December 31, 2012

Barone: 2013: Forecasts for the unsettled road ahead

Posted in Economy, Markets, taxes, Uncategorized tagged , , , at 7:59 PM by Robert Barone

Forecast 1: Slow economic growth in 2013’s first half; second half could be better.

Whether we go over the “fiscal cliff” or not, the first part of 2013 will be quite slow with the possibility that even the “official” numbers could show up as negative. At this writing, it does not appear that the Washington politicians will reach any sort of meaningful deal by year’s end. But, even if they do:

• Economic confidence already has plummeted.

• There are significant 2013 tax increases in Obamacare and a return to normalcy in the employee portion of the Social Security tax; furthermore, the end of extended unemployment benefits is a significant hit to consumer income.

• The job market remains weak; much of it due to a skills mismatch, which is a very long-term structural issue.

• Consumers’ real incomes continue to fall.

The second half of the year might be a different story. If some fiscal certainty is delivered in January, U.S. business investment spending, currently at a six-decade low, easily could pick up and spur the economy above the 1 to 2 percent growth rates we have seen in recent years.

Forecast 2: Nevada’s housing market will continue to struggle.

The housing market in Nevada appears to have been a bright spot for 2012. Realtors indicate that the rise in the median price is due to a shortage of supply, not an increase in demand. Nevada’s AB284, effective in October 2011, all but halted foreclosures. There remains a dearth of first-time and move-up homebuyers. I suspect this scenario will change in 2013 as the Legislature, prodded by the powerful banking lobby, deals with the technical issues in AB284 that now make it difficult and dangerous for mortgage holders to foreclose. That means more supply in 2013’s second half, and, perhaps, a plateau in home prices.

Forecast 3: Europe will sink further in 2013.

The markets are thrilled that Europe is uniting to save its insolvent banking system. While the immediate crisis has been averted through the injection of liquidity, the insolvency issues remain. The chosen path for Europe is to inflate its way out.

In 2013, the European Union will continue to be ensnared in a significant recession (depression in Greece, Spain and Portugal). France, considered to be part of the strong northern European core, also will enter recession in 2013. Even the mighty Germans will be hard-pressed to show more than a flatline.

Forecast: We have not yet seen the last of the European Union implosion. It has just been placed on the back burner with the European Central Bank’s adoption of Bernanke-style money printing policies.

Forecast 4: The Chinese miracle will continue in 2013.

China avoided a “hard landing” in 2012. The reason: A one-party political system doesn’t end up in policy gridlock. There is hot debate as to the sustainability of the current Chinese turnaround, but one thing is for sure: Economic policies, be they right or wrong, are carried out quickly and the economic impacts are felt with minimal time lags.

Forecast 5: The currency race to the bottom will intensify in 2013.

All of the world’s major central banks (the Fed, Bank of Japan, ECB and Bank of England) are printing money at breakneck speed.

The Fed is printing at least $85 billion per month, which, at least temporarily, allows the Washington politicians to shirk their fiscal responsibilities. After all, even if foreign demand for U.S. treasuries (i.e., Japan and China) dries up, the Fed will purchase any new debt due to the tax and spending imbalance.

The same scenario is true in Japan where the newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has successfully attacked the independence of the Bank of Japan, which now appears willing to print enough to cover the fiscal deficits on which Abe campaigned. Ditto for the U.K.

All of this money printing is really a form of mercantilism, i.e., policies aimed at producing a positive trade balance, resulting in higher factory output and employment levels at home. China is the world’s role model in this regard.

I call this the “race to the bottom,” because when every country does this, as is the current situation, not only is it a zero-sum game (i.e., no one wins), but there are significant unintended consequences. We see this throughout the world with zero interest rate policies penalizing seniors and savers.

Forecast 6: Precious metal, art and gem nominal prices will rise in 2013.

After 10 years of strong gains, the prices of precious metals recently have seen downward pressure due, in part, to profit taking ahead of inevitable capital gains tax increases in the U.S. in 2013. There also is a rumor of significant liquidations in a large hedge fund (Paulson), which has heavy gold investments.

Nevertheless, the underlying demand for precious metals, art, gems and other hard assets is strong, especially in the face of the “race to the bottom.” My forecast is for the nominal prices of these assets to continue their upward trajectory as every country in the industrialized world has chosen inflation over fiscal austerity.

