Free Markets, Free People

Economy

Half Solutions Will Not Work

Brett Arends is skeptical about Europe’s current direction:

Their proposal is preposterous. Anything can happen in this life, but it would be remarkable indeed if this idea got off the ground. Anyone pinning their hopes that this will solve the crisis needs to think it through.

Why would the Portuguese accept the right of Germany to impose budget cuts on their country? Why would the Greeks?

Would we accept that role for the Chinese and the Japanese, the biggest holders of Treasury debt? How would you feel if you opened the paper to be told that the new Sino-Japanese “Fiscal Stability Commission” in Washington had just slashed your grandma’s Social Security checks by one-third, scaled back federal highway repairs, and that it would impose a 10% national sales tax?

That is, after all, effectively what is being offered to the people of Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

It’s absurd. There is no reason why these countries should have to surrender sovereignty. They can simply, where necessary, default. A default by, say, Louisiana would not destroy the dollar. Neither did the bankruptcy of Enron or Lehman.

What happens when after signing the new treaty (if it ever actually comes to be) the Greeks or Italians decide to thumb their noses at the EU and default anyway? Kick them out? Isn’t that right where we are now? Isn’t the fear that countries are kicked out or leave leading to financial chaos and defaults? Will these countries truly continue to pay their bills and accept austerity in the face of a severe recession/depression?

If that is the concern, just as I have been pointing out for some time, anything short of true fiscal and political union will fail. The right of existing states to refuse to honor the treaty (remember the last one was treated as inconsequential by violators, including Germany and France) cannot exist which means the right of states to secede or be expelled from the union cannot exist. If that option is not off the table then Eurozone bonds cannot be treated as risk free. If they are not seen as risk free then they will be rated accordingly and the Eurozone will be unstable as Louis-Vincent Gave points out:

Basically, we have to remember that the average sovereign debt buyer is not a hazardous investor. The guy who buys a government bond is looking for a very specific outcome: he gives the government 100 only so he can get back 102.5 a year later. That’s all the typical sovereign debt investor is looking for. Nothing more, nothing less.

But now, the problem for all EMU debt is that the range of possible outcomes is growing daily: possible restructurings, possible changes in currencies, possible assumption of other people’s debt, possible mass monetization by the central bank etc. Given this wider range of possible outcomes, and the consequent surge of uncertainty, the natural buyer of EMU debt disappears. Again, the typical sovereign investor is not in the game of handicapping possible outcomes; he is in the game of getting capital back!

This is very problematic because once uncertainty creeps in, bonds will tend to gradually drift towards what I have come to call the bonds “no-man’s-land”. Basically, once sovereign bonds reach 90c to par, they tend to have a much higher volatility and much greater uncertainty. As a result, they are no longer attractive to the typical bond manager or asset allocator looking to buy bonds to diversify equity risk (think how Italian bond yields are now correlated to European equities. If you want to be bullish Italian bonds, you may now just as well spend a fifth of the money and buy European banks for the same portfolio impact…). And once a bond enters into no-man’s-land, it has to fall a lot before attracting the attention of distressed debt and vulture investors (usually yields of 15%+). So the first obvious problem is that more and more European debt markets are entering this “no man’s land” bereft of “normal” investors.

Do these countries need the Euro over the long term to be prosperous? More Brett:

The British look smarter and smarter for staying out of the euro area in the first place. Prime Minister John Major, and then, later, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, each took the decision to keep the British pound free. At the time fashionable opinion predicted disaster for the Brits. So much for that.

(Predictably, fashionable opinion now says the Brits look “isolated” for staying out. Really, you couldn’t make it up).

My guess is Brett is correct that we are no where close to a real resolution, which is a path to political unification or breakup.

It has long been clear the Franco-German duo wanted to use their shared currency to bludgeon the continent into something closer to a federal system.

Any investor pinning their hopes on this bird flying needs to be aware it looks a lot more like a turkey than an eagle.

This week’s meeting of European leaders already marks the fifth “summit” to solve the region’s debt crisis since early 2009.

My favorite comment this time: “After a series of ‘final’ summits, it would be nice this time to have a real ‘final’ summit.” That was from Standard & Poor’s chief European economist, appropriately-enough named Jean-Michel Six. What’s the betting Mr. Six will be attending Summit No. Six in the new year?

Which is not to say that the ECB or some other entity couldn’t stem the immediate crisis and kick the can further down the road. Maybe, but if so the question is how far? A week, a year, five years? That I cannot answer now.

