Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Generation of Stagnation; Retirement Walks the Plank

We are now looking at a generation of stagnation.  The recovery from the 2008 financial crisis still wobbles like a drunk.  Even though we now have full employment, wages barely keep up with inflation (if at all).  And recent statistics indicate that inflation is growing as fast as a parched lawn.

Regardless of what this Federal Reserve official or that says, the central bank will raise rates as often as humans walk on Mars.  If you're wondering when rates will return to historical norms, the answer is never.  At least, this is the only rational assumption you can make.  With Asia's growth slowing, Europe's growth nonexistent, South America in free fall, Russia going negative in numerous ways, and the Middle East becoming more unstable with each passing day, and no drivers of growth in America except the Fed money printing presses running 24/7, the only future forecast that seems sensible is to expect stagnation for--well, the rest of your life.

With stagnation instead of brisk economic growth, the government's ability to support retirees will be limited.  While Social Security and Medicare won't disappear, they will likely be parsimonious.  If you drop your porridge bowl, they won't refill it.  And pension fund and personal investment returns are being decimated by low interest rates on bonds and bank accounts.  Your retirement is starting to walk the plank.  What to do, then, about your future?

Spend less, save more.  This is a no brainer.  It's not what the Fed wants, because hesitant consumer demand constrains economic growth.  But the Fed be damned.  Your long term well-being requires the thriftiness of Ben Franklin, and if that results in lower economic growth that makes the Fed look bad, well who cares?  (Or, you can substitute more lively terminology if you wish).  With interest rates so low, you can't use the financial magic of compounding to build much of a retirement (see http://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2009/09/if-you-love-compounding-compounding.html). You have to set aside more principal, and hope that the few crumbs of interest income you get will elevate your retirement diet above dog food.

Put some money in stocks.  The inequality of wealth in America has increased because the Fed's easy money policies tend to inflate asset values.  Since the rich own most assets, their wealth  has increased disproportionately from central bank policies.  Realistically, with stagnant wages and a Republican controlled Congress, you can't expect the inequality of wealth to diminish.  (Maybe things would be different if Bernie Sanders is elected President, but both the Democratic and Republican establishments are using all their smoke-filled back room influence and power to prevent that.)  So you might as well join 'em if you can't beat 'em.  Owning stocks can be gut wrenching in times of market turmoil.  But so is a retirement spent eating dog food.  Learn to live with the market's turbulence, and collect the rates of return that the 1% are getting from equities.

Work longer.  This increases your lifetime earnings, which allows you to save more and build up your Social Security benefits.  If you're lucky enough to have a pension, it will likely increase your pension benefits.  Okay, so working longer means a shorter retirement.  But, like we said, retirement is walking the plank.  Just try to avoid having to live in a cardboard box on the sidewalk with a couple of cans of cat food in your raggedy backpack.

Avoid debt.  You can't go bankrupt if you don't borrow.  If you do borrow, some of your future income will go to banks and other lenders in the form of interest payments, instead of enhancing your future lifestyle.  Granted, you may need to borrow for big ticket items like college, cars and a house.  But otherwise, avoid debt.  And pay down the debt you have as you approach retirement.  Especially, lose the mortgage.  Financial advisers may tell you it's okay to have a mortgage in retirement.  But guess what?  If you have a mortgage, that means you may have more financial assets to invest in ways that pay fees and commissions to the financial advisers.  Meanwhile, you have to pay interest on the mortgage debt.  Who's better off?

For more on ways to yank your retirement back off the plank, read http://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2009/11/techniques-for-retirement-saving.htmlhttp://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2009/07/simplest-financial-plan-of-all.html, and http://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2011/01/hope-for-financially-lost.html.  Good luck.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Will the GOP Set Up Ted Cruz?

