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Work Until You're Dead?

More and more Americans are, and not by choice. They simply don’t have the means to survive otherwise. According to CNN, “Roughly three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, with little to no emergency savings…50% have less than a three-month cushion and 27% had no savings at all….” (“76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck“, CNN Money)

“No savings at all”?

That’s right. So retirement is out of the question. A sizable chunk of the adult population is going to punch a clock until they keel-over in the office parking lot and get hauled off in the company dumpster. And those are the lucky ones, the so called baby boomers. By the time we get to the millennials it’ll be even worse because the economy will have been ravaged by 25 or 30 years of austerity leaving the proles to scrape by on hardtack and gruel. Pensions are already being looted, Social Security is under fire, and any small stipend that supports the poor, the unemployed, or the infirm is going to be terminated. That’s why everyone is so down-in-the-mouth, because their expectations of the future are so bleak. Check this out from Business Insider:

“For millennials, the situation is even more grim. Compared to their parents at their age, the under-30 set is worth only half as much. And while this is a sobering reminder of the scale of the Great Recession’s impact on younger generations, it’s not the whole story. These households were actually falling behind even before the stock market and housing crash, researchers found.

Young people not only saw their wages stagnate or drop but also suffered a rise in fixed costs. They leave college with an average $27,000 debt load and have a harder time finding jobs that pay well, while facing more expensive health care and housing costs.

“If these generations cannot accumulate wealth, they will be less able to support themselves when unexpected emergencies arise or when they eventually retire,” the study authors said. “This financial uncertainty could reverberate throughout the economy, since entrepreneurial activity, saving, and investment tend to build on a base of confidence and growing wealth.”(“AMERICA IN DECLINE: Young People Are Much Worse Off Than Their Parents Were At That Age“, Business Insider)

An entire generation of young people have been raped and discarded by their government and all the author cares about is the impact it will have on personal consumption.

Go figure. And there’s a larger point here too, which is that Americans have always believed that their children would enjoy a higher standard of living than their own. Until now, that is. Now most people think things are going to get worse, much worse. You see it in all the surveys. Expectations have changed, the future looks darker than ever before, and people are scared. Check this out from CNN:

“Things appear to be looking up for the economy.

On Wednesday the Federal Reserve felt confident enough to begin slowly withdrawing the huge economic stimulus the central bank has been pumping into the economy.

Unemployment is the lowest in five years. Economic growth picked up recently. The housing sector — which got us into this mess in the first place — is bouncing back. Home sales, prices and construction are all on the rise.

Auto sales recently had their strongest growth since 2006. Gas prices have fallen dramatically this year, and the stock market has risen sharply.

And there’s some reason to be hopeful for next year too. The Fed announced a slightly improved outlook for unemployment in 2014.

But things aren’t always as good as they seem. For many Americans, all the good news in the larger economy isn’t translating over to everyday life. Only 24% of the public believe economic conditions are improving, while nearly four-in-ten say the nation’s economy is actually getting worse, according to a recent CNN poll.” (“Is the economy as good as it looks?“, CNN Money)

That’s right; no one is buying the “recovery” crappola any more. They all know it’s BS. And a closer look at the CNN survey tells you why.

“Looking specifically at the economy, 39% feel that the economy is still in a downturn, up six points from April. Only 24% believe that an economic recovery is under way. Thirty-six percent are in the middle – they don’t think we’re in a recovery but they believe conditions have stabilized.” (CNN Politics)

So, 3 out of 4 people think we’re either still in a severe slump or running in place.(stagnation) That’s your recovery in a nutshell. And it explains why people hate bankers, Wall Street, and Congress. It also explains why millennials have given up on Obama after finally acknowledging that the man is a bumptious blowhard who’s never lifted a finger to help the people who shoehorned his worthless keister into office. Take a look at this from Policy Mic:

“Debt-weary millennials are disillusioned with Obama’s performance with regard to the economy, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, his handling of foreign relations”…

A new poll conducted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics has revealed that young Americans’ support for President Barack Obama has reached the lowest point yet. According to the poll, only 41% of Americans aged 18-29 approve of Obama’s performance in office, an 11% drop since April.” (“Millennials officially hate Obama. Here’s why“, policymic)

Ahhh, so people are finally waking up to what an unprincipled phony this guy is. Good!

Unfortunately, ripping Obama won’t pay the bills, which is why so many people are making painful adjustments in their own lives to make ends meet. Aside from cutting back on trips to the doctor and setting the thermostat on “Off”, America’s plenteous graybeards are staying on the job longer than ever. Here’s a clip from an article in Forbes:

“An alarming 37% of middle class Americans believe they’ll work until they’re too sick or until they die.

Another 34% believes retirement will come at the ripe age of 80…

It’s a grim look at the state of retirement which seems to be getting worse for middle class Americans.

Wells Fargo WFC -0.09% interviewed 1,000 Americans between age 25 and 75 and with household income ranging between $25,000 and $99,000. More than half (59%) said their top day-to-day financial concern is paying the monthly bills; that’s up from 52% who said the same last year.

