A few weeks ago, I shared some thoughts about our current President and his economic credentials.

Donald John Trump was one of 366 student members of the class of 1968 who was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania.

Other than his bachelor’s degree and some experience working in the family real estate business, there is no evidence that Mr. Trump has pursued additional education, credentials or capabilities in the field of economics.

Trump’s paucity of bona fides in the world of economic theory and practice has not deterred him from taking an active role in testing new economic theories and concepts.

Below, I introduce a new chapter in my observations on Donald Trump’s economic strategy:
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July 31, 2019 (Wednesday):  Federal Reserve Chairman Powell reluctantly announced a 25bp cut in the federal funds rate, the first rate cut in over a decade (December 2008).  In his announcement, Chairman Powell cited, “implications of global developments for the economic outlook as well as muted inflation pressures”.  The Fed also referenced an apparent global economic slowdown; uncertainty around U.S.-China trade negotiations; and ‘stubbornly low inflation’.

August 1, 2019 (Thursday):  Donald Trump announced (in a series of tweets) that the U.S. would impose a new 10 percent tariff on certain goods from China beginning on September 1, 2019, following the news that trade talks with the China have failed to make sufficient progress.

These new tariffs will apply to the $300 Billion of Chinese goods which had not before faced a tariff. Another $250 Billion of Chinese goods will continue to be tariffed at a 25 percent rate.

This abrupt and unusual move roiled the equity markets, creating a major sell-off.

Since late 2018, the U.S. economy has been showing signs of slowing — bond markets are flaccid; GDP has slowed; new home sales are generally flat; and business investment is anemic, at best.

Virtually every main-stream economist agrees that Trump’s trade war is contributing to the domestic economic malaise, although it’s too early to determine by how much, and if the damage is permanent.

The Fed rate cut on Wednesday was accompanied by a caveat that one purpose was to help create a barrier to prevent Trump’s trade wars from toppling our domestic economy.

Thursday’s surprise announcement by Trump reveals a new, arbitrary, capricious and  unilateral decision by the White House which will result in higher taxes to Americans on imports; and further expand uncertainty for businesses which need significant time to manage their supply chains.

The agricultural sector in the U.S. – farms and ancillary industries, suppliers, manufacturers, etc – are already fighting the unexpected impacts of climate and weather on production.  Then, they were handed a potential death sentence by a White House which is guided not by strategy and planning, but by impetuous and arbitrary policy changes driven by Trump’s narcissistic compulsions.

If Trump’s Trade War battle plans were conceived within a coordinated environment (i.e. in concert with the Fed and the Congress) perhaps we would be able to see a pathway toward successful outcomes.

Trump is consistent in his bravado that he – and he alone – has the vision, wisdom and solutions to create equilibrium in the trade accounts between the U.S. and China.

According to a BBC analysis from May 2019, “Trump’s decision to take on China could lead to adverse effects for consumers in the US and in China, but also worldwide. An economic showdown between the world’s biggest economies doesn’t look good for anyone.”

Article I of the US Constitution vests the power to set tariffs in Congress, thus Congress has the power to stop this President from continuing his arbitrary and impetuous trade war.  The question remains:  Will elected officials in Congress wake up, do their job and use that power, or will they continue to abdicate legislative responsibilities to this President?

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Donald John Trump was one of 366 student members of the class of 1968 who was  awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State).

Other than his bachelor’s degree and some experience working in the family real estate business, there is no evidence that Mr. Trump has pursued additional education, credentials or capabilities in the field of economics.

Trump’s paucity of bona fides in the world of economic theory and practice has not deterred him from taking an active role in testing new economic concepts.

From an economic perspective, the presidency of Donald Trump will likely be remembered primarily for his America First posture, which has influenced immigration, tariff and tax policies.

Immigration:  Trump administration policy decisions focused on immigration have dramatically hurt domestic agriculture, food processing, hospitality, tourism and other low-wage, entry-level service occupations.

Tariffs:  Tariffs imposed on imported goods and materials are nothing more than a tax paid by the end user, in many cases, the American consumer.

Tariffs can be effectively used as a component of a strategic long-term plan to reposition the competitive position of American manufacturers on the world stage.

There is no known evidence that tariffs have ever brought any long-term value-added when arbitrarily and capriciously applied.

