Inflation: The Fed’s Red Herring

May 23rd, 2016

If you wanted to boost economic growth, which of the following would you focus on?

  • U.S. corporate taxes, which are the world’s highest and are driving businesses to relocate abroad
  • A regulatory environment in which new regulations are being issued at a record pace; for 2015, the Federal Register contained a record 81,611 pages of new regulations
  • Record government debt, which now exceeds $19 trillion
  • Falling household income, with wages down an average of 5.9% since 2007
  • Corporate profits, which fell 5.1% in 2015
  • Low productivity growth, with the average growth rate less than a third of what it was during the previous period of 1995 to 2010
  • The fact that, for the first time ever, more companies are failing in the U.S. than are launching
  • The fact that, with a dearth of initial public offerings, there are half as many public companies as there were in the 1990s
  • Low inflation

    Regulations have been the one growth industry during the Obama Administration. Above is a copy of new federal regulations for 2015. 

    Regulations have been the one growth industry during the Obama Administration. Above is a copy of new federal regulations for 2015. 

If you picked low inflation, congratulations. There is a place for you on the Federal Reserve Board.

The Fed’s focus on inflation is a result of its mandate to reduce or stabilize the unemployment rate and the rate of inflation. But its seeming obsession with a 2% rate of inflation is nonsensical. As we’ve pointed out, 2% appears to be an arbitrary number. Will the economy function better if the inflation rate is 2% instead of 2.5%? Why not 1.5%? Read the rest of this entry »

“When Free Enterprise Dies, America Dies With It”

May 16th, 2016

Public ownership has historically been the lifeblood of the American economy. Going public produced funding for growth, while providing investors with an opportunity to share in the company’s success.

Not anymore.

In the peak year of 1996, more than 1,000 companies went public.  This year, we may not have 100 initial public offerings (IPOs). To date, only 39 IPOs have been filed—a 52.4% decrease from last year. Only 20 IPOs have been priced, which is a 65.5% decrease from last year. Only $3.3 billion has been raised from IPOs, a decrease of 68.8% from last year, according to Renaissance Capital.

In January, not a single U.S. company went public. And there was no polar vortex to blame. Through the first quarter, there were only 11 IPOs, which is the worst start to a year since 2009.

So tell me again about the booming economy.

In the past, the number of newly public companies far outweighed the number of companies that converted from public to private ownership, failed, merged, were acquired or were delisted because they no longer met exchange requirements. In recent years, though, the number of companies no longer trading on U.S. exchanges has been increasing just as IPOs have been decreasing. Public Companies

In fact, the U.S. now has half as many publicly listed companies trading on its exchanges as it did in 1996. As the chart shows, America had 7,322 in 1996 and, as of last year, that number had dropped to 3,700. That’s 1,000 lower than in 1975, a date well before the boom in IPOs. Read the rest of this entry »

In Defense of Capitalism

May 9th, 2016

“The problem is we don’t have enough free markets.”

                                                                  Ron Paul

The U.S. economy is operating with the invisible hand tied behind its back.  And that’s unlikely to change if we elect another President Clinton or a President Trump.

Unfortunately, capitalism has become unfashionable.  Media, academia, some members of Congress and others would have you believe that “profits” are bad and income inequality is America’s biggest challenge (Note: Socialist actors like Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Jane Fonda also make plenty of profits and contribute little to the economy.  When are they going to equalize their incomes?).

When’s the last time you heard a presidential candidate—or any politician, for that matter—extoll the virtues of capitalism?  This year, we have a socialist running for president and millions of millennials supporting him.

The Animas River was clean before the EPA’s Gold King Mine disaster.  Why aren’t activists protesting against the EPA?

The Animas River was clean before the EPA’s Gold King Mine disaster. Why aren’t activists protesting against the EPA?

Hillary Clinton reacted by moving almost as far to the left as Bernie Sanders.  She did mention capitalism in the nearly ignored Democratic debates, but only to say that we need to save capitalism from itself.  She’s half right … we need to save capitalism—from politicians, academics and the legion of “activists” who are clueless about economics.

