Poverty in The United States

The Administration recently suggested that ‘ “Anybody who says we are not absolutely better off today than we were just seven years ago, they’re not leveling with you, they’re not telling the truth.” ‘ — is this really the case?

I’ll be dissecting these (specious) claims over the next few posts, but lets start with a metric that everyone can understand — poverty. The chart below shows the so-called “Poverty Universe”; essentially the population of the United States, or all people who might be susceptible to falling into poverty (red one, right scale). The black line shows the percentage of the population of America’s population living below the poverty line.

In 2008 some 13.2% of Americans, or 39.1M lived in poverty. In 2014 (most recent year data is available) some 15.5% of Americans, or 48.1M lived in poverty. Clearly there has been an ENORMOUS increase in poverty. Is this “absolutely better off”?

To put this into context I’ve sourced some OECD data; the chart below shows America compared to forty other nations. I’ve highlighted the G7 (curiously, Japan is missing). America has more citizens living poverty than every other G7 nation. Only two countries — Israel and Mexico — have more citizens living in poverty than America.

So “absolutely better off”?

I don’t think so.

So who is lying then?

Last week Mr Obama went on what some might call a victory lap, crowing about his Administration’s economic accomplishments, all but calling those who criticise the current state of the American economy “liars”. Hmmm. Why not stop with the name calling, please?

Sure, GDP is positive, but eager to distribute the Happy News Mr Obama neglects to look at the bigger picture. The chart below shows two very, very different eras in American history. One characterised by relatively fast economic growth, and other by relatively slow. Annual percentage change in nominal GDP is presented in black (left axis), with America’s debt / GDP ratio presented in blue (right axis). As usual with FRED data, periods of economic recession are noted by vertical gray bars.

We can see that when American debt / GDP was below 50% economic growth surged, averaging some 7.9% pa (in nominal GDP) from the period 1967 to 1989. From that point on US debt / GDP breached above 50%, and GDP began to slow. From 1989 to 2015 US GDP averaged 4.9% pa, while the debt / GDP ratio surged to well over 100%, where it remains today.

And the period after the nation (allegedly) emerged from The Great Recession we see GDP running at roughly 3.5% pa. And, by the way, appears to be slowing even further, as US debt hits record levels of some $19T.

In fact this is the tenth straight year of sub par economic growth in The United States. Now the data tells a rather different picture, doesn’t it?

Mr Obama may wish to ignore the national debt, but its starting to attract bipartisan attention, with some even suggesting America is rather broke. So how did we come to this? Some blame a surge in social spending, while others suggest its all down to out of control military spending, but regardless, interest payments on the national debt may soon eclipse the military budget. Even the Congressional Budget Office is concerned about the mess Mr Obama’s profligacy has created.

So perhaps the problem will fix itself? Like a failed South American nation, some warn that America’s debt / GDP ratio may hit 150% by 2040. Just like Japan, it would seem. Another nation with anemic economic growth, disinflationary forces and debt to GDP well above 200%.

Are things really that rosy in The United States? Or are politicians doing what they usually do — deceive?

So The G20 Finance Ministers are having a meeting …

In Shanghai no less, epicenter of recent market volatility. Apparently on their agenda is a discussion that will allow these nations to agree a way forward to improve global growth. The IMF is urging bold action, while China suggests is has a few tricks up its sleeve in fact more than a few , while both The British and Germans both argue further currency devaluations or negative interest rates would be counterproductive.

Music to my ears, as long as they don’t repeat 2009 when the G20 Finance Ministers pledged “to do whatever is necessary to restore confidence, growth and jobs” (among other pledges) as IT DIDN’T WORK.

The chart below shows G7 growth from 1960 to the present. The vertical gray bars represent US recessions, and for each non recessionary period I’ve calculated the average across the term.

After the post World War 2 spurt of economic activity focused on rebuilding Europe, the overall trend for global growth is apparent — slowing. From the mid 1980s debt levels in The United States sharply soared. Concerning, because the relationship between excessive sovereign debt and slowing economic activity is well defined, as Rogoff & Reinhart have asserted many times, both in academic journals as well as mainstream media. This “growth at any cost” agenda led to what many are calling the worse economic recovery since the end of World War II.

So what can the G20 do to increase growth rates? Maybe nothing at all — some suggest the post World War II growth spurt was due to a confluence of factors such as technological innovation or mass migration of people that we may never see again.

Keeping in mind that from 1850 to 1913 the long run average global growth rate was roughly 2.1% its less likely we’re going to see sustainable growth rates above 2% ever again.

No New Deal for America

Lots of excitement in The United States about upcoming elections. Many of the most enthusiastic are backing what might be called “outsider candidates” — Trump on the (far) right and Sanders on the (far) left. As usual, from my perspective of an ex-patriate Investment Banker-cum-University Lecturer, I tend to see things differently from my stateside compatriots.

Specifically when it comes to Bernie Sanders. Don’t get me wrong — I do like much (most?) of what he says regarding social inequality in America. And the need to act. But its the proposed policy solutions that trouble me.

