As class-warfare implicitly breaks out - trumpeted by our political leaders - it seems that there is another, much more relevant, trend that is occurring that strikes at the heart of our nation. With Friday's jobs number still fresh in our minds, Citi's Steve Englander takes a look at one small slice of the demographics subject and found a rather concerning and little discussed fact. Employment-to-population ratios among older individuals have gone up in recent years, in contrast to the so-called prime-aged 25-54 cohort, where employment-to-population is much lower than earlier. It seems the real divide in this nation is not between rich and poor but old and young - as the 55-plus (and even more 65-plus) are forced to stay in the workplace as retirement remains a dream (thanks to ZIRP and Keynesianism's excess crises from boom-to-bust leave median wealth well down - even if the rich are 'ok').
Given the Fed's ZIRP impact on expected returns, PIMCO notes that those approaching retirement have three choices: a) save more, b) work longer, or c) tighten their belts in retirement. If everyone saves more, we consume less, and therefore GDP growth slows down. Anemic growth leads to a Fed on hold for a prolonged period - and even further lowered return expectations in an ugly paradox-of-thrift-like feedback loop. PIMCO has found a concerning empirical link between lower rates and longer periods in the workforce as a higher fraction of older Americans remain employed. This has the structurally dismal impact of reducing (implicitly) the level of 'prime working age' employment and has 'convexity' - in other words, the lower rates go, the greater the inertia of the elderly to stay in the workforce. Intuitively, low rates leading to longer work lives just makes sense – especially in an era where fewer retirees will draw defined benefit pensions. This is why some of us are wondering if the Fed is spinning its wheels by sticking to the old model of trying to stimulate growth. So expect lower-rates and longer working years or go all-in on HY CCC debt with 20% of your savings.
So the Fed is pinning its hopes on stimulating the economy via the wealth effect again, as it did when it revived the post-tech-wreck asset bubble in housing and credit in that now infamous 2003-07 period of radical excess. But here's the rub. While there is a wealth effect on spending, the correlation going back to 1952 is only 57%. But the correlation between spending and after-tax personal incomes is more like 75%. The impact is leagues apart. And that is the problem here, as we saw real disposable personal income decline 0.3% in August for the largest setback of the year. The QE2 trend of 1.7% is about half the 3.2% trend that was in place at the time of 0E2. Not only that, but the personal savings rate is too low to kick-start spending, even if the Fed is successful in generating significant asset price inflation. The savings rate now is at a mere 3.7%, whereas it was 6% at the time of QE1 back in 2009 and over 5% at the time of QE2 2010 — in other words, there is less pent-up demand right now and a much greater need to rebuild rather than draw down the personal savings rate. This is a key obstacle even in the face of higher net worth.
There were no surprises in the August Personal Income and Spending numbers, which came at 0.1% and 0.5%, respectively, on expectations of a 0.2% and 0.5% rise. Summarized: less income, more spending. This however, did not make the consumer income statement data any better: the bottom line is that adjusted for inflation, Real Disposable Income slid 0.3% in August, after a tiny 0.1% increase in July, the first such decline since November 2011, and as Bloomberg's Joseph Brusuelas says this is "another rough report for the consumer which doesn’t bode well for household spending going forward." Which means Bernanke knew precisely what he was doing when he launched QE3, which all advocated of QE3 will now say was fully justified. There is one problem with that logic however: for QE3 to be justified, it would mean QE1 and 2 were. Well, last we checked the US is still in a major depression, and neither QE1, 2, nor Twist 1 or 2 have done anything to prevent today's ugly data. Surely, this time it will be different. Finally, and as a result of the ongoing contraction in income, as expected the savings rate dropped from 4.1% to 3.7%: the lowest since May.
We, like Morgan Stanley's Greg Peters, are skeptical of the Fed's apparent belief that wealth effects can support a struggling recovery. Recent gains are small versus the wealth lost in recent years. More importantly, wealth only matters when it lowers saving. It seems that weak income growth through the recovery has depressed saving – stopped saving rising to fully reflect wealth destruction – which implies wealth increases now will not trigger a typical growth-boosting drop in saving. With poor fundamentals seemingly trumping central bank policy - as macro data and bellwether stock warnings highlight the downside risks of complacency. But, the housing recovery, we hear you cry? Not this time - given weak income growth; and as far as feeling wealthy, the 'right' savings rate to achieve that dream remains well beyond most in anything but the absolute riskiest assets - and implicitly lowers consumption.
Exceptionally low interest rates are bad for banks, insurers, and, more generically, anyone wishing to save money. Of the three, it’s the situation of the savers that is most untenable. In particular, Citi notes in a recent report, those wishing to retire at 65 or thereabouts are in for a nasty surprise when they start to run the numbers. Given that real yields are negative for Treasury bonds inside of 20-years, the steady stream of inflows into investment grade bond fund that hold a mixture of government, agency, and high grade corporate securities, will simply fail to return an adequate rate of return commensurate with the current savings rates of most retirement savers. What savers need to do is find higher asset returns or increase their personal savings rate. As the chart below shows, there are few options but to go all-in to the most excessive ends of the risk spectrum, or raise the proportion of savings and higher savings rates lead to lower consumption, a decline in corporate profits, and recession.
