Category: Economies

Market Rallies Don’t Always Make Sense

Market Rally FollyStimulate Economy - Red Button

Can government infrastructure spending, or “fiscal stimulus,” create more wealth? The stock market certainly seems to think so. As financial publications have recently opined, the stock market has been hitting record highs (Dow 20,000!), at least partly because investors believe the new Administration will usher in an era of government spending on things like roads, bridges, telecommunications and defense. While this may give some companies a boost, it will be a drag on long-term economic growth.

The Seen Versus the Unseen

The art of economic thinking is always to consider the seen versus the unseen. In the case of infrastructure spending, what is seen is the widening of highways, the new suspension bridges and the faster internet cables being buried underground. It is easy to see how this spending could be a good thing because the wider highways and faster internet probably enhance productivity.

Furthermore, any government spending – even on bridges to nowhere – is seen as beneficial, due to the Keynesian idea of the “multiplier effect.” This theory posits that governmental spending gives the construction workers more income, who then go and spend the income on other goods and services such as restaurants or new cars.

This in turn gives those restaurant staff and car manufacturers more income, which they then promptly spend. Each dollar the government spends is therefore “multiplied” throughout the economy.  

The Unseen Hand

What is missing from this analysis is the unseen. For government to spend any money, it must first get that money from somewhere; taxes are the most direct method and borrowing is another option, but this only means higher taxes in the future to pay for the borrowing.

While the government technically can’t print money directly to finance spending, it can do so through other means, which cause inflation and which are – you guessed it – just another form of tax.

Therefore, since taxes can only be taken from those who are creating wealth (for example taxes on profits or income), or from the existing base of wealth (such as real estate taxes), then by definition, government spending can only be accomplished through the transfer of wealth.

But Isn’t Infrastructure Useful?

Proponents of government spending may agree there is a transfer of wealth occurring, but that wealth is being employed into productive uses, such as infrastructure. After all, the construction and maintenance of roads allows businesses to ship their goods all over the country more easily.

It is true that things like roads, bridges and electrical grids are useful. But the pertinent question is how useful? If money is taxed away from a business to build a road, that business may no longer be able to build another manufacturing plant and provide an increasing number of products at a lower price, employing more workers in the process.

In other words, infrastructure spending faces a calculation problem. While politicians can hazard a guess that a wider highway or a public transportation project has some value, it is impossible to know (or prove) that the project is more valuable than what the private sector would have spent those tax dollars on.

If this calculation problem were enough to give cause for concern, there is also a problem of incentives. Infrastructure projects that are likely to be funded are those that will create the most jobs or please the most constituents, not the ones that make the most economic sense.

This logic means that the Keynesian “multiplier effect” does not exist, because every dollar spent to begin with does not come out of thin air but must instead be redirected from something productive. In fact, some of the latest rigorous academic research has confirmed the government spending multiplier to be negative, not positive (see a nice summary of this research from Dr. Lacy Hunt of Hoisington Management).

Employee IncentiveWhat this Means for the Stock Market

The stock market is always forward-looking, and it is likely making new highs for a host of reasons on which financial journalists can only speculate. It is also true that increased fiscal spending could give select companies a lot of extra business in the short term.

However, valuation levels for broad market indices such as the S&P 500 are currently at some of the highest levels in history, exceeded only during the dot-com bubble and the brief run-up before the Great Depression. At current levels, the stock market would have to decline by anywhere from 40% to 60% just to return to historical norms!

To be clear, valuation tools are not timing indicators, and anything is possible in the short term, including a continued bull market in the months ahead. However, what valuation models of the stock market can reveal is that, over the longer-term (10-12 years), investors should expect very low returns (low single digits annually) if they invest at these elevated levels.

Diversify across All Asset Classes

The best strategy is to stick with a plan of being diversified across asset classes, including hard assets such as precious metals, other commodities and real estate.

And don’t let any infrastructure spending plans fool you into thinking it will be a huge boost for the economy and the stock market!

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Production Spurs The Economy, Not Consumption

Economy

Economy

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday now behind us, economists and investors are hoping people shopped till they dropped in order to give the economy an extra boost. In addition, the latest GDP report on Tuesday came in higher than expected, largely driven by consumer spending. However, buying more flat screen TV’s  isn’t what makes an economy healthy.

Many people believe the fate of the economy relies on retail sales and consumer spending, especially because news outlets continually note that “the consumer sector accounts for two-thirds of the economy.” Unfortunately, this is not only misleading but it is also mistaken economic theory.

What GDP Is – And Is Not

The measure of GDP, or gross domestic product, is simply the value of all goods and services sold within a country. While this seems like a simple enough calculation, the devil diddles in the details.

