May 8, 2012

Chained-CPI is not an accurate deflation gauge

Posted in Ben Bernanke, Economy, Federal Reserve, Finance, government, Housing Market, IRS, medicare/medicaid, social security tagged , , , , , , , , , at 5:09 PM by Robert Barone

Circulating around the Beltway is a concept called Chained-Consumer Price Index (Chained-CPI). It is being billed as a new and “more accurate” way to measure the rate of inflation.In an April 25th article, the editors of Bloomberg View stated that the Chained-CPI “is a more accurate gauge of U.S. inflation that would yield immediate savings … The fix to this has already been endorsed by lawmakers in both parties, the Obama administration, many economists, and a series of bipartisan deficit-reduction panels.”According to Bloomberg View, the Chained-CPI is “a more exact measure that accounts for the substitutions consumers make when a product’s price goes up.” Remember this substitution concept, for, as you will see, it is the problem not the solution.
 
Currently, the most popular measure of inflation is the Consumer Price Index. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces several CPI measures monthly, but the one that makes the headlines is called CPI-U. In theory, CPI-U represents the buying patterns of all urban consumers.

This CPI measure is the “benchmark” that determines cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for a wide range of government programs, including Social Security, Medicare and government pensions. It is also widely used by the IRS in the tax code, in union contracts and in most long-term rental agreements.

The reality is that, like much of what comes out of Washington, the “Chained-CPI” concept is neither new nor more accurate. This chain-weighted concept is just another step in a series of steps that began in 1980 aimed at changing the CPI concept from one that measures the cost of maintaining “a constant standard of living” to measuring, really, not much at all, as I will explain later. The real purpose of altering the methodology is twofold: 1. To reduce the reported increase in inflation for political reasons; and 2. To lower future federal budget costs of Social Security, Medicare and government pensions by lowering the COLA adjustments without having to haveCongress vote for those or the administration sign it into law. Just note, however, what class bears the biggest burden of this – seniors and retirees.

The CPI rate of inflation reported for the year 2011 was approximately 3 percent. That was higher than what appears to be “tolerable” for America’s political class. But, we have a fairly recent concept called “core” CPI, which is the CPI-U excluding food and energy.

Both Fed chief Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Geithner believe that this is a better measure of “underlying” inflation. Apparently, they don’t believe that Americans are much impacted by the cost of petroleum products or food. I promise, however, that when the “core” CPI is higher than the CPI itself, “core” will be ignored!

If the methodology for computing the CPI-U were the same formula that was used in 1980, then the 3 percent rate of inflation reported for 2011 would have been closer to 11 percent, according to John Williams of Shadowstats.com, who follows this indicator in detail.  In 1980, the CPI measured a “standard of living,” with the price index telling us how many dollars more it would take to buy the exact same basket of items we bought in a prior period, say, last year. Below is a simple example using two goods: T-bone steaks and hamburger.

 

Weight (W)

Price (P)

W x P

T-Bone

50%

$10.00

$5.00

Hamburger

50%

$3.00

$1.50

   Index

 

 

$6.50

The table shows that the consumer has chosen, at current prices, to spend 50 percent of his/her budget on each item. The weighted index is $6.50. Now, assume that the price of T-bone steak rises to $12 while hamburger rises to $3.25. The table below shows that the weighted index would be $7.625.

 

Weight (W)

Price (P)

W x P

T-Bone

50%

$12.00

$6.000

Hamburger

50%

$3.25

$1.625

   Index

 

 

$7.625

That is, it now takes $7.625 to purchase what $6.50 used to purchase. What that says is that to maintain the “standard of living” that $6.50 used to buy now takes $7.625. So, prices have risen (i.e. inflation) by 17.3 percent [(7.625-6.5)/6.5].

We all know that when prices change, and especially if incomes are not rising as fast as prices, consumers substitute lower cost goods that usually are of lower quality. When that happens, the “standard of living” is clearly falling. The following is an example of how the Chained-CPI would significantly lower the reported inflation rate.

The table shows the same two goods, but because incomes have not risen, consumers have cut back T-bone steak to 40 percent of their budget and increased hamburger to 60 percent. As shown in the following table, the weighted index is $6.75 and the resulting reported rate of inflation is 3.8 percent [(6.75-6.50)/6.50)] rather than the 17.3 percent rate associated with maintaining a defined “standard of living” (i.e. 50 percent T-bone and 50 percent hamburger).

 

Weight (W)

Price (P)

W x P

T-Bone

40%

$12.00

$4.80

Hamburger

60%

$3.25

$1.95

   Index

 

 

$6.75

U.S. consumers already know that their living standard is being eroded, and that the reported rate of inflation understates reality. This has been the explanation of why. And, clearly, the “Chained-CPI” is not a “more accurate” gauge of inflation.

If you think about it, the two weighted average costs using different weights are not really comparable at all. What would you say if consumers had to substitute canned dog food for hamburger? Would you think the measure of inflation meant anything? The 3.8 percent is a math result, the product of numbers in a formula. But the numbers being used in the calculation measure different things and are not comparable. The result is that the Chained-CPI doesn’t really measure anything.

Nevertheless, the coming use of the Chained-CPI will allow reporting of much lower rates of inflation than is the reality, reducing Social Security, Medicare and government pension COLAs, all without any action on the part of Congress or the administration.

