A Financial Crisis Is Coming?

A provocative article in USNWR. We’ve been warning about unsustainable asset prices built on unsustainable debt leverage for the past 8 years (which only means we were waaaaay too early, but not necessarily wrong!) For all this time we’ve been focused on growing total debt to GDP ratios, which means we’re not getting much bang for all that cheap credit, trying to borrow and spend our way to prosperity.

The PE ratios of equities and housing reflect a disconnect with fundamental values based on decades of market data. For example, one cannot really pay 8-10x income on residential housing for long, or pay near to 50% of income on rents, as many are doing in our most pricey cities.

Nose-bleed asset prices on everything from yachts to vacation homes to art and collectibles to technology stocks and cryptocurrencies are indicative of excessive global liquidity. Soaking up that liquidity to return to long-term trend lines will be a long, jarring process. Nobody really knows whence comes the reckoning since we have perfected a particularly successful strategy of kicking the can down the road.

A Crisis Is Coming

All the ingredients are in place for a catastrophic economic and financial market crisis.

By Desmond Lachman Opinion Contributor USNWR, Feb. 14, 2018, at 7:00 a.m.

MY LONG CAREER AS A macro-economist both at the IMF and on Wall Street has taught me that it is very well to make bold macroeconomic calls as long as you do not specify a time period within which those calls will occur. However, there are occasions, such as today, when the overwhelming evidence suggests that a major economic event will occur within a relatively short time period. On those occasions, it is very difficult to resist making a time-sensitive bold economic call.

 

So here goes. By this time next year, we will have had another 2008-2009 style global economic and financial market crisis. And we will do so despite Janet Yellen’s recent reassurances that we would not have another such crisis within her lifetime.

 

There are two basic reasons to fear another full-blown global economic crisis soon: The first is that we have in place all the ingredients for such a crisis. The second is that due to major economic policy mistakes by both the Federal Reserve and the U.S. administration, the U.S. economy is in danger of soon overheating, which will bring inflation in its wake. That in turn is all too likely to lead to rising interest rates, which could very well be the trigger that bursts the all too many asset price bubbles around the world.

A key ingredient for a global economic crisis is asset price bubbles and credit risk mispricing. On that score, today’s financial market situation would appear to be very much more concerning than that on the eve of the September 2008 Lehman-bankruptcy. Whereas then, asset price bubbles were largely confined to the U.S. housing and credit markets, today, asset price bubbles are more pervasive being all too much in evidence around the globe.

 

It is not simply that global equity valuations today are at lofty levels experienced only three times in the last one hundred years. It is also that we have a global government bond market bubble, the serious mispricing of credit risk in the world’s high yield and emerging market corporate-bond markets and troublesome housing bubbles in major economies like Canada, China, and the United Kingdom.

 

Another key ingredient for a global economic crisis is a very high debt level. Here too today’s situation has to be very concerning. According to IMF estimates, today the global debt-to-GDP level is significantly higher than it was in 2008. Particularly concerning has to be the fact that far from declining, over the past few years Italy’s public debt has risen now to 135 percent of GDP. That has to raise the real risk that we could have yet another round of the Eurozone debt crisis in the event that we were to have another global economic recession.

 

Today’s asset price bubbles have been created by many years of unusually easy global monetary policy. The persistence of those bubbles can only be rationalized on the assumption that interest rates will remain indefinitely at their currently very low levels. Sadly, there is every reason to believe that at least in the United States, the period of low interest rates is about to end abruptly due to an overheated economy.

The reason for fearing that the U.S. economy will soon overheat is not simply that it is currently at or very close to full employment and growing at a healthy clip. It is rather that it is also now getting an extraordinary degree of monetary and fiscal policy stimulus at this very late stage of the cycle.

Today, U.S. financial conditions are at their most expansionary levels in the past 40 years due to the combination of very low interest rates, inflated equity prices and a weak dollar. Compounding matters is the fact that the U.S. economy is now receiving a significant pro-cyclical boost from the unfunded Trump tax cut and from last week’s two-year congressional spending pact aimed at boosting military and disaster-relief spending.

 

Today, in the face of an overheated U.S. economy, the Federal Reserve has an unenviable choice. It can either raise its interest rate and risk bursting the global asset price bubble, or it can delay its interests rate decision and risk incurring the wrath of the bond vigilantes who might sense that the Federal Reserve is not serious about inflation risk. In that event, interest rates are apt to rise in a disorderly fashion, which could lead to the more abrupt deflating of the global asset bubble.

 

This time next year, it could very well turn out that today’s asset price bubbles will not have burst and we will not have been thrown into another global economic recession. In which event, I will admit that I was wrong in having been too pessimistic about the global economic outlook. However, I will fall back on the defense that all of the clues were pointing in the opposite direction.

