Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Gary Shillings on big governments getting bigger

Gary Shillings talks about US Government policies and what can be done to improve the US economy and encourage people to work.

The corona-virus pandemic and its devastating effect on the U.S. economy has ensured that big government–the one that’s already spending some $4.7 trillion in the current fiscal year–is poised to get even larger. As in past crises that led to massive government interventions, new initiatives will largely stay in place once the business downturn ends to the long-term detriment of the economy, despite the “temporary” intentions of these programs.

Ronald Reagan once likened a government program to “the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” A look at history suggests that once a new program or a new agency is established, with few exceptions, it stays established, regardless of whether it was intended to be temporary, whether it’s still needed and whether it actually solved the problem it was created to address.

Before the 1930s economic collapse, there was no federal safety net. State and local governments as well as charities generally looked after the less-fortunate, there were few pension systems in the U.S. and Washington’s role in providing assistance was minimal. The federal budget in 1929 amounted to about $3 billion, or 3% of total output, a fraction of today’s $4.7 trillion budget that accounts for some 21% of gross domestic product. That number will surely grow as federal spending surges, the  economy shrinks and tax collections fall.

The Great Depression marked the start of far-reaching and long-lasting federal government involvement in the economy as Washington strived to blunt the impact of the economic free-fall. The New Deal saw the establishment of numerous “alphabet agencies,” many of which still exist but only bigger and more costly.

The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), REA (Rural Electrification Administration), WPA (Works Progress Administration), FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.) and the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) were among some of the first New Deal agencies. They were followed by the establishment in 1935 of Social Security, which has grown into a $1 trillion behemoth that is now at risk of running out of money.

The first food stamp program was established in 1939 and ran for four years, followed in 1964 by the establishment of the program that today is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and costs close to $70 billion annually.

The 1960s Great Society efforts saw tremendous increases in federal involvement in many areas of American life, almost all of which have survived to this day, starting with the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, whose costs continue to multiply. These programs eventually widened to include child nutrition, education, rural and urban development, affordable housing, air and water pollution levels, consumer protection and the availability of arts funding. Meanwhile, the Departments of Transportation and Housing & Urban Development were created during the Johnson administration along with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Disdain for government in general was a big factor in Reagan’s election, but despite his declaration that government was the problem and not the solution, the vast federal bureaucracy remained intact during his presidency and has only grown. The Departments of Energy, Education, Veteran’s Affair and Homeland Security are entrenched, and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau survives despite being a top target of Congressional Republicans.

Meanwhile, Social Security and Medicare benefits have been greatly expanded, and many federal programs created over the past 90 years remain in existence, some with changed mandates and others with questionable results. The REA succeeded in supplying electric power to farms and rural areas, but vestiges of the agency remain in place today. 

I can find only a few agencies that have been eliminated outright, starting with the Civil Aeronautics Board, which was established in 1938 to oversee aviation services and dissolved when the airline industry was deregulated in 1978. The Synthetic Fuels Corp. was established in 1980 to spearhead production of alternative fuels, but it ended up funding just four synthetic fuels projects, none of which survive today, before being abolished in 1986. With the recovery of the financial system from the 2008 crisis, some provisions of Dodd-Frank have been scaled back but key measures, like large bank stress tests, remain.

All the trillions of dollars of federal corona-virus money to support income and jobs will require new bureaucracies to oversee disbursement of the funds. But once the money has been released and spent, what will happen to all those government agencies? If history is any guide, they and their constituents will come up with some rationale for the continued need for their functions.  

Furthermore, the power and reach of the federal government has been magnified greatly as the Federal Reserve, with its gigantic money-creating ability, has become, in effect, an arm of the Treasury Department. Its latest $2.3 trillion program lends directly to states, cities and mid-size businesses and even supports previously investment-grade corporate bonds that are now junk-rated. The central bank’s portfolio of assets, $4.2 trillion in February and now $6 trillion, may be headed for $10 trillion, or almost half of GDP. And the Treasury will cover $635 billion in bad Fed loans.

The labor participation rate for working-age American males has fallen steadily since World War II, in part because many find disability and other government payments more attractive than gainful employment. This has contributed to the slow growth in productivity and the economy, especially in the last decade. The likelihood that the corona-virus pandemic’s income supplements will persist beyond the recession implies that these trends will accelerate. The resulting slow growth in corporate profits will be a drag on post-recession stock prices.

via bloomberg opinion

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Jerome Powell is a practical Fed Chairman

The U.S. economy has experienced its slowest recovery from a recession in the post-World War II era, and the longer it lasts the more evidence there is that normal cyclical patterns are missing. And their absence means market participants shouldn’t rely on them to divine the economy’s future.

