Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Hidden Inflation

The Federal Reserve assures us that inflation is modest, and can point to measures of inflation it prefers (the PCE price index) or doesn't prefer (the CPI), both of which tend to be modest--in the 2% range or less.  But if you ask a lot of people out in the real world, they'll tell you inflation is worse than that.  And they are right, once you take account of what inflation really means.

The ultimate problem created by inflation comes up when price increases exceed income increases.  If your real income is falling, your standard of living will drop.  That's cause for concern.  When incomes rise faster than price increases, people complain but then dig into their steaks and lobster. 

Incomes today are, in real terms, falling for a lot of people.  Workers on average earn less, net of price inflation: see and  Median household incomes have fallen since the beginning of the Great Recession:  While the fall in household income may in part be due to higher unemployment, it would also reflect the drop in worker earnings. 

Once you look at earnings and household incomes, you can see that inflation in the broader sense isn't so modest.  Since the Great Recession began in 2009, government statistics show that real average weekly pay for full-time workers has fallen 3.5% from 2009 to the second quarter of 2013.  (See  The social discord and turmoil that can come from inflation is rooted in falling real incomes, not nominal price increases.  Despite all the statistical soothing the Fed may offer, many Americans today are hurting from this hidden inflation. 

There is little the Fed can do about falling real incomes.  Its monetary tools and bond purchases have little connection to wage and salary levels.  They may boost household income to the extent they promote greater employment.  However, because they significantly reduce interest income for savers, they may also exacerbate the problem of falling incomes. 

As for Congress and the Administration, they're on August recess right now.  And they won't do much about this problem when they get back.  Fights over a budget for the next federal fiscal year (beginning Oct. 1, 2013) and the looming debt ceiling will provide photo ops and Sunday morning talk show invites for the high and the mighty.  The dreariness of ordinary life is likely to get lost in the shuffle.  Talk at the state level about raising the minimum wage may have some impact.  But falling incomes is as much a problem of the middle class as of lower income persons.  Minimum wage laws won't help the middle class very much. 

The overall structure of American society, with its exceedingly generous corporate compensation practices to tax laws favoring the 1% to the decreasing degree of upward social mobility to the astonishing growth in the cost of college educations and more, is thinning out and pushing down the middle class.  No nation has gone on to its greatest days with increased social stratification and top-heavy distribution of wealth.  But nothing is happening right now to change the trend.  This story won't end well.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why No Great Rotation?

A popular view among market aficionados is that, with bond prices falling while stocks have been rising, money would shift from bonds to stocks.  Stocks and bonds have historically often moved inversely.  When stocks rose, bonds fell, and vice versa. With bonds falling now, it would seem reasonable to expect investors to rotate their money into stocks.  But there has been no rotation.  Why not?

First, for the past five years, we've had a brave new Fed which has manipulated asset values in ways beyond historical experience.  Since early 2009, central bank easy money has helped to spur a stock rally accompanied by a bond rally.  Both asset classes rose simultaneously, instead of moving inversely.  With their traditional relationship out of whack, it is hardly surprising that they don't cha-cha when they're supposed to.  Investors would be understandably suspicious of stocks in a market that is seemingly dependent on the Fed's methadone program, especially when the Fed is talking about easing out of its role as Dr. Feelgood.

Second, the Great Rotation is an investment strategy for the medium to long term.  Today's stock market is dominated by high-speed, computerized trading, where the holding period for stocks is measured in milliseconds.  The long term human investors that might consider rotating greatly have mostly been supplanted, and many have chosen to invest on autopilot, buying index funds and throwing salt over their left shoulders.

So whither the markets?  That's the $64,000 question, and in truth nobody knows the answer.  With both stocks and bonds having enjoyed years-long bull markets, logic and experience, especially recent very painful experience, tell us that when markets can't keep rising indefinitely, they won't.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Why an SEC Victory Counts More Than an SEC Loss

Since the SEC won a jury verdict against former Goldman Sachs VP Fabrice Tourre last week, the financial press has published semi-snarky commentary about how the SEC has lost more financial crisis cases than it has won.  This game of statistics misses an essential point.  Wall Streeters, corporate executives and directors, and their attorneys are cautious folk.  You might not think so from some of the inexplicably risky things they occasionally do, but on the whole they are more concerned about downside risk than upside potential.  (Even good hedge fund traders look first at how much they can lose before they focus on how much they might make.)

