Archive for the ‘The Economy’ Category

Yellen’s Soliloquy: To Raise or Not to Raise

Monday, August 10th, 2015

To raise, or not to raise – that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The barbs and insults of outraged pundits and journalists

Or to raise rates in spite of a sea of troubles

And by raising rates extend them. To stagnate, to grow —

No more (than 2%) – and by a flatlined economy to say we end

The headache, and the thousand natural shocks

The stock market is heir to.

We could go on imagining Fed Chair Janet Yellen in the role of Hamlet, another famous person who met with tragedy due to procrastination.  We could make note of “the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,” even if we don’t know what “spurns” Shakespeare was talking about when he wrote Hamlet.

We could go on, but “conscience does make cowards of us all,” so we’ll leave it at that and turn instead to last week’s comments by Dennis Lockhart, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.  Lockhart said “the economy is ready for the first increase in short-term interest rates in more than nine years and it would take a significant deterioration in the data to convince him not to move in September.” Yellen as Hamlet

The experts will tell you that anticipation of increasing rates is built into current stock prices, but if that’s the case, why did stock prices drop to their lowest levels since February after Lockhart’s remarks?  Maybe it was the disappointing earnings reports for the quarter, or the still-not-there employment numbers, but the most direct correlation appears to be with the fear of rising interest rates.

Keep in mind, too, that the statement didn’t come from the chairwoman.  Granted, Mr. Lockhart is a member of the Federal Open Market Committee, but he’s not Janet Yellen.  Perhaps the idea was to see what impact his comments would have so the Fed as a whole would still have the option to not raise rates in September.  Mr. Lockhart apparently drew the short straw at the last FOMC meeting.  (more…)

Big Board Floored

Monday, July 13th, 2015

The Big Board is not so big anymore.

A decade ago, it accounted for 80% of stock trades.  Today, it accounts for 20%.  There are also far fewer publicly traded companies in the U.S. – 5,000+ today, compared with 8,000+ in the 1990s.  The NYSE lists about 2,800 of them.

To trade directly on the NYSE, you used to have to buy a “seat.”  In the 1990s, seats sold for as much as $4 million.  Today, you can buy a license to trade on the NYSE for $40,000.

Regardless, when “the leading stock exchange in the world“ shuts down, even for just a few hours, it’s big news.

The NYSE shut down for three-and-a-half hours on Wednesday, which was unprecedented.  Little information has been shared, but the NYSE has blamed the shutdown on a technical glitch.  Call us skeptical, but the odds of a computer glitch shutting down the NYSE, grounding United Continental Holdings planes and bringing down The Wall Street Journal’s website all on the same day are pretty small. Labor Force_1_0

Thanks to Edward Snowden and irresponsible practices by the U.S. Office of Personnel and Management, people who are not our friends now have access to a wealth of information about us.  We’d rather not think about what will happen if Chinese or Iranian hackers disrupt our electrical grid, but it’s something that should concern all of us.  Its impact not only on your investments, but on our national security, would be devastating.  (more…)

How to Retire Early – Part Two

Monday, July 6th, 2015

In part one of “How to Retire Early,” we focused on the need to reduce expenses and control debt.  Doing so can create the foundation for a retirement plan by making money available for investment.

What should happen next?  Here are a few suggestions:Retirement 4

Consider all sources of income.  Typically, retirement income comes from a combination of an employer pension, personal savings and Social Security income.  Compare what you are eligible to receive with what you will need.

If you have a shortfall, consider all of your options for making it up before you retire.  You may decide to work part-time.  It you have a marketable skill, you may even be able to develop a base of business that provides you with enough income to meet your needs without dipping into your retirement savings for a few years.  Or maybe you have space you can rent out to produce more income. (more…)

Economic Schizophrenia

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Schizophrenia is “a long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behavior, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.”Personal Income

In general use it is referred to as “a mentality or approach characterized by inconsistent or contradictory elements.”  It is also often used to refer to someone with a split personality.

It is a truly severe mental disorder that is difficult to treat.  And it seems to be a perfect description of today’s economy.

Thursday: Don’t Raise Rates This Year

As a recent example, consider last week’s announcement by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that it was lowering its growth estimate for the U.S. economy from 3.1% to 2.5%.  Both estimates are well below the 3.3% annual growth rate that was the norm before the financial crisis, but even 2.5% is average the average we’ve seen throughout the Obama presidency. (more…)

Do You Believe in Santa Claus? You May Be A Keynesian.

Monday, December 29th, 2014

The Christmas season is an appropriate time to reflect on Keynesian economics, given this: believing in Keynesian economics is a lot like believing in Santa Claus.

Most Americans grow up believing some chubby guy in a red suit has the stamina to deliver gifts worldwide to billions of people in a single night.  Young children, by their nature, are self-absorbed and gullible enough to think that Santa knows how they behaved throughout the year and will deliver presents accordingly. Santa Keynes 2

Most of us grow up and realize that reindeer can’t fly, Santa would freeze to death in the North Pole and his elves would unionize.

But not everyone outgrows gullibility.  Some become Keynesian economists.  As Keynesians, they don’t quite understand unemployment, because they never experience it – there is plenty of demand for Keynesians, who can find jobs working for the government, in academia or as journalists.

