It’s the Fed, Stupid!

A Messaging Tip For The Donald: It’s The Fed, Stupid!

The Fed’s core policies of 2% inflation and 0% interest rates are kicking the economic stuffings out of Flyover AmericaThey are based on the specious academic theory that financial gambling fuels economic growth and that all economic classes prosper from inflation and march in lockstep together as prices and wages ascend on the Fed’s appointed path.

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Economic Policy Report Card: C-

Today’s headlines:

Still anemic: U.S. growth picks up to only 0.8%

U.S. economic growth between January and March was 0.8% compared to the same time frame a year ago. That’s better than the initial estimate of 0.5%, which came in April, but still pretty sluggish.

unemployment-grads-cartoon1

US created 38,000 jobs in May vs. 162,000 expected

Job creation tumbled in May, with the economy adding just 38,000 positions, casting doubt on hopes for a stronger economic recovery as well as a Fed rate hike this summer.

The Labor Department also reported Friday that the headline unemployment fell to 4.7 percent. That rate does not include those who did not actively look for employment during the month or the underemployed who were working part time for economic reasons. A more encompassing rate that includes those groups held steady at 9.7 percent.

The drop in the unemployment rate was primarily due to a decline in the labor force participation rate, which fell to a 2016 low of 62.6 percent, a level near a four-decade low. The number of Americans not in the labor force surged to a record 94.7 million, an increase of 664,000.

growth chart

We’ve been predicting such disappointing results of ineffectual monetary and fiscal policies since this blog began back in August of 2011. And providing corroborating evidence along the way. Yet our policy experts continue to double-down on failed policies.

The problem is that when a nation inflates asset bubbles like we did with commodities, houses, stocks, and bonds over the past 20 years, there is no silver-lining policy correction that does not involve some  economic pain for the body politic. We had that awakening in 2008, but since then we have merely jumped on the same train by pumping out cheap credit for 8+ years.

Perhaps a medical metaphor works here. When prescribing antibiotics to combat an infection one can use small doses to avoid side-effects or one large overkill dose to knock-out the offending bacteria. The first treatment is the conservative, prudent approach that seeks a gradual recovery. The second risks a sudden shock to the system that kills off the infection so the patient can begin healing.

In medicine we’ve discovered that the gradual treatment can enable the bacteria to evolve and resist the antibiotics, making them ineffectual. In a nutshell, this is what we have done with economic policy, especially monetary policy that has distorted interest rates for more than 15 years.

The conservative approach marked by bailouts and government bail-ins has kept the patient flat on his back for 8 years. The more disciplined approach would have shocked the economy severely but gotten the patient out of the recovery room much quicker. We’ve seen that with other countries, like Iceland, that were forced to swallow their medicine in one quick dose.

But, of course, that would have meant a lot of politicians would have lost their cozy jobs. That may happen anyway after the next election.

Statistical Fixations

Martin Feldstein is nowhere near as excitable as David Stockman on Fed manipulations (link to D.S.’s commentary), but they both end up at the same place: the enormous risks we are sowing with abnormal monetary policies. The economy is not nearly as healthy as the Fed would like, but pockets of the economy are bubbling up while other pockets are still deflating. There is a correlation relationship, probably causal.

The problem with “inflation targeting” is that bubble economics warps relative prices and so the correction must drive some prices down and others up. In other words, massive relative price corrections are called for. But inflation targeting targets the general price level as measured by biased sample statistics – so if the Fed is trying to prop up prices that previously bubbled up and need to decline, such as housing and stocks, they are pushing against a correction. The obvious problem has been these debt-driven asset prices, like stocks, government bonds, and real estate. In the meantime, we get no new investment that would increase labor demand.

The global economy needs to absorb the negative in order to spread the positive consequences of these easy central bank policies. The time is now because who knows what happens after the turmoil of the US POTUS election?

Ending the Fed’s Inflation Fixation

The focus is misplaced—and because it delays an overdue interest-rate rise, it is also dangerous.

By MARTIN FELDSTEIN
The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2016 7:02 p.m. ET

The primary role of the Federal Reserve and other central banks should be to prevent high rates of inflation. The double-digit inflation rates of the late 1970s and early ’80s were a destructive and frightening experience that could have been avoided by better monetary policy in the previous decade. Fortunately, the Fed’s tighter monetary policy under Paul Volcker brought the inflation rate down and set the stage for a strong economic recovery during the Reagan years.

The Federal Reserve has two congressionally mandated policy goals: “full employment” and “price stability.” The current unemployment rate of 5% means that the economy is essentially at full employment, very close to the 4.8% unemployment rate that the members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee say is the lowest sustainable rate of unemployment.

For price stability, the Fed since 2012 has interpreted its mandate as a long-term inflation rate of 2%. Although it has achieved full employment, the Fed continues to maintain excessively low interest rates in order to move toward its inflation target. This has created substantial risks that could lead to another financial crisis and economic downturn.

The Fed did raise the federal-funds rate by 0.25 percentage points in December, but interest rates remain excessively low and are still driving investors and lenders to take unsound risks to reach for yield, leading to a serious mispricing of assets. The S&P 500 price-earnings ratio is more than 50% above its historic average. Commercial real estate is priced as if low bond yields will last forever. Banks and other lenders are lending to lower quality borrowers and making loans with fewer conditions.

