial crisis.

The study’s findings were startling in their simplicity: Rather than address the underlying over-indebtedness that detonated systemic risk and culminated in a full-blown catastrophe, policy had simply catalyzed further indebtedness.

The numbers, with which we are all familiar, are as follows. From a starting point of the end of 2007 through mid-year 2014, global debt rose by $57 trillion to $199 trillion. As a percentage of global gross domestic product (GDP), global debt had risen to 286 percent from 269 percent.

Though deleveraging had indeed occurred in some corners (referred to in America as defaulted mortgages), the overabundance of liquidity generated by central banks’ machinations had simply found new places to stoke unquantifiable risks. In the case of the seven years through 2014, some usual suspects made their presence known on the leveraging-up-to-their-eyeballs scale such as Greece and Ireland.

But it was China that stood out in the McKinsey study, specifically, “the quadrupling of China’s debt, fueled by real estate and shadow banking, in just seven years.”

McKinsey was also kind enough to offer a bit more historic perspective for those of us rookies who might have thought this type of perverse approach to treat over-indebtedness novel. It all started at the end of 2000, just about the time investors were reeling from Internet bubble implosion portfolio losses. In the seven ensuing years, global debt rose to $142 trillion from $87 trillion. As a percentage of global GDP, debt had grown ‘smartly,’ to 269 percent from 249 percent. (Lest you’ve forgotten the name of that starlet in the annals of dumb debt, it was referred to as the subprime housing bubble).

Conclusion: Do NOT attempt to resolve over-indebtedness by applying more debt to the problem.

Presumably the task force monitoring the global financial system for signs of building dangers was armed with this simple guiding tenet.

It follows that our protectors were blindsided by yet another report released the very same day Yellen made her fate-tempting London remarks about how much safer we are.

The Institute of International Finance (IIF) is a Washington, DC-based global tracker of capital flows with a stellar reputation for sniffing out risks. In its newest report, the IIF warned of the risks posed by global debt levels that had ballooned to $217 trillion. In the event you are about keeping score, the math works out to 327 percent of global GDP.

The good news:  Developed economies continue to delever; in the past year, they’ve offloaded some $2 trillion in debts. The not-so-good news:  Central banks’ manning the printing presses 24/7 necessitate their crisp, fresh product find a home, fungible as global quantitative easing has proven to be. Enter developing countries, where debt has grown by $3 trillion over the past year to a new record of $56 trillion.

Filling in the blank with the main driver is akin to gaming a multiple-choice test for which you’ve not studied. When in doubt, choose ‘C,’ as in China, which accounted for 2/3rds of last year’s debt growth. Chinese debt now stands at $33 trillion. This most recent spurt of growth has been led both by households and companies.

At least Uncle Sam has that in common with his Red Dragon counterpart. Household debt has recaptured its record high levels led by unsecured debt (lovely). And corporate debt stateside is now at record levels, even when compared to earnings and cash flow, which remain strong. (Note to Fed: tightening into a weakening economy when debt burdens are at record highs has yet to end well.)

The IIF shrewdly expressed unease that all of this debt could pose “headwinds for long-term growth and eventually pose risks for financial stability.” Party poopers.

For good measure, the International Monetary Fund and Bank of International Settlements share the IIF’s concerns. But what do they know?

In the event you sense tongue squarely in cheek, hence the cheekiness, you are correct.

Either you laugh and channel Sargent Schultz. “In (currency) wars, I do not take sides! I see nothing! I know nothing! I didn’t even wake up this morning!” You pray God central bankers are making the best of a gravely unstable situation by making light of it to calm the masses. If you present a strong face, the minions will hopefully buy into your outward confidence.

Well played? Consider the alternative.

What’s worse than the monetary myopia that’s blinded central bankers into believing moral suasion can resolve the teensiest $217 trillion problem?

What if they believe what they are saying in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary? Socrates’ self-discovery followed a journey wherein he tried to find a wiser man than himself, whether it be politician, poet or craftsman. His findings were as follows: Politicians boast wisdom without knowledge (some things never change). Poets, for their part, touch people with their words, but don’t grasp their meaning. Finally, craftsmen claim knowledge but it is restricted to too narrow a field.

