Category Archives: Economy

The Fate of Social Security for Younger Workers – And Three Things You Should Do Right Now

We constantly hear people wonder whether Social Security will still be there when they retire.  The question comes not just from people in their 20’s, but also from people in their 40’s and 50’s as they begin to think more about retirement.  It’s a fair question.

Some estimates show that the Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money by 2034.  Medicare is in even worse shape, projected to run out of money by 2029.  That’s not all that far down the road.

So how do we plan for this?

The reality is that Social Security and Medicare benefits have been paid out of the U.S. Treasury’s “general fund” for decades.  The taxes collected for Social Security and Medicare all go into the general fund.  The idea that there is a special, separate fund for those programs is accounting fiction.  What is true is that the taxes collected for Social Security and Medicare are less than the amount being paid out.

What this inevitably means is that at some point the government may be forced to choose between increasing taxes for Social Security and Medicaid, reducing or altering benefits payments, or going broke.

Another question is whether the benefits provided to retirees under these programs will cover the cost living.  Older people spend much more on medical expenses than the young, and medical costs are increasing much faster than the cost of living adjustments in Social Security payments.  If a larger percentage of a retiree’s income from Social Security is spent on medical expenses, they will obviously have to make cuts in other expenses – be they food, clothing, or shelter – negatively impacting the lifestyle they envisioned for retirement.

The wise response to these issues is to save as much of your own money for retirement as possible while you are working.  There is little you can do about Social Security or Medicare benefits – outside of voting or running for public office – but you are in control over the amount you save and how you invest those savings.

As we face an uncertain future, we advocate that you take these three steps:

  1. Increase your savings rate.
  2. Prepare a retirement plan.
  3. Invest your retirement assets wisely.

If you need help with these steps, give us a call.  It’s what we do.

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Our Government Needs to Start Doing its Job

It’s probably not news to anyone that our country faces some serious problems.  However, members of Congress don’t seem to care enough to do anything but grandstand and argue.  The U.S. government is running a $700 billion deficit this year, but the last time Congress sent a real budget to the President’s desk was 2002.  That was 15 years ago!  Since that time Federal spending has largely been on autopilot via a mechanism called a Continuing Resolution (“CR” in Washington-speak).

The role of Congress is to make laws and decide how tax revenues should be spent.  Instead, they act as if they think their role is pretending to act as detectives.  This is not a commentary solely on the current kerfluffle in Washington.  As we noted, Congress has been abdicating its responsibility for 15 years.  Our elected officials would rather posture in front of the cameras than actually do the jobs we sent them to Washington to do.

 Brian S. Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust, commented:

 

At eight years, the current economic recovery is the third longest on record. Personal income, consumer spending, household assets, and net worth, are all at record highs. Stock markets are at record highs. Corporate profits are within striking distance of their all-time highs. Federal tax receipts are at record highs.

So, how is it possible that the federal budget, along with some state and local budgets, still look like they’re in the middle of a nasty recession?

The answer: Government fiscal management is completely out of control. Politicians find time to fret about Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and won’t stop bashing banks, but they’ve lost their ability to deal with their own fiscal reality.

… Illinois and the City of Chicago are running chronic deficits, while New Jersey and New York are fiscal basket cases.
Businesses and entrepreneurs create new things and build wealth. Politicians redistribute that wealth. And while some of what government does can help the economy, like providing defense or supporting property rights, the U.S. government has expanded well beyond that point. Politicians have never been this reckless or fiscally irresponsible.

Whenever we say this, people ask; “what would you cut from the budget?” And then, if you are actually brave enough to answer, you get attacked for “not caring.”

This needs to stop. Illinois is in a death spiral. Tax rate increases will chase more productive people out of the state, while ratchetting spending higher. And just like Detroit and Puerto Rico, the state will go bankrupt.

The U.S. government is on this path, but, because it has the ability to fund itself with the best debt in the world, a true fiscal day of reckoning is still 15-20 years away.

Government spending needs to be peeled back everywhere. It’s no longer a case of picking and choosing. And until that happens, the fiscal irresponsibility of the government is the number one threat to not only America, but the world.

No matter what politicians tell us, any pain caused by private sector greed will pale in comparison to the mayhem that collapsing governments can create. Just look at Venezuela or Greece! It’s time to reset America’s fiscal reality. And if that means debt ceiling brinksmanship, shutting down the government, or moving to a simple majority on spending decisions, so be it. It’s time to get serious!