Trump administration subjective tariffs on imported steel and aluminum (justified as a means to “protect our country and our workers”) have proven to be a financial burden on several high-wage value-added U.S. industries, including: Automotive; Aerospace; Construction; and Manufacturing.

Tax Cuts:  The signing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December 2017 was lauded as landmark legislation which would: (a) lower taxes on businesses and individuals; (b) stimulate higher wages and more jobs; and (c) result in a larger and more dynamic economy as a result of dramatically increased domestic business investment in plant and equipment.

Almost two years after the passage of TCJA, it seems clear that some near-term economic stimulation was achieved, but the long-term impact on gross domestic product (GDP) will be modest, if at all. The impact will be smaller on gross national product (GNP) than on GDP because the law generated net capital inflows from abroad that must be repaid in the future.

The expectation touted by elected officials in their frenzy to pass the TCJA envisioned some $4 Trillion being repatriated, generating new and potent investment and jobs in the U.S.

Most recent estimates reflect $3 Trillion (or more) in profits that U.S. companies have left parked overseas, with about $465 Billion in “repatriated” cash returning to the U.S. to enjoy a tax rate of 15.5% (vs. the 35% prior tax rate) on profits returned to the U.S. from overseas.

A good outcome?  Sure, in the short term.  Capital investments? Plant and equipment? Not so much.  There is virtually no evidence that any of the repatriated cash was invested in job creation.  It was invested in executive bonuses; stock buy-backs; debt repayments; and some dividend enhancements.

Please stay tuned, there is more to come…..

Mueller Report

May 29, 2019

Several of my friends have wondered:  What part of “… this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” supports the “No Collusion, No Obstruction” response from the Trump White House.

My theory is based on a variety of academic studies over the past 2 decades which have determined that an ‘average American adult’ reads at (or about) the eighth grade level.

The reading skills of American adults are significantly lower than those of adults in most other developed countries, according to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development based on a sample of 160,000 people from two dozen developed nations.

The Mueller Report is an academic treatise written at a level which clearly exceeds the abilities of most American adults to engage; read; analyze; and conclude.

The ability to read fluently, critically and for understanding— to be able to learn from text— may be the most important foundational skill for U.S. adult citizens’ health, well-being, and social and economic advancement.

Critical reading skills are the gateway to lifelong learning, education, and training.

The internet and social networking currently operate through the written word, thus reading literacy provides access to an infinite and readily accessible library of the world’s knowledge, as well as the ability to communicate with friends, family, and employers.

The digital revolution provided access to information which is the foundation for an informed society — except for those adults who continue to struggle to read and/or comprehend.

We have a crisis in America.  The Mueller Report is written at a level which exceeds the skills of the majority of Americans — including many of those currently serving in Congress — to understand, analyze and arrive at critically informed conclusions.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that adults with a high school degree (or less) represent the majority (37%) of U.S. adults who report not reading books in any format in the past year.

I have to wonder – and I hope you will join me —  How many of these 37% of adults who don’t read books (and perhaps don’t read critically?) are members of the Trump Base?

 

 

 

 

 

Trump-en-omics

May 13, 2019

Trump has formally signaled his mastery of global economics and some of the ways he believes U.S. trade policies will help guide the world economy toward optimum performance.

Some have said our president seems to be really out of control, that he must have skipped all of the courses on economics and finance when he was in school (he did go to school, right?).

I believe some further research is in order.

Although Trump continues his infatuation with Twitter where he openly shares classified information with the world, he also has his thumbs on the Tariff Buttons.

Most alarming?  He apparently has the nuclear codes.

Meanwhile, since mid-April, the actions of our president have cost me a significant amount of my accumulated and hard earned savings.  And, it could be worse!  If I was fully invested in traditional equities, it would have been even more painful!

But, enough about me.

The most recent abrupt and unjustified increase of U.S. tariffs on $200 Billion of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent triggered a response from China which predictably exacerbates continued economic damage to the U.S. agricultural sector, and compounds spillover impacts to related industries.

The Trump Trade War has been extremely harsh on farmers.  Over time, our farmers learned to deal with unpredictable weather; wind storms; disease outbreaks; hordes of locusts; crop loss during storage; and wildly fluctuating prices of both inputs and crops.

It seems clear they never anticipated having a White House which would use them as sacrificial pawns to engage in quixotic battles against imaginary foes.

Longer term and behind the curtain, tariff increases on Chinese imports will drive up domestic prices on a broad array of consumer products, finished goods, and intermediate goods – even some raw materials used in basic manufacturing in the U.S.