Socrates concluded that there was no such thing as indelible intellect, but rather ingrained ignorance. Recognizing your fallibility was thus the secret to achieving greatness, to know in your very soul, “I know that I know nothing.”

Future generations across the globe would be well served by central bankers of the strongest constitutions, those who are neither politicians, nor poets, nor craftsmen who bow to econometric models that have scant application outside tight academic circles. May they rather live by Socrates’ humble mantra, may they know they know nothing, and nothing more.

UK ELECTION, DiMartinoBooth

The U.K. Election: An Outsider Looking In

Talk about making hay if the sun shines through and through.

In 1696, William III introduced the ‘window tax.’ It was crystal clear that this dark tax was viewed with great disfavor being as it was based on the number of windows in a given home. Think of it as a first-generation progressive tax, which suited the extravagant era’s buildout of country estates. The more windows in a home, the wealthier the ostentatious occupants were, to say nothing of cheerier and healthier (did Vitamin D supplements exist back then?). So why not pony up more in taxes to help your sovereign offset the scourge of coin clipping?

Coin what?

Back in the day, coins were minted in pure precious metals. This prompted petty pilfers to shave, file and clip the edges off those coveted coins. Combine enduring effort with a red-hot melting pot and voila, fraudulent fortunes followed. The pinchers’ progeny were no doubt among the pioneers committing counterfeit currency capers.

These days we embrace the despicable denigration of our currencies. We go so far as to lavish the loftiest positions in the modern world on those whose most lauded accomplishments have been earned in laureates, not the legal authority to levy, well, anything.

‘Tis true, central bankers have assumed more power than our politicians. The question is where this will lead us all against the backdrop of a world where inequality has boiled over into illegality and depravity for our fellow man.

As all market watchers are aware, the British general elections are to be held Thursday. Intriguingly, some three million newly-registered voters will cast their calls for the first time. This should be a worrying factoid for Theresa May; the UK’s youngest voters were largely opposed to exiting the European Union last June.

The arguably inconsistent and unreliable polls will have certainly given Prime Minister Theresa May pause. One June 4th, May’s Conservative party looked to secure 354 seats, above and beyond the 326 needed for a Parliamentary majority. By Tuesday, other polls showed her party’s prospects had dwindled to 305 seats.

Intuition suggests Saturday night’s horrific terrorist attacks on London Bridge (pictured front and center in this week’s image) and a nearby neighborhood would have solidified Conservative’s lead. But the polls counterintuitively indicate a move in the opposite direction. Though impossible to predict, the least hyperbolic within the political analyst arena give the Conservatives better than even odds of winning a majority, or at the very least forming a coalition that accomplishes the next best thing.

It’s notable that May’s lead did not initially narrow based solely on events that were out of her control, as in three terrorist attacks in three months. Rather, it was her vow to make pensioners’ benefits progressive (just took a huge amount of license in simplifying her proposal) — as in those who have more can expect to collect less from the state – was met with about as much derision as William III’s window tax.

While it’s never wise to judge from the outside, some of the wisest and most patriotic suggestions floated in the United States have been from wealthy retirees who’ve suggested they need not collect Social Security to help balance the nation’s books. Moreover, May was magnanimous in her aim; she intends to use the saved state expenditures to funnel funds into raising productivity by closing the skills gap that has crippled the economy (sound familiar?)

Somehow the liberal media managed to paint May as a pariah (is it yours truly, or are the parallels multiplying?)

In one of May’s latest interviews, she reiterated her focus on what she hopes is to come: “It’s about young people’s future, it’s about ensuring we take the opportunities that will be opened up to us when we leave the EU to be a really global nation bringing more jobs, more investment into the UK. I want to see proper technical education for the first time for young people for whom that’s right.”

Connecting warm bodies with much-needed skills sets to UK’s corporate sector could well do the economy some good. Let’s hope she has wise economic counsel to help her execute her plan if the Conservatives prevail at the polls.

