Category Archives: Economics

Warning Noted Re Germany’s Recent Election

William Gibson of the WSJ wrote on Sept 26th in the  WSJ (see The Populist Wave Reaches Germany) an Opinion piece that neatly calls out the major issues now liberated in the recent general election that apparently awarded Chancellor Angela Merkel another four years in office. Mr. Gibson goes beneath the headlines to highlight what are actually disturbing issues.

The news that masks the issues suggest that the share of the popular vote won by the ruling coalition dropped from two thirds in 2013 to just over half. So far, ok. But as a result of declining popularity of the classic parties, the center-left Social Democrats have announced they will not participate in the next government. This is where issues emerge.

To creat a coalition this means Angela Markel has to work with either the Greens and the Free Democrats, or she and her party lead a minority government that limps along one parliamentary vote at a time, aligning with any party that works with her decision at the time. The bad news is the Greens are demanding the phase out of the internal combustion engine; the Free Democrats are skeptical of an ‘ever deeper’ EU. Their leader wants to phase out the European Stability Mechanism. All told its a deal with the devil or devils.

If that was not enough, there was a 7.9-point gain by the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, a far-right populist party. The AfD is incredibly the third largest party in Germany, and second largest in the old East Germany. This is more than incredible; this is significant and could be a sign of great and growing dissatisfaction. We all need to keep on guard. This situation can easily and quickly, and quietly, shift further.

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Is Warren Buffett Really That Bad?

I read with interest the Economics piece on Wednesday this week by the FT’s Robin Hardin titled, “How Buffett broke American capitalism“.  It was wrong on so many levels and I figured was a slam on one who many hold up as a scion of industry.

First Mr. Hardin praises Mr. Buffett and reminds us of his business acumen- creating wealth out of situations where it does not appear to exist. But then he suggests that Mr. Buffett has a dark side: Buffett seeks to “avoid competition and minimize capital investment in the real economy”. This is a description of darkness, it seems. What does it mean?

The author refers to the growing set of work that suggests out US economy is operating with diminished competition. At the same time corporate profits are running at near all-time highs and capital investment is running at historically low levels. These are all reasonable well known ‘facts’ but are they connected to what Buffett is doing, or is what Buffett doing causing any of these? Does Buffettism have a dark side?

Apparently price mark-ups are increasing over the years and as such contributes to growing margins and so profits. During the recent period capital investment is down- if you have read my blogs regarding the abysmal performance of US productivity (even IT-based productivity) you would know this. Mr. Hardin says hear conditions are central to the success of Mr. Buffett.

Apparently folksy Buffett seeks to ‘widen the moat’ which is code for looking for businesses that have little competition or driving business to do things to distance themselves from their competition. This is not darkness; it is sensible. What the article author is conflating is what is happening in the industry. Mr. Buffett has about the same number of large competitors. What our economy lacks significantly is the turn over in smaller and midsize firms they drive creative destruction and reallocate assets to efficient uses. Yes, there is a lack of completion and innovation from small start-ups. Than Uncle Sam and the federal government and excess regulation and ineffective tax systems for that. Buffett is not dark- left and right leaning politicians are the issue here.

The the article takes another turn. Apparently Mr. Buffett tends to take out all the cash of his acquisitions and jack up the prices. This leads to increased profits and lower capital investment. Go ask any CIO or CFO or treasurer about why firms spend money on capital investment. This is not about economics, it is about financial management. Money seeks money. More money seeks higher returns. If you have not noticed two factors are at play here:

  • Near zero interest rates, even negative interest rates
  • Massive quantities easing whereby trillions of dollars (and Euros) are seeking yield in low-yield market

So CFOs and CEOs have gorged themselves in cheap debt to help increase stock buy-backs to drive EPS (to meet bonus targets) which is quite rational if ‘dark’. The choice was an unproven or unaccountable risk in a long term capital project. Why invest in a 5-year risky investment in plant and machinery and R&D if you can instead just acquire the competitor? That is rational, not dark. And the hand that makes this mess possible is not invisible- it is Uncle Sam again.

Mr. Hardin simply suggests that Buffett buys his way into monopolistic firms and profits. Mr. Buffett is not dark. He is simply playing the cards our dark politicians are playing. They know least about how the world works; they know most about how to retire millionaires with free health insurance for life. What’s wrong with this picture?

UK Election Results Capture Political Schism

In under two years since the country stunningly voted to leave the EU, the same electorate shifted yet again and leant away from the idea of a clean break with Europe and threw the whole thing now into chaos. The youngest of voters sided with Labour, who were selling polices in a throw-back to those last seen in the 70s that, if followed, would lead the country to financial ruin. Corbyn’s plan is not even realistic; yet the youngest among us just have no memory of such irresponsibility. Only the old do, and so they voted Conservative.  

Now hostage to a 10-seat minority of the DUP, Theresa May will be saddled with a back-seat driver at negotiations with the EU. Decision making responsibility will not fall to May; she will have to keep ‘calling home’ to get approval.