You’d think that as a billionaire, presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump would be a die-hard capitalist, but he is a protectionist whose immigration policies, if enacted, would continue to stifle business formation.  Given that he has also personally benefited from eminent domain, his support of capitalism appears to be of the crony type.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Flim-Flam Economy

May 2nd, 2016

The absurdity of today’s flim-flam economy can be summarized when the events of the past week are considered together:

  • The U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of just 0.5% during the first quarter
  • Corporate profits are the lowest they’ve been since 2009
  • The current bull market is now the second longest in history
  • The Federal Reserve Board, to no one’s surprise, elected yet again not to raise interest rates

The conclusion that can be drawn is that, while the U.S. is not yet a socialist country, it is no longer a capitalist country, either.  There is a seeming collusion between political leaders and central bankers with the net result being more and more government control over our lives amid the illusion that all is well, because, after all, the stock market moves in only one direction. Equities

Mainstream media, with few exceptions, reinforce the illusion, cheerleading for the Obama Administration as it continues to break records for its ever-increasing volume of new regulations.  Burdensome new regulations reduce corporate profits, which should result in lower stock prices.  But the Fed has somehow managed to circumvent reality and juice the market ever higher.  Read the rest of this entry »

Upending the World

April 25th, 2016

Logic has taken a 180-degree turn, running at full sprint in the opposite direction from where it should be.

As one small example, consider the good fortune of Hans Peter Christensen, recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal, who is currently being paid by his bank to borrow money.  Christensen owns a home in Aalborg, Denmark, where negative interest rates resulted in his bank paying him the equivalent of $38 in interest for the quarter for borrowing money.

Meanwhile, in other countries with negative interest rates, some banks are charging customers for their deposits.  So the bank pays you to take its money and charges you to take your money. Zero Rates

Such is the logic of today’s central bankers in much of Europe and Japan, where rates have been negative for more than a year.

The United States has not adopted negative interest rates—but Fed Chair Janet Yellen said in February that the Fed is studying the feasibility of doing so, “to give the economy an extra boost,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Read the rest of this entry »

Fed Family Feud

April 18th, 2016

Is it a mutiny?  A family feud?  Sibling rivalry?  Or an attempt to provide more accurate estimates of economic growth?

Greater accuracy would certainly be a good thing, but that may be the least plausible explanation for the New York Federal Reserve Bank’s launch of Nowcast.

Traders need real-time economic data that they can use to guide trading decisions.  Providing it has been a role that the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank took on when it created GDPNow in July 2014. Today, GDPNow is widely used by traders—even though, as we’ve previously noted, Fed projections of economic growth are almost always overly optimistic.Fed v. Fed

So why add a second source of inaccurate estimates of GDP growth?  There are several possible explanations:

  • New York is the center of the universe and New York Fed Chair William Dudley found it unacceptable that the Atlanta Fed was grabbing all of the attention with its GDP forecasts.
  • With two different forecasts, the Fed doubles its probability of getting it right (although two times zero is still zero).
  • The Fed wants to show that it does more than just manipulate the stock market and buy bonds.
  • The New York Fed needs to justify its budget and figured it is a good use of taxpayers’ money to produce two separate and distinct GDP growth estimates.
  • The New York Fed wants to prove that it is as capable as the Atlanta Fed of producing inaccurate estimates of GDP growth.

Whatever the reason, the second Fed GDP growth estimate was added “to the puzzlement of some traders,” as The Wall Street Journal put it.  Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Ignore the Central Banks

April 11th, 2016

What if we all decided to ignore the central banks?

Granted, they have provided material for this blog non-stop from the day it started.  They keep financial journalists, economists, analysts, pundits and other financial fortune tellers employed.  They keep the stock market pumped up when it can’t achieve new records of its own merit. They appear be the only people in the world tasked with managing the economy (even if they are mismanaging it, rather than managing it).

So why should we ignore them?