“We do this survey every year and for the past three years, the struggle to pay bills is a growing concern and the prospect of saving for retirement looks dim, particularly for those in their prime saving years,” Laurie Nordquist, head of Wells Fargo Institutional Retirement and Trust, says in the report.

(Republished from Counterpunch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Counterpunch Archives, Social Security 
While Housing Sales Slow

10-year Treasuries veered into the danger zone on Friday as yields broke through the crucial 3 percent barrier signaling a slowdown in housing sales due to higher mortgage rates. Fixed rate mortgages are expected to edge higher even though the rate on the 30-year loan increased to 4.48 percent just days earlier. The Fed’s announcement to scale back on its $85 billion per month asset purchases has triggered a selloff in long-term Treasuries that will further constrain lending, shrink the pool of potential homebuyers, and turn a mild slowdown to a protracted slump.

Keep in mind, that the Fed is already buying nearly all of the newly issued mortgage-backed securities (MBS), but even that radical market intervention is having no noticeable impact on interest rates. Take a look at this from the Wall Street Journal:

“The Fed bought about 90% of new, eligible mortgage-bond issuance in November, up from roughly two-thirds of such bonds earlier this year…

The Fed’s reach has been enhanced by its practice of reinvesting the proceeds of its maturing mortgage bonds in its $1.48 trillion portfolio, adding another $15 billion to $20 billion in new monthly mortgage-bond purchases.

The Fed has increased its holdings by $553 billion over the past year. It is on pace to add another $220 billion in purchases in 2014, according to estimates from Credit Suisse.” (“The Fed’s Mortgage Role Expands“, Wall Street Journal)

There is no market for MBS except for the Fed.

On top of that, the Fed is reinvesting the money it takes in on maturing MBS to buy more of this unsellable garbage which adds another $15 or $20 billion to the monthly total.

“15 billion here, $20 billion there. Pretty soon, you’re talking real money.”

And all of this is being piled on to the Fed’s bloated $4 trillion balance sheet. (which no one has any idea of what to do with.)

The purpose of the policy is push down long-term interest rates, which it doesn’t do. In fact, as we pointed out earlier, rates are rising while conditions in the housing market are going from bad to worse. For example, existing home sales tanked for the third month in a row in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.9 million. November’s sales pace was the slowest in more than a year, which means that higher rates and rising prices are scaring off potential buyers. There are also signs that institutional investors, which represented 50% or more of previous sales, are cutting back on their purchases due to the deteriorating rate environment. Take a look at this brief summary by housing analyst Mark Hanson:

“Las Vegas housing demand has crashed. …This is not hyperbole. “Crashed” is absolutely the appropriate word to use here given sales are suddenly the weakest levels since Armageddon 2009. I mean come on…sales at the same pace as when the stock market was in the midst of one of the greatest plunges in history speaks loudly…at least to me…

… Like Sacramento, Phoenix, regions in the Inland Empire, and a dozen other “hot” real estate markets around the nation…..when the stimulus go-go juice ran out this market hit a literal “brick wall” the size of 2007…” (“Las Vegas Housing Demand Has Crashed While Supply Surging“, Mark Hanson via zero hedge)

When Hanson talks about “stimulus go-go juice”, he’s referring to the Fed’s rate stimulus which evaporated in June when Bernanke announced his intention to “taper” his asset purchases (QE). That led to a frenzied month of bond trading which pushed up yields on long-term USTs more than 100 basis points. The higher rates have put a damper on sales while mortgage applications have plunged to a 13 year low. For all practical purposes, the recovery is kaput.

Here’s an update from Phoenix which had been “red hot” for more than a year:

“The Phoenix-area housing market is quietly ending the year, with a drop in demand and activity… Demand is rapidly dropping, and the supply of homes available for sale is quickly rising…

First-time home buyers, especially those under 30, are showing little interest in getting into the market…

“I anticipate sales will be way down in November and through the holidays, when some people even take their homes off the market until late January,” says Mike Orr, director of the Center for Real Estate Theory and Practice at the W. P. Carey School of Business…

Investors and out-of-state buyers are also losing interest in the Phoenix area. The percentage of residential properties purchased by investors has dropped from the peak of 39.7 percent in July 2012 down to 22.6 percent this October. The percentage of Maricopa County homes sold to out-of-state buyers was down from 20.1 last October to 16.4 this October. That’s the lowest percentage since January 2009.” (“Phoenix housing-market activity quiets down for end of year“, Sonora News)

It’s the same story all over southern California where housing prices had been soaring but hit the skids shortly after the Fed made its announcement. This is from DQ News:

“Southern California’s housing market downshifted last month, with sales falling well below a year earlier as investor activity waned again and buyers continued to struggle with higher prices and a thin supply of homes for sale…

A total of 17,283 new and resale houses and condos sold in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, Ventura, San Bernardino and Orange counties last month. That was down 14.2 percent from 20,150 sales in October, and down 10.4 percent from 19,285 sales in November 2012, according to San Diego-based DataQuick….Last month’s sales were 19.8 percent below the average number of sales – 21,559 – in the month of November.” (“Southland Home Sales Drop; Median Sale Price Edges Sideways – Again“, DQ News)

So what’s really going on in the housing market? Is the sudden jolt in mortgage rates really that big a deal or is the market just taking breather before its next stratospheric surge?