With his victories in Wisconsin and Colorado, Ted Cruz is now well-positioned to prevent Donald Trump from getting a majority of delegates for the Republican Convention.  The Republican Establishment can't stand Cruz, but they can't stand Trump even more.  The Establishment could give Cruz enough support to block Trump for two rounds of voting at the convention.  After two rounds of inconclusive voting, nearly all the delegates would be free to vote for whatever candidate they choose.  The Establishment could then propose a compromise candidate (think Paul Ryan; sorry, John Kasich but you simply aren't a heavy enough hitter), and lean on delegates to support the candidate anointed by the Establishment.  In order to break the deadlock and get on with the general election, a majority of delegates might be willing to abandon Trump and Cruz, and go with the inside favorite.  Cruz would be left in a ditch by the road, but then again the Republican Establishment can't stand him.

Friday, March 18, 2016

How the Federal Reserve Destabilizes the Markets and Influences Politics

The Fed is being hoisted on its own petard.  Since 2008, it has suppressed interest rates, keeping them exceptionally low and forcing investors to put savings into risk assets such as stocks and high-yield bonds.  While there were good reasons for taking extraordinary action in 2008 and 2009, the Fed left rates so low for so long that investors, corporate America and borrowers have come to expect that really easy money is the norm, the default.  This dependency has made it virtually impossible for the Fed to normalize interest rates.  If the Fed raises rates, risk assets fall in value (as they did in recent months when faced with the specter of short term rates reaching a ghastly 1% to 1.25% by the end of this year).  The markets simply won't stand for interest rate increases, and the Fed sees itself as having no choice but to do the markets' bidding.  However, as the Fed continues to suppress interest rates, it only increases the markets' dependency, making future rate increases even more difficult. 

The Fed claims its interest rate policy is data dependent, and that it will raise rates as warranted by the data.  The U.S. economy is now at full employment and growing moderately.  Although last month's inflation data show stable prices, the recent rise in oil and gasoline prices will push up inflation numbers for March.  Yet, when it comes to the decision whether or not to increase rates, there is only one data point that matters.  That is the willingness of the financial markets to accept an increase.  With the markets' long term addiction to low rates deeply embedded, and their turbulent hissy fits every time the Fed hints at rate normalization, there is no foreseeable time when interest rates will return to historical norms. 

The Fed is undermining deeply rooted foundations of our society.  Highly rated long term bonds are essential to the stable retirements for which Americans and many other peoples hope.  Shorter term interest rates provide important supplemental income to savers, and promote financial stability and responsibility that mitigate the impact of economic cycles.  When people face lousy retirements (see http://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2015/04/is-federal-reserve-wrecking-retirement.html), and can't count on much of any return on savings (especially after netting out inflation), you can get the political unrest that we see today. 

The Fed is missing an important part of the picture.  People don't just want cheap credit.  They want stable long term prospects.  During the 1950's, 60's and 70's, the World War II generation endured many layoffs and cutbacks, due to recessions, factory retoolings, labor strikes and so on.  But their fundamental faith in the future was unshaken, because they knew they had pensions and Social Security to take care of them in their golden years (which in fact were golden for many of them).  This kind of long term stability isn't evident today.  Instead, havoc permeates today's politics.  Angry voters in America and Europe are upending established political orders because they fear the future.

Personal consumption and wealth have suffered greatly from low interest rates.  From 2008 to 2013, savers lost about $750 billion due to low interest rates (see http://www.cbsnews.com/news/report-low-interest-rates-have-cost-consumers-750-billion/).  Adding in likely losses for 2014 through today, the amount now is probably around $1 trillion.  That's real money.  Take that much out of people's hands, and they feel less secure, less inclined to spend, less inclined to borrow (you borrow less if you have less income), and more angry about the status quo.

What's more, the Fed's insistence on favoring risk assets has exacerbated the increasing inequality of income and wealth.  Rich people have the capital to invest in risk assets, and they become increasingly wealthy when cheap money pumps up the value of those assets.  Those getting the short end of the stick are now turning toward political extremism, because they feel they have no other choice.

