October 16, 2013

It’s Not the Debt Level, It’s the Economy (Stupid) 10.16.2013

Posted in Economy, Robert Barone, Uncategorized tagged , at 9:48 PM by Robert Barone

All credible projections of federal spending show entitlements, especially Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, exploding in coming years — unless, that is, Congress and the President do something to fix the situation.
In 1982, projections were that Social Security faced insolvency by 1990. But that didn’t happen because President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill reached a compromise and a solution that kept the Social Security program viable for a while longer.

Today, due to demographic and other factors, the growth rate of Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and the other entitlements has budget-busting and debt-level implications that have caused consternation and uncertainty in the business community and financial markets.

When Congress and President Obama will be forced to confront the spending issues, their choices will be: raising taxes, reducing benefits or, via compromise, some combination of the two. But we know they won’t act until the spending issues become a recognizable crisis and their political futures require action.

This is most likely to come in the form of “invisible hand” economic actions wherein the dollar drops in value relative to other currencies and interest rates rise as the international community relies less and less on the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. If that doesn’t cause enough political pressure to bring about the necessary spending controls, then the U.S. economy may well lose its premier status.

The Reality of the Debt

One argument in the current bickering is the country will never be able to repay the $17 trillion of debt it has accumulated. From an economic point of view, the debt level itself isn’t the issue. The issue is how fast that debt is growing and its cost.

Unlike an individual whose debts all come due upon death (either the estate pays the debt off, or the lender(s) writes it off), a country doesn’t die. As long as the growth rate of the debt is less than the growth rate of the economy, and as long as interest rates remain reasonable, the debt will never have to be repaid. From this point of view, the most significant single statistic with regard to the debt is its relationship to GDP.

The concept is similar to that of an application for a mortgage. The borrower needs a reasonable “debt payment/income ratio” to qualify. The more pre-existing debt one has, and the more of one’s income it takes to service that debt, the less creditworthy the individual becomes.

After World War II, the debt to GDP ratio was 120%. Why wasn’t it a disaster then? The answer: 1) the war had ended and spending was reduced and 2) the economy grew faster than the debt. By 1974, the debt to GDP ratio had fallen to 32%. It rose after that, to 66% in 1996 after the recession of the early 1990s. Then it fell to 56% during the strong economic growth years of the late 1990s and the spending control emphasis of the Congress — which was accepted and then embraced by President Clinton.

By 2008, as a result of debt growth outpacing economic growth during the George W. Bush presidency, the ratio rose to 70%. Then came the financial crisis and Great Recession, with weak economic growth in its aftermath. The debt to GDP ratio now stands at more than 100%, a level that makes the international community nervous.


There are two key concepts here: 1) controlling the size of the fiscal deficit to control the growth rate of the debt (this implies confronting the entitlement growth issues) and 2) growing the economy fast enough to accommodate a rising level of debt (which implies that the rate of economic growth be faster than the growth rate of the debt).

Spending, entitlement growth, the growth of the debt and economic growth are all interrelated. If confronting the entitlement issues is off the table in the current political negotiations, as it appears to be, then the only chance at avoiding a true debt crisis is for the economy to grow.

The longer the politicians bicker about the budget, taxes and spending, the more that uncertainty will hold back economic growth. That clearly shows up in all of the business surveys.

For everyone’s benefit, it behooves Washington to put some degree of certainty back into the business markets, at least for a time period that will allow a return on new capital deployment.

The longer-term question is whether or not federal spending growth will allow the debt to GDP ratio to decline. If it does, then the fiscal issues in Washington will disappear, just as they did post-World War II. If it doesn’t, one should prepare for those “invisible hand” economic implications.

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.

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.


November 10, 2009

Is the Recession Really Over?

Posted in Banking, Finance, investments, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 9:41 PM by Robert Barone

News pundits are hailing the end of the Great Recession.  The numbers have come out, and the American economy has grown again.  What does this mean for our friends and our families?

The metric the Government uses to measure the economy is called Gross Domestic Product, or GDP for short.  GDP is defined as the market value of all final goods and services that a country makes in a given year.  By tracking this number, Government statisticians can figure out whether or not the economy grew in any given period. 

There are a few basic problems with GDP that should preclude us from taking the number at face value. 

First, it is a complex calculation, and is most often revised after it is originally released to the press. What may be a positive number, upon release, may be a negative number three months later.

Second, the inputs of the GDP

(Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Net Exports = GDP)

make it a number that is easy to manipulate.  Retail sales and investment (excellent measures of “business”) may fall off a cliff, but GDP may go up. By taking on debt and spending money, the Government can easily manipulate the number higher.  For example, the most recent GDP number would have been much lower if it hadn’t been for the new home buyer subsidies and cash for clunkers program.  Keep in mind, both of these stimulus programs were funded with debt (and/or printed money), and will have to be repaid in the future through higher taxes and/or inflation. 

Third, I can’t pay my bills with GDP growth.  As stated above, GDP may reflect the Government taking on debt and handing out money, as opposed to real business activity.  The cost of this debt will be a future drag on profits, incomes, and growth.  It is important to remember that the Government does not make and sell things for a profit.  The Government’s income is derived by taxing business, taxing incomes, and taxing transactions (i.e. capital gains, sales tax). Therefore, a bigger GDP number obtained by increased Government spending may mean less income for you and me in the future. 

Since most of us get our paychecks by working at or owning a business, why don’t we look at measures of business activity instead of GDP?  If business does well, people are hired and paid.  Tax collection goes up as well, as profits are taxed and people have more money to spend on goods and services.  If business declines, people make less money and get laid off.  Obviously, tax collection also suffers under these circumstances.

For a quick and dirty look at business activity, we decided to review the sales results of a handful of companies in the shipping industry.  Most of us buy and consume products that are made somewhere else.  Whether we buy things at a store, or online, shipping is involved in the process of bringing producers and buyers together.  If business is up, then sales of a diverse group of shippers should rise as well. 

We chose to look at the following companies’ sales growth in 2009, as reported in their SEC filings and/or press releases:

Overseas Shipholding Group:  – 35.11 %   

Expeditors International:  – 34.23 %

UPS:  -15.22 %

Burlington Northern:  – 24.26 %

Using our quick and dirty shipment method, we can see that sales are down significantly from 2008 levels.  This means that business activity is down, and therefore incomes must be down. 

Now lets look at GDP growth for the first nine months of 2009, and compare it to the first nine months of 2008, using numbers from www.bea.gov:

GDP Growth: 2009 (through third quarter):  -2.38%

What we can tell from our little exercise is that movement of things has slowed down a lot more than GDP. Since most incomes (personal and Government) ultimately come from business revenues, and not GDP, we can see that things are quite a bit worse than they were a year ago.  Given that businesses are still announcing significant job cuts, I’d expect that spending won’t come rocketing back in the near term.  We will ultimately reach a bottom in the Great Recession, but as investors, we need to focus on the fundamentals, not Government hype.

Matt Marcewicz

November 6, 2009

Ancora West 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 registration document, Form ADV, Part II.  A copy of this form may be received by contacting the company at: 8630 Technology Way, Suite A, Reno, NV 89511, Phone (775) 284-7778.