The good news:  the effects of these most recent tariff increases probably won’t show up for 90 days, or so.

The bad news:  the costs of the these tariff increases will be fully borne by U.S. consumers, and the effects of tariff increases will result in price increases which will temper domestic economic growth while concurrently sending signals of an increase in core inflation, likely resulting in interest rate increases by the Fed.

And, it just gets worse from there…..

Dear President Trump:

It has been reported that you don’t want to see any additional federal aid directed to Puerto Rico.

The government debt crisis in Puerto Rico started in 1973 when the government began to operate on a deficit budget (i.e. spend more than what it collected). To cover the annual budget shortfall, the government issued bonds.

The impact of that decision had long range impacts, beginning with reduced capital spending resulting in deferred maintenance of public sector infrastructure (roads, bridges, public utilities, hospitals, electric power grid, ports, airports, etc.).

The practice of deficit spending in Puerto Rico continued for 4 decades!

In 2014 three major credit agencies downgraded several bonds issued by Puerto Rican government entities to “junk status” after the government was unable to demonstrate that it would be able to pay its debt from sustainable current cash flows. That action precluded Puerto Rico from access to the public debt markets, and forced them into the shadowy world of hedge funds and high-yield debt issuers.

I think you are punishing Gov. Ricardo Rosselló — and the people of Puerto Rico — for a situation which they inherited.

Meanwhile, there is a long-term lesson to be learned from the current Puerto Rico situation.

Fiscal responsibility requires discipline. In times of economic expansion, all eyes should be on reducing debt without creating abrupt changes in revenues or spending.
 
No responsible government should plan to operate on a deficit budget during times of economic expansion (prosperity).
 
The real job of our federal government is at a strategic level — looking into the future to create and support programs and policies which will help support a positive foundation for future Americans at the state and local base.
 
President Trump: I believe your fiscal priorities need to be revisited and carefully evaluated through an honest and open strategic filter.

The Amazon Conundrum

March 5, 2019

While New Yorkers continue to debate the loss of Amazon from a site in Queens, the discussion seems to have lost sight of what Amazon contributes to the long-term well-being of our society.

Amazon is not a friend to America, has contributed very little if anything to our overall economy. The stock is currently grossly overvalued with a P/E ratio in excess of 80x.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has an estimated net worth of $165 Billion, primarily as a result of a business model which has dramatically changed the U.S. retail sector.

Most egregious? Amazon paper earnings for 2018 are $11.2 Billion, and early reports indicate that they will pay $0 in federal income taxes on these earnings.

(Amazon reported $5.6 Billion in U.S. profits in 2017 and paid $0 last year.)

Amazon creates jobs? True. Good jobs? False.

Economic scholars generally agree that a ‘living wage’ in the NY Metro area for an adult with one child is $31/hour, with 2 children $41/hour.

Amazon announced in early October 2018 that it would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for its U.S. employees.

Meanwhile, much like Walmart, Amazon has created a business model which effectively eliminates competition and destroys small business.

The hot topic today is the talk of ‘Democratic Socialism’ being portrayed by some pundits as a death threat to American democracy.

The real threat to American democracy is the proliferation and exponential growth of a few family-controlled and vertically-integrated oligarchies which are capable of re-creating the Feudal System which characterized medieval Europe during the Middle Ages.

“Those who fail to learn from the lessons of history are bound to repeat the outrage of history.”

National Emergency

February 13, 2019

Yes, we are facing a national emergency, and it’s not along our southern border.

Our real national emergency is our National Debt.

Let’s first agree that when the U.S. federal government runs a deficit, or spends more than it receives in tax revenue, the U.S. Treasury Department borrows money to make up the difference.

Next, let’s agree that our national debt is the amount of money the federal government has borrowed through various means, including: (1) by issuing bills, notes and bonds which are bought by investors (domestic and foreign), including the public, the Federal Reserve and foreign governments; (2) through intra-governmental debt, essentially money borrowed from trust funds used to pay for programs like Social Security and Medicare.

The great majority of economists and economic and fiscal analysts tend to agree that the significance of national debt is best measured by comparing the debt with the federal government’s ability to pay it off using the debt-to-GDP ratio, simply by dividing a nation’s debt by its gross domestic product.