When interest rates return to normal there will be substantial losses to investors, lenders and borrowers. The adverse impact on the overall economy could be very serious.
A fundamental problem with an explicit inflation target is the difficulty of knowing if it has been hit. The index of consumer prices that the Fed targets should in principle measure how much more it costs to buy goods and services that create the same value for consumers as the goods and services that they bought the year before. Estimating that cost would be an easy task for the national income statisticians if consumers bought the same things year after year. But the things that we buy are continually evolving, with improvements in quality and with the introduction of new goods and services. These changes imply that our dollars buy goods and services with greater value year after year.

Adjusting the price index for these changes is an impossibly difficult task. The methods used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics fail to capture the extent of quality improvements and don’t even try to capture the value created by new goods and services.

The true value of the national income is therefore rising faster than the official estimates of real gross domestic product and real incomes imply. For the same reason, the official measure of inflation overstates the increase in the true cost of the goods and services that consumers buy. If the official measure of inflation were 1%, the true cost of buying goods and services that create the same value to consumers may have actually declined. The true rate of inflation could be minus 1% or minus 3% or minus 5%. There is simply no way to know.

With a margin of error that large, it makes no sense to focus monetary policy on trying to hit a precise inflation target. The problem that consumers care about and that should be the subject of Fed policy is avoiding a return to the rapidly rising inflation that took measured inflation from less than 2% in 1965 to 5% in 1970 and to more than 12% in 1980.

Although we cannot know the true rate of inflation at any time, we can see if the measured inflation rate starts rising rapidly. If that happens, it would be a sign that true inflation is also rising because of excess demand in product and labor markets. That would be an indication that the Fed should be tightening monetary policy.

The situation today in which the official inflation rate is close to zero implies that the true inflation rate is now less than zero. Fortunately this doesn’t create the kind of deflation problem that would occur if households’ money incomes were falling. If that occurred, households would cut back on spending, leading to declines in overall demand and a possible downward spiral in prices and economic activity.

Not only are nominal wages and incomes not falling in the U.S. now, they are rising at about 2% a year. The negative true inflation rate means that true real incomes are rising more rapidly than the official statistics imply. [Sounds good, huh? Not quite. Read Stockman’s analysis.]

The Federal Reserve should now eliminate the explicit inflation target policy that it adopted less than five years ago. The Fed should instead emphasize its commitment to avoiding both high inflation and declining nominal wages. That would permit it to raise interest rates more rapidly today and to pursue a sounder monetary policy in the years ahead.

inflation-vs-employment

Money For Nothing?

TowerofPower

…there is now a nagging fear that credibility in central bankers is being lost. Investors, it seems, are losing confidence in the Fed.

You think? I believe the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It seems to me the Fed has sidelined itself and the future path of the economy will be determined by markets, and it won’t all be good. As Stockman says (see second article below), the global economy in many respects is at peak debt, thus the global private and public sectors are both struggling to de-leverage. The only borrowers are national governments and those speculating in asset markets.

Thus, the Fed’s efforts to boost inflation to 2% have been for naught and merely goosed asset markets and resource misallocation. For the global economy to re-balance from peak debt requires debts to be written down, something that occurs with bankruptcy accompanied by price deflation. Forestalling instead of managing these corrections only means a larger correction at some point in the future.

On another note, our experience is confirming the weakness of Friedman’s monetarism. Inflation is not purely a monetary phenomenon – more important, it is a behavioral one based on demographics and the perceived level of uncertainty and risk regarding the future of the economy and policy distortions.

Markets reflect the collective intelligence of humans; they’re not all stupid.

Why Wall Street’s Stimulus Junkies Weren’t Thrilled by the Fed’s Rate Decision

By Anthony Mirhaydari
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

In a massively hyped Federal Reserve policy announcement Thursday — one that threatened to end the nearly seven-year experiment with interest rates near 0 percent and usher in the first rate hike since 2006 — Chair Janet Yellen and her cohorts gave Wall Street exactly what they wanted: No change, in line with futures market odds.

And yet stocks drifted lower, even as the action in the currency and commodities market was as expected, with the dollar falling hard and gold up 0.8 percent. Why?

Cutting to the quick: Investors, it seems, are losing confidence in the Fed.

While the Wall Street stimulus junkies should’ve been happy with the continuation of the status quo, there is now a nagging fear that credibility in central bankers is being lost — something that RBS’ Head of Macro Credit Research Alberto Gallo took to Twitter this afternoon to reiterate.

Moreover, the Summary of Economic Projections by Fed officials revealed that, at the median, policymakers now only expect a single rate hike by the end of 2015. The futures market is now pricing in a 49 percent chance of a hike at the December meeting (although Yellen noted that the October meeting was “live” and could result in a hike should markets and economic data improve).

But the kicker — the one that pushed large-cap stocks lower into the closing bell — was the appearance of a negative interest rate projection by a Fed policymaker on the newly released “dot plot.” Someone, it seems, expects federal funds policy rate to be in negative territory at the end of 2016. Four officials don’t expect any hikes this year at all.