Mark Hanson believes the situation is quite dire and explains why in a “must read” post on his blogsite. Here’s a clip from his article:

“House prices are down 26% from peak 2006. But it costs 12% MORE on a monthly payment basis to buy today’s house…..Houses have not been MORE EXPENSIVE” on a monthly payment basis in 11 years, right before when exotic loans were introduced to promote affordability…..” (12-17 Housing ‘Bubble 2.0′; Same as ‘Bubble 1.0′, Only Different Actors, Mark Hanson)

But how can that be, you ask, when rates are just 4.5% and home prices are still way below their peak in 2007?

It’s because the types of mortgages that were issued during the boom –all those “exotic, high-leverage, no documentation loans”–allowed borrowers to fake their income and make small monthly payments on obscene amounts of money they would never be able to repay. Keep in mind, interest rates actually rose in 2003, but that didn’t stop the bubble from inflating for 4 more years because lending standards were so ridiculous.

As Hanson notes:

(Republished from Counterpunch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Counterpunch Archives, Housing 
Slip Sliding Away

According to a new Washington Post-ABC poll, Barack Obama now ranks among the least popular presidents in the last century. In fact, his approval rating is lower than Bush’s was in his fifth year in office. Obama’s overall approval rating stands at a dismal 43 percent, with a full 55 percent of the public “disapproving of the way he is handling the economy”. The same percentage of people “disapprove of the way he is handling his job as president”. Thus, on the two main issues, leadership and the economy, Obama gets failing grades.

An even higher percentage of people are upset at the way the president is implementing his signature health care system dubbed “Obamacare”. When asked “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling “implementation of the new health care law?” A full 62% said they disapprove, although I suspect that the anger has less to do with the plan’s “implementation” than it does with the fact that Obamacare is widely seen as a profit-delivery system for the voracious insurance industry. Notwithstanding the administration’s impressive public relations campaign, a clear majority of people have seen through Obama’s health care ruse and given the program a big thumb’s down.

Of course, Obamacare is just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The list of policy disasters that preceded this latest fiasco is nearly endless, including everything from blanket pardons for the Wall Street big-wigs who took down the global financial system, to re-upping the Bush tax cuts, to appointing a commission of deficit hawks to slash Social Security and Medicare (Bowles-Simpson), to breaking his word on Gitmo, to reneging on his promise to pass Card Check, to expanding to wars in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, to droning 4-times as many civilians as the homicidal maniac he replaced as president in 2008.

Obama’s treatment of undocumented immigrants has been particularly shocking although the details have been kept out of the media, presumably because the news giants don’t want to expose the Dear Leader as a heartless scoundrel who has no problem separating mothers from their children, locking them up in privately-owned concentration camps and booting them out of the country with nothing more than the shirt on their back. Check out this blurb which sums up Obama’s “progressive” immigration policy in one paragraph:

“Obama is on track to deport 3 million immigrants without papers by the end of his second term, more than any other president. George W. Bush deported about 2 million over two terms. Obama will likely hit that mark this month….. The average daily count of immigrants in detention now is about 33,000. In 2001, it was 19,000. In 1994, it was 5,000, according to the Detention Watch Network. Almost all of the detainees and deportees are Latino. True, the population of illegal immigrants has also doubled in that time to more than 11 million. But the detainee and deportee counts have escalated more than twice as fast.

“He could go down as the worst president in history toward immigrants,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of the liberal activist group Presente.org.

Hooray for the Deporter in Chief! You’re Numero Uno, buddy. You even beat Bush! Is it any wonder why the man’s ratings are in freefall?

All told, Obama has been bad for the economy, bad for civil liberties, bad for minorities, bad for foreign wars, and bad for health care. He has, however, been a very effective lackey-sock puppet for Wall Street, Big Pharma, the oil magnates, and the other 1% -vermin Kleptocrats who run the country and who will undoubtedly attend his $100,000-per-plate speaking engagements when he finally retires in comfort to some gated community where he’ll work on his memoirs and cash in on his 8 years of faithful service to the racketeer class.

But, let’s face it; no one really gives a rip about “drone attacks in Waziristan” or “hunger strikes in Gitmo”. What they care about is keeping their jobs, paying off their student loans, putting the food on the table or avoiding the fate of next-door-neighbor, Andy, who got his pink slip two months ago and now finds himself living in a cardboard box by the river. That’s what the average working stiff worries about; just scraping by enough to stay out of the homeless shelter. But it’s getting harder all the time, mainly because everything’s gotten worse under Obama. It’s crazy. It’s like the whole middle class is being dismantled in a 10-year period. Wages are flat, jobs are scarce, incomes are dropping like a stone, and everyone’s broke. (Everyone I know, at least.) Did you know that 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Check it out:

“Roughly three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, with little to no emergency savings, according to a survey released by Bankrate.com Monday.

Fewer than one in four Americans have enough money in their savings account to cover at least six months of expenses, enough to help cushion the blow of a job loss, medical emergency or some other unexpected event, according to the survey of 1,000 adults.

Meanwhile, 50% of those surveyed have less than a three-month cushion and 27% had no savings at all….