Mr Sanders proposes a Roosevelt-style New Deal, aiming to pump some $14.5T into the US economy by ”spending on infrastructure, youth employment, increasing Social Security benefits and expand family leave”. Some enthuse that not only would unemployment drop, poverty would drop and GDP would surge to 5% or more, albeit without providing details. Still others argue unemployment would drop below 4% while wages would grow by 2.5% .

All good stuff. But here is why it will never happen, and its pretty simple: the current occupant of The White House spent all the money. The chart below (source CBO, 2016) shows US debt / GDP from 1790 to 2000. You’ll see that when Roosevelt launched his New Deal The United States ran a debt / GDP ratio of roughly 48%. In other words, America had plenty of borrowing capacity.

The chart below shows US debt / GDP from 2000 to 2016. It is well above 100%. The “economic recovery” is fake — its been created by excessive borrowing. Its almost as through you or I max out the credit cards to artificially create an aura of prosperity. Its neither sustainable nor realistic to create prosperity by borrowing excessive sums of money.

In fact many argue as China is a net seller of US Treasuries as are many other nations America will soon have to pay it’s own way. In other words, America won’t be able to borrow from developing nations any longer, as they have their own problems to solve. America will not only have to live within its means, but pay back principal as US Treasuries mature.

Imagine that. America paying down its national debt?

That would truly be a New Deal.

The low inflation myth

The media is full of reports these days about low inflation or no inflation, in fact some refer to this period as another installment of the great moderation, or a protracted period of low inflation amid moderate, but positive economic growth.

Is this really true?

Let’s leave growth out of this for the moment; several times I’ve questioned the relationship between US economic growth and Quantitative Easing, and I’ll revisit the topic soon enough. So how about low inflation then? Is inflation really low?

Well, depends upon where you look. If one accepts The Consumer Prices Index (CPI), or a measure of inflation as defined by The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the answer is yes. How about we switch our focus away from CPI to other measures, my answer is a resounding NO. But I’ll let you make up your own mind by looking at some data.

There are three charts below, each showing CPI compared to another metric. Each chart originates at January 1st, 2005 and baselines the time series to this date at 100. The first chart shows CPI (red) against a metric known as The Personal Consumption Expenditure: Services (black) — how much we pay for a mixed basket of services. Over the horizon CPI ends up at 108.0, while The Personal Consumption Expenditure metric ends at 121.0 — in other words,

    CPI under measures the cost of purchasing services.

The second chart shows CPI (red) against a metric known as The Personal Consumption Expenditure: Services: Health Care (black) — how much we pay for a basket of Health Cares services. Not broad, but focused on Health Care only. Again, over the horizon CPI ends up at 108.0, while The Personal Consumption Expenditure metric ends at 121.6.

    CPI under measures the cost of purchasing health care.

The third and final chart again shows CPI (red) against a metric known as The Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices: Education (black) — this captures how much we may for higher education in The United States. While CPI ends at 108 as before, Education ends at 119.9.

    CPI under measures the cost of education.

So does CPI really measure the cost of living? Sure, if you don’t need health care or a higher education, or have to pay for people who might need these services. Otherwise no, CPI is deficient.

But there is more. Looking at the art markets we see records being broken at auction in many world cities even as the property market in many countries enters new bubble phases driven by negative interest rates.

Conclusion: there is plenty of inflation about. But CPI doesn’t measure it. CPI is deficient by design.

Central Banking Vodooo

Last month in a surprise move The Bank of Japan (BOJ) moved to negative interest rates, meaning deposits of regulatory capital for some banks will be charged. Theory says this will incentives financial institutions to lend, and by doing so stimulate the economy. Theory. However many are comparing BOJ’s move to a step through the looking glass. Or what I like to call Central Banking Vodoo.

A good question: why would consumers willingly take on debt in a deflationary environment?

Simple answer: they wouldn’t. Deflation magnifies debt, as repayments over time use units of currency (i.e., Yen, Dollar, Euro, etc) that can purchase more not less. That’s what deflation does — prices fall. You don’t borrow in a deflationary environment, you borrow in a inflationary environment, where the purchasing power of currency declines over time. Pretty simple economics, really.

And both consumers as well as businesses know this. IF borrowing does occur you can be sure funds won’t be used for frivolous spending, aka “stimulating” the economy via mindless consumption. I suspect those borrowing in such an environment will be using funds to invest in assets that generate significant cash flow. And probably not even assets found in Japan e.g., property in London or New York, to name but two possible destinations.

Regardless, and just to illustrate how disconnected theory and some economists are from reality, as recently as November 2014 many investment banks were targeting 130 Yen to the USD.

And by March, 2015 a survey of 27 economists suggested 140 Yen to the USD was achievable, applauding BOJ’s efforts to stimulate inflation and weaken the Yen.