Luckily, one of Britain’s savviest economists is free to pursue his next career gig. Of course, the reference is to Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, whose term technically ended May 31st (he will remain at his post until his replacement is secured.)

How to sum up Haldane? A central banker who gets it right half the time is about as close to genius as you can ever hope for in the field given the de facto requirement that Keynesian Kool-Aid be drank before the threshold is crossed into the inner sanctum sanctorum. That applies whether you refer to the Bank of England, the Reserve Bank of Australia, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan or especially the Federal Reserve (though hawks may just get their chance to storm the temple – stay tuned on that count).

Of punk UK productivity, for one, Haldane has this to say in a recent speech: It wasn’t low interest rates that kept middling companies in business since the crisis hit, but rather delusions of operational grandeur. Haldane prodded the UK government to provide global benchmarks to UK firms so they could better appreciate their standing among their international peers.

“As Olympic athletes have shown, marginal improvements accumulated over time can deliver world-beating performance,” Haldane said. “Applying those marginal gains to the population of UK companies could significantly improve UK living standards.”

Sounds like May and Haldane are on the same page, though it goes without saying that low interest rates assisted in keeping ‘zombie’ companies alive in addition to an abject denial of mediocrity.

Most importantly for May, if she’s in the market for an economic advisor, Haldane is not beholden to the modern-day economics profession. Haldane likened economists’ failure to foresee the financial crisis to a, “Michael Fish moment.” Fish, for you non-Anglophiles, dismissed the chances that a massive hurricane would hit southern England in 1987. You know how this story ends. The Great Storm did indeed hit and how, wreaking mass destruction and casualties.

After describing his profession as being in, “some degree of crisis,” Haldane went on to suggest that his peers abandon their, “narrow and fragile” models in favor of a broader analysis that incorporated the perspectives of other disciplines. Hear, hear!

To be fair, Haldane went on to say that Brexit would crash the UK economy but with a lag, hence the above-referenced only ‘gets it right half the time’ bit.

If providence is propitious, May is also channeling the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, who made all manner of enemies going against the conventional wisdom of her day, especially as it pertained to the economy. No doubt it will take radical ideas to cure what ails the UK economy today.

In what can only be described as twisted irony, Mark Carney’s Bank of England (BoE) was recently taken to task for the pay raises recently ‘awarded’ to his employees which failed to keep pace with inflation. At around one percent, the most recent annual BoE employee pay raise is a pittance of the current 2.7 percent inflation rate. The average British worker bested that, with average wages increasing by 2.4 percent, which still fails to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

And yet, as is the case with his European and American counterparts, Carney is more likely to get caught out gnashing his teeth about inflation being too low, despite it clearly being too high for the average working man and woman.

The fact is Carney’s in a mighty tight corner with inflation running too hot, wages running too cold and a corporate sector petrified at the potentially poisonous ramifications of Brexit. For the moment, exports are a relative outperformer with a big boost from the weaker pound. It’s the ‘what’s next’ that matters most though — the impossible tradeoff between raising interest rates and the higher real wages that would follow, or lower for longer and the boost to short-term growth prospects too offset any Brexit fallout.

And that’s just for starters when it comes to threading needles on Threadneedle Street. As has been the case in Australia and Canada, residential real estate prices have run wild since quantitative easing unleashed animal spirits in the aftermath of the financial crisis. As a result, British households’ debt loads vis-à-vis the size of the economy have made a full round trip to record highs. But here’s the wrinkle:  mortgages in the UK tend to be of the variable rate variety, In other words, Carney has to tread more lightly than his counterpart Janet Yellen if he’s inclined to tighten.

And so they straddle the Atlantic, both weighed by impossible choices, rendered more intractable yet by their own misguided foregone follies that insisted more was more, lower was better. What good has that done? To add to their intellectual egos’ injuries, both Carney and Yellen have to contend with political leaders who’ve neither the appetite nor the intent to compromise, much less kowtow, to their theoretical end games.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe the window tax withstood its own political backlash for over 150 years. But believe you me, the tax was not abolished until 1851. By then, so despised was the levy, it had assumed a new name — Daylight Robbery. Is it so hard to see that the current crop of central bankers has also managed to destroy the vista, to suck the oxygen out of the world economy as closed up homes did back then, albeit with much more sophisticated means? We can only hope our elected leaders don’t have to wait another 150 years to see the light.