A high profile SEC win, like the Tourre case, makes the risk averse pause and reflect all the more so before taking the plunge.  It's better to settle and hide behind your PR person who repeatedly declines to comment to press inquiries than to be photographed outside a federal courthouse wearing a nice suit and a gloomy expression.  People will remember that expression for a long time.  Tourre didn't have to do a perp walk, but there's nobody--absolutely nobody--on Wall Street, Main Street or anywhere else in the corporate world who wants to wear his suit. 

When the SEC loses in court, the defendants have a day in the sunshine.  But then their cases are largely forgotten.  Major SEC victories are remembered.  The SEC's cases against notorious insider trader Ivan Boesky and junk bond king Michael Milken still receive public mention, even after 25 or so years.  Who remembers the cases the SEC lost in the 1980's?

In the plush conference rooms and offices where corporate lawyers and their clients under SEC investigation discuss the risks of settling versus litigating, you can be sure that the SEC victory in the Tourre case is getting a lot of attention.  The SEC's losses are probably mentioned as well.  But no good attorney wants to be caught making, or even implying, a promise s/he can't keep, and the story of Fabrice Tourre is likely being presented as a cautionary tale.  People with a lot more to lose from an SEC victory than they have to win from an SEC loss may well see the merit of capping their downside risks.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

SEC 1, Tourre 0, Goldman 0, Financial Press -1

Today's jury verdict finding Fabrice (the "Fabulous Fab") Tourre liable on six of the seven civil counts against him represents a major victory for the SEC.  That's not simply because of the prominence of the case, which involved the sale of a controversial motgage-backed derivatives investment and is the highest profile SEC enforcement action to come out of the 2008 financial crisis.  It's because the agency's very efficacy has been under attack for the better part of a decade.  Widely viewed as ineffectual, the SEC has re-established its presence as a cop on the beat.  While one victory doesn't win the war, a victory this big will make a lot of corporate and white collar defendants think harder about settling, even if the price involves admitting to making bad choices.

Fabrice Tourre rolled the dice and lost.  Litigation is a gamble, and some bets turn out to be losers.  Perhaps he chose to fight instead of settling up front because he was angry about being a lower level guy who was singled out as a named defendant.  But anger doesn't equate to victory in court.  Above all, what matters is the evidence.  Tourre may have been his own worst enemy, seemingly adding insouciance as too much of a fillip to his e-mails.  Most likely, his attorneys will soon make motions for this and that, and perhaps later file appeals.  But now that the jury has spoken, Tourre faces an uphill battle.

Goldman Sachs wasn't a party to the case.  But it reportedly financed Tourre's defense.  And perhaps it has reasons beyond loyalty to a former employee.  Goldman faces potential liability in private civil lawsuits involving charges similar to those in the SEC case.  If Tourre had won, Goldman might have negotiated more favorable settlements in those cases.  Now that he's lost, GS has shifted closer to the 8-ball.  But that's all just a matter of money, of which GS has a fair pile.  GS isn't going to be kicked out of the securities business, as Tourre might be, because GS already settled with the SEC, thereby capping its regulatory liability.   Now that he's been held liable by a jury, Tourre not only faces SEC sanctions, but perhaps demands for payment from the plaintiffs' attorneys in those private civil lawsuits as well.  Poor Fab.  Not so fabulous any more.

The financial press ends up looking silly.  Not one publication of any prominence, to this writer's knowledge, predicted the SEC's victory.  Many expressed serious doubt about the SEC's case.  The coverage during the trial was frequently skeptical of the SEC's evidence and efforts.  It might be interesting to know why the press coverage was so imbalanced.  Whatever the reason, the press was scooped by the SEC staff, which convinced the jury to announce the real story.