Not only does this undermine confidence in the state of the economy, but it calls into question the efficacy of the Fed’s ultra-easy monetary policy stance that has been in place, to varying degrees, since 2008. Moving forward, it will be critical for the bulls to recover from Thursday’s intra-day selloff. The day’s action resulted in a very negative “shooting star” technical pattern that signals buying exhaustion and often precedes pullbacks.

In their statement, Federal Open Market Committee members fingered recent global economic weakness and financial market turbulence as giving reason to believe that inflation would take longer to return to their 2 percent target. So the new dot plot shows the median rate projection for the end of 2015 falling to 0.375 percent from 0.625 percent as of June; to 1.375 percent for 2016 vs. 1.625 percent before; and 2.625 percent for 2017 from 2.875 percent. The long-term neutral rate declined to 3.5 percent from 3.75 percent, signifying ongoing structural problems in the economy holding down its potential growth rate.

But a tree should be judged by the fruit it produces. In this case, median household incomes are stagnating despite all the Fed has already done, including three bond-buying programs and the “Operation Twist” maturity extension program. With corporate profits rolling over and global growth stagnating, people are wondering: Is this all the Fed and its central banking counterparts can do? Fresh threats, such as another possible debt ceiling showdown on Capitol Hill this autumn and an election in Greece, are approaching.

As for what comes next, Societe Generale Chief U.S. Economist Aneta Markowska suggests a replay of the late 2013 experience surrounding the beginning of the end of the QE3 bond-buying program: “Our scenario is reminiscent of 2013 when the ‘taper tantrum’ spooked the Fed in September, a government shutdown spooked the Committee in October, and the fog finally lifted by December when the taper was finally announced.”

If the Fed left rates unchanged, there were some new wrinkles in its statement. In explaining their decision, Fed officials elevated issues like global economic growth and the dollar’s valuation seemingly above its traditional mandate regarding labor market health. J.P. Morgan Chief U.S. Economist Michael Feroli believes investors shouldn’t read too much into the new factors being cited. In a paraphrase of the infamous rant by former Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green: Yellen is a dove. She is who we thought she was. And until higher inflation becomes a clear and present problem, this continual moving of the goalposts for Fed rate hikes — deferring until more data comes in — looks set to continue.

But that may no longer be enough to keep stocks happy.

——————-

Yellen-cheap-money

David Stockman is not a fan of the Fed. In fact he claims that the Fed is on a “jihad” against retirees and savers.

The former Reagan budget director and author of “The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America” visited Yahoo Finance ahead of the Fed announcement to discuss his predictions and the potential impact of today’s interest rate decision. “80 months of zero interest rates is downright crazy and it hasn’t helped the Main Street economy because we’re at peak debt,” he says.

Businesses in the U.S. are $12 trillion in debt. That’s $2 trillion more than before the crisis, but “all of it has gone into financial engineering—stock buybacks, mergers and acquisitions and so forth,” according to Stockman. “The jig is up; [the Fed] needs to get on with the business of allowing interest rates to find some normalized level.”

While Stockman believes that the Fed should absolutely raise rates today, he isn’t so sure that they will (Note: they did not). But even if they do, he says they’ll muddle the effect by saying “‘one and done’ or ‘we’re going to sit back and watch this thing unfold for the next two or three months.’”

This all fuels an inflationary bubble on Wall Street, according to Stockman. “This massive money printing we’ve had has never gotten out of the canyons of Wall Street. It’s sitting there as excess reserves.”

According to Stockman, the weakness of the U.S. economy has been due to a lack of investment over the past 15 years and inflated labor costs in America that can’t compete on a global scale. “Simply printing more money and keeping interest rates at zero do not help that problem.”

Zero interest policies, says Stockman, are leading to the global economic turmoil we are currently experiencing. “In the last 15 years China took its debt from $2 trillion to $28 trillion… it’s a house of cards with an enormous overcapacity and enormous speculation and gambling that is beginning to roll over,” he says. “It’s just the leading edge of a global deflation that I think is underway as a consequence of all this excess credit growth that we’ve had.”

If the Fed raises rates and doesn’t mince words there’s going to be a long-running market correction, says Stockman. If the Fed doesn’t raise rates there will be a short-term relief rally but eventually the markets will lose confidence in the central bank bubble and we’ll be in store for a “huge correction.”

Nowhere to Run to…

QE ForeverJust something we’ve been talking about at this blog for the past five years…can’t borrow and spend our way to prosperity.

From the WSJ:

A Year of Living on the Brink

Ebola, ISIS, Ukraine, a stock-market wipeout—there’s nowhere to hide.

By Daniel Henninger

Oct. 15, 2014

History will mark down 2014 as the year predicted 49 years ago by Martha and the Vandellas. In 1965 the group recorded a Motown classic, “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide.” We’re there, at the brink.

Liberia, ISIS, Ukraine, Hong Kong, a hospital fighting Ebola infections in Dallas, the year’s stock-market gains obliterated, and I almost forgot—just last week Secretary of State John Kerry warned that climate change could end life as we know it.

Then this week the clouds parted and the year’s best news arrived: Led by Europe’s sinking economies, global economic growth is falling, taking stocks and bonds with it, and the world’s central bankers say they have run out of ideas on doing anything about it. [That took long enough.]

How this is good news requires explanation.

The annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund concluded in Washington last weekend. This gathering of the world’s finance ministers, central bankers and international financial organizations sets the tone for the direction of the world’s economic prospects.

As the meetings ended Sunday, a WSJ.com headline summarized the consensus: “Governments, central bankers have fewer tools left to revive economies after years of sluggish growth.” European officials are now talking about a “lost decade.” The IMF calls the economic policies in the years after the 2008 financial crisis a succession of “serial disappointments.”

Let’s begin with the first and most significant policy disappointment. The central economic event of the past six years, both as policy and symbol, was the Obama administration’s $834 billion stimulus bill in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Its explicit purpose was to revive the U.S. economy. How was nearly $1 trillion of additional federal spending supposed to do that? [Here we call that a Crapshoot with OPM (other peoples’ money).]

Proponents of the stimulus bill’s theoretical underpinnings, which date to the 1930s and a famous economist with three names, have argued for 80 years that by injecting large quantities of money into a weak economy (public spending), the population will use the unexpected money to make purchases, and this stimulated consumption in turn will cause private companies to hire more workers to produce goods to meet—the key idea—demand.

Beyond this textbook, Depression-based effort at economic stimulus, the only other significant initiative taken by the Obama presidency (not counting the indirect effects of Dodd-Frank, ObamaCare, shutting down power plants, putting bankers under house arrest and whatnot) has been to transfer responsibility for economic growth to the Federal Reserve Bank. The Fed produced three rounds of quantitative easing, a monetary policy that created so-called zero-bound interest rates in the U.S. from late 2008 until now. The Bank of England followed. Early last month, the European Central Bank adopted its own version of quantitative easing. It’s been the greatest monetary experiment since the creation of coins around 700 B.C.

It is essentially the prescriptive promise of this 2009 to 2014 policy mix that was repudiated by officials at the IMF meetings in Washington the past week. Recognizing the real need, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said, “There is too little economic risk-taking, and too much financial risk-taking.” [Here we call that Casino Capitalism.]

The U.S. and Europe have paid a high price for six years of stimulus that didn’t stimulate, programmed consumption that fell short, regulatory expansion that froze private producers, and high tax-rate regimes that benefited the public-spending class and beggared everyone else, especially young people and the working poor scrambling for jobs.

No one should underestimate the political dangers of persisting with a Keynesian economic model that looks depleted.

Several months ago this newspaper described how younger Europeans who are unemployed or underemployed have become bitter at their parents’ generation for wallowing in a system whose labor protections suppress the creation of new jobs. Economic anxiety in turn has fueled the rise of extremist political movements in France, Germany, England, Hungary and elsewhere.

Sustained, seemingly irreversible, weak economic growth in Europe or the U.S. is a political risk to national stability.

There is an alternative economic policy set to this failure. It would be based on the best policies that produced strong growth and jobs in major, formerly moribund Western economics.

Those successes include the German labor-market reforms initiated by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2003; the structural public-spending reductions begun in Canada in 1995 by Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin and sustained by current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Harvard economist Alberto Alesina has documented the pro-growth payoff from permanent spending reductions); Poland’s remarkable post-Soviet revival from the 1989-91 pro-market reforms of Leszek Balcerowicz ; and of course the primary model—the U.S.’s tax-rate reductions and regulatory reforms in Ronald Reagan ’s presidency.

The key element in reviving the West isn’t economics, though that matters. It is political courage. Each example of high-growth success required a political leader willing to stand against finance ministries and a financial media that will ride demonstrably failed models off another cliff.

Given the admission of generalized policy collapse at the IMF meetings, what we are talking about is the courage of one leader: the next American president.

This Wild Market

stock-market-the-ride

This Wild Market

Perhaps we can figure out what’s going on in the markets today if we read between the lines.  Prof. Shiller explains that “…the value of the earnings depends on people’s perception of what they can sell it again for” to other investors. Which means that CAPE today is largely a reflection of the Greater Fool Theory of investment.

Then Mr. Shiller states that “[t]oday’s level “might be high relative to history, but how do we know that history hasn’t changed?”

I would guess that history has changed. Starting when the dollar and all other currencies became free floating in 1971, empowering central banks to create credit at will according to political dictates. This credit creation has occurred simultaneously with the expansion of the global labor supply in concert with new technology, both of which have depressed inflationary price signals, permitting central banks to continue their credit expansion at little apparent cost. It’s all good, as the shadow bankers might say.

But the less obvious result has been volatility of asset prices that we see reflected in the 30 year transition of financial markets toward trading away from new productive capital investment. This is how the hedge fund industry has blossomed.

The value of financial assets has departed from cash flow fundamentals and the result is markets that pop one day and deflate the next, depending on the sentiment of the moment, rather than underlying economic fundamentals. We’ve created greater price uncertainty in the economy that hampers productive long-term investment and concentrates the rewards in a shrinking cohort of lucky asset holders. This violates the most basic theory of financial management under uncertainty, which is stability through diversification.

This history was not inevitable, it was deliberately pursued under faulty intellectual models of our market society.

From the WSJ’s MoneyBeat:

Robert Shiller on What to Watch in This Wild Market

By Jason Zweig

You would have to be crazy to think the stock market isn’t crazy.

In three tumultuous days this week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dived 273 points, then jumped up 275 points, then dropped 335 points.