Personal Spending rose 0.4% MoM, its first rise in three months, but this seems to have been 'funded' by consumers dipping into savings mode with the rate of growth of income rising at the same level as last month and as expected +0.3%. The Spending rate of increase missed expectations however and with the savings rate dropping for the first time in 5 months (to 4.2%) - it suggests a 'man on the street' who is perilously close to the edge to meet his needs.
Debt offers a compelling fantasy: there is no need for difficult trade-offs or sacrifices, everything can be bought and enjoyed now. If income is flat and interest rates already near zero, then where is the leverage for additional debt going to come from? The answer is the game of relying on ever-expanding debt is over. You can claim phantom assets and income streams as collateral for a while, but eventually the market sniffs out reality, and the phantom assets settle at their real value near zero. Once the collateral is gone, the debt is also revalued at zero, and the debtor is unable to borrow more. This is the position Greece finds itself in; the collateral and income steams have been discounted, the credit lines have been pulled, and so the reality of living within one's means is reasserting itself. Living within one's income (household or national income) requires making difficult trade-offs and sacrfices: either current consumption is sacrificed for future benefits, or the future benefits are sacrificed for current consumption. You can't have it both ways once the collateral and credit both vanish.
Gluskin Sheff's David Rosenberg details the four major downside risks for US growth over the next four quarters:
- More Adverse News Out Of Europe
- The Sharp Run-Up In Food Prices
- Negative Export Shock
- The Proverbial Fiscal Cliff
A courageous act in face of the punishment the Fed inflicts on them. But it doesn't bode well for the economy.
Just when you thought it was safe to hope for more bad news being good news we complete the triumvirate of housing, manufacturing, and now confidence all beating expectations. But we Moar QE. Consumer Confidence just beat expectations for the first time in 5 months rising to its highest level since April as it appears the self-reinforcing 'Fed's got your back' belief once again becomes a self-defeating 'how can we QE when everything's peachy' scenario. To wit, 12-month inflation expectations rose from 5.3% to 5.4% - as we noted the inflation-argument for NEW QE here. This is simply remarkable levels of cognitive bias considering the savings rate just rose to a one-year high implying people are expectation deflation - dis-inflation at the least. It would appear that indeed - given the market's downward trajectory - that the stealing of one's own punchbowl realization is occurring.
Confirming that the economy continues to be on life support and that the consumer has been actively withdrawing from providing that key lifeblood so needed to regain the "virtuous circle" [RIP: XXXX-2009] is the just released revised personal consumer data, which showed even further retrenchment, as personal spending came unchanged in June on expectations of a modest 0.1% increase, while income rose 0.5% on expectations of a 0.4% increase (among other things due to "Contributions for government social insurance -- a subtraction in calculating personal income -- increased $3.5 billion in June, compared with an increase of $0.8 billion in May."). End result: the Personal Savings Rate (revised) rose from 3.6% in April, to 4.0% in May, to 4.4%, in June: the highest it has been since August 2011, just before the economy as manifested by the Fed's favorite metric, the Russell imploded. All those expecting the consumer to step up and pick up the pieces will have to defer hope and prayer for one more month. Luckily, for everything else there is the Fed's Taxpayercard.
"This market isn't real. The two percent on the ten-year, the ninety basis points on the five-year, thirty basis points on a one-year – those are medicated, pegged rates created by the Fed and which fast-money traders trade against as long as they are confident the Fed can keep the whole market rigged. Nobody in their right mind wants to own the ten-year bond at a two percent interest rate. But they're doing it because they can borrow overnight money for free, ten basis points, put it on repo, collect 190 basis points a spread, and laugh all the way to the bank. And they will keep laughing all the way to the bank on Wall Street until they lose confidence in the Fed's ability to keep the yield curve pegged where it is today. If the bond ever starts falling in price, they unwind the carry trade. Then you get a message, "Do not pass go." Sell your bonds, unwind your overnight debt, your repo positions. And the system then begins to contract... The Fed has destroyed the money market. It has destroyed the capital markets. They have something that you can see on the screen called an "interest rate." That isn't a market price of money or a market price of five-year debt capital. That is an administered price that the Fed has set and that every trader watches by the minute to make sure that he's still in a positive spread. And you can't have capitalism if the capital markets are dead, if the capital markets are simply a branch office – branch casino – of the central bank. That's essentially what we have today."
This is looking more and more like a modem-day depression. After all, last month alone, 85,000 Americans signed on for Social Security disability cheques, which exceeded the 80,000 net new jobs that were created: and a record 46 million Americans or 14.8% of the population (also a record) are in the Food Stamp program (participation averaged 7.9% from 1970 to 2000, by way of contrast) — enrollment has risen an average of over 400,000 per month over the past four years. A record share of 41% pay zero national incomes tax as well (58 million), a share that has doubled over the past two decades. Increasingly, the U.S. is following in the footsteps of Europe of becoming a nation of dependants. Meanwhile, policy stimulus, whether traditional or non-conventional, are still falling well short of generating self-sustaining economic growth.
While bad news may be good news for the market hoping that it will spur more stimulative measures from the Fed to boost asset prices - for Main Street America bad news is just bad news. More importantly, the decline in consumer confidence continues to perpetuate the virtual economic spiral. As the consumer retrenches the decline in aggregate end demand puts businesses on the defensive who in turn reduces employment. The reduction in employment, and further stagnation of wages, puts the consumer further onto the defensive leading to more declines in demand. It is a difficult cycle to break.