Robert Barone (Ph.D., economics, Georgetown University) is a principal of Universal Value Advisors, Reno, a registered investment adviser. 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 Co., where he chairs the investment committee. Barone or the professionals at UVA (Joshua Barone, Andrea Knapp, Matt Marcewicz and Marvin Grulli) are available to discuss client investment needs. Call them at 775-284-7778.

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.

December 3, 2012

Barone: Spending: the nation’s real fiscal cliff issue

Posted in Economy, government, recession, taxes, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 11:51 PM by Robert Barone

The business media is fixated on the “fiscal cliff” issue, not because its avoidance will spur economic growth, but because failure to avert it likely would mean another severe contraction in an already underperforming economy.

The most likely short-run outcome is for Congress and President Barack Obama to reach a “compromise,” which “kicks the can down the road” and gives these institutions additional time to resolve the issues. “Kicking the can” is a skill that has been mastered by politicians throughout the world, especially over the past five years.

The most significant and serious issue of the fiscal cliff, one that has been discussed but poorly analyzed, is the “spending” issue. Most Americans who pay some attention to the federal budget issues believe that the deficits have been $1.1 trillion to $1.5 trillion in the Obama era, and about half of that level when George W. Bush was president. The reality is that the federal budget deficit is grossly understated. It is calculated on a “cash” basis, meaning that only current cash-in and cash-out is counted. Future promises are completely ignored in calculating this deficit.

Think about this: Every single day for the next decade or so, 10,000 Americans will become eligible for Medicare and Social Security. These programs have no real assets of their own and must be financed out of current tax revenue. Today, 86 perrcent of all federal revenue collected already is committed as “transfer” payments (Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, income security and federal pensions) (USDebtClock.org). Just think of how much federal revenue will have to rise just to take care of these newly eligible benefit recipients. If interest on the debt (at historically low interest rates) is added, 97 percent of federal revenues are already accounted for. That leaves precious little for all of the rest of the federal functions, including defense, education, environment, homeland security, immigration, agriculture, foreign policy, etc.

Every publicly traded company in America is required to report their financials on a Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) basis. GAAP reporting includes, via a present value process, taking into account the cost of future promised payments. The underfunding of public pensions has become a big issue in America today.

But, even a pension that is 40 percent underfunded still has 60 percent of the assets that it needs. The promises made for all of the social programs of the federal government have 0 percent of the assets needed to meet the required payments. All must come from current tax collections and borrowing. You can see how the problem is exploding, given the current demographics of the population and those rapidly becoming eligible for such transfer payments.

Once each year, by statute, and to little fanfare, the U.S. Treasury reports (Dec. 15) what GAAP accounting would be for the federal budget. In 2004, under Bush, the headline federal cash-based deficit was $412 billion, but, because of changes to Medicare that year (prescription drugs), the GAAP-based deficit exploded to $11 trillion. For the first three years of the Obama era, the GAAP-based deficit exceeded $5 trillion each year.

The Treasury recently has postponed release of the 2012 fiscal year (ended Sept. 30) GAAP deficit until Jan. 17 so as not to inflame the fiscal cliff negotiations. I’ve seen an estimate from John Williams, a noted economist (shadowstats.com), that puts the 2012 GAAP deficit at $7 trillion, or about 44 percent of the entire output (GDP) of the country. Worse, while the official U.S. debt is approaching $15.2 trillion, the actual amount of promises already made for Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs is more than $121.6 trillion, according to USDebtClock.org (and about $88 trillion using official U.S. Treasury estimates, according to Williams). Using the USDebtClock.org data, which appears to be more comprehensive, that amounts to $386,000 in unfunded promises for every U.S. citizen and $1,059,000 for each U.S. taxpayer.

Just to put this in perspective, the estimated value of all U.S. business, corporate and household assets is only $87.4 trillion. Now, do you see the magnitude of the spending issue?

No amount of spending cuts outside the social and entitlement programs and no amount of tax increases can bring the real GAAP budget deficits into balance. This fiscal cliff appears to be the last real opportunity to address the deteriorating spending issue.

Unfortunately, unless the social programs are addressed, the overspending issue isn’t going to be touched.

No doubt, a successful fiscal cliff can-kicking will encourage equity investors and most likely propel stocks upward, at least for the short term. But, if the social program and entitlement issues are not addressed, then all of us should worry about the future value of the dollar and future interest rates. The current situation in Greece will be just a microcosm of what could happen here.

Given the recent track record of Congress and the president on spending issues, you should begin to prepare your portfolio now.