But you might be even crazier if you think you know exactly when to get out of the market.

Few people understand that better than Robert Shiller, the Yale University finance professor who shared the Nobel Prize in economics last year for his research documenting that stock prices fluctuate far more than logic can justify—and who is renowned for telling people when to get out of the market.

Prof. Shiller predicted the collapse of both the technology-stock bubble in 2000 and the real-estate boom in the late 2000s. And he developed a measure of long-term stock valuation that many professional investors rely on.

Yet the central message that emerges from three conversations with Prof. Shiller over the past few weeks isn’t a cocksure forecast; it is a deep humility in the face of irreducible uncertainty.

Many analysts have warned lately that Prof. Shiller’s long-term stock-pricing indicator is dangerously high by historical standards.

Known as the “cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio,” or CAPE, Prof. Shiller’s measure is based on the current market price of the S&P 500-stock index, divided by its average earnings over the past 10 years, both adjusted for inflation. It stands at nearly 26, well above the long-term average of about 16.

If only things were that simple, Prof. Shiller says.

“The market is supposed to estimate the value of earnings,” he explains, “but the value of the earnings depends on people’s perception of what they can sell it again for” to other investors. So the long-term average is “highly psychological,” he says. “You can’t derive what it should be.”

Even though the CAPE measure looks back to 1871, using data that predates the S&P 500, it is unstable. Over the 30 years ending in 1910, CAPE averaged 17; over the next three decades, 12.7; over the 30 years after that, 15.7. For the past three decades it has averaged 23.4.

Today’s level “might be high relative to history,” Prof. Shiller says, “but how do we know that history hasn’t changed?”

So, he says, CAPE “has more probability of predicting actual declines or dramatic increases” when the measure is at an “extreme high or extreme low.” For instance, CAPE exceeded 32 in September 1929, right before the Great Crash, and 44 in December 1999, just before the technology bubble burst. And it sank below 7 in the summer of 1982, on the eve of a 17-year bull market.

Today’s level, Prof. Shiller argues, isn’t extreme enough to justify a strong conclusion. So, he says, he and his wife still have about 50% of their portfolio in stocks.

On Thursday, as the Dow fell more than 300 points, Prof. Shiller told me, “The market has gone up for five years now and has gotten quite high, but I’m not selling yet.” He advises investors to monitor not just the level of the market, but the “stories that people tell” about the market. If a sudden consensus about economic stagnation forms, that could be a dangerous “turning point,” he says.

Based on new research he has done into industry sectors, he says, he is “slightly overweight” in health-care and industrial stocks.

The third edition of Prof. Shiller’s book “Irrational Exuberance,” coming out in February, will feature a chapter on bonds.

Is the bond market, as some investors have suggested, a bubble bound to burst?

“A bubble is a product of feedback from positive price changes that create a ‘new era’ ambience in which people think increasingly that prices will go up forever,” Prof. Shiller says.

Today’s bond market, he adds, “is just the opposite of a new-era ambience.” Instead, the demand for bonds is driven by “an underlying angst” about the slow recovery and pessimism about the future. “That’s not a bubble,” he says.

It also is worth considering where Prof. Shiller gets his knack for seeing what others overlook—the kind of gift that the renowned hedge-fund manager Michael Steinhardt has called “variant perception.”

Prof. Shiller is an unconventional thinker who relishes investigating ideas that other people regard as eccentric or unrewarding. “I don’t fit in so well,” he says, shrugging. “I’m socialized differently somehow.”

Prof. Shiller—and his wife, Ginny, a clinical psychologist—suspect that he has “a touch” of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “I’m very distractible, although I can be highly focused on tasks that interest me,” he says.

It is that intensity of thinking that leads to rare big insights—and to the recognition that, as he puts it, “a lot of fundamental problems aren’t really soluble.”

One friend recalls meeting him for lunch in New Haven; afterward, Prof. Shiller offered to give him a lift to the train station. But, the friend recalls, “Bob couldn’t find his car. He couldn’t remember where he had parked it.”

“Bob came into my office one day in the early 2000s,” his colleague, Yale finance professor William Goetzmann, told me. “He said, ‘I think we are in a real-estate bubble.’ I listened to him and said, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting,’ and when he left, I went right back to whatever research I was doing.” Prof. Shiller went on to produce the first serious warnings that the housing market would collapse.

Prof. Shiller says both stories sound right to him.

I reached him by phone earlier this month after he had missed an earlier appointment to speak. “I was awaiting your call,” he said, “but somehow never heard the phone ring.” Later he clarified that he might have left his cellphone in the next room but wasn’t sure.

It isn’t hard to imagine him sitting there, oblivious to the ringing phone and every other sight and sound, lost in contemplation of big ideas.

Creative Capitalism: Gates & Buffett

CreativeCapBook Review:

A noble effort that fails to converge on ideas…

There are basically two teams in this match of ideas, with several participants trying to referee. On one side are the economists by trade, who are very skeptical about non-market criteria in economics. On the other side are the non-economists who believe the art and science of economics needs to be broadened, but are unclear on how this can be accomplished. Notably, I found the most refreshing approach of the many experts participating in the blog offered by perhaps its youngest contributor – the student Kyle Chauvin – who argued how we need to expand the reach of traditional, or profit, capitalism, not only around the world but to the overlooked corners of the developed world as well.