The last thing the Fed wants to do is get entangled in politics.  It is supposed to be an independent agency that dispassionately dispenses policy in the public interest.  But the Fed's inability to act independently of the financial markets' short term tantrums is having significant impact on social stability and political trends.  Things will only get worse.  As the fall election approaches, the Fed will find itself in the horns of a dilemma largely of its own making.  If it raises rates because inflation is flaring (which is possible given the recent sharp increases in oil and gasoline prices), it will be accused of tilting the political picture one way.  If it does not raise rates despite an upswing in inflation, the markets will hum along on their cheap credit high, and the Fed will be accused of tilting the political landscape another way. 

The Fed is largely staffed and run by economists.  The economists there have failed to appreciate the diminishing returns of continuing the cheap money IV for the markets.  They have also failed to appreciate the costs of their cheap money policy.  If all they acknowledge is the upside (the return to full employment and moderate growth), and fail to acknowledge the pain they inflict on savers and workers who want to retire, then of course they will continue to inject cheap credit into the markets because they only see the benefits and not the costs.  Economists who don't acknowledge diminishing returns and see only benefits but not costs are bound to get policy wrong. 

The Fed measures its performance by short term metrics--current GDP growth, current unemployment, current inflation.  It doesn't appear to pay much attention, if any, to long term factors.  Long term factors are harder to measure.  But that doesn't mean they aren't important.  By focusing on the short term, and ignoring the long term, the Fed inevitably creates problems.  And we all have to live with the consequences of those problems.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Bernie Sanders is the Most Electable Candidate for President

The latest CNN/ORC poll shows that Bernie Sanders is the most electable candidate for President.  He would beat Trump (55% to 43%), Cruz (57% to 40%) and Rubio (53% to 45%).  By contrast, Hillary Clinton would beat Trump (52% to 44%), but would trail Cruz (48% to 49%) and Rubio (47% to 50%).  In other words, Sanders is the candidate most likely to win the Presidency in the general election, should he become the Democratic nominee.  Clinton's well-known negatives continue to dog her.

Clinton is supposed to be more electable than Sanders, but the latest poll negates that notion.  While Clinton has numerous advantages that give her the lead in the primaries for the Democratic nomination, she appears more likely to lead the party to defeat in the fall.  Sanders faces a difficult, uphill path in the primaries.  But if he succeeds in getting the nomination, he may well be the next President of the United States.

So if you're voting Democratic, and want to increase the chances for a Democratic President for the next four years, choose Bernie Sanders.  You can find the new CNN/ORC poll here: http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/01/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-bernie-sanders-poll/index.html.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Hillary's Obama Gambit

Hillary Clinton has embraced Barack Obama's policies and legacy, and has promised to continue them if she is elected President.  This has helped her draw the support of African-American voters, who she desperately needs to counteract Bernie Sanders' appeal to the young and the independent.  It's helping her now, in South Carolina and other Southern states.  But she will pay a price if she becomes the Democratic nominee.

The key to the general election will be the ability to attract the support of independents.  The Republican and Democratic nominees, whoever they may be this year, will have the support of the conservative right and liberal left, respectively.  The winning candidate will be the one to whom independents flock.  Independents, to be sure, aren't always the same as moderates or middle of the road voters.  They are often beyond classification, very conservative on some issues while simultaneously very liberal on others.  But if you try to paint them as libertarians, they will turn out to be staunch supporters of big government safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare.  These are the disaffected drawn to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  They often don't like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.  And they are likely to dislike Clinton even more for embracing Obama's legacy.  By positioning herself as Barack Obama's ideological successor, Clinton makes herself less attractive as a candidate to a large group of voters who are likely to be crucial to victory. 

Barack Obama had an almost unique ability to draw the support of traditional Democratic constituencies and independents.  Hillary Clinton doesn't have that ability.  By promising to take up Obama's mantle, she has made herself into a target which, in the general election, the vast right wing conspiracy will bombard with Super PAC funded ads highlighting her sworn fealty Obama.  Many of the Obama haters will turn against her, and vote for the other candidate.  Traditional Democratic constituencies may not be enough to elect her.  She's gained a short term advantage, but a long term problem.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Afraid of Another Financial Crisis? Watch the Banks

Financial crises like we had in 2008 before the Great Recession, and earlier in the 1930's before the Great Depression, are the triggers for big, long lasting economic downturns that require painfully long times from which to recover.  They differ from ordinary economic recessions (i.e., two quarters of negative economic growth), which generally don't last more than a couple of years and are usually followed by good levels of growth.  Financial crises are caused by liquidity shortages in the financial system.  When major banks and other financial institutions cannot obtain ready access to loans, especially short term loans, the financial system can teeter, and in worst case scenarios, collapse. 