It also will distort to the upside the reporting of other economic activity where nominal” (i.e. current dollar) indicators, such as GDP, are translated into “real” terms by deflating them with an artificially low measure of inflation.

As I’ve said in many past blogs, much of the recession is being carried on the backs of those living on fixed incomes, savers, those living off of accumulated assets and retirees. Not only do they now get near 0 percent on their savings, but now they will be further cheated out of part of the COLA adjustments that would keep them at their current living standard via their Social Security, Medicare and, if a government retiree, pension. Isn’t it wonderful how government works?

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April 24, 2012

After further review, employment remains unhealthy

Posted in Economic Growth, Economy, Federal Reserve, Finance, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, recession, Uncategorized, Unemployment tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:40 PM by Robert Barone

 Most of the business media is content to rehash headline data, simply passing on what the large wire services report with no further analysis. The headline, then, becomes the “conventional wisdom.”

Such was the case on the first Friday of April with the reporting of the unemployment rate. The conventional wisdoom was that there was some disappointment in that, using the Establishment Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the nation only created 120,000 new jobs. But the unemployment rate itself sank to 8.2 percent. For that we should be grateful, at least according to the conventional wisdom.
 
The accompanying chart tells quite a different story. It is a long-term chart. The period measured (horizontal axis) begins in 1988, so it covers about a quarter of a century. The right hand vertical axis measures the “headline” unemployment rate. That’s the headline rate most often reported. In government jargon, it is known as the U-3.
 
The scale is inverted, so a rising line means the unemployment rate is falling. This unemployment rate is supposed to measure the number of people looking for work who can’t find it as a percentage of all people with and without jobs. The left hand scale is a measure of the employment rate in its most basic form. Most readers won’t recognize this, as it is seldom reported, but it measures the number of people employed as a percentage of the population. As such, it is a better measure of the job market in that, unlike the unemployment rate, its definition can’t be changed (more on that later).
 
Looking at the chart, note that in the late 1980s, 63 percent of the population was employed. This rose to nearly 65 percent at the turn of the century. After falling to 62 percent in the 2001-02 recession, it rose back to 63 percent in 2007. Since the Great Recession, this measure of employment has been bottom bouncing just above 58 percent.
 
But what is really noticeable is the huge divergence between the two since 2010. The question to be asked is, “How can the ’employment rate’ show little to no improvement, while the ‘unemployment rate’ would lead one to conclude something altogether different?” The answer lies in how things are defined.
 
In 1994, BLS redefined the term ‘discouraged worker.’ This person was counted as unemployed only if he or she had been ‘discouraged’ for less than a year. After that, he or she was longer counted as ‘looking for work.’ Today, with jobs so hard to find, we clearly have many people who have been out of work for more than a year but are still actively seeking employment. Our social safety net even recognizes jobs are hard to find – unemployment insurance payments are available for 99 weeks. But our measurement of “unemployment” stops counting people as unemployed or even looking for work after 52 weeks. They are simply defined away! This goes a long way toward explaining the increasing discrepancy between the two series.
 
This past weekend, I made an off-the-cuff observation to my wife as we visited a fast food establishment with the grandchildren in tow. I noted employees seemed to be a lot older than what I remembered from a few years back. In recent blogs, both David Rosenberg (Gluskin Sheff) and John Hussman (Hussman Funds) wrote about the changes in the distribution of job creation since the end of the recession in June 2009. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, total employment in non-agricultural industries (seasonally adjusted) has grown 2.15 million since that time. For workers 55 and older, employment has grown by 2.98 million.
 
That means that employment has continued to contract for those under 55 years of age since the recession’s so-called end! How can that be healthy?
 
There is a term business media uses called “financial repression.” Essentially, it refers to the zero interest rate environment in which savers and retirees are no longer able to live off the interest on assets they accumulated prior to retirement. So they re-enter the labor force, working for minimum wages to supplement now inadequate retirement incomes.
 
The employment picture, then, when viewed from this lens, is much worse than the headline data and conventional wisdom would have you believe. I don’t think this is a surprise to most Americans, but it would certainly help if the business media stopped pretending.
 
Robert Barone and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.   Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.
 
Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778.
 
Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee.
 
Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at: 9222 Prototype Dr., Reno, NV 89521. Ph: (775) 284-7778.

April 9, 2012

Financial armageddon: Should you worry?

Posted in Armageddon, Banking, crises, debt, Economic Growth, Economy, Finance, government, Housing Market, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, IRS, medicare/medicaid, Nevada, payroll tax reductions, recession, social security, taxes tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:37 PM by Robert Barone

You’ve probably seen them in your email, or even on TV — I’m talking about the “approaching financial armageddon” forecasts. People must be responding to them, because they keep on appearing in my email — several per week, and others I know get them too. Should you be concerned?To answer this, we examine data from the six largest categories of Federal expenditures in 2000, 2012, projections for 2016, and their associated compounded annual growth rates (CAGR). Much of this data comes from USdebtclock.org. Caution, the website is not for the faint of heart.Six expense categories (Medicare/Medicaid, social security, income security, federal pensions, interest on debt and defense) account for nearly $3.1 trillion of spending in 2012, represent more than 86 percent of total federal spending and account for 137 percent of taxes collected. These six spending categories are critical when trying to understand the nature and extent of the structural deficit.Growth rates in CAGR show Medicare/Medicaid spending growing to $1,050 billion per year in 2016. The demographics of the U.S. population don’t show us getting younger and baby boomers are just beginning retirement. Social Security will also advance much more quickly than its 5.4 percent growth rate of the past 12 years. All in all, the projection of expenses I’ve shown in the table for 2016 ($3,692 versus $2,265 in 2012) appear quite optimistic. But, let’s go with it.Americans, in general, will tell you they oppose bigger government, at least in the abstract. But in poll after poll, when asked where Congress should make significant cost cuts, almost no specific program eliminations are favored by a majority of Americans. Given this predilection among Americans and assuming that these six categories again account for 86 percent of Federal spending in 2016, then, total Federal spending will be approximately $4.3 trillion.