Unfortunately, the two sides never really converge in this debate and I suppose that may be why the conversation has disappeared from public discourse. Both sides accept some common premises that need to be challenged in order to break out of the box we find ourselves in on these issues.

These premises derive from the neoclassical school of economic theory that laid the foundation for general equilibrium theory in macroeconomics. Specifically, actors within the economy are classified according to a loose application of factor analysis, so we have workers, entrepreneurs and small business owners, corporate firms and managers, investors, savers, lenders, borrowers, consumers, and political actors. Then we lump these categories into producers, savers, and investors on one side versus consumers, workers, and borrowers on the other. The consensus seems to settle on the idea that some people produce and so policy should empower this production. Then successful producers can be taxed by political actors, and/or encouraged by philanthropy, to redistribute the wealth to non-producers for reasons that range from compassion to demand stimulus.

Capital accumulation and equity ownership in capitalist enterprise is an essential form of participation in the modern global market economy. Concomitant with ownership is the question of control in governance and risk management as the flip side of profit. But instead of focusing on how wealth is created and distributed through these market structures and institutions, we insist on dividing capital from labor and then try to redistribute the outcomes by political calculus, or by corporate largess. This is industrial age capitalism and such a mode of production will never accomplish what we hope to through creative capitalism. (I do agree with Clive Cook that we need a better term—maybe Inclusive Capitalism or the Singularity, to borrow from Ray Kurzweil.)

The problems that corporate social responsibility (CSR) seeks to address are rooted in the skewed distribution of productive resources across society, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But taxing the haves to give to the have-nots is a self-defeating form of compassion. We should try to adhere to the Chinese proverb about teaching a hungry man to fish so that he eats for a lifetime. This can be put most plainly by asking the following question: If corporations work solely to enrich shareholders, then why aren’t we all shareholders? To widen the economic net even more, why aren’t all enterprise stakeholders shareholders?

Equity participation may also be the most viable way to promote “recognition” as a complement to profit maximization, as stakeholders have a broader range of interests, of which immediate profits is only one. This idea also focuses our attention on the real problem of free societies: agency failures and governance. Market economies depend on a multiplicity of agent-principal relationships in economic enterprises and political institutions. The abuse of these relationships is the mark of cronyism that dominates public attitudes toward “undemocratic” capitalism these days. This is not an easy problem to solve, but suffice to say equity ownership, control, and risk management must be as open, transparent, and competitive as possible. This is the only way to confirm that these relationships are accepted as just.

The only sustainable solution to world poverty and the skewed distribution of resources is the creation of a worldwide, self-sufficient, productive middle class. This is as necessary for democratic politics as it is for economics. For the middle class to grow, it needs access to resources, mostly financial capital and technology these days.

We can point to the history of land homesteading that built the American Midwest, and just recently, the idea floated by Michigan’s governor to promote homesteading in Detroit for foreigners. Society’s resources need to be spread far and wide in order to reap the benefits of innovation and adaptation, while maximizing the utilization of these resources. The financial imperative of capital is to maximize return, but the socioeconomic objective seeks to do so by combining capital with labor. This flies a bit in the face of the efficiency argument that some people are better at managing risk and creating wealth, so specialization of function should favor the risk managers on Wall Street. The problem is that we never know where to find the successful entrepreneurs and job creating small businesses of the future, only those of the past. And Wall St. only considers those who manage to squeeze through the narrow access door.

Without angel capital provided by family relations who merely saved and accumulated their personal wealth, many enterprises would never see the light of day. At the early stages, venture capital money is too costly or unavailable. This story is repeated across the economy, yet today’s concentration of capital in venture firms, hedge funds, private equity, buyout firms, major bank holding companies, etc. narrows capital access to those who already have it. The proliferation of ideas must be forced through this bottleneck, to what end? Better that individuals, families, small group networks, etc. are empowered by policy to accumulate their own capital to put at risk in entrepreneurial ventures. After all, sometimes the idea is not so sexy and may be nothing more than a new restaurant idea or a better mousetrap. In a world where the future is unknown, we can’t lock ourselves into narrow investment models built on the past. Likewise, we should not underestimate the ancillary growth Microsoft seeded by enriching its own shareholders.

The key point, which cannot be overemphasized, is that broad capital accumulation achieves double the impact of other policy options. First, it helps finance ideas, innovation and entrepreneurial risk-taking that will increase labor utilization, spreading the risks and benefits of economic growth. Second, accumulated financial assets, or savings, help mitigate economic risks of unemployment, health, and retirement through self-insurance. This reduces political demands on the state’s safety-nets and the tax and redistributive policies on productive effort that hampers economic growth. Essentially, policies that promote broad-based capital accumulation are a win-win for all citizens of a democratic capitalist society.

Capitalism’s Everyman (woman!)

This is one of the most inspiring and uplifting stories I’ve ever read in the financial press (from Barrons, September 12). Stephanie Mucha has defied what all the policy experts in Washington and Wall St. claim: That one cannot participate in the success of capitalism at every income level through capital accumulation. This woman did not get rich through a salary wage, she got rich by accumulating and investing capital successfully. I can’t tell you how many policy experts I’ve heard state this is not possible. No, not everybody will be as successful, but the basic golden rule of working, saving, and investing prudently in capitalist enterprise is as sound as it ever was.