SaveSave

The Demographic Divide: A Police State of Mind

The Demographic Divide: A Police State of Mind

Fake news is so old.

How else did, “I am prepared to veto any bill that has as its purpose a federal bailout of New York City to prevent a default,” become, “DROP DEAD” way back in October, 1975? Oh, those hellbent headline writers. Whatever will they think of next? Besides, the Daily News headline worked wonders, if infuriating die hard New Yorkers was the objective.

The insult so unhinged one William Martin Joel that he soon found himself saying goodbye to Hollywood and headed back to his native New York by way of a Greyhound bus on the Hudson River Line. Had the songwriter and singer we’ve all come to know and love as Billy Joel not been on that bus, he’d have never been inspired to pen the classic New York State of Mind, an anthem to the City only Sinatra himself can claim to have bested in his time.

So thank you, President Ford for refusing to treat the “insidious disease.” At least that’s how he characterized New York’s profligate spending ways. Without the media’s dramatization of Ford’s ire, the world would have been robbed of some of the most poetic lyrics ever written. And, by the way, a feasible blueprint for the years to come as some budget-strapped cities run their tills dry.

In the unique case of New York City in the late 1970s, federal assistance accompanied fiscal reforms. The details of the détente should thus be de rigueur study materials for the judicial and legislative arms of so many at-risk municipalities nationwide.

At the risk of feigning any pretense of legal expertise, municipal bankruptcies come down to the limitations of the federal government’s power to provide relief to ‘units of states,’ whether they be cities, counties, taxing authorities, municipal utilities or school districts.

Though a variety of other state-led interventions have been successfully deployed, many of us are most familiar with voluntary Chapter 9 bankruptcy filings, permitted by half the states and employing the powers of the judiciary in conjunction with creditor workouts. Jefferson County, Alabama and Stockton, California may ring mental bells. But it is 2013’s record $18 billion Detroit, Michigan Ch. 9 filing that reset precedent on how engaged the bankruptcy courts can be.

Suffice it to say, default via the court system is a lengthy process and most lucrative for the lawyers retained. In relative terms, New York City’s effective default occurred in a New York Minute. After the banks cut off New York City in the spring of 1975, the State created an emergency financial control board and a borrowing entity to provide immediate relief to the city. Rather than “default,” the city declared a “moratorium” on $1.6 billion in obligations, a hotly debated designation. A thorny rose it nevertheless was.

In December 1975, with the financial management wrested out of the city’s control, Congress passed and Ford signed into law legislation allowing the Treasury to extend loans to the city to keep it up and running. Future New York state and city revenues were promised to repay the loans and spending reforms that had been intractable were implemented by force.

Looking back at the 40th anniversary of the extraordinary federal-led intervention, American Enterprise Institute’s Alex Pollock applauded Ford’s staunch stance: “That’s what happens when you run out of money and the music stops. Intensely needed reforms of the city’s spending and financial controls actually did follow.”

Why raise the specter of federal assistance if it’s patently apparent other means can be deployed in today’s modern municipal era? The crush of retiring Baby Boomers will keep Uncle Sam up at night for years as he struggles to keep federal entitlements solvent. Why even consider federal involvement in municipal pensions that are at least backed by some semblance of assets? The answer comes down to demographics.

Forty years ago, Baby Boomer were entering their prime earning years. Opportunity in the land of America was expanding at a rapid clip. The level of education was rising among those entering the workforce vis-à-vis their older counterparts at the same time women were growing the overall workforce (just under half of women worked then; today it’s 70 percent). In the simplest terms, the size of the pie was growing.