Economic Statistics for 8 Dec 11

Today’s economic statistical releases:

Initial jobless claims fell 23,000 last week to 381,000, the lowest weekly level since February.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index held steady for a second week, at 50.3 compared to the previous 50.2. That’s still a recessionary level of consumer confidence.

Wholesale inventories jumped 1.6% with a strong 0.9% rise in wholesale sales, increasing the stock-to-sales ratio by one tenth to 1.16.

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Dale Franks
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The Mask Comes Off

President Obama did the nation a huge service today, in two respects. First he took off the mask and told us explicitly that the "change" he wants is an explicit move towards welfare-state socialism, and, second, in doing so, he set out the major thrust of his re-election campaign. In a 55-minute speech in Osawatomie, KS, the president explicitly argued that capitalism is a failed economic system, and the main thrust of government economic policy should be the redistribution of income.

It’s darkly amusing that he makes this argument just weeks—perhaps months—before a major political and financial crisis, caused mainly by their socialist policy leanings, strikes Europe. They are just about to hit the stark reality of what happens when you run out of other people’s money to spend to finance extravagant social benefits. President Obama, it seems, is keen to rush us down the road to meet them. Not that we aren’t already pretty far down that road ourselves. The national debt is now over $15 trillion, more or less 100% of GDP, with no clear path to reducing that percentage in the near future, or even in reducing the rate of growth substantially.

President Obama apparently thinks that the solution is to take the money from "the rich" and distribute it to the rest of us. The trouble is, we could take pretty much everything the rich have, as well as all the profits of all the Fortune 500 companies, and it wouldn’t even even cover 1 year’s worth of government spending. As economist Walter William notes:

This year, Congress will spend $3.7 trillion dollars. That turns out to be about $10 billion per day. Can we prey upon the rich to cough up the money? According to IRS statistics, roughly 2 percent of U.S. households have an income of $250,000 and above. By the way, $250,000 per year hardly qualifies one as being rich. It’s not even yacht and Learjet money. All told, households earning $250,000 and above account for 25 percent, or $1.97 trillion, of the nearly $8 trillion of total household income. If Congress imposed a 100 percent tax, taking all earnings above $250,000 per year, it would yield the princely sum of $1.4 trillion. That would keep the government running for 141 days, but there’s a problem because there are 224 more days left in the year.

How about corporate profits to fill the gap? Fortune 500 companies earn nearly $400 billion in profits. Since leftists think profits are little less than theft and greed, Congress might confiscate these ill-gotten gains so that they can be returned to their rightful owners. Taking corporate profits would keep the government running for another 40 days, but that along with confiscating all income above $250,000 would only get us to the end of June. Congress must search elsewhere.

According to Forbes 400, America has 400 billionaires with a combined net worth of $1.3 trillion. Congress could confiscate their stocks and bonds, and force them to sell their businesses, yachts, airplanes, mansions and jewelry. The problem is that after fleecing the rich of their income and net worth, and the Fortune 500 corporations of their profits, it would only get us to mid-August.

We could take everything the rich have, and it still wouldn’t give us a balanced budget for one year. Collecting money the next year would also be…problematic, too.

But, the president has to be—well, not admired, exactly, but recognized—for his utter inability to accept that reality. As well as his apparent ability to construct "realities" that aren’t true.

At no time during the president’s hour-long perversion of the country’s economic history did he even allude to the massive growth in government spending we’ve seen, the cronyism between government and big business that led to private profits and socialized losses, or the explosion of debt that’s grown from $1 trillion in 1980 to $15 trillion today, all of which has resulted in removing money from the productive economy, and funneling it into government priorities, rather than into private income and investment. At no time did he mention the aggressive enforcement of the Community Re-Investment Act, which essentially forced banks into making sub-prime loans—indeed, explicitly instructed banks to make such loans—that led to the mortgage bubble and, when the less credit-worthy mortgagees couldn’t pay, it’s collapse—as a prime cause of our present economic difficulties. These are failures of government, and the president calls it a failure of capitalism.

"The market will take care of everything," they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes — especially for the wealthy — our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty.

Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter.) But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked.

In the president’s mind, economic freedom and capitalism don’t work. Never have. How he explains America’s ability to become the richest country the world has ever seen while operating under such a system is a complete mystery. And never mind that, to the extent the American system has failed, it is the reduction of economic freedom and the growth of government—especially over the last 50 years—that caused the failure.