 

We agree.  We should all tell Congress that it’s time to get serious.

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Don’t believe the doom and gloom about the economy.

The invaluable Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist of First Trust, recently made some interesting comments about the economy.

First, there are the employment statistics:

The best news for the consumer is that the labor market continues to heal. At 4.4%, the unemployment rate is the lowest since 2007. Some watch what they call the “true” unemployment rate, which includes discouraged workers as well as part-timers who claim they’d prefer full-time jobs – that’s 8.6%, also the lowest since 2007. Meanwhile, wages and salaries are up 5.5% in the past year, outstripping inflation.

Meanwhile the average American has reduced his debt burden to levels not seen since the early 1980s.  While student loans have reached record levels and auto loans delinquencies have grown, consumer debt has dropped by 50% since the end of 2009.

Finally, consumers have changed their buying patterns.  They are shifting their buying to the Internet and away from brick-and-mortar stores.  Some of the old-line retailers are experiencing sales and profitability problems even as a company like Amazon is building physical stores.

We remain in the midst of a technological revolution.  Stay alert and very nimble.

If you want to learn how to navigate your way through the shoals and rapids of the investment river, give us a call and we’ll be happy to help.

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The Trump Trade after three months.

The election of Donald Trump was followed by what many called “The Trump Trade.”  Based on the promises made by Trump during the campaign: to lower taxes and reduce regulations – two factors that inhibit economic growth – the stock market rose sharply.  But it’s going to take time and a lot of hard bargaining to actually get to the point where real economic benefits result.

Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist at First Trust:

As we wrote three months ago, it’s going to take much more than animal spirits to lift economic growth from the sluggish pace of the past several years. Measures of consumer and business confidence continue to perform much better than before the election. But where the economic rubber hits the road, in terms of actual production not so much.  It looks like real GDP growth will clock in at a 1.3% annual rate in the first quarter.

He says that we still have a “Plow Horse Economy” and it will take time to unhitch the plow and saddle up the “Racehorse.”

Trump has signed a number of executive orders that will have an impact on regulation, but the bureaucracy is still staffed with the last administration’s appointees and the pace of approving new appointments is glacially slow.

Waiting is the hardest part.

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The Retirement Dilemma Facing American Workers

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The way Americans fund their retirement has undergone a fundamental transformation in the last 30 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of private-sector employees with a traditional defined benefit pension plan has dropped from about 45% in 1980 to a little over 20% in 2011. A defined benefit pension plan is one that provides the retiree with a guaranteed income for the rest of his or her life.

The guaranteed pension has been replaced by a defined contribution plan. Today, about 50% of the private workforce participates in one of these plans, which include 401(k) plans and 403(b) plans and allow the worker to set money from their paycheck aside to grow tax-deferred until they retire, at which point they can start pulling from it to fund their retirement. However, there is no guarantee that the amount saved will be adequate to meet their income needs once they retire.

Most government workers still have access to traditional defined benefit pension plans. However, most of these plans are severely underfunded and questions are being raised about cities and states being able to pay the benefits that were promised. A recent poll of people 25 years and older concluded that “Americans are united in their anxiety about their economic security in retirement.” Over 75% of those surveyed worry that economic conditions might hurt their chances for a secure retirement. (For related reading from this author, see: How Retirees Should Think About Retirement Income.)

Social Security and Medicare Concerns

The federal government provides a basic level of retirement income via Social Security, and provides a basic level of health insurance via Medicare and Medicaid. However, these programs are on shaky ground according to most actuaries. The Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money around 2034 unless it is reformed. That does not mean that checks will not go out to retirees, but it does mean that the amount going out will decrease.

Medicare is in even worse shape and, with the continued rapid rise in medical costs, may face a crisis even sooner. The costs of health care and increasing life spans are major issues for retirees, which explains the reason that so many Americans think they are facing a retirement crisis in the first place. Given the level of debt at the federal level and the rhetoric of the current administration, we do not see the government jumping in to fund the American worker’s retirement at levels above what it does now.

Even Denmark, an icon of the Welfare State, is proposing tax cuts, reducing welfare benefits and raising the retirement age.

“We want to promote a society in which it is easier to support yourself and your family before you hand over a large share of your income to fund the costs of society.”