Recent news articles report that European banks are under stress because of the decline in oil prices (http://www.cnbc.com/2016/02/08/european-banks-face-major-cash-crunch.html), and because of low interest rates and legal costs, as well as oil prices (http://money.cnn.com/2016/02/05/investing/bank-stocks-worse-than-oil/index.html?iid=EL).  Things got so shaky today that Deutsche Bank, Germany's largest, felt compelled to put out a statement reassuring shareholders about its financial condition.  http://www.reuters.com/article/us-deutsche-bank-stocks-idUSKCN0VI1WI.  If Europe's major banks begin to encounter liquidity shortfalls, we could have a problem.  If not addressed properly, it could be a big problem.

Europe's big banks are in general not as well capitalized as America's big banks, so it's not surprising that the Europeans might encounter turbulence sooner.  But if Europe's big banks teeter, America's big banks will, because of the interconnections between all major banks worldwide, at least feel pretty nauseated.  Of course, in such a scenario, the European Central Bank and U.S. Federal Reserve will mount up and ride to the rescue.  But not even the Brobdingnagian bailouts of 2008 prevented the Great Recession.

If the financial system stays sound, the slowdown in China and the other BRICS may cause a recession, but probably not a catastrophe.  But if the financial system dives into the septic tank, as it did in 2008, then we can expect a stinky mess.  So watch the banks.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

How to Manipulate the Stock Market

The recent unusually close correlation between the price of oil and the prices of stocks offers an opportunity to manipulate the stock market.  A trader could purchase a large holding of stock index futures that would increase in value if the stock market rises, and then purchase oil futures contracts in rapid sequence in order to push up the price of oil.  The price jump in oil would, presumably, pump up stocks.  The stock index futures would rise in value and the trader could sell them for a quick profit.  An individual person couldn't do this, except one who is exceptionally wealthy.  But large hedge funds and other financial entities might have enough funding to pull this off.  It could be done in the U.S. markets, and some foreign markets (since the oil-stocks correlation isn't limited just to the U.S. markets).

Doing something like this could be seriously illegal.  Kids, don't try this at home, not unless you want to be a long term guest of the U.S. government at a facility not of your choosing.  But, as hardly needs to be said, not all participants in the financial markets observe the highest degree of fidelity to legal requirements.  Mega bucks could be made this way, and for some, money talks even if getting it involves stepping off the curb.  Hopefully, financial regulators worldwide are tuned into this possibility.  The recent exceptional volatility in the oil markets, and consequential sympathetic gyrations in stock prices, could raise the specter of shenanigans.  Some financial markets players are big thinkers, and will do very aggressive things to make big money.  Regulators need to think as big in order to keep up with them.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Bernie Sanders' Appeal

Bernie Sanders is now running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in the first two primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire.  How is it possible that a first term senator, an avowed Socialist, from one of the smallest states, a virtual unknown a year ago, could challenged the mighty Clinton political machine?

In a word, because he cares.  Bernie Sanders is a throwback to the 1960s, a let's-change-the-world type who, after fifty-five years, seems still to be responding to John F. Kennedy's challenge:  "ask what you can do for your country."  His campaign is about helping others and improving their lives.  His rumpled sartorial disarray is vivid evidence that he doesn't obsess over himself.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton continues to run a perfectly coiffed, highly calculated, endlessly scripted campaign focused on burnishing her image, protecting her from attack, and saying what the pollsters tell her voters want to hear.  It's hard to avoid the feeling that she's in it for herself, that this is all about Hillary. 

