Posts

The Unsustainability Lobby

“The creation of the mortgage bond market, a decade earlier, had extended Wall Street into a place it had never before been: the debts of ordinary Americans.”
–  Jared Vennett (played by Ryan Gosling), The Big Short (2015)

Along with another superbly authentic movie Margin Call (2011), The Big Short provides a vivid look into the rigged, Darwinian, ruthlessly exploitative circus popularly known as “Wall Street.” For decades, ever since the great depression, this industry slumbered along, sedately providing financial services to Americans. As always, it also was a venue for legalized gambling, but the number of players were limited, the winnings were relatively meager, and the opportunities for corrupt manipulations had not yet been multiplied by new trading technologies. Back then, the seedier aspects of Wall Street were overshadowed by the many vital services the industry provided. All of that changed starting around 1980.

In 1985, the financial sector earned less than 16% of domestic corporate profits. Today, it’s over 40%. These profits are made on the backs of American consumers who pay usurious rates for student loans and credit card debt, yet cannot earn more than one or two percent on their savings accounts. America’s financial sector is grotesquely overbuilt. It has become a predatory force in the lives of most Americans, and the legitimate services as intermediaries that they actually provide – especially given the gains in information technology over the past 30 years – could easily be delivered for a fraction of the costs. Who benefits?

The Big Short offers insights that will hopefully resonate with viewers, because when the protagonists in the film prepared to capitalize on their belief the housing bubble was about to collapse, they identified all the culprits. It wasn’t just the sellers who prepared mortgage debt securities who were to blame. It was the buyers as well. And the biggest buyers of all were the pension funds, because of their insatiable desire for high returns.

America’s housing bubble may have collapsed, but the pension funds are still with us, bigger than ever, still insatiably seeing high returns. And where do these predators go for their high returns? Along with their high risk investments in hedge funds and private equity – where we have minimal transparency – they invest in housing, once again inflated to unaffordable levels thanks to over-regulation and low interest rates. They invest in public utilities, who collect guaranteed fixed profits on overpriced services thanks again to over-regulation. They invest internationally, and they invest in domestic stocks.

In every case, the interests of these powerful pension funds, Wall Street’s biggest players, is to rack up another year of high returns. And to do this they need corporate profits, financial sector profits, rising home prices, rising utility rates – they need asset inflation fueled by debt accumulation. This is economically unsustainable, because as America is slowly turned into a debtors prison, eventually there will be nobody left to pay the interest.

The National Conference On Public Employee Retirement Systems, “The Voice for Public Pensions,” is arguably at the apex of the unsustainability lobby. This powerful trade association is ran by public sector union executives from across the nation. Their president is also the treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. Their first vice president is a 30-year member of the Chicago Fire Fighters Union, IAFF Local 2. Their second vice president was union president of Fraternal Order of Police Queen City Lodge #69. And so it goes, officers of government unions populate their executive board officers and their executive board. Government unions run this organization.

The unsustainable pension benefit enhancements and unsustainable modifications to investment guidelines that were sold to politicians and the public weren’t pushed by government unions all by themselves. Their partners in the financial community recognized and implemented what has to be one of the biggest scams in American history, the ability to pour taxpayers money into high-risk pension funds for government workers, collecting fees every step of the way, combined with the ability to raise taxes to bail out these funds whenever their returns didn’t meet expectations. And to make sure elected officials played ball, they had the government unions provide the political muscle. Compared to this setup, Bernard Madoff was a piker.

The National Conference On Public Employee Retirement Systems has thoughtfully created a list of “foundations, think tanks, and other nonprofit entities [that] engage in ideologically, politically, or donor driven activities to undermine public pensions.” The California Policy Center and UnionWatch are both on that list. But because our organization does not advocate eliminating the defined benefit, we actually only fulfill one of their criteria for this list, “advocates or advances the claim that public defined benefit plans are unsustainable.”

Yes. We do. Most indubitably. That the unsustainability lobby has recognized our work is a distinct honor.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

Inflation-Adjusted San Francisco Home Prices Higher Than During 2007 Housing Bubble

Last week, the Federal Housing Finance Agency released its quarterly home price indices for the fourth quarter of 2015, so we now have a 41-year time series for every state and many metropolitan areas. The numbers show that, even after adjusting for inflation, housing prices in the San Francisco Bay Area have exceeded prices during the peak of the housing bubble.

The data show that prices are also rising for some metro areas, such as Houston and Dallas, that didn’t bubble in the 2000s (see chart below). However, this increase is due to higher incomes in those areas; the home value-to-income ratios have remained about the same, while those for the metro areas in the above chart have increased from the post-bubble crash. Austin’s increase is partly caused by strict regulation in the city, though many of its suburbs remain affordable.

