Four decades ago no one had cell phones, the Internet, or personal computers; households had landlines, only offices or research centers had any kind of computer, and wireless anything wasn’t even close on the horizon. These days, of course, there is more than 1 cell phone per person in the US, laptops are standard fare, and using dial-up or wired Ethernet is like living in the Stone Age. But each of these technological advances comes with a cost; and, more specifically, a cost a family in the 1970s didn’t have to cover. The price of a cell phone plan and wireless internet is well over $1,000 per year; more if you add in the price of a $1,500 laptop or a $200 smartphone, which most of us tend to replace after a few years of wear and tear. With average post-tax income of $63,000, according to the latest Consumer Expenditure Survey, these bills might not seem like a lot to shell out – only about 4% of post-tax wages – but they’re costs that the families of 1973 avoided completely. How have the households of the 21st century managed to incorporate these added expenses?
Commodities are no longer on investors’ radar screens. Various signals, however, are pointing to a new rally within the commodities super cycle.
Our grandparents believed in the value of thrift, but many of their grandchildren don’t. That’s because cultural and economic values have changed dramatically over the last generations as political and media elites have convinced many Americans that saving is passé. So today, under the influence of Keynesian economists who champion government spending and high levels of consumption, thrift has been devalued (and is even punished). It is the government’s role, Keynes’s followers believe, to keep the boom going through spending. So it is consumption, not supply, that makes a successful economy, they say. Mainstream media rehashes the message that the consumer, not the producer, is the biggest part of the economy. Politicians agree... But, despite the Keynesian sentiments of much of our political and media elites, we owe it to our grandparents to re-learn the lessons of thrift.
There were no surprises in today's Personal Income and Spending report. At $14.188 trillion, Personal Income rose 0.4% in August, just as expected, and up from an upward revised 0.2% in July. On the spending side, US Personal Outlays were $11.94 trillion, an increase of 0.3% from July, and also higher than the upwardly revised July spending of 0.2%. The PCE Deflator came in at 0.1%, as expected, while the PCE Core rose 0.2% compared to expectations of 0.1% and up from 0.1% last month. The breakdown of components at both income and spending levels was uniformly distributed with nothing standing out. Real Disposable income rose 1.6% Y/Y but only due to a change in the current-dollar series as a result of an adjustment in the implicit price deflator which revised recent numbers to appear larger. Finally, since in nominal terms incomes rose a fraction more than spending, the implied savings rate rose by the same fraction: 4.5% to 4.6%, the highest since May.
The last time the top 10% of the US income distribution had such a large proportion of the entire nation's income was the 1920s - a period that culminated in the Great Depression and a collapse in that exuberance. As AP reports, the very wealthiest Americans earned more than 19% of the country's household income last year — their biggest share since 1928, the year before the stock market crash. And the top 10% captured a record 48.2% of total earnings last year. Analysis by Emanuael Saez shows that, based on IRS data, in 2012, the incomes of the top 1% rose nearly 20% compared with a 1% increase for the remaining 99%. Economists point to several reasons for widening income inequality including globalization and technology. However, as John Taylor explains in his recent WSJ Op-Ed, using this as a lever for Obama's "middle-out" policies - higher tax rates, more intrusive regulations, more targeted fiscal policies - will not revive the economy. More likely they will perpetuate the weak economy we have and cause real incomes—including for those in the middle—to continue to stagnate.
While the world is currently glued to the events surrounding Syria; the reality is that such an event has very little to do with the real economy. The surges in expectations by business is very interesting given the actual demand that drives the real economy. Real employment remains weak and corporate earnings are struggling given the diminishing returns of cost cutting. The recent increases in interest rates also have a very important "tightening" effect on the "Main Street" economy which will also likely suppress consumption in coming months somewhat. Also not likely factored in to current survey's is the upcoming debt ceiling debate and the onset of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The ACA is a de facto increase in taxes and there is a potential for further tax hikes coming from the budget debate. The current NFIB survey suggests that the economy is still stuck in "struggle mode" and an acceleration above 2% real economic growth is currently unlikely. The divergence between expectations and real demand will likely converge in the next couple of months so we will see businesses follow through with their optimisitic outlooks - "Overall, the Index of Optimism says the small business sector is going nowhere and that's what it feels like."
On the surface, today's Personal Income and Savings data was not pretty: with Incomes and Spending both rising at 0.1% in July, both missed the expected growth rate of 0.2% and 0.3% respectively. This also meant that the US consumer's savings rate was unchanged at 4.4% in the month, and the downtrend from recent highs continues as more and more of the savings buffer has to be depleted. But it was once again below the headlines that the truly ugly data lay. A quick look at the components of income showed something very disturbing. After holding relatively firm for the past five months (excluding the violent swings surrounding the 2012 year end accelerated bonus payouts), compensation of employees - the core component of personal income - tumbled by $21.9 billion. This was the biggest monthly slide since May 2012, and as the chart below shows, the downtrend in sequential wage growth has now resulted in a sequential decline in wages.
Early-year tax increases and higher gasoline prices have probably dented U.S. consumer expenditures and as Bloomberg's Joseph Brusuelas notes, tomorrow's report of July’s personal income and spending report may illustrate the weakness that poses a significant risk to the much-anticipated economic growth renaissance in the second half of the year.