Today, roughly 10,000 Boomers exit the workforce every day, which should present an opportunity in and of itself for Millennials to backfill the depleting workforce. Census data tell a different story. In 2016, median personal income for workers aged 24 to 34 was $35,000. In modern dollar terms, that same age cohort was earning $37,000 in 1975.

It’s difficult to square lower earnings with the educational makeup of the labor force. In 1975, 23 percent of young workers had earned a bachelor’s degree. Forty years on, 37 percent have achieved the same. Shouldn’t that improvement have lifted per capita earnings?

It comes down to comparative advantage. Back then, it was easy enough for a younger, better-educated worker to displace an older, less-educated and therefore less-qualified older worker. Today’s workforce is largely educated and intent on working longer; it’s stickier and less tractable. At the same time, the double governors of technological innovation and globalization have reduced the aggregate demand for warm bodies.

At the risk of getting buried in the weeds, there are more workers exiting the workforce than there are those joining it. Those making way for the exits are otherwise known as ‘retirees.’ It is at this critical juncture that municipal finance re-enters the picture.

As has been written on these pages, over the past few years, public pensions have been reducing the stated returns they anticipate their portfolios generating on investments. These reduced expectations necessarily trigger the need for higher contributions on the part of state and local governments.

That’s exactly what took place last year. The Census’ 2016 Annual Survey of Public Pensions found that state and local government contributions rose by 6.5 percent to $191.6 billion from 2015’s $179.7 billion. By contrast, earnings on investments, which include both realized and unrealized gains, tumbled 67.9 percent to $49.9 billion from $155.5 billion in 2015.

Meanwhile, the number of pensioners collecting checks marched upwards to 10.3 million people, up 3.3 percent over 2015. The benefits they received last year rose even more, by 5.4 percent to $282.9 billion from $268.5 billion in 2015. And finally, total pension assets fell 1.6 percent to $3.7 trillion from $3.8 trillion the prior year.

In the event you sense you’ve been felled by death by numbers, back out to the big picture. Paid benefits exceeded contributions to the tune of $40 billion in 2016 against the relentless backdrop of an increasing number of Boomers retiring (in 2014, there were 9.9 million receiving benefits).

Microcosm this demographic dynamic to the extreme example of Chicago. In 2015, the latest year for which we have full data, some $999 million was paid out to 29,296 recipients. That compares to the $90 million in investment income generated by the two employee pension funds that year. Back out the timeline a decade – in 2006, these two pensions held a combined $8.5 billion in assets. Since then the two funds have generated $3.1 billion in investment returns but paid out $8.511 billion to retirees.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently proposed raising new city employees’ contribution to help fill the gulf of underfunding but Illinois’ Governor quickly vetoed the measure declaring Emanuel was, “trying to fix a drought with a drop of rain.”

Projections suggest that one of the two funds will be cash flow negative by 2023; the other will run short by 2025. If all else remains the same, a big IF with risky asset prices trading at frothy high valuations, property taxes would need to be doubled to cover the coming shortfalls.

Many Cook County taxpayers are forsaking a wait-and-see approach. Chicago was the only large city in America to lose population last year, its resident count dropped at nearly double the rate of 2015.

As convenient as it might seem to excoriate the Windy City, there are plenty of other major cities deep in hock. According to a Moody’s report, though Chicago does indeed top the list, Dallas is the second-most underfunded city followed by Phoenix, two magnets for nomads in search of lower costs of living. Rounding out the top ten list are Houston, Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Detroit, Columbus, Austin and Philadelphia.

In other words, running and hiding in lower tax haven hamlets will be even more challenging in coming years. According to a Milliman report, 2015 marked the first time retirees outnumbered active employees in the nation’s 100 largest public pensions; there were 12.6 million retirees covered by the toils of 12.5 million workers.

Look back no further than 2012 to appreciate how the trend has accelerated; in that year retirees numbered 10.5 million vs. 12.3 million active employees. Absent a surge in state and local payrolls, further fiscal deterioration is poised to persist.

To take the case of the case of the country’s largest pension, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, in 20 years’ time, retirees supported by the plan will be roughly double the number of active workers. CalPERS won’t be alone in this predicament.