They’re frequently wrong.  The Federal Reserve Board, our country’s central bank, has a history of causing, not solving crises.  Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan is not even mentioned in “The Big Short,” but some give him top blame for causing the 2007 housing bubble and the financial crisis that followed. Benchmark

“Alan Greenspan will go down in history as the person most responsible for the enormous economic damage caused by the housing bubble and the subsequent collapse of the market,” according to The Guardian.

Noting the plunging housing prices and high unemployment in 2013, when the article was written, The Guardian reported that, “The horror story could have easily been prevented had there been intelligent life at the Federal Reserve Board in the years when the housing bubble was growing to ever more dangerous proportions (2002-2006). But the Fed did nothing to curb the bubble. Arguably, it even acted to foster its growth with Greenspan cheering the development of exotic mortgages and completely ignoring its regulatory responsibilities.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Something’s Rotten …

April 4th, 2016

“That it should come to this!”

                                  Hamlet, Act I, Scene II

Any student of Shakespeare will recall that Hamlet’s procrastination did not bode well for Denmark.

Centuries later, the Scandinavian country has Tivoli and perhaps the world’s best ice cream, but it’s not exactly a world power.  It may not be Hamlet’s fault–after all, Denmark is even more socialistic than the U.S. and Canada–but his hesitation was not a good thing for him or his country.YellenHamlet 2

So what does this have to do with Janet Yellen?  She chairs the Federal Reserve Board, which, like Denmark, has wielded its power clumsily, although it doesn’t even produce ice cream.  And, like the tragic prince, she will likely be remembered more for her inaction than for her action.

Even Hamlet didn’t procrastinate for years, although it may seem that way if you watch a poor production of the famous play. Also, like the melancholy Prince of Denmark, Ms. Yellen seems to be collapsing under the weight of the world and fretting over the potential consequences of her actions. And so, like Hamlet, she does nothing.

Her words before the New York Economic Club last week could have come straight out of Hamlet. Princess Yellen may be far less eloquent than the young prince of Denmark, but the parallels between what she said and what he said are significant. Read the rest of this entry »

Wages Will Increase When Productivity Does

March 28th, 2016

There are three things we can say about income with a degree of certainty:

  1. You’re earning less than you did before the financial crisis.
  2. You are overdue for a raise.
  3. You are unlikely to get a raise anytime soon.

If these three statements fit your personal circumstances, you can take some consolation in knowing that you are not alone and that there is likely not much you can do about it.  Using the financial crisis that began in 2007 as a baseline, the Economic Policy Institute found that wages have dropped by an average of up to 5.9%, depending on the category of worker to which you belong. Employees with advanced degrees are the only group that didn’t see its income drop, but that group didn’t see its income rise, either. declining-wages

While the rate of inflation has been low throughout that period, it is still eroding your purchasing power and affecting your standard of living.

Why is income lower today than it was in 2007?

Lower Profits.  A major reason you’re earning less—and why you’re unlikely to get a raise anytime soon—is that your employer is earning less. Read the rest of this entry »

Set. Down. No Hike.

March 21st, 2016

The economic outlook can be summed up in five words: Everything’s great, except what isn’t.

We’ll lead with the “everything’s great” part, as seen through the filter of the Federal Reserve Board.  As Fed Chair Janet Yellen reminds us after every meeting, the Fed has two goals—lowering the unemployment rate and stabilizing prices.

The Fed’s target unemployment rate is 4.7% to 5.8% and, if you believe the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (see below re: why you shouldn’t), the Fed has accomplished that goal, as the current rate is at an eight-year low of 4.9%.  The Fed’s target inflation rate is 2% and, depending on how you measure inflation, it’s close to that number.Stock Prices

“The Fed’s preferred measure, the personal consumption expenditures price index, rose 1.3% in January from the previous year, and so-called core inflation—which excludes volatile food and energy prices—was 1.7%,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “The consumer-price index rose 1% in February from a year earlier, but core CPI was up 2.3% for the year, the largest 12-month increase since May 2012.”

So the Fed could have logically declared its mission accomplished and begun to gradually increase interest rates, as was expected after December’s initial miniscule rate increase.  So why was the vote at last wek’s meeting 10-1 against a rate hike? Read the rest of this entry »