Some analysts fret about the “fiscal cliff” on Jan. 1, 2013 when the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire along with the 2 percent payroll tax reduction for individual social security contributions.

Those analysts put the impact of these at a 3 to 4 percent GDP reduction. When the Bush tax cuts expire, the Federal government theoretically could collect about $300 billion more in taxes if economic activity were otherwise unchanged (a heroic assumption). In addition, the reinstatement of the 2 percent social security tax on individuals will add about $160 billion to tax revenues (again, assuming no decline). The breakout with this story is an estimate of what the deficit would be and its relationship to 2016 GDP. It assumes the Bush tax cuts have been eliminated, the payroll taxes are reinstated, and economic activity is not negatively impacted, so it is likely to understate the deficit. The tax revenue growth rates (left hand column) begin in 2013, after the “fiscal cliff.”

As you can see from the table, reinstatement of the Bush tax cuts and the payroll tax reductions alone do little to solve the issue, as the deficit remains at $1.54 trillion if no further tax increases occur.

 

OUR ‘FISCAL CLIFF’

If Tax CAGR is: Deficit/GDP will be: Deficit will be ($trills):
0% 9.1% $1.54
5% 6.6% $1.12
7% 5.5% $0.93
8% 4.9% $0.83
10% 3.7% $0.63
16% 0.0% $0.00
 
Such a tax regime will clearly keep the economy in a no growth or recessionary mode. If America resists the tax increases, then deficits will balloon, interest rates will rise as the world spurns the dollar, the Fed will continue to print money and purchase the debt that can’t be placed externally, a nasty inflation will likely set in (it has already begun — look at food and energy prices), and we will find ourselves in a Greek type tragedy. The only way out is to significantly cut the growth of Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, Income Security and Federal Pensions. Which Congress and president will do that?So, should you be concerned about an approaching financial armageddon? Yes.
  

Robert Barone and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.

Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.

Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778.

Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah
Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee.

 Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at: 9222 Prototype Dr., Reno, NV 89521. Ph: (775) 284-7778.

 

March 26, 2012

Robert Barone: Is U.S. housing healing?

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, debt, Economic Growth, Economy, Finance, Foreclosure, government, Housing Market, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, Nevada, recession, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 5:15 PM by Robert Barone

Last Tuesday, a headline in the business media read: “U.S. housing heals as starts near three-year high.”
I scratched my head. The last three years have been the worst in recorded U.S. housing history. The accompanying chart tells the story. It is a real stretch to believe that this data indicates “healing.” Worse, everybody knows that the extremely mild winter has pulled demand forward; this is especially true for housing starts, as contractors don’t pour foundations in freezing weather, but use mild periods in the winter to get a head start for spring sales.
The data shown in this chart is “seasonally adjusted,” a statistical process that attempts to normalize fluctuations in data caused by such things as weather or holiday shopping. The seasonal adjustment process assumes January and February have typical winter weather. So, if the mild winter caused contractors to pour more foundations than they would have in a normal winter, then the seasonal adjustment process overstates what would be a normalized level of housing starts.
There is a similar story for sales of existing homes — the data was released last Wednesday. Because of the weather and other significant issues, I suspect that new starts and sales (where the “seasonal factors” normalize to the downside) will disappoint in the months ahead. Here’s why:
There are 3 important price categories: less than $300,000; $300,000 to $800,000; $800,000 and above.
There are three important buying groups: first-timers; move-ups; retirees. Generally, the first-timers purchase the under $300,000 homes, while the move-ups purchase in the other two categories. Retirees, usually sell from the upper two categories and “downsize.”
Government stimulus programs and record low interest rates have made homes the most affordable in decades (current index = 206; 100 means that a median income family can afford a median income home). First-time buyers can get a low down payment low interest rate loan (what happens if interest rates rise?), but those in the move-up category must rely on traditional bank-type financing, which requires a big down payment.
The home price downdraft since 2007 has taken many of the move-up buyers out of the market. CoreLogic data shows that 50 percent of current U.S. homeowners (the move-ups and the retirees) have less than 20 percent equity in their homes. That means that a significant percentage of move-ups cannot sell their existing home, pay a realtor’s commission (usually 6 percent), and have a 20 percent down payment for the move-up property.
History shows a healthy housing sector is critical to U.S. economic growth, and that when the move-ups are not healthy the sector does poorly.
Retirees are finding their homes are not worth what they thought. Their tendency is to stay put and wait for a better market. In fact, the media hype around “healing” is probably keeping them in their homes, as they now believe that a better market is just ahead! This is called “shadow” inventory, which means that the number of homes officially for sale understates the real supply.
With this view, we would expect the low-priced homes to be doing well but the upper two price brackets to be doing poorly. February data from Dataquick for the Southern California housing market confirms this view. First-time buyer price point sales (under $300,000) are up 9.5 percent from a year earlier, while the other two price point sales are both down (the $300,000 to $800,000 down by .8 percent, and the $800,000 and above down by 12.6 percent).
Nothing in this data, from the seasonal adjustment bias to the health of two of the three buying groups, tells me U.S. housing is healing.