Consider the myriad developments that are atypical, or even the reverse of normal economic and financial market behavior. The Federal Reserve shifted from easing credit to tightening following past downturns, with its target federal funds rate normally raised within a year or so of the recession’s trough, eventually precipitating the next economic contraction. This time, the central bank kept its policy rate at the recessionary low of essentially zero until Dec. 2015, 78 months into the recovery. And then, after nine quarter-percentage point increases, it reversed course early this year with three rate cuts.

Far from the Fed’s normal worries about an overheating economy and inflation, the central bank frets that low and even declining consumer prices will spawn deflationary expectations. Buyers will hold off in anticipation of lower prices. Inventories and excess capacity will mount, forcing prices down. The price cuts confirm suspicions and purchases are delayed even further, sparking a deflationary spiral. The glaring example is Japan, with deflation in most years in the past two decades and tiny real GDP annual growth of 1.1%.

Also, despite the plunge in 30-year fixed mortgage rates from 6.8% in July 2006 to the current 3.7%, rate-sensitive single-family housing starts have been muted. They fell from a 1.8 million annual rate in January 2006 to 350,000 in March 2009 as the subprime mortgage market collapsed, but have only recovered to 940,000.

Mortgage lending criteria have tightened and prime-age first-time homebuyers don’t have the necessary downpayments. The net worth of households headed by 18-to-34-year-olds dropped from $120,000 in 2001 to $90,000 in 2016, a 44% decline adjusted for inflation. Also, they learned from the last recession that for the first time since the 1930s, house prices nationwide can fall.

In past business recoveries, the U.S. household saving rate fell as consumer spending grew faster than incomes.  In this expansion, it’s the reverse, leaping from 4.9% to 7.9% in November, retarding spending.

Past postwar recessions spawned financial problems, but nothing like the 2008 crisis. The government’s reaction was equally severe with the enactment of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act and other stringent regulations for financial institutions that are only now being slowly relaxed.

In earlier business upswings, a drop in the unemployment rate of anything like the plunge from 10% in October 2009 to the current 3.5% would have spawned massive wage inflation. This time, real wages are barely growing.

Globalization transported many high-paid manufacturing jobs to China. With the growing “on demand” economy—think Uber Technologies Inc. —many people trade flexibility in working hours for low pay. The payroll jobs that are being created are mostly in low-wage sectors such as retailing and leisure & hospitality.

For years, foreign policy was bipartisan and expanding trade was considered highly desirable. Now, globalists have been overcome by protectionists, spurred by voters upset over stagnant purchasing power and rising income and asset inequality in G-7 countries. Trump’s 2016 election along with the U.K.’s “Brexit” from the European Union are among the results. Then there’s also the demise of global trade deals, which are being replaced by bilateral agreements or no pacts at all.

The U.S.-China trade dispute will no doubt persist because China, with a declining labor force as a result of its earlier one child-per-couple policy, needs Western technologies to grow and achieve its worldwide leadership ambitions. But the U.S. is opposed to the technology transfers China wants.

The dollar’s slide from 1985 until 2007 encouraged U.S. exports, curbed imports and gave U.S. multinationals currency-related boosts to profits. Since then, the dollar index has rallied 33% amid a global demand for haven assets. And it should continue to, given the relatively faster growth of the U.S. economy, its huge, free and open financial markets and the lack of meaningful substitutes for the greenback.

Disinflation has reigned since 1980, but real interest rates were positive until the last decade.  But for 10 years now, real 10-year Treasury note yields have been flat at zero (see my Nov. 19, 2018 column, “Zero Real Yields Are Tripping Up Investors”).  This and the flat yield curve have pushed state pension funds and other investors far out on the risk curve in search of real returns, bidding up stocks to vulnerable levels.

Earlier, the Fed was run by Ph.D. economists who clung to widely-held theories even though they didn’t work. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell is proving to be much more practical, backing away from rigid Fed policies such as the 2% inflation target and a zero-bound policy rate as well as unsuccessful forward guidance.

In this different economic climate, it’s hard to time the end of the current recovery. Still, it will end, due either to Fed overtightening or a financial crisis, like the 2000 dot-com blow-off or the 2007-2009 subprime mortgage collapse. In the current excess supply-savings glut-deflationary world, it’s likely a recession will unfold due to a shock before the Fed overtightens.

No financial crises are in sight, but there are possibilities such as excess debt in China and among U.S. businesses, a trade war escalation, consumer retrenchment resulting in widespread deflation, and disappointing corporate profits measured against sky-high stock prices. Watch for specific imbalances, not typical past patterns.

via aawsat, bloomberg