But have no doubt that he believes this foolishness, even as the government-run technocracy he admires so much is literally weeks away from running the European Union’s economy straight into the ground. In a bit less than a year from now, we’ll see whether a majority of Americans believe it as well.

And if they do believe it, then the interesting question will be how they expect to pay for it.

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Dale Franks
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Economic Statistics for 6 Dec 11

Today’s economic statistical releases are limited to retail sales numbers for the pas week. Redbook and ICSC Goldman both show a lull in retail sales. Redbook reports retail sales are up 3.2% from last year, while ICSC-Goldman reports a drop of -2.3% for the week, up 3.8% for the year. Redbook explains the lull by saying that shopping patterns have "intensified" for the holiday season, in that people go out for big bargains on Black Friday, then wait until the last minute before buying Christmas gifts, causing a drop in shopping in early December.

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Dale Franks
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Economic Statistics for 05 Dec 11

Today’s economic statistical releases:

Factory orders fell -0.4% in October with both orders for durables goods down -0.5%, and orders for non-durable goods down -0.3%. But this is a report from October, and last week’s ISM manufacturing index indicates that orders came back fairly strongly in November. Whether that will continue if the Euro collapses is another question.

Speaking of the ISM, the non-manufacturing index today shows some slowing in the service sector, as the index fell from 52.9 to 52. A reading above 50 generally indicates expansion.

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Dale Franks
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Economic Statistics for 2 Dec 11

Today’s economic statistical releases:

The big number today is the monthly employment situation. The BLS released the headline as "Unemployment rate falls to 8.6% in November; payroll employment rises by 120,000". The numbers behind the headline are less impressive. Actually, the headline isn’t all that impressive, considering that 120,000 new jobs is, at best, an anemic rate of job growth.  Also, it’s the time of year when a fair amount of hiring is seasonal, for temporary Christmas jobs, which can make the employment situation look better than it actually is, despite the seasonal adjustments to the data employed by BLS. Looking deeper, the labor force participation rate  continued to fall -0.2% to 64% as nearly half a million workers left the labor force.If the labor force participation rate was at the historical average of 66%, the unemployment rate would be 11.41%.  2.6 million persons were marginally attached to the labor force, about the same as last November.  The average workweek is unchanged at 34.3 hours, where it has been since September. Even worse, average earnings declined this month with the average hourly wage dropping 2 cents an hour to  $23.18. So, I think we can say that the drop in the unemployment rate is mainly due to people leaving the labor force, as the rate of job creation is weak.  Also, the lack of change in the workweek, and decline in wages implies that hiring pressure among firms is essentially non-existent as there has been no increase in the workweek for three months, and a glut of labor still exists as upward pressure on wages reversed this month. The only positive thing I can glean from this report comes from the household survey, where the number of respondents who are employed rose 278,000 to 140,580,000.

Monster.Com reports their employment index fell 4 points in November to 147 as online recruitment slowed.

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Dale Franks
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Former SEIU boss: We should emulate Chinese economic model

You can wade through all the trash he throws up there as a preface to his central point, but I’ll save you the trouble.  Writing in the WSJ, Andy Stern says:

The conservative-preferred, free-market fundamentalist, shareholder-only model—so successful in the 20th century—is being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the 21st century. In an era when countries need to become economic teams, Team USA’s results—a jobless decade, 30 years of flat median wages, a trade deficit, a shrinking middle class and phenomenal gains in wealth but only for the top 1%—are pathetic.

This should motivate leaders to rethink, rather than double down on an empirically failing free-market extremism. As painful and humbling as it may be, America needs to do what a once-dominant business or sports team would do when the tide turns: study the ingredients of its competitors’ success.

No poisoning the well there, huh?  The “conservative-preferred, free-market fundamentalist, shareholder-only" model?  Really?  Where? 

And why was it “so successful in the 20th century” and why is it having problems now?  Well that’s a fairly easy question to answer.   What happened increasingly in the 20th century that is at an all time high now?

Answer?  Government.  It has increased dramatically in both size and intrusiveness.  We don’t have a “free-market” system anymore.  Haven’t for quite some time.   It’s a convenient shibboleth used by opponents of free markets such as Stern.  We have a government that has, in the century cited, turned it into crony capitalism.  Any resemblance here in the 21st century to a “free market” model is purely coincidental.  And we now have a debt drag imposed by out of control government spending that has finally topped our total yearly GDP.