Funding Your Own Retirement

If the government is not going to come to the rescue, and if corporations are going to continue to unload the financial risks and burdens associated with pension plans, what is the answer? Look to the old saying, “If you want something done, do it yourself.” Going forward, it’s increasingly going to be up to the individual American worker to fund his or her own retirement.

If people begin saving early, a large part of the retirement problem will be solved. The most valuable asset that people have when they are young is time. If workers begin putting money aside at an early age, it will grow and compound for 40 to 50 years until retirement, solving a large part of the problem. The compounding of returns is what makes so much of the difference.

Here is a little math exercise: assume you begin by saving $25 per month—much less than the cost of having one decent dinner at a restaurant—and invest it conservatively so that it grows at 5% per year. At the end of 45 years you will have $50,000. Now assume that you increase your savings by 10% each year—so that in year two you save $27.50 per month (still far less than the cost of just one dinner out)—at the end of 45 years you have $400,000 to use in retirement. These examples go to show that saving a modest sum for retirement does not require much cost or effort, just discipline, time and patience.

Financial Education is Key

The greatest asset that young workers have is time. Unfortunately, people rarely enter the workforce knowing much about saving or investing. That is one reason so many people live paycheck to paycheck. The solution to the retirement crisis is achievable by educating young people and raising awareness. Until schools and colleges begin having mandatory courses for our young people about managing money, parents should be doing this. If they are unsure, they can put their children in touch with a financial planner who will spend time to provide the education. Many financial planners are beginning to offer hourly rates to help people learn to plan and budget.

For most people, the retirement problem is the result of a lack of information. The solution is right in front of us, if we realize that times have changed and people must change with it.

(For more from this author, see: Are You Ready for the Retirement Challenge?)

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The Plow Horse is Dead – Long Live the Race Horse

Race horse

We have referred to the economy over the last decade as the “Plow Horse Economy.”  There has been a huge increase in technology available to the economy over that period of time.  “Fracking” has unlocked huge oil and gas reserves in the energy sector.  The “Internet of Things” is tying our appliances together, automating our homes, even allowing us to control them with voice commands.  Self-driving cars are becoming a reality faster than I believed possible.  3D printing is revolutionizing production processes.  Yet despite this dazzling technological revolution, the economy is only managing 1.2% GDP growth.

Why?

Many analysts believe that if we compare the economy to a horse, we have a thoroughbred economy that’s plodding along like a Plow Horse.  The problem is that the rider is too heavy.    That rider is the government.  It’s holding growth down.  In the year 2000 government was 17.6% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  In 2016 it was 21.1% of GDP, an increase of 20%.  That’s a big move from the private sector to the public sector.

Keep in mind that government doesn’t manufacture anything.

On top of that, government today regulates virtually everything, generating a hidden cost to producers and consumers.  Some analysts think it’s a miracle that the economy actually grew despite increased borrowing, taxes and regulation.

The incoming Trump administration has a staunchly pro-business agenda.  The focus on jobs and economic growth is front and center.  A new executive order instructs federal agencies to halt the issuance of more regulations, and the new President has indicated a desire to reduce them by 75%.   Another executive order has frozen hiring of federal employees, opening the door to replacing government employees with technology, something that has happened in the private sector.  Yet other executive actions advance the approval of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines – using American steel – creating new high-paying construction jobs and indicating an interest in making America energy independent.  Reducing tax rates, especially the high corporate tax rate, is another Trump administration objective.  It’s the carrot to encourage companies to build here, even as he waves the stick of high tariffs for goods brought in from overseas.  It’s getting a respectful hearing from otherwise skeptical business leaders.

These actions are not going to be enough, but they are indications that the new administration is determined to streamline government and incentivize private industry to grow.  According to Brian Wesbury, Chief Economist of First Trust, the earning per share of the S&P 500 is estimated to be $130, an increase of 20% in 2017.  Growth in earnings of that magnitude can justify an increase in market valuations and add a few percentage points to the annual GDP.

To get back to our horse analogy, it looks as if the jockey riding the horse will be put on a diet.  If that happens the thoroughbred who was a “Plow Horse”  may become a “Race Horse.”

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Dow Breaks the 20,000 level

The Dow Jones Industrial Average reached another milestone today.  The Dow broke through 20,000 as traders cheered.