One problem is that the calculation only accounts for the sale of final goods and services. This is done in an attempt to avoid double counting. For example, if a steel maker produces steel that is then sold to an automaker to build a car, only the final sale of the car will be counted and not the earlier sale of the steel. This is one reason why GDP data is so dependent on consumer spending.

This leads many to believe that consumer demand and spending is what drives an economy forward. This is a notably Keynesian idea where recessions are caused by drops in demand and cautiousness causes consumers to keep their wallets closed. Following this line of thinking, the solution to any stagnant economic growth becomes obvious: get people spending!

True, there is a grain of truth here because the money I spend on a new sofa goes into the hands of the shopkeeper who then has income to spend. In the same manner, if nobody buys my services, I will not have any money to buy that new sofa. The gears of the economy would grind to a halt without spending.

Putting The Cart Before The Horse

Spending money does move the economy, but only to the extent that it is an exchange of goods and services. The critical step everyone seems to forget is that in order to spend money, you must have that money in the first place!

How do you get that money? By producing something of value that someone else wants. Therefore, it is production that drives the economy, not consumption. There is never a problem or a drop in consumer demand because people never tire of wanting new and better things; the problem is maximizing production to fulfill more of those wants and needs.

How is production increased? By increasing productivity. How is productivity increased? By saving, or deferring consumption so new tools can be forged and research undertaken to increase productivity.

A Robinson Crusoe Economy

Imagine you and your friends are stranded on a deserted island, and it takes all day to catch that one fish or harvest those few coconuts that you need just stay alive. Your economy is 100% consumption, correct?

How could you improve your standard of living? Not by consuming more, but by actually consuming less. You and your friends would need to go hungry for a day or two and use your new-found spare time to construct a fishing net, fashion a spear, or create other tools to make procuring food easier.  

This would in turn make you more productive, allowing you to gather more food during the course of a day. With the extra food, you could go back to 100% consumption and live a slightly better life, but to achieve an even better standard of living, you would need to continue to save and continue to defer consumption.

Why This Is Crucial

It is saving and producing that should be the focus in order to grow an economy. Sustainable increases in

Production

Production

consumption are a symptom of an economy that has already grown and produced more, not the cause of prosperity.

GDP is merely a statistic. Although it is not a bad thing per se, what gets measured also gets managed – even manipulated – by governments. Telling the populace that consumer confidence is high and consumer spending is up can make an economy look stronger, inducing governments and central banks to continue to pursue policies that boost spending.

Indeed, not only are central banks continuing to try to keep interest rates low and stock markets high to produce a “wealth effect” of more debt and more spending, but governments are also considering additional spending measures (government spending is also counted in GDP).

Investors need to remember the true causes of wealth creation, and seek to protect their own wealth in the face of a government-managed economic environment.

Inflation is the 24 Hour Tax on Everything

Wallet and stethoscopeInflation is the 24-Hour Tax on Everything

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that inflation, after “being given up for dead,” is coming back to life. While that may appear to be the case on the surface, inflation has been alive and well – hiding out beneath the official government statistics for years.

The WSJ is referring to the data released last Friday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, known as Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE), which measures the change in actual spending and prices and is the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation.

More specifically, the article was referring to Core PCE, which is PCE excluding food and energy, and is currently at a two year high of 1.7% on a year-over-year basis. The other measure of inflation is the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which has also been markedly higher, coming in at a 1.5% annual increase as of this past September.

Inflation is NOT a Good Thing

With inflation getting closer to the Fed’s 2% target, WSJ’s columnist Greg Ip casually comments that “This isn’t bad news. To the contrary, markets and central bankers alike will be relieved the world is no longer skirting a deflationary abyss.” But while central bankers might welcome this news, consumers will not.

Sustained inflation in consumer prices is never a positive for any economy, and is also not necessarily an indicator of a growing one. Prices may rise due to changes in supply and demand, and therefore help to reallocate resources and signal those changes; but an overall and sustained increase in prices is different.

If the price of an item rises for consumers, they will then stop buying it or switch to a cheaper item or cut back on another category in order to accommodate the household budget. Therefore, the only way for all prices to rise indefinitely and consistently is for new money to be constantly created and injected into the economy.

This of course is merely a tax on consumers because the new money and consistent increase in prices makes the consumer poorer. Contrary to popular economic theory today, there is no threat of a“deflationary abyss”. During the nearly 100 year history of the classical gold standard, prices gradually declined an average of 2% to 3% per year as technology and productivity increased, giving consumers the benefit of these advancements in the form of lower prices.

Inflation is Worse Than Reported

This week, Visual Capitalist made a stunning infographic using AEI’s Mark Perry’s (equally as interesting) inflation observations. Over the past 20 years, from 1996 to 2016, total inflation has been 55% as measured by the CPI.

However, digging into the Bureau of Labor’s data and then channeling down to the various items that make up the CPI basket of goods, you can see that inflation varies greatly from one type of good to the next.