Well, as the chart below shows, once again markets refused to cooperate with theory. As soon as BOJ announced it’s negative interest rate policy the Yen obligingly weakened. For one day. And then once again began to strengthen. At this rate the Yen certainly isn’t hitting 140 to the USD anytime soon.

Key takeaway: there is theory and there is markets. And they may disagree. The trend seems to be for strong Yen.

Possible contrary indicator: as I write this post Goldman Sachs apparently has abandoned their weak Yen call. Imagine that.

US recession looming?

In the wake of The Fed’s ill-advised rate hike , speculation is growing about a US recession in 2016.

But is this probable? Yes. Parts of the US economy, for example, energy, are already in recession. Meanwhile, the US economy is already slowing and sharply.

Keep in mind that higher interest rates, theoretically, translate into a stronger currency (via covered interest rate arbitrage. As the chart below shows, American exporters are already suffering as the US Dollar strengthens. The red line shows the relative strength of the US Dollar compared to a basket of America’s most important trading partners. The black line shows US exports of good and services. Its clearly falling as the US Dollar advances.

And this recovery is already one of the longest on record. How long can it continue? Some argue not much longer.

While I personally believe the next recession might be very severe, others suggest you should be buying stocks now.

The US economy is teetering

Friday’s news that US GDP slowed markedly in Q4 2015 to 0.7% from a preliminary estimate of 2% was a surprise to many, but the trend was clear from looking at the data. The Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) provides an effective measurement of consumption in The United States. In other words, when people buy stuff the money spent rolls up into the PCE. This is important for several reasons, not least of which is consumption drives roughly 70% of the US economy. People stop buying stuff , the economy slows. Its really that simple (if we ignore government spending, which historically surges is US Presidential Election years).

The chart below shows the relationship between the PCE (red) and Business Inventories (black). Inventories are starting to rise indicating people simply aren’t buying as much stuff as they were back in 2011. The last time we saw a collapse in PCE was in 2013 when, coincidentally enough, The Fed embarked on a third round of Quantitative Easing.

Is another round of Quantitative Easing possible?

yes and yes seem to be answers I’m hearing a lot more these days. And I suspect even more so in the months to come. Will the well intentioned but economically damaging Quantitative Easing ever end?

Some don’t think so.

Remember, The Fed’s goal is 3% GDP in 2016. With the global economy continuing to slow, that simply ain’t gonna happen. In fact, concerns are growing that The United States may teeter into recession by the end of 2016.

If inventories continue to rise businesses will cut back. People will be laid off and then consumption will really collapse.

Jobs up but what about wage growth?

The United States reported a fairly decent jobs number today, with a surge of 292K positions added. BLS release is here should you wish to read it direct from The Source.

This is, of course, before the usual revisions. Which generally fail to capture as much public attention as the flash number that was reported today. Regardless, good news if you’re looking for work or perhaps looking to change jobs. Curious, but in spite of several months of positive news on the jobs front, why aren’t wages changing?

Turns out they are, and its very interesting. The two charts below annual changes in wages by education. The first chart clearly shows those holding an advanced degree (i.e., Masters or higher) or a Bachelors degree are seeing NO change in wages.

The second chart shows wage growth for high school graduates or those either with some college or an Associates degree. Here we are seeing changes in wages — UP.

Very curious, but what does it mean? The most reasonable explanation is the economy is creating a large number of lower paid jobs (which is consistent with a lack of overall wage growth), while undergoing some erosion of better paid, higher skilled jobs. Net / net — lots of jobs created, no wage pressure at all, decomposing wage pressure we see declines at the top end, AND a solid number of lower skilled, lower paid jobs being created.

Are you still cheering?

I’ll be looking deeper in the jobs creation puzzle as time and detailed releases of data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics permits.

Something odd here, to be sure. Oh! The TPP won’t help, and, in fact, will pressure wages, pretty much across the board, down. Big Business, on the other hand, supports TPP. Cheaper labour, larger profits, not really a surprise there, now is it?

An already jittery market …

Overnight Chinese markets dropped some 7%, after news that Chinese manufacturing contracted for a 10th straight month.

Some analysts now suggest China – who reportedly contributes between 0.5% to 1% of global GDP – will now drive a global recession in starting in Q2 2016.

Ok, that has looked to me to be the case for a while as the global economy has been slowing for several years. But why might Chinese share prices have dropped so precipitously? One possible explanation (that I personally favour) is heavy handed government intervention during previous sell-offs. The chart below shows the Shanghai markets over the past year. Specifically of interest is the sharp drop of some 32%, from a high on June 5th to July 8th, when regulators banned “large” investors from selling for six months, suggesting they “would deal severely “ with transgressors.

And that ban expires January 8th. Some expect as much as $185 billion of shares to possibly hit markets in due course.

Markets always find a way. And heavy handed government manipulation always backfires.

Oh well, at least in America’s free markets, we have The Plunge Protection Team, who are very, very active in supporting — whoops! stablising, yes stablising the markets.

Ha ha ha, you say tomayto I say tomawto.

Could get exciting.