March 15, 2012

Markets Hooked On Liquidity Drug From Central Bank Pushers

Posted in Banking, Ben Bernanke, CDS, Economy, Europe, Federal Reserve, Finance, Foreign, government, investment banking, investments, ISDA, QE3, recession, sovereign debt, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:04 PM by Robert Barone

From early last October to the end of last month, the S&P 500 rose 25%; amazing for an economy that is struggling to stay out of recession.  Then again, the equity markets are hooked on the liquidity drug.

When Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, in his recent semi-annual testimony before Congress, did not hint that QE3 was just around the corner, the market sold off.  When the European Central Bank broke its traditional role as lender of last resort and morphed into a gift giver to its member banks (to the tune of more than a trillion dollars), much like our Fed, the equity markets soared.

Money printing can’t go on forever, can it?

In every historical context, whenever the equity markets have a run up not based on economic fundamentals, eventually, they return to what those fundamentals dictate.  And here are some of the underlying economics:

  • There is no doubt that American manufacturing is undergoing a renaissance.  Labor costs in Asia are on a steep rise while wages here have been stagnant for several years.  Shipping costs, quality control and culture are other factors.  But, manufacturing represents less than 12% of GDP.  It, alone, cannot drive significant economic growth.
  • Gasoline prices are up more than $.60/gallon year to date with talk of $4.50 gas by summer. That cost/gallon is already here in some markets. Every penny increase drains $1.5 billion annually from other consumer discretionary spending.  That’s about $90 billion so far for 2012.  And what happens to gas prices if the Middle East flares up again?
  • While the first quarter is far from over, early data suggest a much softer than expected GDP.  Retail sales have been soft except for automobiles (pent-up demand or just a rush to buy fuel efficient vehicles ?).  Consumers (70% of GDP) have shown no real income growth for many quarters, and incomes are tumbling in Europe.  Inventories appear to be on the high side given the level of demand.  So additional production won’t be forthcoming.
  • Despite a reinstitution of 100% depreciation for capital equipment, much of that demand was pulled into 2011, as the business community was uncertain as to whether or not the tax break was going to be reinstated in 2012.    The state and local government sector is still in contraction, and, given the slowdown evident in the rest of the world, exports aren’t likely to add to GDP.  Of course, the market may like the softer side of GDP, as it likely ensures another dose of the liquidity drug from the money czar, Bernanke, the king of money printing.
  • Europe is sicker than the markets have priced in.  The hoopla around the Greek bailout is just another can kicking.  Because the Greek populace hasn’t accepted the idea that they have lived beyond their means for the past decade, austerity won’t be successful.  Politicians who promise to end the austerity are likely to be elected.  Eventually, Greece will need to have their own currency which can fluctuate in value vis a vis other currencies with commensurate interest rate levels.
  • It is rare that all of Europe is in recession at the same time.  The current market expectation is that Europe’s recession will be mild.  But, don’t forget, Germany’s biggest export clients are other European countries.  In fact, as a general rule, all of Europe’s economies export heavily to each other.  Being in recession together is going to have a large impact on those exports.  In addition, if the Euro remains at its current lofty level (above $1.30), it will be more difficult to export to non-EU countries.
  • The determination by the ISDA (International Swaps and Derivatives Association) that Greece officially defaulted on its debt when it invoked its recent legislatively passed “Collective Action Clause” to force investors to take losses is actually good news for the other so-called troubled European sovereigns (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Ireland) because it assures private sector investors that if they buy the so-called troubled foreign sovereign bonds, hedge them with Credit Default Swaps (CDS) and a Greek style default occurs, they will be paid at or near par value.  If the CDS payout had not been triggered, the private sector investors would view the purchase of such sovereign debt as having significantly more risk, and that would result in a much higher interest cost of that sovereign debt to the issuing countries.  In addition, it would throw the whole CDS concept into confusion, potentially impacting even the higher quality sovereigns like, Germany, the U.K., Canada, Australia, and even the U.S.
  • This is not to say that the world is now safe from financial contagion, as, in the context of world markets, Greece’s default is an expected and well prepared for event. The real worry should be if Spain (debt > $1 trillion) and/or Italy (debt> $2 trillion) default.  In addition, the CDS market is not transparent, and no one knows where the CDS obligations lie.  While a Portuguese and/or Irish default would have about the same individual impact as that of Greece (economies slightly smaller and not as indebted), we should worry that a rolling set of smaller defaults would eventually cause a major CDS insurer to fail due to the cumulative impact of the several defaults.  After all, it is likely that the CDS insurers who dabbled in Greek CDS, are also involved in CDS insurance of the other high debt European countries.  And, if a significant CDS insurer defaults (e.g., an institution similar in size and stature to AIG in 2009), we could, indeed, have contagion.
  • But even ignoring Greece for the short term, the ECB’s LTRO 1 and 2 appear to make Europe’s banks even more vulnerable.  Unlike the Fed, which purchased questionable assets from bank balance sheets and put them on its own, the ECB has not followed suit.  In fact, it stepped in and, by force majeure, inserted itself as senior to other bondholders holding the exact same Greek bonds, thus avoiding any losses in its own portfolio.  That makes losses for the private sector even greater.  Worse, it sours potential investors in European sovereign debt, seeing that they cannot easily quantify their risks as they can’t know how much of the same sovereign debt they own may be owned by the ECB.  This partially reverses the positive impact that the triggering of the CDS default will have on the European sovereign debt market.
  • Finally, the LTROs may make European banks even more insolvent than they are now, as they have been encouraged to take the cheap ECB funding and purchase European sovereigns for the interest spread (by Basle II and III rules, the debt of the European sovereigns is “riskless” and requires no capital backing on a bank’s balance sheet)!  Further sovereign debt crises, e.g., Portugal, Spain, or Italy, will eat away at already scarce European bank capital.  Contagion could very well result.