While you can download the data from the above link, the Antiplanner has enhanced the files to make it easy to make charts such as the ones above. One file is for metropolitan areas and the other is for states. To use the metropolitan areas spreadsheet, look up the number of up to six metro areas that you want to display in columns I and J. Then enter those numbers in cells AA1 through AF1 (not cells S1 through X1). The spreadsheet will display a chart in nominal dollars in roughly cell AQ5 and in inflation-adjusted dollars in roughly cell AQ44.

In the states spreadsheet, simply enter the two-digit abbreviations for the states you want in cells BH169 through BM169. The inflation-adjusted chart will display in roughly BO169. I didn’t make a nominal-dollar chart, but if anyone really needs one, I could do so.

By default, the charts display 1995 through 2015 even though the spreadsheets have data going back to 1975 for all states and the larger metro areas. You can change the years displayed in the chart by selecting a chart, scrolling to the left to find the highlighted cells used in the chart, then grabbing a right-hand corner of those highlighted cells and dragging up or down.

About the Author:  Randal O’Toole is a Cato Institute Senior Fellow working on urban growth, public land, and transportation issues. In his book The Best-Laid Plans, O’Toole calls for repealing federal, state, and local planning laws and proposes reforms that can help solve social and environmental problems without heavy-handed government regulation. O’Toole’s latest book is American Nightmare: How Government Undermines The Dream of Homeownership. This post originally appeared on his blog “The Antiplanner” and appears here with permission.

Economic Bubbles #2 – The Cruel Injustice of the Fed's Bubbles in Housing

As the generational war heats up, we should all remember the source of all the bubbles and all the policies that could only result in generational poverty: the Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen recently treated the nation to an astonishing lecture on the solution to rising wealth inequality–according to Yellen, low-income households should save capital and buy assets such as stocks and housing.

It’s difficult to know which is more insulting: her oily sanctimony or her callous disregard for facts. What Yellen and the rest of the Fed Mafia have done is inflate bubbles in credit and assets that have made housing unaffordable to all but the wealthiest households.

Fed policy has been especially destructive to young households: not only is it difficult to save capital when your income is declining in real terms, housing has soared out of reach as the direct consequence of Fed policies.

Two charts reflect this reality. The first is of median household income, the second is the Case-Shiller Index of housing prices for the San Francisco Bay Area.

I have marked the wage chart with the actual price of a modest 900 square foot suburban house in the S.F. Bay Area whose price history mirrors the Case-Shiller Index, with one difference: this house (and many others) are actually worth more now than they were at the top of the national bubble in 2006-7.

But that is a mere quibble. The main point is that housing exploded from 3 times median income to 12 times median income as a direct result of Fed policies. Lowering interest rates doesn’t make assets any more affordable–it pushes them higher.

The only winners in the housing bubble are those who bought in 1998 or earlier. The extraordinary gains reaped since the late 1990s have not been available to younger households. The popping of the housing bubble did lower prices from nosebleed heights, but in most locales price did not return to 1996 levels.

As a multiple of real (inflation-adjusted) income, in many areas housing is more expensive than it was at the top of the 2006 bubble.

While Yellen and the rest of the Fed Mafia have been enormously successful in blowing bubbles that crash with devastating consequences, they failed to move the needle on household income. Median income has actually declined since 2000.

20141222_Smith-1

Inflating asset bubbles shovels unearned gains into the pockets of those who own assets prior to the bubble, but it inflates those assets out of reach of those who don’t own assets–for example, people who were too young to buy assets at pre-bubble prices.

20141222_Smith-2

Inflating housing out of reach of young households as a matter of Fed policy isn’t simply unjust–it’s cruel. Fed policies designed to goose asset valuations as a theater-of-the-absurd measure of “prosperity” overlooked that it is only the older generations who bought all these assets at pre-bubble prices who have gained.

In the good old days, a 20% down payment was standard. How long will it take a young family to save $130,000 for a $650,000 house? How much of their income will be squandered in interest and property taxes for the privilege of owning a bubblicious-priced house?

If we scrape away the toxic sludge of sanctimony and misrepresentation from Yellen’s absurd lecture, we divine her true message: if you want a house, make sure you’re born to rich parents who bought at pre-bubble prices.

As the generational war heats up, we should all remember the source of all the bubbles and all the policies that could only result in generational poverty: the Federal Reserve.