Last week, online lender CashNetUSA said 22% of the 1,000 people it recently surveyed had less than $100 in savings to cover an emergency, while 46% had less than $800. After paying debts and taking care of housing, car and child care-related expenses, the respondents said there just isn’t enough money left over for saving more.”

Savings?!?

Are you kidding me? What’s that? Who do you know that’s able to save money in this economy? Maybe rich uncle Johnny whose lived on canned sardines and Akmak for the last 50 years, but nobody else can live like that. Subtract the rent, the groceries, the doctor bills etc, and there’s barely enough leftover to fill the tank to get to work on Monday. Saving just isn’t an option, not in the Obamaworld, that is.

Now check this out from Business Insider:

“Thousands of Americans aged 55 and older are going back to school and reinventing themselves to get an edge in a difficult labor market, hoping to rebuild retirement nest eggs that were almost destroyed by the recession….

According to the Federal Reserve, household financial assets, which exclude homes, dropped from a peak of $57 trillion in the third quarter of 2007 to just over $49 trillion in the fourth quarter of last year, the latest period for which data is available.

A survey to be released this summer by the Public Policy Institute of AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans, found a quarter of Americans 50 years and older used up all their savings during the 2007-09 recession. About 43 percent of the 5,000 respondents who took part in the survey said their savings had not recovered.” (“Unemployed Baby Boomers Are Getting Hired By Going Back To School”, Business Insider)

(Republished from Counterpunch by permission of author or representative)
 
America's Missing Investors

Guess who’s investing in America’s future?

Nobody, that’s who.

Just check out this excerpt from an article by Rex Nutting at Marketwatch and you’ll see what I mean. The article is titled “No one is investing in tomorrow’s economy”:

“The U.S. economy simply isn’t investing enough to ensure that there will be enough good paying jobs for our children and our children’s children. Net investment — the amount of capital added to our stock — remains at the lowest levels since the Great Depression. …

Net investment…measures the additional stock of buildings, factories, houses, equipment, software, and research and development — above and beyond the replacement of worn-out capital. In 2012, net fixed investment totaled $485 billion, only about half of the $1.1 trillion invested in 2006…

If businesses, consumers and governments were investing for the future at usual rate, the economy would be at least 3% larger, employing millions more people. That’s a huge hole in the economy that can’t be filled by heavily indebted consumers, especially at a time when government is handcuffed by forces of austerity.” (“No one is investing in tomorrow’s economy”, Rex Nutting, Marketwatch)

Now the author seems to believe that the lack of net investment is just a temporary phenom that will work itself out in the years ahead. But he could be wrong about that. After all, why would a company build up its capital stock for the future when the future is so uncertain? Certainly, there’s nothing in the data that would suggest that the US economy is about to shake off its five year post-recession funk and shift into high-gear again, is there? No, of course not. In fact, it looks like the economy has reset at a lower level of activity that will only get worse as the impact of budget cuts and stagnation are felt. That will further curtail consumer spending which, to this point, had been the primary driver of growth.

Bottom line: Net investment is down because there’s no demand. And there’s no demand because unemployment is high, wages are flat, incomes are falling, and households are still digging out from the Crash of ’08. At the same time, the US Congress and Team Obama continue to slash public spending wherever possible which is further dampening activity and perpetuating the low-growth, weak demand, perma-slump.

So, tell me: Why would a businessman invest in an economy where people are too broke to buy his products? He’d be better off issuing dividends to his shareholders or buying back shares in his own company to push stock prices higher.

And, guess what? That’s exactly what CEOs are doing. Check this out in the Washington Post:

“Battered by months of dis­appointing sales, networking giant Cisco needed a way to give its shareholders a pick-me-up. So the San Jose-based firm did what has become routine for many big U.S. companies in a slow-growing economy: It announced last month that it was buying back shares of its stock…..

This is what U.S. multinationals do now with their cash. Rather than tout big new investments, raise worker wages or hire more employees, companies are more likely to set aside funds to reward shareholders — a trend that took a dip during the recession but has roared back during the recovery.

The 30 companies listed on the Dow Jones industrial average have authorized $211 billion in buybacks in 2013, according to data from ­Birinyi Associates, helping to lift the benchmark stock index to heights not seen since the tech boom of the late 1990s. By comparison, the amount is nearly three times what the group spent on research and development last year, according to data from S&P Capital IQ.

Why spend so much on stock repurchasing?

When the number of shares outstanding falls, the value of each one goes up, instantly rewarding shareholders.” (“Companies turning again to stock buybacks to reward shareholders”, Washington Post)

Corporations don’t care about the future. What they care about is maximizing shareholder value, that’s the name of the game; profits. If that means boosting net fixed investment then, okay, that’s what they’ll do. But if the Fed creates incentives to do something else, like gaming the system with stock buybacks, then they can make the adjustment. And that’s what the Fed’s zero rate policy does. It’s incentivizes businesses to use their capital in a way that’s damaging to the real economy. Here’s more from the same article:

“Helping to fuel the stock market’s meteoric rise is the Federal Reserve’s stimulus program designed to lower borrowing costs. Companies are taking advantage, often by borrowing money at low rates to repurchase shares, although it’s unclear how much of the debt is being used to pay for buybacks.