Looking at the GDP of Europe relative to China, if one includes all of the European Union countries and those closely related, Europe’s economy is about twice the size of China.  If China’s GDP growth went from 9% to 3%, the equity markets would certainly have a huge sell off.  But, it is likely that Europe’s GDP will fall from about 1.5% in 2011 to -1.5% in 2012, maybe even more than that.  Do the math!  This is equivalent to a Chinese hard landing.  As the European recession unfolds, the equity markets are likely to wake up.

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Speaking of China, a slowdown is clearly developing.  They actually ran a trade deficit for the first two months of 2012 signaling a real slowdown in exports.  Retail sales have been softer than expected and the real estate bubble there appears to be in the process of popping as property sales and prices are plunging.  No wonder the government recently lowered its official growth forecast from 8% to 7.5%.  This is not to say that China, itself, is entering a recession, but a slower growth rate there (2nd largest economy) in combination with growth issues in the US (largest economy), Japan (3rd largest), and a significant recession in Europe bodes ill for worldwide growth and will eventually play out in the equity markets.

The profit implications for multinational corporations of the severe recession in Europe, and a slowdown in China and elsewhere are significant.  Analysts have continued to forecast rapid earnings growth and high profit margins even in the face of rising energy and food costs and stagnant U.S. and falling European incomes.  Using such rosy profit forecasts makes the market look undervalued.  However, a 15% – 20% profit decline is normal for a recessionary world.  If you plug that in, the equity markets look overvalued today.

Wasn’t it somewhere around this time last year that the equity markets were also priced for perfection?  Didn’t we hear that the economy had achieved “escape” velocity and that the recovery was about to accelerate?  And, didn’t the market sink when the economy fizzled and needed the QE2 liquidity drug injection?  In fact, the S&P 500 ended 2011 at exactly the point where it began, with a lot of volatility in between.  So far, 2012 appears to be following 2011′s path.

Robert Barone and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.

Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value  Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.

Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United   States. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778.

Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, GeorgetownUniversity) is a Principal of Universal Value Advisors (UVA),Reno,NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.  Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee. 

Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy.  A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at:9222 Prototype Dr.,Reno,NV 89521.  Ph: (775) 284-7778.

 

March 13, 2012

Greece Default Declaration Stabilizes CDS Markets

Posted in Banking, Bankruptcy, Big Banks, Bonds, credit default swap, debt, derivatives, Economy, Europe, Finance, Foreign, government, International Swaps and Derivatives, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, ISDA, Nevada, sovereign debt tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:10 PM by Robert Barone

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — The determination by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association that Greece officially defaulted on its debt when it invoked its recent legislatively passed “Collective Action Clause” to force investors to take losses is actually good news for the other so-called troubled European sovereigns like Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland.

The ISDA determination assures private sector investors that if they buy the so-called troubled foreign sovereign bonds, hedge them with credit default swaps and a Greek style default occurs, they will be paid at or near par value.

If the CDS payout had not been triggered, the private sector investors would view the purchase of such sovereign debt as having significantly more risk, and that would result in a much higher interest cost of that sovereign debt to the issuing countries. In addition, it would throw the whole CDS concept into confusion, potentially impacting even the higher quality sovereigns like, Germany, the U.K., Canada, Australia, and even the U.S.

According to the ISDA, about $3.16 billion of Greek debt is covered by the CDS (4,323 swap contracts). On March 19, an auction will be held which will set the “recovery” value on the Greek bonds. The difference between that recovery value and par will be the payout of the CDS.

For example, if the auction results in a recovery value of 20%, then the CDS payment will be 80%, or about $2.5 billion. This is not a large amount in the context of world markets, and it would be a surprise if any viable CDS issuer will be greatly impacted, although it does appear that Austria’s KA Finanz, the “bad” bank that was created in 2008 when Kommunalkredit Austria AG was nationalized and given all of the “distressed” assets, will be stuck with CDS losses in excess of $550 billion which will require the Austrian government to step up with a significant capital injection.

The “non-eventness” of the CDS payouts is a result of the fact that there has been a long lead time for the issuers to adjust their risk portfolios to deal with the likelihood of a Greek default. Over the past year, the amount of Greek debt covered by the CDS has halved. Compare this to the Lehman default of $5.2 billion where there was almost no lead time between the emergence of the Lehman issue and its bankruptcy filing.

It was the lack of such a lead time that caught CDS issuers, like American International Group(AIG), with no time to adjust their risk portfolios, and required government intervention to prevent a domino default effect. With Greece, no such domino effect is expected although there is always the possibility (albeit low) of a surprise. We will know that soon after the March 19 auction when settlement must occur.