Keynesians believe that increased government spending (aka “aggregate demand”) stimulates the economy and money can be handed out, like Christmas presents, with only positive consequences.  They even believe that a dollar spent by the government results in many dollars being spent throughout the economy (the “Keynesian multiplier”).  Since they believe there is a Santa Claus, they give little thought to the reality that someone, somewhere has to pay for this largesse.

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The Markets Need Psychotherapy

Monday, December 15th, 2014

“The whole idea that the stock market reflects fundamentals is, I think, wrong.  It really reflects psychology.  The aggregate stock market reflects psychology more than fundamentals.”

Robert Shiller, Nobel Prize-winning economist

Tired of low returns?  You may be a bond investor.

Bond investors have been “growing tired of low returns, the endless warnings that rates are about to rise, and constant reminders of the dangers of riskier bonds,” according to Jeffrey Matthias, CFA, CIPM of Madison Investment Advisors.

At the same time, they’ve watched the stock market continue to break new records every time there’s another sign that a central bank somewhere may buy a few bonds or lower interest rates into negative territory.

“None of us have ever lived through this kind of extreme, long-lasting suppressed rate environment,” Matthias wrote, and, as a result, those bond investors who are mad-as-hell-and-are-not-going-to-take-it-anymore have been frustrated enough to take on a lot more risk for a little more yield. Central Bank Assets

When you chase yield, you catch risk.  It’s a dangerous reaction to the yin and yang of investing – fear and greed.

“Typically, when markets are moving higher,” Matthias wrote, “most investors turn greedy and want more.  Should an investor’s more conservatively positioned portfolio produce lower returns when the market surges, the investor may regret not having taken more risk.  In contrast, should a riskier portfolio drop significantly in market value, the opposite may happen and an investor may begin to regret (his or her) decision to have invested in risker assets.  This can be accompanied by a fearful overreaction.”

(more…)

Baby Boomer Bust

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Each day, another 8,000 baby boomers turn 65.

The U.S. Census Bureau says there are more than 77 million baby boomers, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964.  By 2030 all boomers will be over 65 and will represent about 20% of the population.

So, given the growing number of boomers who have reached retirement age, why is the unemployment rate still so high?Over 65 retirement

Based on the official U-3 statistics, unemployment is still at 6.2%.  That’s much better than the 10% rate we had in 2009, but it’s considerably higher than the 3.9% rate the U.S. enjoyed in 2000 – which was long before baby boomers even thought about retirement.

If Americans are retiring at 65, that should open up more than a quarter million new jobs per month – on top of job growth caused by economic recovery.  So when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 205,000 jobs were created in July 2014, it’s not exactly a sign of prosperity.

The U-6 unemployment rate, which includes those who have given up looking for work, is still 12.2%, which is practically European.

So why is the unemployment rate still stubbornly high?

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Only a Half Trillion Dollars

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

It’s a sign of how much trouble we’re in when a budget deficit of a half trillion dollars seems like fiscal restraint.

It is progress, given that annual budget deficits were running above $1 trillion a year throughout President Obama’s first term and have been as high as $1.4 trillion.  And it could have been worse.  Recall the effort made by President Obama to stop the automatic spending cuts that took place when sequestration was adopted.

But a half trillion dollars is still a mountain of money.  It helps to give the number some context.CBO Chart

To reach a half trillion dollars, you would have to spend $8 per second beginning with the year 0 and continue spending through today.  If you had a stack of $1 bills adding up to $500 billion and were able to put them one on top of another, the stack would be 34,000 miles high.

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The QE Apocalypse

Friday, July 11th, 2014

The end is near.

The Federal Reserve Board has now put a date on the quantitative easing apocalypse, letting us know that bond buying will end in October – unless the central bank changes its mind, of course.

The October ending is not unexpected.  The Fed has been cutting back bond purchases by $10 billion a month since last year and it doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that there will be nothing left to taper post-October.

Yet this news, reported in the just-released minutes to last month’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, is being treated as a revelation.  It was, for example, the lead story in The Wall Street Journal, which typically doesn’t lead with news that was discussed last year and made official at a meeting that took place a month ago. Portugal

The real news, though, is what wasn’t discussed – the end of near-zero interest rates.  As a result, rather than pushing yields up and bond prices down, release of the meeting minutes had the opposite impact.

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Sprinkling the Fairy Dust of Illusory Riches

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

When the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) calls central bank market rigging “the fairy dust of illusory riches,” it’s time to pay attention.

The BIS is the central banks’ central bank.  Its role is “to serve central banks in their pursuit of monetary and financial stability, to foster international cooperation in those areas and to act as a bank for central banks.”

To provide the statement with some context, and to alert you about what else you can expect from central banks moving forward, we provide a summary of other key points made in this year’s BIS annual report, which is appropriately titled, “In Search of a New Compass.”Compass

First, there’s recognition that easy money policy has gone far enough.  That’s self-evident, but of special interest when you consider the source.  BIS notes that despite a pickup in economic growth, the world economy “has not shaken off its dependence on monetary stimulus.  Monetary policy is still struggling to normalize after so many years of extraordinary accommodation.”

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