For a little perspective here’s how the market reached past milestones.

dow-jones-milestones

A few points to remember.  There have been long periods when the Dow treated investors like riders on a roller coaster:  lots of swoops and slides only to end up where you began.  During those periods people made money with astute stock selection, not by buying “Mr. Market.”  We believe that those times will come again.

  • It took from 1929 to 1954 for the Dow to regain its previous high.
  • It took ten years – from 1972 to 1982 – for the market to break through the 1,000 level.

Keep in mind that the 1,000 point move in the Dow at the current level is just a little over 5% and is therefore not nearly as meaningful as a move from 1,000 to 2,000, a move of 100%.  But it’s still an important psychological barrier that had to be broken for the market to move higher.

The move makes sense from both a technical and fundamental standpoint.  Both retail and institutional investors are positive, as we have noted in the past.

The incoming Trump administration has moved with amazing speed to demonstrate their desire to increase the level of economic growth as a way of increasing job and wage growth.  They have expressed policy preferences for lower taxes, reducing regulations that stifle business development, and have been encouraging companies to build their businesses in the United States rather than overseas.

The trend is clear.  The only thing that could derail this train is a massive change in consumer sentiment or an external factor such as a war or other calamity.  The latter are known as “Black Swan” events and we must always keep in mind that they can occur.  We manage our portfolios with those possibilities in mind.

Eventually, valuations will get too high and the inevitable correction will occur.  In the meantime, we enjoy the ride while keeping a close eye on events.

Market Perspectives and Outlook

In 2016, the general election dominated the news headlines while the economy continued its slow slog for most of the year.

Stocks began the year in a slump, losing 10% in the first six weeks and then meandering sideways until July.  The markets rallied in the third quarter, followed by another decline until the election.  That’s when Trump’s surprising win started a rally that has carried the market to nearly 20,000 on the Dow.

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U.S. equities have held their gains since the election, while definitive sector rotations indicate more confidence among investors.  We believe the bull market will continue, although the sharp gains seen recently may give way to more sideways movement and/or potential pullbacks.

Improving economic data alongside a perception that the incoming Trump administration will be more business-friendly has bolstered both stock and Treasury yields.

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates in December and indicated that they expect further rate increases in 2017.

While it remains to be seen how much of Trump’s populist agenda will be embraced by the Republican Congress, a survey of 177 fund managers the week following the elections found they were putting cash to work  at the fastest pace since August 2009.

We always want to be good stewards of our client assets.  As such, we are participating in the market’s growth while at the same time remaining aware that the future holds many uncertainties, especially with the change in government direction and policy as we head into 2017.

As always, we value our relationship with you and welcome your comments and suggestions.

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Tectonic Shifts – Looking Ahead to 2017

The election has created tectonic shifts in government and promises to make bold changes in the economy.  We have been gathering consensus views from some leading financial analysts for 2017

  • Global interest rates are going up.
  • Global inflation is going up.
  • Global growth is going up.
  • Recession risk is going down.

A new consensus is also building.  The rise of nationalistic self-interest is upsetting the old order the world over.  For the past decade central bankers have been in control of economic policy throughout the world.  It has resulted in low or even negative interest rates in an effort to stimulate economic growth.  The result has been like pushing on a string.  Growth has been slow (the string as a whole hasn’t been moving) and the middle class in the developed world has seen their wages stagnate and their jobs disappear (the middle of the string) while those at the top (the far end of the string) have been virtually unaffected.  It’s part of the reason for the change in political leadership in the U.S. and the re-emergence of economic nationalism as evidenced by the Brexit vote in Britain.

As central bank leadership takes a back seat to aggressive fiscal policy, we can expect political leadership to focus on job growth and economic relief for the long-neglected middle class.  Domestically, here is what we expect to see:

Tax reform:  Trump’s campaign promised corporate tax reform.  To make American companies more competitive globally, he has proposed reducing corporate tax rates from 35% to 15%.  A special 10% rate is designed to repatriate corporate profits held offshore.

Individuals will be taxed at three rates depending on income: 12%, 25% and 33%.

Fiscal policy: The Trump administration wants to spend new money on infrastructure: transportation, clean water, the electric grid, telecommunications, security, and energy.

Health care: Trump wants to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Trade: The new administration has vowed to withdraw from TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) and renegotiate NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).  They also intend to challenge China regarding currency manipulation and unfair trade practices.