This is not to say that the world is now safe from financial contagion, as, in the context of world markets, Greece’s default is an expected and well prepared for event. The real worry should be if Spain, with a debt of about $1 trillion and/or Italy with a debt of about $2 trillion default.

In addition, the CDS market is not transparent, and no one knows where the CDS obligations lie. While a Portuguese and/or Irish default would have about the same individual impact as that of Greece (economies slightly smaller and not as indebted), we should worry that a rolling set of smaller defaults would eventually cause a major CDS insurer to fail due to the cumulative impact of the several defaults.

After all, it is likely that the CDS insurers who dabbled in Greek CDS, are also involved in CDS insurance of the other high debt European countries. And, if a significant CDS insurer defaults (e.g., an institution similar in size and stature to AIG in 2009), we could, indeed, have contagion.

March 9, 2012

Wall Street gives Hayes the runaround

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, Business Friendly, community banks, Economy, Finance, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, local banks, Nevada, Stocks, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:08 PM by Robert Barone

The S&P 500 closed at 1,342 on Feb 10. It was at that level in May 2008, January 2001 and June 1999. For nearly 13 years, investors in America’s largest companies have essentially made little return on their investments.
But think about all the multi-millionaires and billionaires Wall Street has created f rom within its own ranks in that time span! It’s almost as if the game is rigged against the small investor.
Unfortunately, it is.
M.F. Global, for example, pledged and lost its clients’ assets in a bet on Italian bonds. Had the bet paid off, the firm and its management stood to benefit, not the clients. Yet the clients were on the hook when the bet went sour. In 2009, the government used taxpayer dollars to save the “Too Big To Fail” banks (which have since grown by more than 25 percent), or those in trouble because they had grossly over-levered their balance sheets. As if nothing had happened, in 2010 these institutions paid their management record bonuses ($1 million is chump change).
There is story after story in the investment world of small investors being bilked out of their hard-earned assets. It’s largely due
to a system that always puts the clients last. Here are some examples:
Outside Managers: Oftentimes, broker/dealers and/or supposed investment firms send client assets to outside managers. The client has to pay double fees – one set to the investment firm and another set to the outside manager. The outside managers often rebate part of their fees and expenses to the investment firm. Worse, the outside managers direct their discretionary purchases and sales, especially in bonds, back to the introducing firm’s trading desk. That desk, knowing full well there will be no competitive bid from other trading desks, adds a significant mark up or down from the true market price.
Shelf Space: In order to be available to clients, the large broker/dealers require smaller mutual funds to pay a monthly fee. In addition, all of the funds must rebate to the broker/dealer all or part of the 12b-1 fee that they charge as part of their expenses where these are split between the firm and the account rep.
In today’s world, there is absolutely no reason to pay a front end or back end “load” for a mutual fund. Yet many clients of the large broker/dealers pay loads as high as 5 percent, much of which is retained by the broker/dealer. If you are being charged a “load” when you buy mutual funds, ask yourself if your interests are being put first. Vanguard funds are widely known for having no loads (or 12b- 1 fees) and their expense ratios are among the lowest in the industry. Ask your account rep if you can buy Vanguard funds in your account. If the answer is no, consider whose interests are being put first.
Inappropriate Investments: This is really the biggest issue for small investors. Because of the cost of litigation, most small investors who have lost significant sums due to inappropriate investments cannot afford to fight a legal battle to recoup losses. Most of the time, inappropriate investments occur because the fee to the selling agent or institution is so significant that the clients’ best interests are put behind those of the firm or the account rep. A good practice is to ask your account rep the amount of commission associated with any particular trade.
The accompanying news story about Bobby Hayes of Incline Village, his local attorney, Thomas Bradley, and his broker/dealer Merrill Lynch (now Banc of America Securities) illustrates many of these points:
• In July 2007, Mr. Hayes told his account rep he didn’t want to take any risk with $883,122. His account rep put him into a high risk tranche of a collateralized mortgage obligation. If the value of the assets in the tranche fell by as little as 0.5 percent, Mr. Hayes’ investment would be wiped out. (During the last decade, Wall Street’s financial “rocket scientists” divided up the cash flows from mortgages such that some tranches were quite secure while others were quite risky. Guess which one Mr. Hayes got?) Did his account rep have any idea about the risk inherent in this investment? If the account rep did, he/she clearly violated his/her fiduciary duty to the client, as minimal due diligence (i.e., a call to the New York desk) would have uncovered the risk. Most likely, the account rep was blinded by the large ($37,000) fee associated with the sale of the tranche.
• As it turns out, the loans Merrill Lynch placed into the tranche had already fallen in value by 5 percent before the investment was sold to Mr. Hayes. The investment was worthless at inception. Worse, it looks like the folks at Merrill Lynch who issued the paper knew it.
• After more than five years, arbitrators awarded Mr. Hayes $218,000 in attorney fees. In addition, Hayes had to shell out $23,500 in other costs and was potentially liable for $8,400 in hearing fees.
• Hayes won the return of his investment, interest on it, attorney fees and the other costs, or about $1.38 million, because it was clear, even to the arbitrators, that the paper sold to him was worthless before it was purchased on his behalf and that Merrill Lynch most likely knew it. Yet despite the apparent fraud and Merrill Lynch’s shunning of its fiduciary duties to the client, no punitive damages were awarded. This speaks to the inherent bias against the investor and for the broker/dealer, which appears to permeate the system when it comes to Wall Street.
• It is interesting to note there were two such tranches, one for U.S. clients and another for foreign clients. Mr. Hayes purchased the entire U.S. tranche. The foreign investors, who purchased the other tranche, also sued and settled for an undisclosed amount. Of further interest in this case is that the Massachusetts Secretary of State has subpoenaed the same or similar records to see if Merrill Lynch knowingly overvalued assets it put into investment pools (“Galvin demands B of A records on mortgages,” www. BostonHerald.com on Feb. 11).
• Mr. Hayes’ attorney, Reno’s Thomas Bradley, has written about other inappropriate investments being foisted on unsuspecting small investors, usually because the commissions on the sales of such instruments are high (see http://blog. stockmarketattorney.com/many-investors- mislead-by-brokerage-firms-to- purchase-unlisted-reits.html).
From a lack of any real return to unconscionable fees and costs to an unaffordable and often unjust litigation process, the Wall Street system is rigged against the small investor. Just think of how many small investors were put into similar investments by Wall Street’s major broker/dealers. Few of them have the assets or stamina to fight Wall Street like Mr. Hayes did.
Most, if they actually do pursue legal action, settle for pennies on the dollar because of the costs, effort, and additional potential loss should the arbitrators rule against them.
Despite these abuses, the government continues to come to Wall Street’s aid. No one yet has gone to prison over the sub- prime fiasco. No one is likely to go to prison in the M.F. Global scam. Despite the obvious fraud, no punitive damages were assessed in the Hayes case.
U.S. households have $700 billion in negative equity in their homes, and the government (who had its own fingers in the mortgage fiasco) last week settled with the biggest perpetrators for 3.5 cents on the dollar. With only slaps on the wrist and minor fines or penalties for fraudulent behavior and the shirking of fiduciary obligations, what will incent Wall Street to alter its behavior?
Conclusion: Little is going to change for small investors in America unless and until the Wall Street playing field is leveled.
Robert Barone, Ph.D.