What we need to do is to stop punishing people who pursue such prudent strategies through our misguided tax code that rewards borrowing and spending money one has never earned. The biggest crime is to continue to convince people that such participation is not even worth trying. That’s what ZIRP, TBTF, and double and triple taxation of capital is doing to us all. Let’s encourage and defend the rights of the small public shareholder.

The second accolade for Mrs. Mucha is her desire to spread that capital around before she dies. She has done this through public charities, but there is no reason not to pursue good by providing angel capital to potential entrepreneurs who hope to create something of lasting value. The venture capital industry is not the only channel. The sustainability of capitalism derives from the constant recycling of capital. I’d have to say Buffett and Gates could learn a thing or two from Stephanie Mucha.

The Oracle of Buffalo

A 97-year-old former VA nurse, Stephanie Mucha lived frugally and invested wisely. Now she’s giving away over $5 million.

Our image of who is rich is often at odds with reality. Consider Stephanie T. Mucha, 97, who remembers the 1929 stock market crash. The Buffalo, N.Y., resident worked as a licensed practical nurse for more than four decades, and has parlayed her humble earnings into a Penta-size portfolio. In recent years, she has given away $3 million—and she still has $2.5 million left. Her goal: to give away a total of $6 million before she dies.Mucha was no debutante. She dropped out of high school and worked as a maid, helping her parents hold on to their house during the Great Depression. Later, she worked for 44 years at the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where she was one of 100 civilians to receive the Purple Heart. Mucha earned $23,000 a year when she retired in 1994.When she was 25, her father, afraid she’d be an old maid, matched her up with Joseph Mucha, a machinist 26 years her senior who emigrated from Poland at age 18. Joseph earned $6,000 a year when he retired around 1958. By the time he passed away in 1985, the couple’s portfolio was worth roughly $300,000.

The Muchas invested without the help of Wall Street. Some 30 years ago a broker advised them to sell their Intel shares (ticker INTC); after that, they ignored his advice. But gifted investors, always on the lookout for ideas, often make their own luck. Mucha was working in the VA hospital when Wilson Greatbatch, a local inventor, implanted a pacemaker in a dying dog. In about 10 minutes, the dog’s tail started to wag; a little later, it sat up and walked around.

“I came home and said to my husband, ‘I saw a dead dog come to life.’ ” What she had seen was a demonstration of the first implantable cardiac pacemaker. The device was licensed in 1961 to Medtronic (MDT). In around 1964, the Muchas spent $255.50 to purchase 50 shares at $5.11. By the time she donated a portion of the shares in 2007, the position had grown to $459,000. She still owns about 300 shares, at $66.

Hard work and frugality also contributed to the Muchas’ success. They created three apartments in their house, one to live in and two to rent out. The Muchas, who weren’t able to have children, owned only one car. After her husband’s death, Mucha sold her diamond ring and wedding band for $2,700, investing the proceeds. She also rented out a room in her apartment for $15 a night to women visiting their sick husbands at the VA hospital. She invested the estimated $25,000 she earned over 20 years from that rental in the market.

A fan of Jeremy Siegel’s book Stocks for the Long Run, she held on to her stocks in both up and down cycles. She also realized that women tend to outlive men, so they need to know how to invest. “Women need to learn how to use their money so it outlasts them.” She waited until she was 70 to start collecting Social Security, and now collects about $40,000 a year from Social Security and her VA pension, plus $675 a month from a renter.

Mucha doesn’t have a computer. She has an Ameritrade account that gives her free trades over the phone, reinvests her dividends, and sends her five research reports a month. She reads The Wall Street Journal every day, along with Barron’s, Forbes, the Economist, and the New York Times, and watches CNBC and Bloomberg. As for picking stocks, she recalls her husband saying, “You can’t build without nuts and bolts.” With that in mind, in recent years she has bought Precision Castparts (PCP), Snap-on (SNA), and Illinois Tool Works (ITW).

Age has caught up with her a bit, but it hasn’t dimmed her wits. Mucha’s portfolio made 11% last year, but when she learned her accountant’s portfolio made 36%, she gave his financial advisor a call. “I wanted to see if I was doing the right things,” she says. Larry Stolzenburg of Sandhill Investment Management in Buffalo now manages her portfolio. “Stephanie’s portfolio was one of the best I’ve seen,” he says. “It was well balanced and thought out. I almost offered her a job.”

Mucha, who never spent a dime of her investment capital, has put $1 million in trust each for the Kosciuszko Foundation, which helped her husband when he immigrated to the U.S.; the University at Buffalo’s School of Arts and Sciences, because it has a Polish studies program; and the School of Engineering, as her husband had wanted to be an engineer. This month, she plans to make a donation to the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. She has also earmarked money for the schools of nursing and dentistry.

“She’s a fantastic, smart person,” says Alex Storozynski, president emeritus and a trustee of the Kosciuszko Foundation. In addition to the $1 million donation, Storozynski says she has given him dietary tips, like eating chia seeds and almond butter. Advice to live by, no doubt.