Again, it comes down to the demographic divide that’s opened up since President Ford was in office. In the 1970s, the typical public pension’s active employees outnumbered retirees by a factor of four-to-five times; today that ratio is 1.5-to-1 and continues to fall as Boomers retire in droves and Millennials fail to fill the yawning gap.

After a grisly year that ended with a tally of 4,000 homicides, Chicago has begun to coordinate with federal authorities to control a crime wave driven by gangs’ unencumbered access to firearms. The last thing the city can withstand is further cuts to public service funding. By the same token, taxpayers have already begun to vote with their feet as rising taxes and foundering pensions promise to beget more tax hikes to come.

It’s plain that the last thing any of us want to see is a Police State of any kind. But the growing risk is that the next recession and deflating asset prices could well alter the rules of engagement between federal and state authorities on more levels than any of us care to envision.

SaveSave

Danielle DiMartino Booth, Central Bankers, Money Strong LLC, Federal Reserve, Debt, Trojan Horse, Fed Up,

Beware of Central Bankers Bearing Gifts

Ulysses’s reputation preceded him.

   ‘O unhappy citizens, what madness?

Do you think the enemy’s sailed away? Or do you think

any Greek gift’s free of treachery? Is that Ulysses’s reputation?

Either there are Greeks in hiding, concealed by the wood,

or it’s been built as a machine to use against our walls,

or spy on our homes, or fall on the city from above,

or it hides some other trick: Trojans, don’t trust this horse.

Whatever it is, I’m afraid of Greeks even those bearing gifts.’

Virgil, The Aeneid Book II

So warned Laocoön to no avail, and that was with Cassandra’s corroboration. As reward for his prescient prudence, the Trojan priest and his twin sons were crushed to death by two sea serpents. It would seem the Greeks had no intention of relinquishing hold of ancient Anatolia, a critical continental crossroad where Europe and Asia’s borders meet, a natural target for conquering civilizations.

Thankfully, history has made history of menacing machinations crafted with the aim of undermining the opposition. If only… History is rife with exceptions starting with most politicians on Planet Earth and more recently, central bankers.

In what can only be characterized as Mission Creep raised to the power of infinity, the Federal Reserve’s last Federal Open Market Committee Minutes warned that “equity prices are quite high relative to standard valuation measures.”

Let’s see. Where does the stock market fit into Congress’ statutory requirements that the Fed’s objectives be: “maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates”? You neither, huh?

The Minutes also indicated that, “equity price indexes increased over the intermeeting period.” Is it the slightest bit alarming that monetary policymakers are nodding to a phenomena that’s been in place since March 2009 as having just occurred to them? Are we pondering pure coincidence or is this exactly what it appears to be — political pandering?

This from CNBC:  FOMC Minutes have unleashed the word “valuation’ as it pertains to equities six times since Alan Greenspan, a self-described obsessive observer of the stock market, first uttered the words, “irrational exuberance.” In every instance, stocks were hit over the next 12 months.

Could it be that Janet Yellen, who in 2008 said the Minutes should be used, “to provide quantitative information on our expectations” knew exactly what she was doing, that she planted the word ‘valuation’ to send the President a pointed message with nothing less than perfect precision?

You may be thinking our new leader has more than enough on his agenda to be worried about a threat to the stock market from the likes of academics he not so long ago publicly derided. If Trump cares about staying in the good graces of those who put him in office, he will fight the temptation to pivot on the Fed. He’s been in office long enough to have made a move to begin filling the three open seats on the Federal Reserve Board.

More to the point, in the event Trump hasn’t been apprised, the Fed has the economy by the short hairs. And, yes, it was, is, and will be about the economy, at least among those who voted him into office, many of whom remain angry and anxious, but not stupid.

They are still waiting for an advocate who sees through the average data right through to the galling truth that absent executive pay, incomes remain in decline. They pine for a leader who can like debt all he wants to get deals done, but doesn’t force it down the economy’s throat to generate economic growth of the most fleeting nature. They may not be able to identify the enemy within by name but they have every right to expect their President does, that he has the gumption to stand up to the Fed and deliver his People from the shackles of indentured servitude.