February 22, 2012

Dr. Robert Barone Interview with Face the State on KTVN News Ch2

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, Business Friendly, Economy, Education, Finance, Foreclosure, Gaming, government, Housing Market, investment advisor, Las Vegas, Nevada, taxes, Unemployment tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:15 PM by Robert Barone

If you missed the televised interview with Robert Barone on February 16th, 2012 with Face the State on Ch.2 News, you can watch the video by clicking the link below.

Dr. Robert Barone Interview with Face the State on KTVN Ch. 2 News

February 16, 2012

Debunking the Warren Buffett Tax Deception

Posted in Economy, Finance, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, IRS, local banks, taxes tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 10:10 PM by Robert Barone

It is an election year, so the media makes a big deal out of Warren Buffett’s assertion that the tax system unfairly taxes his supposedly “working class” secretary at 33% (we’ve also seen 34% and 35.8%), while he only pays 13.7% (we’ve also seen 17.4%) on the millions that he makes.

The political implication is that he, and others like him, such as GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, somehow aren’t paying their “fair share” of taxes.

But instead of doing even superficial analysis, the media carries the story at face value. That is naive. Even a slight amount of digging will turn this story upside down.

Let’s start with Buffett’s secretary, Debbie Bosanek. In order to pay a marginal tax rate of 33% (or 34% or 35.8%), she would have to be in Occupy Wall Street’s 1%, not the 99%. Using the 2011 tax tables for individuals, if she were single making a $250,000 adjusted gross income (that’s after deductions!), she would be in the 33% marginal tax bracket and would have a 27% effective tax rate. To get to the 35% marginal tax bracket, her adjusted gross income would have to be more than $379,000. Isn’t a $250,000 income the magic line that [President Barack] Obama has drawn that demarcates those who he is targeting as “rich” and should be paying more taxes? So, let’s not be deluded into thinking that his woman somehow represents America’s working class.

But the bigger deception is Buffett’s claim that he pays a much lower tax rate than he supposedly should. A quick review of business taxation in the US today will show that Buffett pays in excess of 30% of his income in taxes.

Most small-business owners choose the Subchapter-S or LLC format for their businesses. Any profit from their business flows directly to their personal taxes (form 1040). Assume two similar businesses, one owned by X and the other by Y. Both businesses make $450,000 in pretax income. Owner X has chosen the LLC format. Owner X’s company pays no taxes to the IRS, but sends Owner X a K-1 requiring X to declare $450,000 on his form 1040. His marginal tax bracket is 35%.

Owner Y has chosen the C-Corp format. Y’s company also had a pretax income of $450,000, which is taxed at the corporate 35% tax rate. Y has chosen to declare a $50,000 dividend to himself which shows up on his 1040 and is taxed at 15%. Looking only at his 1040, you would think that Y doesn’t pay much in taxes. In fact, Y pays more taxes than X because the dividend is double taxed – that is why most small businesses choose the LLC or Sub-S format.

Now let’s talk about Buffett. He is famous for buying large stakes or even controlling interests in large C-Corps. He is the equivalent to Owner Y.   So, the taxes that Buffett pays go well beyond what is shown on his 1040. Like Owner Y, the 13.7% rate on Buffett’s 1040 shows only the taxes he pays on the dividends and therefore is only part of the story. I looked up Buffett’s 13F SEC filing dated January 30, 2011. That filing shows nine major holdings.