*   *   *

About the Author: Charles Hugh Smith as a writer and financial commentator living in Hawaii. His blog, Of Two Minds.com, is ranked #7 in CNBC’s top alternative financial sites, and is republished on numerous popular sites such as Zero Hedge, Financial Sense, and David Stockman’s Contra Corner. Smith is frequently interviewed by alternative media personalities such as Max Keiser, and is a contributing writer on PeakProsperity.com. This article originally appeared on Smith’s blog, and is republished here with permission.

Economic Bubbles #1 – Why Living in a Post-Bubble World Is No Fun

What do we do when the bubble economy cannot be reflated?

It is generally conceded that we are living in an era of Peak Everything: peak central bank omnipotence, peak powerless of the non-elites, peak wealth inequality, peak media-induced delusion, peak market-rigging, peak bogus official statistics, peak propaganda, peak bread and circuses, peak deception, peak distraction, peak sociopathology, peak central statism, peak debt, peak leverage, peak derealization–need I go on?

Bubbles reach extremes and then they pop. There is nothing mysterious about this causal chain: peaks generate extremes that manifest as bubbles, which eventually implode as extremes revert to the mean and mass delusions are shattered by the unwelcome reality that extremes are not sustainable.

The status quo solution to the devastation of a popped bubble is to inflate another even bigger bubble. If debt reached extremes that imploded, the solution is to expand debt far beyond the levels that caused the implosion.

If fudging the numbers triggered a loss of confidence, the solution is to fudge the numbers even more, so they no longer reflect reality at all.

If gaming the system crashed the system, the solution is to game the system even harder.

If the masses protest their powerlessness, the solution is to push them further from the centers of power.

And so on.

This blowing new bubbles to replace the ones that popped works for a while, but at the expense of systemic stability. Each new bubble requires pushing the system to new extremes that increase the risk of instability and collapse.

In other words, the stability of the new bubble is temporary and thus illusory.

The processes used to inflate the new bubble suffer from diminishing returns. The nature of stimulus-response is that overuse of the stimulus leads to diminishing responses. This is a structural feature that cannot be massaged away.

Goosing public confidence in the status quo with phony statistics and rigged markets works splendidly the first time, less so the second time, and barely at all the third time. Why is this so? The distance between reality and the bubble construct is now so great that the disconnection from reality is self-evident to anyone not marveling at the finery of the Emperor’s non-existent clothing.

The system habituates to the higher stimulus. If the drug/debt has lost its effectiveness, a higher dose is needed. This is the progression of serial bubbles. Then the system habituates to the higher dose/debt, and the next expansion of debt must be even greater.

This dynamic can be visualized as The Rising Wedge Model of Breakdown, which builds on the well-known Ratchet Effect: the system enables easy expansion of debt, leverage, employees, etc., but it has no mechanism to allow contraction. Any contraction triggers systemic collapse.

20141212_Smith

When the system’s ability to inflate another bubble breaks down, it’s no longer fun.It’s no longer fun to be a consumer when credit is no longer free, it’s no longer fun to be a politco when the money spigot is no longer wide open, it’s no longer fun to be a market rigger when the markets have imploded, and so on.

It is generally conceded that the global economy is currently experiencing a third bubble. The first expanded in the 1990s and popped in 2000, the second one expanded in 2002 and burst in 2008, and the third one inflated in 2009 and has yet to implode.

We can anticipate the popping of this third bubble, and this opens a line of inquiry few have taken: what if the popping of this third bubble breaks the bubble inflation machinery? In other words, what if there can be no fourth bubble to bail out the status quo, due to the systemic limitations of bubble-blowing as a solution to previous bubbles popping?

Given that we’re still in Peak Central Bank Omnipotence, it is widely believed central banks can continue inflating bubbles of confidence, assets, debt and consumption at will, essentially forever.

But what if the fourth bubble can’t reach the heights of the third bubble? What if the debt and leverage required to inflate the fourth bubble breaks down before the fourth bubble can even reach the heights needed to make everyone who bet the farm on the status quo whole?

Few dare ask these questions as they raise a terrifying follow-on question: what do we do when the bubble economy cannot be reflated?

*   *   *

About the Author: Charles Hugh Smith as a writer and financial commentator living in Hawaii. His blog, Of Two Minds.com, is ranked #7 in CNBC’s top alternative financial sites, and is republished on numerous popular sites such as Zero Hedge, Financial Sense, and David Stockman’s Contra Corner. Smith is frequently interviewed by alternative media personalities such as Max Keiser, and is a contributing writer on PeakProsperity.com. This article originally appeared on Smith’s blog, and is republished here with permission.