Voters respond favorably to candidates who care about them.  That's Politics 101, but not every politician seems to get it.  Bernie Sanders does.  Even though he still faces a very steep climb to get the Democratic nomination, his chances are growing.  Eight years ago, a first time senator from Illinois convinced voters that he cared about them, and beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.  It could happen again.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Challenge For China

The Chinese stock market fell some 12% this first week of 2016.  The downturn triggered corresponding drops in other stock markets around the world, including a loss of over 6% for the week in the U.S.  The financial press is probably secretly delighted, since such volatility captures the attention of a lot of people and brings a surge of traffic onto their websites.  But most people are unhappy.

The Chinese stock market fell for a simple reason--it's overvalued.  It's been overvalued for a while, at least since early 2015.  As we in America know, overvalued stocks fall sooner or later.  It happened in 2000 and 2008.  It's happening now in China, and elsewhere. 

Chinese financial regulators complicated matters by halting trading after a circuit breaker was triggered by a 7% fall two days in a row.  Circuit breakers can be useful in ameliorating short term panics.  But significant overvaluation, as one sees in China, is a long term problem, and circuit breakers may actually increase selling pressure by sharply limiting the time available for trading.  When trading hours are circumscribed, sellers want to move quickly to sell, but buyers want time to evaluate whether or not prices are leveling out.  The result is that there are many more sellers than buyers in a limited amount of time and prices plummet.  Chinese regulators had to suspend the circuit breakers, which was followed by a modest rise in Chinese stocks at the end of the week.

But the regulatory miscues aren't the long term story.  Stocks in China were pumped up by a number of government policies that directly or indirectly encouraged investment in equities.  The bubble peaked and burst this past summer, and the Chinese government has since been trying to prop up the market with restrictions on selling and government-induced purchasing.  These measures to balance supply and demand don't address the basic underlying problem--Chinese stocks aren't worth their nominal market prices--and consequently can't really calm things down. 

At this point, losses inhere in Chinese stocks.  These losses have not been fully recognized in market prices.  With the Chinese economy slowing and capital flowing out of China, there isn't much realistic prospect of the losses reversing.  They will have to be realized sooner or later.  The Chinese government probably understands this, but will endeavor to smooth out the process of realization of the losses to reduce the pain perceived by investors.  The U.S. Federal Reserve and European Central Bank used similar smoothing strategies to deal with the fallout from the Great Recession and the European sovereign debt crisis.  Smoothing carries a major risk of kicking the can down the road, with losses emerging like new heads of the Hydra if underlying economic growth hasn't been revived.  The challenge for China will be to accelerate its economic growth.  But the prospects for a near-term rebound of the Chinese economy are poor.  Low-cost manufacturing is gradually shifting out of China, where wages are rising, and hasn't yet been fully replaced by anything else.  China's economy seems to be meandering.  We can expect more market volatility.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Another Obama Foreign Policy Miss

The ongoing dustup between Iran and Saudi Arabia over the Saudi execution of a Shiite cleric (Nimr al-Nimr) and three other Shiites reflects another foreign policy foul up by the Obama administration.  Instead of tamping down sectarian tensions in the Middle East, the Obama administration (and its predecessor, the George W. Bush administration) made it easier for conflict to flare up.  A "democratically elected" government was established in Baghdad which, not surprisingly was Shiite dominated because Iraq is majority Shiite.  But adequate protection for the interests of Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds and other ethnic or religious groups wasn't ensured.  So Iraq degenerated into sectarian warfare, with the Sunni-dominated ISIS readily able to seize vast amounts of Sunni Iraq without facing much of a fight.  For the same reasons, it's been impossible to organize a military force in Iraq that can dislodge ISIS, except at the margins.

The Obama administration stood by the sidelines as Syria descended into civil warfare, without having a discernible, let alone coherent, policy.  The only line in the sand drawn by President Obama was to warn Bashar Assad against using poisonous gas, and when Assad did just that, Obama flinched.  His flinch paved the way for Vladimir Putin to start mucking around in Syria, a role that Putin has now expanded to a much larger military commitment to Assad.  Iran has been supporting Assad, because he is a member of the Alawites, a religious group affiliated with the Shiites.  So we have Russia and Iran working against the Saudis and their allies, who have been supporting Sunni interests in Syria.  The war in Syria is now firmly sectarian.  The ideals of the Arab Spring died a hard death there.