Worse of all, the result of this election shows how the entire political system is corrupted. We have the worst of both worlds: a disenfranchised and ignorant electorate (e.g. Most of the young) that falls for platitudes and made-up promises. Of course, the left calls such things as false truths or fake news if the right puts such things out.

Britain will now have a much riskier time with Brexit. All we can hope for is a bank run that requires a bail-out or for the IMF to drop Greece ‘in it’ and a run on the Euro. It’s a matter of time. But now we need it sooner rather than 

The Madness of Student Loans

I read an amazing article in today’s US print edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article was titled, ‘Parents are Drowning in College-Loan Debt‘. The front page article explored data that suggests new record levels of delinquency on college-loan debts associated with a government-managed program called Parent Plus. 

Apparently this program allows parents to borrow money to support educational costs over and above the maximum a child can obtain from federal aid. The article suggests that there is no limit to what can be borrowed via Parent Plus (created by Congress in 1980 when Jimmy Carter was president); and that the most information needed to qualify is a social security ID. Apparently there is no credit check or any other required qualification.

Excuse me? I had to read that part again. What idiot approved this policy? Talk about idiot. This is just the kind of lunatic policy that contributes to unsustainable price increases in secondary education that the droves demand for more subsidies, loans and debts. This is as close to nuts as the same socialist and left-leaning policies that suggested expanding home ownership for those that cannot afford it was a good thing. This is madness.

Not every child needs to go to college. But every child should have the opportunity. There is a distinction between those two points; and the result should not lead to governments controlling access by funneling loans to those that cannot afford it. Attendance should be based on merit. Thus fewer would attend and so prices would not rise as fast and so fewer loans would be needed. But socialism informs uneducated parents that they have a right to a college education and so Uncle Sam has to bend over and make crap up and print more money and screw everyone as a result. Nice.

Now we are again in another financial pickle. But I can’t stop and write about how to fix it. I am going to rush off to go apply for my free Parent Plus loan.

Trump One Step Closer to Quitting

Reference:

I believe Donald Trump will quit the Presidency of the United States. I forecasted Trump would win (see April 2016: Trump Will Eat Clinton Alive), and in that article last Spring I suggested that he would quit. He will quit due to the inability for politicians in Washington to be rational and negotiate. He will quit with acrimony and bolshiness. About the only thing that will prevent this situation from taking place is tax reform.

Let me first state that I think that Obamacare was the wrong tool for the job. It was a rushed, Ill-focused, partisan and socialist effort to undermine the best parts of America. Its namesake and his supporters suggested that the Affordible Care Act (ACA) it helps those that need most help (the uninsured), and it does (in some way) but at a system-wide cost that is unacceptable and unaffordable.

The free market is anything but that; regulation is like a strangling vine; prices remain untouched and high; big pharmaceutical remains unfettered; patient outcomes remain anathema to healthcare. This country continues to spend ever more on healthcare, more than any other developed nation per capita, and yet our outcomes and their improvement reman poor and lacking, even on a good day. Obamacare was the wrong tool for the job.

The bad news is the Republican approach to Obamacare has split its own party. Worse, the repeal and replacement was in their reach. Yet last week the chance for correction was thrown out.  

There were even votes against the Republican policy from folks like Ron Paul who didn’t want the ‘Obamacare Lite’ but who wanted a full repeal. So he withheld his support. The Freedom Caucus, apparent fiscal hawks, had a chance to budget-fence Medicaid, yet they withdrew support in the mad hope of a perfect policy sometime in the future.  

This is madness. This is political suicide. The Democrats have been handed a free ticket and Trump must be mad. This is Washington at its worst. There will likely never be a perfect policy or time enough to develop it.

Now the movement shifts to tax reform. If an overhaul is not executed Trump will feel like quitting and he may yet do so. The Republicans need to realize that they have a rare opportunity but only if they unite. If they play party politics and splinter again, change will not be forthcoming. The Democrats, not in power of any sort, will be in power in all but name.

Obama won on the promise of change and socialists alike all rammed through their left-leaning, redistributive, anti-business and anti-free market policies. We are slowly bleeding to death now under the weight of ignorance and self feeling. Our polices cannot be paid for without printing money since we are all too happy to free-ride the masses and garrote the rest. The rest who are free and employed folks who work for a living, who want to improve their lot with their own blood, sweat and tears, not from hand-outs from Uncle Sam.

Trump also won on an argument for change. Alas the Republicans have forgotten how to govern.    

US Economy Not Out of the Woods – Beware the Hype that Says Otherwise

You would think that, given the press coverage, much of the US economy is making great progress.  Apparently interest rates will continue to rise in response to the Fed’s feeling that the economy is doing well; near-full employment, GDP recovery, stock market growth, bond and dollar strength and all that jazz.  But these data points mask some other troubling items that suggest any recovery will likely be lopsided and even short-term based.  You only have to look under the covers at, say, unemployment, credit, or housing.  