Immigration: President-elect Trump intends to establish new, tougher immigration controls to boost wages, build a wall along the U.S./Mexico border, deport criminal aliens and end sanctuary cities.

Economy: 25 million new jobs over the next decade is the goal of the incoming administration.  They aim to boost economic growth from 1.5% to 3.5% or 4.0% annually.

The Trump administration will focus on job creation, economic growth, infrastructure spending, reduced regulation, and energy independence while reducing governmental efforts to prevent climate change.  The people that Donald Trump has chosen for his cabinet are largely from the private sector; people that have backgrounds in running successful businesses and creating jobs.

These things are the primary reason that the stock market has reacted well to the election of Donald Trump.  Corporate earnings have been essentially flat for the past three years.  Professional investors see opportunities for renewed economic growth, which will increase corporate profits.  While we view this development with optimism, we always remain cautious.  We expect increased market volatility, especially if terrorist attacks continue throughout the globe.  We also expect interest rates to rise as the Federal Reserve brings rates to a more historically normal level.

We also see opportunities for the creation of new companies.  The number of publicly traded companies has dropped by nearly 50% since 2000.  At the same time, the number of companies that are held by private equity firms has grown explosively – by a factor of six!  This provides a great opportunity for privately held companies to go public and provide yet another opportunity for greater market growth.

As always, we remain cautious in keeping with our philosophy of preserving our clients’ capital.  Over the long term, we see the potential for a new American renaissance.

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Greedy Innkeeper or Generous Capitalist?

During the Christmas season we are reminded of the story of Jesus being born in a stable because there was no room in the inn.  We wanted to share this story with our readers because it says something about Christmas and also about the economy.  It comes from Brian Wesbury of First Trust Advisors

The Bible story of the virgin birth is at the center of much of the holiday cheer this time of year. The book of Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus decreed a census should be taken. Mary gave birth after arriving in Bethlehem and placed baby Jesus in a manger because there was “no room for them in the inn.”

Some people believe Mary and Joseph were mistreated by a greedy innkeeper, who only cared about profits and decided the couple was not “worth” his normal accommodations. This version of the story (narrative) has been repeated many times in plays, skits, and sermons. It fits an anti-capitalist mentality that paints business owners as greedy, or even evil.

It persists even though the Bible records no complaints and there was apparently no charge for the stable. It may be the stable was the only place available. Bethlehem was over-crowded with people forced to return to their ancestral home for a census – ordered by the Romans – for the purpose of levying taxes. If there was a problem, it was due to unintended consequences of government policy. In this narrative, the government caused the problem.

The innkeeper was generous to a fault – a hero even. He was over-booked, but he charitably offered his stable, a facility he built with unknowing foresight. The innkeeper was willing and able to offer this facility even as government officials, who ordered and administered the census, slept in their own beds with little care for the well-being of those who had to travel regardless of their difficult life circumstances.

If you must find “evil” in either of these narratives, remember that evil is ultimately perpetrated by individuals, not the institutions in which they operate. And this is why it’s important to favor economic and political systems that limit the use and abuse of power over others. In the story of baby Jesus, a government law that requires innkeepers to always have extra rooms, or to take in anyone who asks, would “fix” the problem.

But these laws would also have unintended consequences. Fewer investors would back hotels because the cost of the regulations would reduce returns on investment. A hotel big enough to handle the rare census would be way too big in normal times. Even a bed and breakfast would face the potential of being sued. There would be fewer hotel rooms, prices would rise, and innkeepers would once again be called greedy. And if history is our guide, government would chastise them for price-gouging and then try to regulate prices.

This does not mean free markets are perfect or create utopia; they aren’t and they don’t. But businesses can’t force you to buy a service or product. You have a choice – even if it’s not exactly what you want. And good business people try to make you happy in creative and industrious ways.

Government doesn’t always care. In fact, if you happen to live in North Korea or Cuba, and are not happy about the way things are going, you can’t leave. And just in case you try, armed guards will help you think things through.

This is why the Framers of the US Constitution made sure there were “checks and balances” in our system of government. These checks and balances don’t always lead to good outcomes; we can think of many times when some wanted to ignore these safeguards. But, over time, the checks and balances help prevent the kinds of despotism we’ve seen develop elsewhere.

Neither free market capitalism, nor the checks and balances of the Constitution are the equivalent of having a true Savior. But they should give us all hope that the future will be brighter than many seem to think.

Merry Christmas.

 

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