For example, things that have increased more than the average 55% include tuition (up almost 200%), childcare (122%), medical (105%), food and beverage (64%) and housing (61%) – in other words, virtually all of the living essentials needed to survive or raise a family.

Counteracting this, items that fell in price included TV’s (96% decline!), toys (67% decline), and software and cell phone service (66% and 45% respectively). Clothing and furniture declined slightly, while new cars increased only slightly.

Obviously the dramatic decline in electronics, software and toy prices has brought wonderful benefits, but these are still largely discretionary items, and they take up a much smaller portion of most household budgets. The average family is therefore likely facing more than the average 55% increase in prices over the last 20 years.

Indeed, in his latest book, David Stockman has modified the CPI to put heavier and therefore more realistic weights on the four essential items of everyday life: food, energy, shelter and medical care. Using this measure, he finds the actual inflation rate over the past 29 years (when Greenspan became Fed Chairman) has been 3.1% per annum, rather than the official CPI rate of 1.7% per annum.

How to Protect Yourselfdates falling dollar

Unfortunately, inflation will continue to be a problem for any person living in a country whose money is a fiat currency that is being debased by their government – which includes nearly all modern economies today.

Thankfully, there is nothing stopping you from converting some of that fiat paper money directly into your own store of hard currency: physical gold and silver. During the past twenty years, while the official CPI increased 55%, gold has increased in value 235% and silver 282%.

Time to buy gold and silver, perhaps?

Greek Bartering Reveals The Essence of Money

Barter-Chickens_for_SubscriptionThe Greek fiscal crisis has receded from the 24-hour news cycle, but unfortunately for Greek citizens, their problems are far from over, especially with strict capital controls still in place and likely to remain so for months. We previously noted how the capital controls were suffocating economic activity and giving rise to parallel currencies such as private scrip. Now many Greeks are resorting to barter as well. It is a very unfortunate situation, but one where we can observe what money is and how it evolves.

We are all familiar with barter, and it may even be something we do from time to time in our daily lives, trading a few small services and goods with friends and family without using cash. It was also this way in Greece until the capital controls arrived. As Reuters notes:

“In the past, [barter] was mostly on a family and individual level, but now it is expanding due to the developments in the banking sector and capital controls. Now it is a more structured and organised phenomenon.”

In fact, it has become so organized that citizens are formalizing it and increasingly using websites to facilitate barter:

Tradenow, a website started three years ago to facilitate barter of everything from food to technology, says the number of users and the volume of transactions have doubled since capital controls came into effect on June 29.”

Examples of those using the website range from car repair shops exchanging tires and a burglar alarm company trading services for advertising. Another internet company that operates barter on a larger scale is Mermix, which allows farmers to share heavy machinery in return for cash or cashless transactions.

All of this is certainly a step backwards for the Greeks as it slows the gears of exchange. When bartering, it takes longer to calculate what is a fair exchange; it also takes time and energy to find someone who is willing to trade. Economists call this the “double coincidence of wants problem.” Not only do you have to locate the person who has the thing you want, but you also have to make sure you have something the other person wants.

Windy City Debt Scenario: Blown Away Yet?

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Chicago, one of the great global metropolises, is in a world of hurt…. serious hurt; so badly mangled that if left uncorrected, the Windy City, as it is affectionately known, stands to get blown to smithereens, just like it’s fellow city to the north – Detroit.

The crux of the issue boils down to a simple phrase: fiscal irresponsibility. It’s a storm system that has been building in intensity for years. And for me, a former Chicago resident, it elicits a deep sadness for the city I truly love.

Chicagoans have a term of endearment for the frigid, sub-zero winds that come howling in off Lake Michigan during the heart of winter. They call it “The Hawk.” This term applies equally well to the cold, hard, chilling facts associated with the fiscal ‘winter’ that the city is facing. A $1 billion operating shortfall, combined with a pension crisis registering at $20 billion. On top of that, the Chicago Public School system has a cool $1 billion shortfall along with a $9.5 billion tab for unfunded pension liability.

The warnings regarding the impending financial doom have long been there. In essence, they date back to 2003, a time when Chicago’s municipal budget was adversely impacted by the Great Recession. Making a dire situation worse, former mayor Richard M. Daley engaged in a number of questionable deals that accelerated the city’s debt load. The greatest mess has been Chicago’s pension system which is heavily mired in unfunded liabilty. Closely tied to this are the chronically upside-down Chicago schools that are closing and laying off teachers at an alarming rate due to funding deficits. What makes the school issue such a joke is the position being taken by the Chicago Teachers Union; namely, let’s dig in our heels and oppose any and all fiscal reforms that might help mitigate the debt situation.