  • Unemployment: despite low levels of reported unemployment many economists are concerned that the participation rate is at very low levels.  In other words, there is a lot of unemployed that is not being reported in the official KPI.  Some economists suggest that real effective unemployment maybe nearer 6 or even 9 percent.  Thus the result of economic growth may not lead to wage price pressure so soon, since the participation rate may improve the so pick up some of the slack.  This is good news overall but not if the Fed believes that they need to head off wage inflation likely to appear due to pressure on a really tight labor market
  • Consumer Credit:  Student and auto loans are running ahead at full steam, and mortgage debt continues apace.  While many firms have cleared their balance sheets of bad debts, consumers – which drive a massive part of the US economy – are amassing debt easier than looking for a hot meal.  On February 27th the US print edtion of the Financial Times carried an article, More US car owners behind on loan payments than at any time since 2009.  What is realy funky here is that if you go into the market now to look for a new or used car, you will be offered a loan for repayment now past the 5 year window.  It used to be that 5 years was the maximum and this was only a few years ago.  Now you can get a loan over 6 years or longer.  So the consumer part of the market is building up a nice bad-debt situation.
  • House prices: Yes, house prices have recovered, so we are told, to near pre-crisis levels.  So that part of the market is secure, right?  Wrong.  Home ownership is a its lowest levels in years.  It turns out that the buyers that are driving up prices are investment firms and conglomerates that are snapping up property then leasing them to. So first time buyers are being squeezed out.  The housing market has not recovered in the way we would want it or need it to for effective sustainment.

So we have a very lopsided economic recovery.  It is not stable and even the strong shoots are some challenging weeds hiding just under the covers.  Even if Trump can delivery on +2% GDP growth, I am not altogether sure that woudl mask the issues that are building up today.

US Government Sets Up Next Financial Crisis & Brexit Not the Risk at All

Two articles came accross my desk this week – one caused consternation on my part and the other seemed to offer a sanity check.  The former concerned the US economy and specifically how there are signs that consumers, and lenders, are returning to the same behavior that led to the financial crisis at the source or our current economic challenges.  The latter concerned the hype and over blown concern with Brexit and its impact on Britain’s economy.

In the US print editions of the Wall Stree Journal (Wednesday January 11th) there was an article titled, “New Loans, Same Old Dangers“.  This front page article described a government-led initiative (Property Assessed Clean Energy) that provides subsidies loans to encourage homeowners to buy energy saving devices.  The article gives an example of a homeowner who is not able to afford the loan is still encouraged to take it out.  As is common practice this loan is then sliced up with other loans and sold on as a bond – what is called securitization in the financial industry.  This is analogous to the risky mortgage loans offered, and taken up by people who should have known better, and sold on to governments in Iceland as “AAA” opportunities.

The market is very small – the article suggests around $3.4bn of loans have been made so far – but the model is just damning.  FIrst you have big government trying to force its policies on a free market.  With the housing issues that triggered the financial crisis this was Government demanding ever greater home ownership among poor people and those that could not afford it.  Second you have the lowering of standard for the setting up of loans.  This is identical to what happened with dubious sales efforts of mortgage brokers during the 1990’s and early 2000s.  Finally you have the build up of risky loans and owners of the loans not knowing where the real risk is.

The popular uprising that has brought Trump to the White House would do well to heed these stories.  After all people will be people and when offered a bad apple that looks and smells sweet, many will take it.  Perhaps we should not fault those that do – or should we expect a stronger moral aptitude?  Either way we need to get big government out of the way.  It should not seek to foist its social or political wants on you and me – we should be free to do what we want, how we want, when we want, as long as it does not harm our fellow citizen.  Innovation and opportunity will drive improvement in the energy sector.  And perhaps tax credits would be a safer way to encourage small changes in behavior that do not create risky loans.  

The other article, a commentary piece in the US print edition of the Financial Times (Thursday Janary 12th) was titled, “The City has nothing to fear from Brexit“.  It was penned by Stanislas Yassukovich who is a former chief executive officer of European Banking Group.  The article is a breath of fresh air since it refutes many of the risks and issues that most other “specialists” report in the press.  For example we have heard a lot about “passporting” – the idea that a financial institution authorized to trade in one country of the EU can freely trade in another country.  It turns out that non-member states can use this capability quite easily – so it’s not even needed as a negotiation.  The article goes further.

Passporting was a means to try to level set the complexities of rules across what was meant to be a single market.  It turns out that even with passporting there remains complex and different rules that still need to accommodated when trading across the member-states.  As such, “core retail financial activities – residential mortgages, deposit and savings products and so on – remain almost entirely national, and highly protected.”   This whole think stinks to me.  

The recent news that PM Thresa May fired her senior most civil servant who worke with the EU was greeted in the press as bad news.  It seems he kept repeating to the PM that it was not going to be possible to complete all negotiations in time before the two year window closed for leaving the EU.  Why is this?  He may have had a practical view on things but he certainly did not have a positive view on what is possible.  I think we need clean out the cupboard and get a fresh new look at everything.  Good for PM May to do so.  If the author of this article is right, there is little we should fear from Brexit.