“It somehow feels scarier if they borrowed the money to buy back stock than if they had some investment opportunities,” Inker said. “That somehow seems more sustainable than just levering up to reduce the share count.”

Some analysts say companies are better off repurchasing shares than pouring money into investments promising dubious payoffs, especially in a slow-growing economy.” (“Companies turning again to stock buybacks to reward shareholders”, Washington Post)

There you have it; instead of investing in R&D, factories or new technologies, (all of which produce more high-paying jobs) companies are taking advantage of the Fed’s cheap money, goosing stock prices and raking in hefty profits. That’s just the way the policy works. The only way change the outcome, is to change the incentives. But the Fed doesn’t want to do that, and neither does the Congress because, at present, they have working people right where they want them, under their bootheel.

If you are looking for proof that workers are getting shafted, just look at the condition of the US consumer who is still on the ropes 5 years after the recession ended. Now, according to the latest Fed’s Flow of Funds report, “Household net worth rose by $1.9 trillion in the last quarter” which means that everything should be hunky dory, right? It means the long period of deleveraging should be over and consumers should be ready to go on another madcap spending spree like they did up-until 2007. Unfortunately, the Fed’s report is a bunch of baloney. The $1.9 trillion merely accounts for rising asset prices that have been reflated by Bernanke’s quantitative easing boondoggle. While working people have seen some uptick in housing prices, the bulk of the gains have gone to stock and bond speculators who’ve made out like bandits. As for consumers, well, they’re still stuck in the doldrums as economist Stephen S. Roach points out in this article at Project Syndicate. Here’s a clip:

“In the 22 quarters since early 2008, real personal-consumption expenditure… has grown at an average annual rate of just 1.1%, easily the weakest period of consumer demand in the post-World War II era.” (It’s also a) “massive slowdown from the pre-crisis pace of 3.6% annual real consumption growth from 1996 to 2007.” (“Occupy QE“, Stephen S. Roach, Project Syndicate)

So, personal consumption has dropped from 3.6% to 1.1%?!?

(Republished from Counterpunch by permission of author or representative)
 
It's Closer Than You Think

“We are on the eve of a deflationary shock which will likely reduce equity valuations from very high to very low levels…..it is increasingly likely that one event will be the catalyst to very rapidly change inflationary into deflationary expectations. Indeed, when key prices are already falling across the globe, one should expect one key major credit event to occur.” Russell Napier, “An Ill Wind”, CLSA, selected excerpts, zero hedge.

Deflationary pressures are greater today than anytime since the end of the recession in March 2009.

In September 2011 the annual rate of inflation was 3.9 percent. At present, the rate is just 1.0 percent and trending lower. Inflation has continued to fall despite five years of zero interest rates and 3 rounds of quantitative easing. For all practical purposes, the Fed’s large-scale asset purchases (LSAP) have had no impact on inflation at all, in fact, some analysts believe the Fed’s polices may be counterproductive. Take a look at this from Stephen Williamson’s New Monetarist Economics blog:

“Back in days of yore, my concern was that we could indeed get higher inflation. How? I had thought that the Fed had the ability to control inflation, but when push came to shove, they wouldn’t do it. Once people caught on to that idea, we could get on a high-inflation path that was self-sustaining. Of course, since I said that, I’ve continued to work on these problems, and stuff has been happening. In particular, we’re not seeing that high-inflation path. How come?…

…with the nominal interest rate effectively at the zero lower bound, the rate of inflation is being determined primarily by the liquidity premium on government debt. Once we recognize that, it’s not surprising that the inflation rate has been falling for the last three years…

…In general, if we think that inflation is being driven by the liquidity premium on government debt at the zero lower bound, then if the Fed keeps the interest rate on reserves where it is for an extended period of time, we should expect less inflation rather than more…

The Fed is stuck. It is committed to a future path for policy, and going back on that policy would require that people at the top absorb some new ideas, and maybe eat some crow. Not likely to happen.” (“Liquidity Premia and the Monetary Policy Trap“, Stephen Williamson, New Monetarist Economics blog):

PCE-headline-core-since-2000

Williamson is not alone in his belief that the Fed is on the wrong track. Economist Warren Mosler arrives at the same conclusion although there are notable differences in their analysis. Here’s a short clip from an article by Mosler which wraps it up in one paragraph:

“Theory and evidence tell me it’s impossible for the Fed to create inflation, no matter how much it tries. The reason is because all the Fed does is shift dollars from one type of account to another, never changing the net financial assets held by the economy. Changing interest rates only shifts dollars between ‘savers’ and ‘borrowers’ and QE only shifts dollars from securities accounts to reserve accounts. And so theory and evidence tells us not to expect much change in the macro economy from these primary Fed tools, making it impossible for the Fed to create inflation.” (“It must be impossible for the Fed to create inflation“, Warren Mosler, Huffington Post)

The Fed is stuck in an ideological cul de sac mainly because its members ascribe to Bernanke’s monetary theories which simply don’t work. Here’s a clip from a speech the Fed chairman gave to the National Economists Club in 2002 that gives us a glimpse into his thinking:

“Under a fiat money system, a government… should always be able to generate increased nominal spending and inflation, even when the short-term nominal interest rate is at zero.” Ben S. Bernanke, “Deflation: Making Sure It Doesn’t Happen Here”, Federal Reserve, November, 2002

Okay, so where’s the inflation, Ben? The Fed’s 2 percent inflation target continues to move farther away the longer the Fed’s programs stay in place. Even more shocking is the fact that “The Fed’s preferred measure of U.S. inflation, the personal consumption expenditures deflator (PCE), showed last week that prices rose 0.7 percent in October, the least since 2009.” (Bloomberg) So even by the Fed’s own standards, QE and zirp have been a bust.