9 Surprising Insights On Market Economies

 

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Whether face-to-face or on the Internet, stumbling across people with cool ideas has become a regular occurrence for me; perhaps none more captivating than Alex Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association in New York and author of the book The Surpising Design of Market Economies.

As a self-styled investigator with a libertarian streak acquired early in life, Alex revels in trying to figure out how the world works. His propensity for asking deep questions – and refusing to take no for an answer – comes from his roots as an urban journalist.

Through his incessant wanderings, Alex has concluded that the foundations of conventional capitalism are formed by governments. These public entities, he says, form the basis for what we think of as ‘markets’ or ‘business’.

I asked Alex to expand upon the themes covered in his book by exploring ten surprising insights on market economies. Whether you agree with them or not, my hope is that you will find Alex’s views to be thought-provoking and fodder for mindful conversation.

1) On Writing the Surprising Design of Market Economies

I have always enjoyed offering ideas on how to make things work better and I felt as though there was an aspect of the world that I wanted to tell people about because it surprised me. My book focuses on how various economic entities work. The famous poet Robert Frost said it best, “If there is no surprise for the writer, then there is no surprise for the reader.”

2) On the Necessity of Good Government

Good government is more difficult to attain in the U.S. than in many other countries because there are so many layers to the system. We have state and local government bodies combined with counties, cities, towns, municipalities, school districts, water authorities and other entities. Then we have the federal government overlaying everything. This makes it very difficult for government to be responsive and flexible government. There is no doubt that our system of government could be operated better.

3) On Healthcare

As I say in my book, healthcare should be considered a form of public infrastructure: a right like public education. Yet there are certainly so many opportunities to screw it up, whether through government or private initiatives. When you really get down to the nitty gritty requirements of Obamacare, there are certainly numerous opportunities for making things worse. Hopefully, we can have a government that is responsive enough to ensure change in the healthcare landscape. This will likely involve modifying the healthcare system and continually working at it until we get it right.

4) On Libertarianism

In my youth, I was a libertarian. That was very appealing to me at the time because like many young people, my life was all about freedom and liberty; a variation of “Don’t tell me what to do.” I read the works of Ayn Rand and other writers who were libertarian in their outlook and who espoused the notion that you can do what you want and let the market take care of everything. While that all makes sense, it falters when you really probe at its roots because in reality, a libertarian society currently doesn’t exist. I’ve now moved past libertarianism, although I’m still kind of emotionally libertarian. I still don’t like the idea of government telling people what to do or restricting them. At the same time, we are a cooperative society, one where we need to work together politically, not just in the marketplace. We’ve got to make laws and policies and do so collectively, lest we end up with a dictatorship – something most people want to avoid.

5) On Anarchy

If they really indulge in self-examination, a lot of libertarians might come to the conclusion that they’re actually anarchists. The idea of getting rid of all government in favor of a society that organizes itself without a government, sounds appealing. It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know if it’s feasible.

6) On Socialism

There is definitely a thread of socialism in my book. Personally, I am in favor of an economic concept called a mixed economy, where some things are handled socialistically and other things privately. Libraries, for example, are pure socialism because we have collective access to free books; all you need to have is a library card. While a few libertarians have a problem with this, most love libraries and their appeal. And from an author’s perspective, libraries are actually not so bad because they purchase a lot of books, often at the full market rate. The same goes with public libraries, schools, water, and roads. We are richer as a society because of all of this public infrastructure.

7) On the Private Sector

While the current economic climate has been trending toward the public, there is an incredible environment of creativity in private business that I would hate to see squelched. That’s why I am a staunch advocate for mixed economies; private business for creativity and entrepreneurial initiatives, aligned with a government that works well and does good work also. That’s the utopia that I envision.

8) On the Notion of Free Markets

I believe that this is a false concept because markets are underpinned by governments. You can’t have people buying or selling something without government creating the basic structure and the systems that make this possible. In the end, markets don’t exist without a government setting it up, running it and regulating it. Yet an exclusively pro-government view can be awkward and sluggish because the public sector tends to wield the club rather than paintbrush.

9) On Cities as Corporations

It’s really a fascinating thing. Cities are not just considered corporations, they are corporations. Historically, corporations have functioned as an artificial body or person created by state government. Cities are one of the oldest forms of corporations and actually have a much longer history than the private corporations we tend to think of today. In a sense, Google and the City of San Francisco are both the same thing, both being corporate bodies created by the state. IBM, Apple and other private companies are descended from the type of corporations that created cities. So it would behoove us to remember that corporations are essentially government creations, created with the intent of benefitting the public. And instead of regulating corporations, the focus should concentrate more on designing them better.

Alex Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association of New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Metropolis, Planning, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Slate, Salon, and many other publications. More on his book can be found here

Michael Scott is a writer and book publicity baraista located in Denver. His work can be found at http://allthatbookjazz.com