Advertisements

Economic Inequality??

One can easily misrepresent or exaggerate reality with a few select statistics and come to conveniently chosen conclusions. This doesn’t really help the conversation.

The distribution of wealth and income has become a social, economic, and political problem in recent decades. And not only in the US. But the question is why and what to do about it.

First, we should notice the timeframe of the comparison: 1980 vs. 2014. During these years there has been a massive credit bubble with low to zero interest rates and low inflation, especially over the past 16 years. This has disproportionately rewarded asset holders and debt-driven consumption and the income shares in industries associated with that, like FIRE.

The cheap credit has also led to massive investments in technology and biotech, where income levels have far exceeded those in other industries. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for aggregate growth, but it does have distributional consequences for wealth and income. Globalization, through outsourcing, trade and labor migration, has also served to keep labor costs low in developed nations.

So, what to make of this? I would have differences with the suggestions of the author as stated here:

Different policies could produce a different outcome. My list would start with a tax code that does less to favor the affluent, a better-functioning education system, more bargaining power for workers and less tolerance for corporate consolidation. 

First, the problem with the tax code is that it creates barriers for asset accumulation for those without assets. In other words, it favors the haves over the wannabes, even if the wannabes are more deserving. So we need to reduce those barriers. Not by making it harder to get rich, but by making it harder to stay rich and idle sitting on assets that have ballooned in value through no effort on the owners of those assets. Thus, we should look more toward wealth taxes as opposed to income or capital taxes. We should also make capital taxes more progressive so that the have-nots are not doomed to remain so. Have you seen your interest on savings lately?

Second, a better functioning education system is always a deserved policy priority, but it won’t fix this income distribution problem. The cost of education is becoming prohibitive and elitism is turning top universities, where costs are in the stratosphere, into branding agents rather than educating institutions. In other words, the Ivy League degree is more valuable as a signalling device than anything a student may or may not have learned there. Thus we are biasing favoritism over meritocracy.

Third, the focus on wages and organized labor is completely misguided.  Most workers in growth industries in the 21st century eschew labor unions in favor of equity participation and risk-taking entrepreneurship. Does that mean manufacturing labor has no future? Not at all. But it should be bargaining for equity in addition to a base wage. Competing solely on wages means workers are competing with the global supply of labor, which is a losing proposition for developed countries’ workers.

The inability of policymakers to see clearly how the world has changed and how ownership and control structures must adapt to the information economy leads them towards the rabbit hole of universal basic incomes, which fundamentally is a universal welfare program to support consumption. One thing we’ve learned over the past 60 years is that nobody wants welfare, but many become addicted to it. It’s not a solution or even a short-term fix.

Refer to the NYT website link to view the graphs…

Many Americans can’t remember anything other than an economy with skyrocketing inequality, in which living standards for most Americans are stagnating and the rich are pulling away. It feels inevitable.

But it’s not.

 

A well-known team of inequality researchers — Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman — has been getting some attention recently for a chart it produced. It shows the change in income between 1980 and 2014 for every point on the distribution, and it neatly summarizes the recent soaring of inequality.

 

The line on the chart (which we have recreated as the red line above) resembles a classic hockey-stick graph. It’s mostly flat and close to zero, before spiking upward at the end. That spike shows that the very affluent, and only the very affluent, have received significant raises in recent decades.

 

This line captures the rise in inequality better than any other chart or simple summary that I’ve seen. So I went to the economists with a request: Could they produce versions of their chart for years before 1980, to capture the income trends following World War II. You are looking at the result here.

The message is straightforward. Only a few decades ago, the middle class and the poor weren’t just receiving healthy raises. Their take-home pay was rising even more rapidly, in percentage terms, than the pay of the rich.

 

The post-inflation, after-tax raises that were typical for the middle class during the pre-1980 period — about 2 percent a year — translate into rapid gains in living standards. At that rate, a household’s income almost doubles every 34 years. (The economists used 34-year windows to stay consistent with their original chart, which covered 1980 through 2014.)

 

In recent decades, by contrast, only very affluent families — those in roughly the top 1/40th of the income distribution — have received such large raises. Yes, the upper-middle class has done better than the middle class or the poor, but the huge gaps are between the super-rich and everyone else.

 

The basic problem is that most families used to receive something approaching their fair share of economic growth, and they don’t anymore.

 

It’s true that the country can’t magically return to the 1950s and 1960s (nor would we want to, all things considered). Economic growth was faster in those decades than we can reasonably expect today. Yet there is nothing natural about the distribution of today’s growth — the fact that our economic bounty flows overwhelmingly to a small share of the population.