The reason for this is simple: QE does not raise inflation because QE does not increase incomes, wages or credit. The reserves that are created via QE remain in the banking system where they buoy asset prices by reducing the supply of stocks and bonds available for sale. But there is no transmission mechanism for delivering money to the real economy where it can increase activity, inflation and growth. The fact is, QE may actually be deflationary since it reduces the interest on bonds (US Treasuries) that provide income for savers and other fixed-income investors. Some analysts put the amount of potential savings lost due to QE in the neighborhood of $400 billion, which represents about half of all the money spent on Obama’s fiscal stimulus called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Naturally, the loss of this revenue has only added to the sluggishness and stagnation of the US economy.

Economist Frances Coppola believes that QE is “deflationary rather than inflationary”, and makes the case in a recent post on her blog titled “Inflation, Deflation and QE”:

“Both UK and US governments believe that monetary tools such as QE can offset the contractionary impact of fiscal tightening. But this is wrong. Fiscal tightening principally affects those who live on earned income. QE supports asset prices, but it does nothing to support incomes. So QE cannot possibly offset the effects of fiscal tightening in the lives of ordinary working people – the largest part of the population. In fact because it seems to discourage productive corporate investment, it may even reinforce downwards pressure on real incomes. And when the real incomes of most people fall, so does demand for goods and services, which puts downward pressure on prices, driving companies to reduce costs by cutting hours, wages and jobs. This form of deflation is a vicious feedback loop between incomes, sales and consumer prices, which in my view propping up asset prices can do little to prevent.” (“Inflation, Deflation and QE”, Frances Coppola, Coppola Comment)

Coppola, who calls QE “one of the biggest policy mistakes in history,” backs up her claim with a number of charts and graphs which show how inflation fell during periods when central banks were buying sovereign bonds and boosting reserves at the banks. (Remember, the point of QE is to raise inflation expectations, not lower them.) Her repudiation of QE is further underscored by the fact that the so called “velocity of money” has dropped to a six decade low. Get a load of this graph from the St Louis Fed:

(Republished from Counterpunch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Counterpunch Archives, Federal Reserve 
Subprime Auto

Rates are low, credit is easy, underwriting is shoddy, and sales are booming.

There’s your thumbnail sketch of today’s “surging” auto market. It’s a carbon copy of the subprime mortgage fiasco that plunged the economy into recession 5 years ago. Now the same nightmare is unfolding in Cartopia, the emerging credit Shangri-la where anyone who can transport himself onto a carlot in an upright position can drive away in a shiny new vehicle no-strings-attached.

But how can this be happening, you ask? Didn’t the US Congress pass strict new regulations, like Dodd-Frank, to prevent the banks and finance companies from lending billions of dollars to borrowers who don’t have the ability to repay the debt?

Not exactly. The fact is, the powerful auto lobby snuck in a neat little provision that exempted them from those nitpicky rules. Here’s a little background from Slate’s Matthew Yglesias:

“Measures like the CARD Act and the Dodd-Frank bill’s creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau both tilt in the direction of less consumer debt. But the wide dispersal of car dealerships across almost every congressional district in America means that the car dealership lobby is actually stronger than the Wall Street lobby, and it was able to get a special carve-out from Dodd-Frank. Unlike any other form of consumer lending, auto loans are outside the purview of the CFPB. And they’re expanding while other consumer loans are shrinking.” (“The Changing Shape of American Debt“, Matthew Yglesias, Slate)

Gosh. You mean Congress buckled to the power of big money? That’s shocking!

And now it looks like we got trouble on our hands because auto sales are soaring but a lot the loans are never going to be repaid. Isn’t that going to wreak havoc on the financial system again?

Sure, but let’s look on the bright side: Auto sales are up big, really big. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal “U.S. auto sales in November ran at the strongest pace in more than six years… lifting the annualized sales pace to 16.4 million vehicles.” (WSJ)

Chrysler is up, Ford is up, Malibu is up, Cadillac and Buick are up. Heck, even the pint-sized Volt is up. Everything’s up; autos, trucks, SUVs, the whole kit-n-kabootle. Detroit is this year’s Comeback Kid and it’s all due to creative financing. Isn’t that reason-enough for celebration?