It might even be a good thing, for working Americans who’ve long sensed the economy has abandoned them, that Trump has a beef with the media and two savvy guys from Goldman Sachs helping steer the economy. Together they should be able to glean the facts from the data the Fed insists are so much “good news.”

Consider, if you will, a fresh report on the state of consumer finance released by the New York Fed. At $12.73 trillion, household debt sits at a record high. We’re told to look the other way, that it’s a nominal figure and more importantly that debt as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) is nowhere near where it was back in the bad old days of 2007.

‘Tis true that household debt is no longer 95 percent of GDP which was the case when it peaked in the fourth quarter of 2007. Before resuming its climb to its current 80-percent level, it got as low as 78 percent of GDP.  But let’s hold off on the austerity bubbly for the moment. Since record keeping began in 1952, when the record low of 23 percent was recorded, debt-to-GDP has averaged 56 percent.

As for the red herring that households have tightened their belts, while that is the case for a minority, the bulk of deleveraging that’s taken place has been the result of the past decade’s 10 million and counting foreclosures. (For those of you still keeping count, some 91,000 individuals had ‘foreclosure’ added to their credit reports in the first three months of this year, an uptick from 2016’s fourth quarter.)

The deleveraging, by the way, ended years ago. Aggregate household debt is 14 percent above the low it hit in the second quarter of 2013. And we’re not talking about mortgages here.

Drawing hard conclusions is a bit of a stretch as it really depends on your perspective. You make the call. How secured by anything of value is the type of debt households have taken on since mortgage lending standards tightened like a vise on would-be homebuyers? Credit card debt is an easy enough call. But what about that car loan? Checked your trade-in value lately? (Not recommended if you’ve had a bad day.) As for that festering $1.3 trillion mountain of student debt? Did someone say ‘perspective’?

The bottom line is we still have too much debt and precious little to show for it.

In return, we get this from the NY Fed’s President Bill Dudley: “Homeownership represents an important means of wealth accumulation, with housing equity being the principal form of wealth for most households.” (Isn’t that a good thing?)

He goes on to observe that, “Changes in the way we finance higher education, with an increased reliance on student debt, may have important implications for the housing market and the distribution of wealth.” (You think?)

And finally, out of the other side of his mouth, he has this gem of a recommendation to kick start the economy: “Whatever the timing, a return to a reasonable pattern of home equity extraction would be a positive development for retailers and would provide a boost to economic growth.” (Wait, wasn’t all that home equity borrowing what pushed debt up to its record highs and drove the economy into the Great Financial Crisis?)

It’s critical to note that Corporate America is also drowning in record levels of debt – nonfinancial corporate debt within a hair of $6 trillion. And though it was nary mentioned in the campaign by either party, at $20 trillion, Uncle Sam himself is up to his eyeballs in hock.

Hopefully you can see Trump’s once in a century chance to reshape the warped thinking inside the Fed. He has the tremendous power to redirect the meme by draining the debt swamp that makes our government beholden to foreign lenders, our corporations less competitive on the global stage and our households seething at their inhibited upward mobility. Talk about Making America Great Again, for ALL Americans.

Without a doubt, this will be one of Trump’s toughest tests, and yes, the Fed can easily take down the stock market in retaliation; they could even follow through on threats to shrink the balance sheet. It would be as if someone flipped a switch and we veered from Quantitative Pleasing to Quantitative Plaguing.

And what politician in their right mind wants plague visited upon their economy on their watch? Ask any of Trump’s predecessors and they’ll shoot you straight. Passing legislation with ultra-easy monetary policy and fluffy stock prices on your side sure as heck beats the alternative.

But in the end, it just buys time, not Greatness.

Artificially low interest rates might be as alluring as that Trojan Horse was to the people of Troy. But let’s put their experience to better use and not dismiss Laocoön’s words as the tragic Trojans did. Let us all Beware of Central Bankers Bearing Gifts.

SaveSave