 

Different policies could produce a different outcome. My list would start with a tax code that does less to favor the affluent, a better-functioning education system, more bargaining power for workers and less tolerance for corporate consolidation.

 

Remarkably, President Trump and the Republican leaders in Congress are trying to go in the other direction. They spent months trying to take away health insurance from millions of middle-class and poor families. Their initial tax-reform planswould reduce taxes for the rich much more than for everyone else. And they want to cut spending on schools, even though education is the single best way to improve middle-class living standards over the long term.

 

Most Americans would look at these charts and conclude that inequality is out of control. The president, on the other hand, seems to think that inequality isn’t big enough.

Ten Things We Now Know About American Politics

Ahem. We seem to have been graced by the Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times.” The surprising upset by Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton has left many people flabbergasted. Since I live in Los Angeles, it seems a lot of those people live around me.

But there were many hints of this possible outcome going back months if not almost a year. The results seem to have confirmed some new “realities” to replace former “speculations.”

  1. The polling surveys proved to be less than accurate-to say the least-but this had been going on since the early primaries. Remember, Trump was never supposed to get past the first couple of primaries. The Hollywood adage that “Nobody knows anything,” held true to the end.
  2. The Republican party has been split between its party regulars or leaders and their voters. The voters won handily, now the party will need to respond with some supplication. Trump is a symptom, not a cause. Despite being counted out, the Republicans managed to retain the Senate and the House, awarding President-elect Trump a golden opportunity to enact his agenda, whatever that is.
  3. The Democratic party establishment apparently sold their voters a pig in a poke. It was not hard to see a year ago that Hillary Clinton was probably the weakest candidate the party could have selected given the political climate. She represented the status quo, promising Obama’s third-term, after two midterm elections that repudiated his policy agenda. Moreover, she came in carrying a 25 year load of baggage that caused voters to question her authenticity and candor, to put it politely. Her tenure as Senator and SOS did little to promote her candidacy. It seems that the fact that she was the wife of Bill was her most valuable asset, but even that was tarnished as voters were reminded of Bill’s former scandals and tawdry reputation. The voters had little choice and Sanders appeal should have been the first clue that things were going very wrong, again, for Clinton. The flip of the Rust Belt is another warning signal that the party has gone astray.
  4. The mainstream media pundits once again have egg on their faces. The politicization of coverage backfired and the more they pushed, the worse it got for their favored biases. They failed miserably at their efforts to shape political opinion instead of informing objectively. Now some of the more prominent talking heads should probably seek a new profession since the public has turned them off. But no, stupid will likely double down, until they discover nobody who matters is really listening.
  5. The Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama/Clinton era is over, as each administration’s overreaching came back to bite them with a vengeance. Obama and his policy legacy is a casualty of this collapse of a 28 year party era. As painful as it might seem to some, Obama’s presidency helped to bring about the collapse of his party and the rise of an outsider like Trump. He now owns it, just like Bush wears the Iraq albatross.
  6. We have divided ourselves into a 50-50 nation, polarized by population density: urban vs. rural and suburban.* This means the popular vote will be less of an indication of true, broad support and may often diverge from the Electoral College vote. Thus, the EC is crucial to securing a clear electoral and governing mandate. It appears Clinton eked out a popular vote victory, but more importantly, Trump won the decisive margin in the EC. The swing state problem is that we don’t have enough swing voters at the center of our divide.
  7. We should probably be thankful that media and political transparency is being forced on us by technology. It is too ironic that we are getting our political insights from hackers and Wikileaks.
  8. “Politics as usual” was a big loser. The people took control of this election, for better or worse, so elites had better pay attention while the rest of us figure out how to move people power toward the broader good, rather than the narrow. When failure occurs, we need to see it clearly and own it. I’m wondering how many can do that after this election. Too many will probably respond angrily, but that’s self-defeating.
  9. The wise among us will try to figure out why our popular narrative for understanding American politics has been so wrong and what needs to change. The demonization of voters seems to be highly counterproductive in an open media environment.
  10. Lastly, political correctness and identity politics have suffered a severe backlash. Perhaps it’s time to put aside these punitive speech codes and divisive political strategies. We can only hope.

BTW, I voted for Gary Johnson, just for the 2%. He outperformed and got 3%!

*This urban-rural split is a historical divide that has defined much of our nation’s politics for the past 200 years.  We’ve managed it thus far and we can continue to do so if we can see it clearly. It’s NOT about biological identity – it’s about class interests, lifestyle choices, and political priorities. We can find compromise on all these issues.

Common Sense and Healthcare Reform

There is no other economic model out there that delivers a desired good, priced efficiently, and in abundance, other than an open, competitive market. We need to move in this direction if we want enough 1st rate healthcare to go around. No matter what political ideology we subscribe to. Aside from the economy, this is more important than all the other partisan B.S.