Sure, but doesn’t it seem a tad reckless to lend gobs of money to people with crappy credit scores who can’t even come up with a few hundreds bucks for a down-payment? That sounds like a prescription for disaster to me. Just look at this from Reuters:

“Lenders made 26.04 percent of their loans on new cars to buyers with subprime credit scores…. For loans on used cars, the portion to subprime borrowers rose to 54.95 percent…

As the lenders made bigger loans, they also extended credit further beyond the value of the vehicles. The average loan-to-value on new cars rose to 110.6 percent… On used cars it rose to 133.2 percent…

Auto lenders often provide loans that exceed the value of cars they are financing because borrowers want cash to pay sales taxes and fees.

Extra-long loans are becoming more common. Some 19 percent of new car loans were made for more than six years…

… the average loss on loans gone bad jumped to $7,770 in the third quarter from $7,026 a year earlier and repossessions increased sharply, particularly for subprime borrowers.” (“U.S. car buyers borrow more as rates fall and standards loosen“, David Henry, Reuters)

Car dealers are not only skipping the down payment and extending the loan into the next millennia (more than 6 freaking years, for chrissakes), they’re also forking over MORE money than the value of the car. That’s what that “133.2 percent” LTV means. It means Mr Subprime Autobuyer can stick a wad of cash in his coat pocket after the ink dries and trundle off to Olive Garden with the kids for a night on the town in his brand-spanking new Impala.

Who said Amerika isn’t a great place? Here’s more from Bloomberg:

“A woman came into Alan Helfman’s showroom in Houston in October looking to buy a car for her daily commute. Even though her credit score was below 500, in the bottom eighth percentile, she drove away with a new Dodge Dart. A year ago, “I would’ve told her don’t even bother coming in,” says Helfman, who owns River Oaks Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram, where sales rose about 20 percent this year. “But she had a good job, so I told her to bring a phone bill, a light bill, your last couple of paycheck stubs, and bring me some down payment.”

… U.S. auto sales, on pace for the best year since 2007, are increasingly being fueled by borrowers with spotty credit. They accounted for more than 27 percent of loans for new vehicles in the first half of the year…

“Perhaps more than any other factor, easing credit has been the key to the U.S. auto recovery,” Adam Jonas, an analyst with Morgan Stanley (MS), wrote in an October note to investors.” (“Subprime Loans Are Boosting Car Sales“, Bloomberg)

Sure, it has, Adam, because easy credit means better sales and bigger profits. We all know that. Just like we know that it’s possible to lend money to people who have “spotty credit” if they show that they’re employed and paying their bills on time, like the woman above. But that’s not what this is all about, is it? This is about stretching the envelope in order to juice short-term profits. It’s also about “securitization”, that is, packaging up the garbage loans into bonds and selling them to suckers looking for a higher yielding investment. That’s what this is really about; scamming people. Take a look at this from Bloomberg:

“The money for subprime loans comes from yield-starved investors who buy bonds backed by them. Issuance of such bonds, which pay higher rates than U.S. government debt, soared to $17.2 billion this year, more than double the amount sold during the same period in 2010, but still below the peak of about $20 billion in 2005, according to Harris Trifon, an analyst at Deutsche Bank ….

Shoddy home loans packaged into bonds by Wall Street banks fueled the financial crisis. Subprime auto loans are a good investment, Helfman says: “A person that has to get from point A to point B, they’re not going to jeopardize their job. They have to pay the car payment before they pay anything else.” (Bloomberg)

How’s that for symmetry: In one breath Bloomberg admits that “Shoddy home loans … fueled the financial crisis”, then they follow up with old Helfman saying there’s nothing to worry about, everything’s under control. We gotcha covered!

What a joke. More than one-quarter of auto loans are going to people with credit scores under 500, which “is the highest share since tracking began in 2007.” That’s a big red flag right there. Then, a sizable portion of those loans are being gift-wrapped into securities and sold to Aunt Mable’s retirement fund, which will undoubtedly get walloped sometime in the not-so-distant future. That’s red flag Number 2. Finally, there’s the dealer mark ups which, according to one analyst add “several percentage points above what they obtain from their financing company, which generates an estimated $25.8 billion in payments from consumers over the lives of their loans.” Red flag number 3.

(Republished from Counterpunch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Counterpunch Archives, Financial Debt 

Wall Street is buzzing, and it’s all about bubbles.

In fact, according to Google Trends, interest in the term “stock bubble” was higher in November 2013 than anytime since October 2008.

And that should be expected given that the Dow Jones just broke through the 16,000-mark while the NASDAQ sailed-past the 4,000 milestone for the first time in 13 years. And did I mention that S and P 500 just closed above 1,800 for an all-time high?

While surging stocks are not proof of a bubble, they do draw attention to the condition of the underlying economy which is still in deep distress 5 years after the recession ended. With unemployment at 7.2 percent, GDP barley growing, droopy personal consumption, flagging durable goods, shrinking revenues, flatlining wages, falling incomes, widening inequality, plunging consumer sentiment, 47 million Americans on food stamps, and myriad other signs of persistent economic stagnation; the so called “recovery” is anything but robust. So where are stocks getting the oomph to keep rising?

That’s not a question that bothers the bubble deniers who have started popping up on the business channels like they did prior to the housing and the dot.com busts. These so called “experts” assure the public that all the bubble talk is just scaremongering by disgruntled Cassandras who don’t understand that current valuations are reasonable. They say that soaring prices reflect “strong fundamentals.