China is similar to Japan in the 1980s in terms of financial imbalances and challenges for the real economy, but, as JPMorgan notes, China differs in terms of its stage of economic development. Turning possibility into reality is not an easy task, especially as China’s structural slowdown is accompanied by mounting financial imbalances. In the near term, overcapacity and decline in the rate of return on investment are the major challenges to be addressed by policymakers, and rising debt in the corporate sector and local governments needs to be contained and gradually reduced. In our view, this would require reform not only on the economic front (e.g., fiscal reform, land reform, financial reform, and SOE reform), but also social reform (e.g., hukou reform) and governmental reform (e.g., changing the role of the government and de-monopolizing). The list of tasks is daunting, but policy inaction could be even more dangerous - a delay in economic restructuring in China could lead to a repeat of Japan’s experience.
Ben Bernanke blames fiscal policies out of Washington. However, it is starting to look more and more like Fed policy is equally to blame for the lackluster U.S. GDP growth.
The Consumer Metrics Institute is generally a pretty subdued bunch, as befits their job interpreting economic statistics for money managers and other economists. But lately they’ve been increasingly vocal about the farce we are witnessing: "From time to time we may quarrel with the quality of the BEA’s deflaters. And frankly we may even find that at face value the lackluster numbers amount to nothing more than a sham “recovery.” But the most shocking part of this report is glaringly obvious from the real per capita disposable income numbers: all of the unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus has left American households materially worse off than they were two years ago."
There was little of note in today's May Personal Income and Spending report (aside from the now-traditional backward looking revision of Q1 data): personal spending was expected to come increase 0.3% in May, and so it did, up from a revised 0.3% drop in April. Income, however, spurted by 0.5% in the month, more than double the expected 0.2%, up from an adjusted 0.1% increase in April. The income rise was as a result of a $24 billion increase in wages, and a $31 billion rise in income on assets (interest and dividend income). Finally $19.4 billion in personal current transfer receipts (government generosity) completed the picture of why Americans' incomes rose in May. However, despite this beat in income, spending was in line with expectations, and following the revisions of January-April data, the May 3.2% savings rate was the highest reported so far in 2013. For the Keynesians out there, this is hardly the strong indicator of consumer spending they have been looking for.
In the final section of this five-part series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) on the dismal reality behind the non-recovery, David Stockman explains what lies ahead. He details in his new book 'The Great Deformation', that the mainstream notion that there is a choice between fiscal austerity and fiscal stimulus is wishful thinking. It does not recognize that owing to the triumph of crony capitalism and printing-press money America has become a failed state fiscally. What lies ahead is a continuous, mad-cap cycling back and forth - virtually on an odd-even day basis - between deficit cutting and fiscal stimulus to the GDP. As Stockman notes, the proximate cause of this recession waiting to happen is the federal government’s unfolding encounter with Peak Debt. The latter is not a magical statistical point such as a federal debt ratio of 100 percent of GDP, but a condition of permanent crisis - "no viable economy can survive on chronic fiscal deficits nor can it fail to save at a sufficient rate to fund a healthy level of investment in productive capital assets. The blithe assumption to the contrary which animates current policy rests on self-serving clichés such as “deficits don’t matter” and the Chinese savings glut." So the American economy faces a long twilight of no growth, rising taxes, and brutally intensifying fiscal conflict. These are the wages of five decades of Keynesian sin - the price of abandoning financial discipline.
By my count we are now in our fourth “Recovery Summer.” The recession was officially (and mistakenly) declared over in June 09. Yet, no data series in economics not influenced drastically by liquidity and a zero interest rate policy (e.g., stock prices and home prices) supports the claim. Recovery advocates point to the stock market as a barometer of how well the economy is doing. A key takeaway is that the stock market misled people during the 1930s and may be doing the same thing today. Those who want to argue against this position will declare the 1930s an unfair comparison because it was a Great Depression. Just what makes them think what we are in today is not the same thing, although not yet as far advanced. Given the trillions of dollars wasted to hide the true condition of the economy, that is not an unreasonable possibility. This liquidity hides the true nature of the economy (also falsely drives up financial asset prices) and creates even bigger distortions in the real economy.
As we are in the final stage of the global bubble, we realize that we often fail to ask the most obvious questions. In this case, as every central banker tells us that his policies are directed to obtain growth, the obvious question is... how do we define economic growth? What is economic growth? Yes, yes, we know that what they do is simply monetize deficits and enable the transfer of wealth between sectors and generations, but there is also an intellectual battlefield, which we should be aware of. What is the view of the central banking cartel on how to grow output? Surprisingly, not via an increase in the marginal productivity of capital, but via the so called wealth effect: As interest rates fall, asset prices increase (it doesn’t matter which assets see their prices rise) and the assets can be used as collateral to leverage a higher than previously possible consumption level. This consumption level will drive output growth, and this increase in output –they believe- will bring about full employment. The wealth effect is mistakenly attributed to Keynes, who actually argued against it. Thus, the central banking cartel has its own interpretation of economic growth and it does not fit any of the 'reality' perspectives presented below.