As usual, with those who think China has figured out how to build the socialist dream, they never figure in the damage done to the model that was “so successful in the 20th century” because doing so kills their entire premise.   Government is their vehicle to both wealth and social justice.   They have no concept of how markets work so are gullible enough to still believe that central planning, properly done, can work.  And they take the fact that China has risen economically as proof of their premise.

What they don’t do is look behind the curtain.   Stern talks about his trip there, “a trip organized by the China-United States Exchange Foundation and the Center for American Progress—with high-ranking Chinese government officials, both past and present.”

Yes indeed, very likely to see the underside of the economy is a show tour aren’t you?

A caller to Rush Limbaugh who spends a lot of time in China lays out the reality there:

CALLER: Because once you get outside of the main cities, there are still people plowing fields behind cows and oxen, still hand harvesting corn, grains, rice. I mean, it’s still very much a Third World economy once you get outside of the main cities.

RUSH: With a First World military.

CALLER: Yeah, that’s true.

RUSH: That’s where much of their spending goes. Their infrastructure is built on the cheap, too. Doesn’t take much wind to bring down some of their so-called powerful infrastructure. But, you’re right, and this is what President Bush was telling me, that the big challenge is keeping those peasants behind the oxen. Don’t [let] them into the city. The cities can’t handle them. The cities are teeming with people already. But it’s always been the case that there is this romance — the left has romance — with the romantic attachments to all these tyrannical communist regimes, and now they’re looking at China and you’ve got this Andy Stern guy and other people telling us, "This is what we need to be. We need to emulate the ChiComs. The ChiComs are doing it right."

This is simply the usual nonsense wrapped up in a little different packaging.  It is the leftist dream – a strong central government planning the economy in which it ensures social justice as its highest priority (btw, China is an environmental disaster area, but you won’t hear that from the likes of Stern).  And that doesn’t mean market capitalism, even if the Andy Sterns of the world want you to believe that.  

While he avoids the obvious problem of government intrusion and its disastrous effect on the economy, he does touch on the political problem we still endure.   We have politicians who prefer being Santa Claus to the Grinch and whose whole political horizon never goes beyond the next election.

But the central problem we have isn’t needing a new economic model.  Instead we need to go back to the old one before it was corrupted and distorted by government.   Instead of more government, as Andy Stern wishes, we need precisely the opposite – much less government.

If we want to regain our economic footing and dominance, what government needs to do is get the hell out of the way, get spending under control and pay down the debt (which should become its primary focus over the coming decades) to eliminate the debt drag it has created.

Other than that, it’s job is to be the night watchman, not Santa Claus.  Our problem isn’t economic models.  Our problem is exactly what Stern wants more of.

Obviously economics wasn’t his strong subject in whatever schooling he received and history was apparently completely skipped.  How else to explain the utter nonsense he pushes in his article?

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

Economic Statistics for 1 Dec 11

Today’s economic statistical releases:

Today’s chain-store results do NOT confirm the widespread anecdotal reports of a strong Black Friday week, trending at a same-store year-on-year 2.5%.

Initial jobless claims rose 6,000 to 402,000 in a short Thanksgiving week, which clouds the results.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index remained steady at -50.2 compared to the previous -50.1.

The ISM Manufacturing Index rose to 52.7, and many of the sub-indexes rose sharply, a good sign for the economy.

Construction spending rose 0.8% last month, which is nice, even though it’s rising from an extremely depressed base.

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Dale Franks
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Economic Statistics for 30 Nov 11

Today’s economic statistical releases:

The Mortgage Bankers Association reports that mortgage applications were down by -11.7%, but the short Thanksgiving week clouds the significance of this week’s results. Delving deeper into the report shows new purchase applications were down -0.8% while refinance apps fell -15.3%.

The Challenger Job-Cut Report shows layoff announcements are fairly steady this month at 42,474 compared to 42,759 in October and 48,711 last year.

ADP, the country’s largest third-party payroll processor, estimates private payrolls rose 206,000 in November. We’ll see if Friday’s Employment Situation confirms that.

3Q productivity and costs were revised downward slightly, with productivity increasing at 2.3% annually, while labor costs fell -2.5%. This is pretty much in line with the GDP revision for 3Q.

The Chicago PMI indicates a pickup in business activity for the Chicago area, with the index rising to 62.6 from 58.4. This report is widely seen as a predictor of the national PMI, which will be released tomorrow.

The National Association of Realtors reports their pending home sales index rose to 93.3 from 84.5.

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Dale Franks
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