Uh huh.

Last week, serial bubblemaker, Alan Greenspan, made an appearance on Bloomberg TV where he scoffed at the idea a stock bubble saying, “It’s a little on the upside, (But) “This does not have the characteristics, as far as I’m concerned, of a stock market bubble.”

There you have it from Maestro himself. No bubble here. Move along now.

Others, however, are not as confident as Greenspan. They think stock prices have less to do with fundamentals than they do with the Fed’s uber-accommodative policy which has kept short-term rates set below the rate of inflation for 5 years straight, providing a subsidy for risk taking. They also point to Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s $85 billion per month asset purchase program, called QE, which has expanded the Fed’s balance sheet by $3 trillion lifting stock and bond prices across the board. Stock prices are based on Central Bank intervention. Fundamentals have nothing to do with it, nothing at all.

As for the bubble; judge for yourself:

Margin debt on the New York Stock Exchange is currently at its highest level ever. It’s even higher than before the crash in 2007. When investors borrow a lot of dough to buy stocks, you’re in a bubble, right? Because that’s what a bubble is, tons of credit pushing up prices. And when something bad happens, like the Lehman Brothers default, then all the over-extended borrowers have to dump their stocks pronto, which causes firesales, panics and financial meltdowns. Been there, done that.

So why is there so much margin debt now, you ask?

Because of zero rates. Because of QE. Because speculators think the Fed will keep prices high by pumping more liquidity into the system. It’s called the Bernanke Put, the belief that the Fed will prevent stocks from falling too fast, too far. Margin debt is a reasonable reaction to the Fed’s policy, which is why the Fed is ultimately responsible for the risky behavior.

Now check this out from the New York Times:

“Since the dark days of 2008, the Nasdaq has risen more than 150 percent, twice as much as the old-school Dow industrials. Money has been pouring into social media stocks. As of Friday, Twitter had risen nearly 60 percent since it went public only a few weeks earlier.

Once again, new “metrics” are being applied to justify stratospheric valuations. Twitter is losing money. A price-to-earnings ratio? There is no E in the P/E. But its stock is trading at 20-odd times the company’s annual sales. Good enough….

Eight months ago, Snapchat was valued at $70 million. Today, it is valued at $4 billion, even though it has zero revenue. Six months ago, Pinterest was valued at $2.5 billion. Today, it is valued at $3.8 billion — and no revenue there, either. And last week news broke that Dropbox was said to be seeking a new round of funding that would value the company at $8 billion, up from $4 billion a year ago.” (“Disruptions: If It Looks Like a Bubble and Floats Like a Bubble”, New York Times)

Did you catch that? A company with zero revenue is worth $3 billion more today than it was 8 months ago. So we’re back to the bad old days of the dot.com bust. This is the result of low rates and QE. It has nothing to do with fundamentals. We’re not talking earnings here. We’re talking manipulation, intervention, and central planning.

Then there’s this from the Wall Street Journal:

“Investment funds aimed at individual investors are barreling into collateralized loan obligations, a complex and volatile type of security that was shaken by the financial crisis.

Lured by annual returns of as high as 20%, some mutual-fund managers are buying CLOs through investment funds that purchase stakes in loans to companies with low credit ratings…. …

The biggest buyers of these securities usually are hedge funds, insurers and banks. But mutual funds and business-development companies, which pitch themselves to individual, or retail, investors, have collected more than $60 billion in money from clients this year, according to Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc. and fund-data provider Lipper.

CLO returns are higher than on corporate bonds and other loans, but CLO prices could plunge if the risk rises that companies will run into trouble repaying their loans. That happened in 2011, and some fund managers say retail investors are mostly unaware that the firms they invest in are buying CLOs…” (“Volatile Loan Securities Are Luring Fund Managers Again”, Wall Street Journal)

So the big boys are climbing further out the risk curve to scratch out a higher rate of return on their investments; investments which–by the way– will eventually cost ”retail investors” (you and me) a bundle. And the reason these financial institutions are engaging in such risky behavior is because rates have been stuck at zero for 5 years, forcing them to look for higher yield wherever they can find it. It’s all part of the Fed’s Pavlovian conditioning. First you turn the interest rate dial to zero, then you juice stocks prices with QE. And then you wait for the suckers (Mom and Pop) to reenter the market so you can cut them down like corn stalks in a combine. Works every time, just take a look:

“One development that has experts concerned is the return of individual investors, who are known for getting into the stock market near peaks….One way to measure their activity is to look at net inflows into stock mutual funds (excluding exchange-traded funds). When investors put more into stock funds than they take out, it’s called a net inflow. When they withdraw more than they invest, it’s a net outflow.

This year, net inflows totaled $176 billion through Nov. 20, according to Lipper….Most of that money is coming from bank accounts and money market funds…”

 

So the sheeple are about to get sheared again, right? Just like Bernanke and his Wall Street buddies planned from the get go. But, guess what? Just as Mom and Pop are getting back into stocks again, the big boys are getting out. Take a look at this report from BofAML from the Macronomics blogsite:

(Republished from Counterpunch by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Economics • Tags: Counterpunch Archives, Financial Bubbles