Not Too Big to Fail

too-big-to-fail2

We need a means of imposing financial discipline and restructuring banks in a system where some are deemed Too Big To Fail. This is one proposal from Nobel economist Vernon Smith (from the WSJ):

Bonds, Not Bailouts, for Too Big to Fail Banks

 

Call the bonds Class R, for reorganization. Owners might take a haircut, but they’d also become owners of the bank.

On Aug. 3 the Portuguese government announced a €4.9 billion ($6.55 billion) bailout for Banco Espírito Santo, another reminder that the “too big to fail” doctrine still prevails six years after the financial crisis. At least in this case junior bondholders—those who invested less than a year ago—and shareholders were forced to take a haircut. That’s progress for those who argue that economic recovery is impeded when monetary and fiscal authorities rescue private institutions from the consequences of their decisions.Too big to fail remains unresolved in the U.S. Last week the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said that not one of the nation’s 11 largest banks could fail without threatening the broader financial system. The news came after regulators reviewed the banks’ “living wills,” the emergency plans required under the 2010 Dodd-Frank law.Living wills, according to resolution plans from the FDIC and the Fed, should “not rely on the provision of extraordinary support by the United States” and should “prevent or mitigate any adverse effects of such failure or discontinuation on the financial stability of the United States.” Most of the living wills, including those for the four largest banks— J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo —are based on a combination of Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the parent firm and sales of subsidiaries.

But selling business units in a liquidity or solvency crisis is hardly a viable plan. When Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 in September 2008, the U.S. financial system spiraled into disarray, which led to public intervention. And Lehman was small compared with Bank of America and Citigroup, both of which have roughly three times the assets that Lehman had when it went under.

Instead of living wills or government bailouts, we propose that banks issue a class of bonds to privately secure the financial system against a cascade of failures. Let’s call them Class R or “Reorganization” bonds. Class R bonds would function like any other corporate-debt instrument in normal times, meaning that bondholders would have no control over the corporation.

In the event of the firm’s imminent failure, Class R bondholders would form a committee to develop contingency plans to appoint a new board of directors and reorganize senior management.

In bankruptcy, the existing board of directors would be dismissed, the equity of the firm would be eliminated and the Class R bonds would immediately be converted to equity. The Class R bondholders might take a haircut, but they would also become the owners of the bank, free of claims from prior management or shareholders. This bondholder capital avoids the involvement of the federal government, allows the firm to shed a substantial portion of its liabilities, but compensates Class R bondholders with control of a firm with a healthier balance sheet.

Bear Stearns is an example of how Class R bonds would work. Bear had about $350 billion in assets before its collapse, so if the firm had issued Class R bonds for 8% of its assets, the face value of the bond issue would have been roughly $28 billion. The firm was sold to J.P. Morgan Chase for $1.2 billion packaged with $29 billion in asset guarantees by the Federal Reserve. If the buyer needed guarantees of 24 times the sale price, the firm was worthless at the point of sale. Hence, Class R bondholders would have taken a substantial haircut when they came into possession of the firm.

Reorganization through bondholder committees has a long tradition in corporate bankruptcy, but it has not been used with banks. In finance, the Fed and other regulatory agencies have been charged with guarding against systemic risk. But that approach did not prevent the 2008 crisis.

For depository institutions, our proposal would work well with policies in place at the FDIC. Since 2008 the FDIC has handled 489 small- to medium-size bank failures using procedures that transfer ownership of most assets, and responsibilities for most liabilities, to new owners.

This approach has been successful in avoiding serious bank runs during reorganization, but the Class R approach could improve the process. The FDIC could continue to insure deposits, but it would no longer need to assume loss-share agreements with a bank that is taking over a failed institution. The Class R bondholders would assume the losses.

For a well-managed institution, the risk in these bonds should be minimal. If the viability of the institution comes into doubt, it should be signaled in lower Class R bond prices, but their owners would have the potential upside of coming into control of the firm.

We estimate that banks would need to issue Class R bonds for up to 8% of their institution’s balance-sheet liability, which includes demand and time deposits, loans from other banks and corporate bonds.

In the event of a failure, the firm’s liabilities will be reduced by 8%. In every case except AIG, this was well in excess of the amount of support that the government provided to maintain firms in the 2008 crash; and in most cases the firm’s loss approximated only about half of their outstanding corporate bonds. Crucially, to maximize a bank’s ability to finance new growth after a failure, its losses need to be absorbed by incumbent investors to enable a fresh start.

The living wills discussion is part of the process of finding a better institution for dealing with bank failures. Our proposal seeks to promote systemic stability by securing each of its private elements.

Free People, Free Markets

freedomQuote from the WSJ celebrating its 125th anniversary:

The answer to our current slow growth and self-doubt isn’t a set of magical “new ideas” or some unknown orator from the provinces. The answer is to rediscover the eternal truths that have helped America escape malaise and turmoil in the past.

These lessons include that markets—the mind of free millions—allocate scarce resources more efficiently and fairly than do committees in Congress; that the collusion of government with either big business or big labor stifles competition and leads to political cynicism; that government will be respected more when it does a few things well rather than too many poorly; and that innovation and human progress spring not from bureaucratic elites but from the genius of individuals.

Above all, the lesson of 125 years is that whatever our periodic blunders Americans have always used the blessings of liberty to restore prosperity and national confidence. A free people have their fate in their own hands.

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