Using the share price of each holding and the number of shares shown on the 13F, I estimated the value of each of those holdings. Then, using the C-Corp’s reported effective tax rate, the pretax income per share, and the dividends per share (taxed at 15%), I calculated Buffett’s effective tax rate on each holding. Finally, using the market value of each holding to form a weighted average, I then calculated that Buffett’s effective tax rate on these nine holdings was more than 32%.

Buffett Holdings from September 30, 2011 13F
Click to enlarge

This should debunk the myth that America’s investor class does not pay its “fair share” and that we should put a minimum of 30% on their 1040 filings.

Finally, some advice for Romney. Should you become the GOP candidate, I would advise that you do an analysis on your income similar to what I did for Buffett in the table above. If you are the GOP candidate, you can take the issue of paying your “fair share” of taxes off of the table.

February 8, 2012

Avoiding The Austerity Death Spiral

Posted in bail out, Banking, Bankruptcy, Ben Bernanke, Big Banks, Economy, Federal Reserve, Finance, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, Senate Banking Committee, taxes, Unemployment tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:19 PM by Robert Barone

Over the past four years, the slow creep of government into the private sector has become a gallop.  Unfortunately, a high level of structural unemployment is the unintended consequence of social engineering, picking winners, over-taxing and over-regulating every aspect of the business process.

The conventional wisdom is that a balanced budget will be a magic solution to the sluggish economy and the employment situation, but if it is done with just austerity and tax hikes but without relief from an overbearing set of governments on the business sector, what we will get is an “austerity death spiral.”  Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said as much to the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday.

Intervention is the Norm

We now live in a world where government intervention in the business process is expected.  When any sort of economic issue arises, government is now expected to fix it.

  • Financial institutions in trouble?  No problem – the taxpayers, via the government are expected to bail them out!
  • Domestic auto companies historically made awful decisions around retiree medical and pension issues and, as a result, can’t compete and are staggering toward bankruptcy.  Again, no problem.  Ask the government to shore them up, even if it means trampling on bondholder contract rights like in the General Motors case.
  • Some homeowners can’t, and others don’t want to make their mortgage payments.  That’s easy.  Ask the government to intervene, stop or slow the foreclosure process, and, perhaps, even require the lenders to reduce principal balances! This deal is in the works now with the government prepared to offer big lenders like Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase money to offset losses on short sales.

The markets now expect intervention.  When the government intervenes in an economic issue, the markets rise.  If the government doesn’t, it falls precipitously. On September 29, 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) fell 778 points when Congress failed to pass the initial TARP legislation; From the time QE1 began in November, 2008 until it ended in March, 2010, the DJIA rose 28% or  2,378 points.

QE2 elicited a similar market response, 1,199 points (10.7%) from November, 2010 to June, 2011, even more if you go back to August when Bernanke articulated the strategy in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

In late November, 2011, on the day when the Fed gave unlimited swap lines to the European Central Bank (ECB), the DJIA rose 490 points; it rose 337 points just before Christmas when the ECB opened its lending facility to 540+ European banks.

I suspect we will see similar market reaction if the Fed goes through with its hinted at QE3.

Unintended Consequences

Unfortunately, nearly every government intervention carries with it unintended consequences, and, if such interventions interfere with the free market processes, they have long-term negative implications on economic growth. Recent examples in the U.S. include the Keystone Pipeline and the National Labor Relations Board’s attempt to block Boeing from opening a plant in South Carolina.

Nearly every economic malady that exists today is directly traceable to the unintended consequences of government interference in the economic process or via its attempt at social engineering:

  • Sub-prime and housing crisis:  It is widely recognized that this was caused by three concurrent factors: 1) an extended period of low interest rates engineered by Greenspan’s and Bernanke’s Fed; 2) the social engineering goals of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA); 3) the political and monetary aspirations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives and sponsors;
  • Social Security and Medicare unfunded liabilities: As the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age, unfunded liabilities will increase by more than $3.5 trillion each year.  To show how absurd this is, the payroll tax reduction, in effect since January 1, 2011, and currently an issue in the Congress, simply puts the Social Security system ever deeper into debt that cannot be repaid without hugely inflated dollars;
  • Unfunded pension liabilities:  While some private sector corporations have unfunded pension liability issues, the bulk of the problem lies at the local, state and federal levels;
  • High structural unemployment: As alluded to earlier, impediments to business from all levels of government, but especially from the federal government, are a huge issue.  Recent legislation, including Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, and Obamacare, is crushing small business.  In addition, business must be confident that the future environment will be friendly.  So, the notion of a “temporary” tax reduction doesn’t reduce business uncertainty, as businesses invest for the long-term.

This last item is particularly poignant.  In a three part op-ed series published by Bloomberg in mid-January, Carl Pope, former chairman of the Sierra Club, bemoans America’s loss of manufacturing jobs.  “It’s not the wages, stupid!”, he says.  If wages were key, how is it that Germany, where wages are higher and unions stronger, enjoys a growing manufacturing base?

For the auto industry, which in 1998 had over 70% of the U.S. domestic auto market but now has 44%, it was the health care and pension costs of its retirees that caused the industry’s economic crisis, he says.  Since the turn of the century, America’s manufacturing base has shrunk by one-third, not because of wages, which are similar to wages paid in the rest of the world, but the lack of support or even outright hostility on the part of government.  (When even the Sierra Club recognizes that government is choking free enterprise, the issue must be terribly obvious!)

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