Robert Barone (Ph.D., economics, Georgetown University) is a principal of Universal Value Advisors, Reno, a registered investment adviser. 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 Co., where he chairs the investment committee. Barone or the professionals at UVA (Joshua Barone, Andrea Knapp, Matt Marcewicz and Marvin Grulli) are available to discuss client investment needs. Call them at 775-284-7778.

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.

August 2, 2012

Equities: Is a bear market inevitable in this economy?

Posted in debt, Economic Growth, Economy, Europe, Finance, government, investment banking, investments, payroll tax reductions, recession, Stocks, Uncategorized, Unemployment tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 7:40 PM by Robert Barone

All of the data and the trends in the data indicate that it is possible that a recession might already have begun.

• Job creation has been dismal in the second quarter, with little hope for improvement soon; jobless claims are, once again, on the rise.

• Retail sales have fallen three months in a row; this has never occurred without an ensuing recession. What is of greater concern is that this has occurred while gasoline prices have been falling.

• While market pundits have cheered small gains in housing data, it is clear that housing is still bottom bouncing. Changes in foreclosure laws have caused supply constraints that have made it appear that home prices are rising again.

• Industrial production, the one bright spot in the economy, showed a decline in May before recovering somewhat in June.

• The drought has caused raw food and commodity prices to spike. These will soon translate into higher food and raw input costs. (Is anyone now questioning the wisdom of the congressional mandate to produce increasing quantities of ethanol from corn instead of sugar?)

 • Consumer confidence continues at levels below those seen in past recessions . Much of this is due to uncertainty surrounding fiscal policy and taxes.

• In the June Philadelphia Fed Survey, manufacturers were asked to list reasons for slowing production; 52 percent cited uncertain tax policy and government regulations.

• Real incomes are falling. The downward bias in the inflation numbers produced by the government inflates the reported GDP numbers. It has been my view that, as a result of the biased reporting, the recession never really ended, and real GDP is much lower than reported.

 Equity market up for year

 Nevertheless, despite all of the poor data, the equity markets have held up. At 1,338 (the closing level on July 25), the S&P 500 is still 6.4 percent higher than it was at the beginning of the year. This is strange, given that every other major market in the world is down 20 percent and in bear market territory. Here are a couple of possible explanations:

• The equity markets used to be a leading indicator of the economy. Severe market corrections (20 percent or more) usually meant recession was either imminent or already here. But, with the advent of computerized trading, the market now appears to be more of a coincident indicator. In late 2007, when the last recession began, the market was only off 5 percent from its October peak.

• Europe: There is such financial chaos in Europe that a flight to the dollar is continuing. Because higher quality bond yields are so low, some of the funds have found their way into the U.S. equity markets, thus keeping them buoyed.

Neither of these two reasons should give investors any confidence that U.S. markets can hold up. Besides the poor internal economic data within the U.S., worldwide data have been weak. In addition to the obvious problems in Europe, China is in a much slower growth mode, as is Japan, the rest of Asia, and even the commodity producers like Australia and Canada.

European soap opera
 
Europe is a whole other issue. American markets have benefited from their financial issues, but when panic and contagion show up over there, markets behave poorly over here. We have seen this time and again as the European drama (really a soap opera) has unfolded. It would be far better for the European politicians to come up with an
orderly plan for countries to exit the monetary union than to deny that the union isn’t in any danger of falling apart.

 

Solvable “fiscal cliff”

Finally, the approaching “fiscal cliff” in the U.S. is another wild card that could have a significant impact on capital markets. The good thing about the “fiscal cliff” is that it isn’t an outside force being imposed. The cliff is avoidable and completely under the control of Congress and the president.

With all of this going on, is a bear market inevitable? While I think that the confluence of events (worldwide economic slowdown, slowdown in the U.S., European financial chaos, “fiscal cliff”) make it likely, as I indicated in my last column, the application of “business friendly” policies could prevent it.

Until visibility into policy becomes clearer, investors should continue to be extremely cautious. They should remain liquid.

 Finally, the U.S. economy is so fragile that any external shock, like a financial implosion in Europe, is certain to have negative impacts on U.S. markets. Policy responses to economic slowdown or financial chaos (e.g., printing of money by the European Central Bank or QE3 by the Fed) are likely to have a positive impact on the value of precious metals and commodities. And the ongoing drought will definitely move food and commodity prices upward.

Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value
Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, a 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.