From the WSJ:

The Wrong Remedy for Health Care

The Affordable Care Act will exacerbate the problems with our current health-care system. Fortunately, market reforms are still possible.

 By JOHN F. COGAN, R. GLENN HUBBARD AND DANIEL P. KESSLER

In upholding the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court has allowed the president and Congress to put the country’s health policy on a path that will restrict individual choices, stifle innovation and sharply increase health-care costs. Now the only recourse is to repeal the law through the legislative process and replace it with policies that rely on the power of the markets.

The American health-care system’s principal strength is its ability to produce ever more impressive innovations. The U.S. has no equal in developing new medical technologies, surgical procedures and pharmaceuticals. These extraordinary advances are not the product of government direction but rather the efforts of scientists, investors and entrepreneurs pursuing their individual goals and aspirations in a competitive market system. The Affordable Care Act puts these strengths at risk.

The law also exacerbates the central problem of our health-care system: high costs without corresponding value. The “individual mandate” will require that people purchase health insurance with generous benefits and limited cost-sharing. This flawed conception of health insurance has created the bad incentives that have led us to where we are today.

The principal factual claims made by the individual mandate’s supporters are that the failure to purchase conventional health insurance causes harm to the uninsured person (in the form of worsened health) and to others (in the form of a shifting of the burden of the costs of care).

The evidence supporting each of these claims is weak at best. Peer-reviewed studies from the National Health Insurance Experiment and other data dating back to the 1980s have concluded that there is little or no causal relationship between health insurance and a person’s health outcomes.

What about the claim that the costs of caring for the uninsured are significantly shifted onto doctor and hospital bills, thereby raising insurance premiums? George Mason University Prof. Jack Hadley and John Holahan, Teresa Coughlin and Dawn Miller of the Urban Institute published a comprehensive, peer-reviewed study on this in Health Affairs in 2008. It concluded that “Private insurance premiums are at most 1.7 percent higher because of the shifting of the costs of the uninsured to private insurance.”

The problems with the U.S. health-care system are mainly the result of a handful of government policies that have prevented market forces from reducing costs and making services more widely available. So what to do?

Fix the tax code. First and foremost is the federal tax code’s long-standing exclusion from taxation of employer-sponsored health insurance. The exclusion has created a tax advantage for purchasing health care through insurance rather than directly with out-of-pocket dollars. This, in turn, has caused consumers to overutilize health-care services as they and their physicians perceive that someone else is footing the bill. As a result, health-care costs have been driven upward.

Policy makers should make the tax treatment of health care neutral by allowing out-of-pocket expenses and individual insurance to be tax deductible. Alternately, neutrality could be achieved by eliminating the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance. The Affordable Care Act’s tax on high-cost health plans is a first step toward tax neutrality. Unfortunately, the act couples this policy with others that work at cross-purposes.

Redesign Medicare and Medicaid. The Affordable Care Act includes numerous reforms to the way that Medicare pays health providers, some of which are on the right track. But in Medicare, the main problem is the nearly complete neglect of patient incentives. The Medicare Part B average copayment rate has fallen nearly in half during the past 35 years. One near-term solution is to allow beneficiaries to choose health plans that have lower premiums but higher deductibles, more coinsurance, or more tightly managed networks of providers than those in traditional Medicare. The long-term solution is to provide beneficiaries with a defined level of support to allow them to purchase a private insurance plan. Such an approach is modeled on today’s Medicare prescription drug coverage and is similar to one proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.).

In Medicaid, the emphasis on access to health insurance, rather than access to health care, has stifled innovation in delivering care to the uninsured. The Affordable Care Act does little to change this. Medicaid should be converted to a block grant in which states are given a fixed sum of money and allowed greater flexibility to experiment with new approaches, such as delivering care through organizations that tailor available services to patient needs at reduced costs.

Reform insurance markets. State price controls and the proliferation of state mandates that insurers cover particular medical services and providers have driven up the cost of insurance by as much as 15%, made it less portable, and increased the number of uninsured by as many as 10 million. Unfortunately, the Affordable Care Act enshrines many of these flawed policies in federal law.

The key objective of insurance regulation should be to increase the availability of low-cost, portable health insurance—insurance that delivers the benefits that people want, at a price they can afford. To this end, individuals should be allowed to purchase insurance across state lines or in a federal market that is free of insurance mandates.

The Affordable Care Act will expand the reach of government into our personal health-care choices, while exacerbating the problems with our current health-care system. Market forces, if allowed to work properly, are the best means for reducing the growth in health costs, encouraging continued innovation, and ensuring that consumers have access to quality health care.