In Yemen, Shiite rebels have booted the Sunni ruler, and Iran is supporting the Shiite side of a civil war against the Saudi-supported Sunni side.  The U.S. used to have a Special Forces presence in Yemen, but those troops reportedly have left the country.  So we have in Yemen a second proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Obama administration has been trying to sell the nuclear accord with Iran as a great diplomatic achievement.  But the Saudis are nervous about the agreement, apparently believing that it doesn't truly restrain Iranian nuclear ambitions.  So, even while Obama thinks he's getting somewhere with Iran, he's losing influence over the Saudis.  It shouldn't be a surprise that the Saudis are getting feistier.  They evidently don't believe they can count on the U.S.  One would think that the U.S. might have restrained the Saudis from executing Nimr al-Nimr.  But either the administration didn't know the execution was scheduled (which would seem an intelligence failure) or it didn't understand the importance of the execution to the Iranians (which would seem an intelligence analysis failure). 

At the same time, the nuclear accord appears to have emboldened the Iranians.  They fired missiles from a ship that was hardly a mile away from an American aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.  They've announced they'll increase their ballistic missile capabilities, apparently in violation of a UN resolution.  But neither action generated a response from the U.S. other than commentary by official spokespersons along the lines of "naughty, naughty." 

The President reportedly is holding back on sanctions against Iran because he wants to implement the nuclear accord and strengthen the hand of Irans moderates.  The problem is we don't really know who is in control of Iran (another intelligence failure).  Implementing the accord means rolling back sanctions and allowing Iran to sell more oil internationally and otherwise engage in more international trade.  This will increase Iran's financial strength.  Who really controls that strength--Iranian moderates, Iranian radicals or Iranian terrorists?  No wonder the Saudis think they may have to go their own way.  If Obama is, in effect, going to strengthen Iran, the Saudis have to find ways to push back.

President Obama is dead set on avoiding conflict.  That much is clear to everyone.  Assad steps across his line in the sand and he does nothing.  Iran engages in provocative behavior after the nuclear accord, and he does nothing.  Putin has Russian jets bomb American-supported moderate rebels in Syria and Obama does nothing.  While almost no one in America wants our ground troops back in the Middle East, it's clear that the administration's policies are heightening sectarian tensions in the Middle East.   Just as the Obama administration was unduly focused on al-Qaeda until ISIS literally blasted its way into the administration's consciousness, it's now too obsessed with combating ISIS and not focused enough on the root problem of reducing sectarian tension.

The Middle East could degenerate into regionwide sectarian warfare in a flash--indeed, it's already partly there.  ISIS has been able to hold large amounts of territory only because sectarian tensions have been allowed to flare up.  It's important now to try to get the Iranians and Saudis to stand down.  The more Obama appeases Iran, the more provocative Iran becomes.  The recent Iranian Persian Gulf missile firing and ballistic missile program boost should be met with sanctions and a delay in the implementation of the nuclear accord.  The Iranians need to be firmly told that if they want to be re-admitted to international society, they have to be good citizens.  At the same time, the U.S. should quietly reassure the Saudis that it stands with them, and that they need to cool their jets.  Saudi arms should be twisted if necessary.  In other words, Obama has to stop appeasing and get tough with the toughs in the Middle East.

If the U.S. can lower sectarian animosity in the Middle East, it may be able to put together a working alliance to defeat and eventually destroy ISIS.  But if sectarian tensions keep increasing, there will be no workable solution for dealing with ISIS, and more conflict will likely erupt, further eroding American interests and influence.  ISIS could survive and perhaps even prosper.  It seems unlikely, however, that Obama, now firmly ensconced in his Ivy League populated bubble, will somehow connect with the realities of foreign relations.  That's a shame, because it means that he, like George W. Bush before him, will leave a foreign policy mess for his successor.