Various sources have estimated that a healthy debt-to-GDP ratio is in the 40% to 60% range.  A longitudinal study conducted by World Bank economists published in 2010 estimated that in highly developed countries, 77% was a ‘tipping point’ where productivity and potential economic growth was constrained by adding additional debt without addition of incremental revenue.  (In emerging economies, they estimate that 64% is the tipping point.)  In either case, potential for default begins to increase once the tipping point has been breached, thus putting upward pressure on borrowing costs.

The first instance when U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio exceeded 77% was toward the end of World War II.  In the post-war years, our national debt shrank in comparison to the booming post-war economy, and the debt-to-GDP ratio fell as low as 24 percent in 1974.

Recession and rising interest rates during the Carter administration put upward pressure on the debt-to-GDP ratio, and once the tax cuts enacted during Reagan’s first term combined with increased spending on both defense and social programs, the debt-to-GDP ratio reached 50 % in July 1989.

Economic growth in the ‘90s, combined with tax increases under both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton helped keep the debt load in line, and by the end of December 2000, our national debt was about 55% of GDP.

Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, U.S. military spending spiked, yet tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 during the George W. Bush administration combined with a mild recession in 2001 and the Great Recession beginning in 2007 caused significant decreases in tax revenues. By the time Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the debt-to- GDP-ratio reached 75%.

Deficit spending is one of the key tools available to stimulate economic recovery, and by the time of Obama’s 2nd inauguration in January 2013, the U.S. debt had grown to $16 Trillion – a debt-to-GDP ratio of 101%. By that time, it was clear that the economic stimulus of deficit spending had worked, evidenced by an expanding U.S. economy; signs of ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; resurgence of the U.S. stock market; continued job growth; and other positive economic indicators.

All of these positive signs at the beginning of 2013 pointed to the need to rein in government spending and to strategically increase revenues (i.e. raise taxes).

Yet, the Congress has stubbornly refused to deal with the reality that our U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio has remained above 100 percent since 2013.

In early 2018, an analysis by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget concluded that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into law in late 2017 will push the U.S. national debt to $33 Trillion — 113 % of GDP — by 2028, a ratio not seen since immediately after World War II.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is a sham (and a scam) which created a situation exactly opposite of what responsible elected officials should have supported.  The sooner it is  amended, repaired or repealed, the sooner the American people will be transitioned into a less dangerous and more stable and sustainable economic environment.

Economic and Fiscal Policy

February 12, 2019

Our current POTUS rarely stands still long enough for anyone to really examine how his positions and policies impact us in the present, or potentially in the future.

Here are a couple of observations which I managed to glean from rapidly moving targets:

Fiscal Policy:  Failure

By late 2017, the U.S. economy had enjoyed over 8 years of economic expansion (since June 2009), leading virtually all economists to conclude we were moving toward the end of an economic expansion cycle. Most experts agree that the government should constrain both borrowing and spending during an expansion phase, concurrently decreasing government debt.

When the expansion phase of a business cycle comes to an end, and the economy begins to sputter – and ultimately to contract – a government with reduced debt will have the capacity to spend more and tax less, helping to support the softening economy return to equilibrium faster and smoother.

The much-touted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act enacted at the end of 2017 introduced a $1.5 Trillion tax cut, sold as a source of economic stimulus when it was least needed.

In times of economic expansion, the government is on notice to reduce its deficit.

On February 12, 2019, the national debt passed a new milestone, topping $22 Trillion for the first time.  According to the U.S. Treasury Department, total outstanding public debt hit $22.01 Trillion, up from the $19.95 Trillion when President Donald Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017.  This is mighty dangerous stuff, folks.

Trade Policy:  Failure

Tariffs are a tax on consumption, paid by end users.

Over several decades, the U.S. developed a dependence on manufactured goods from China.  In turn, U.S. exports to China – predominantly agricultural and unfinished goods – enjoyed strong growth over time.

President Trump abruptly started a trade war with China, imposing tariffs on goods imported into the U.S. beginning in July 2018.

China quickly retaliated, raising tariffs on American goods imported into China, resulting in significant shifts by China to alternative sources.

Winners?  Brazil; Russia; Germany; Japan.

Losers?  American agricultural producers in Iowa, Nebraska, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Kansas; some American manufacturers; and American consumers overall.

It was once said, “When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win.

The evidence seems to emphatically refute that position.

Monday, January 21, 2019The International Monetary Fund pared back its world economic growth forecasts for 2019 and 2020 due to sustained economic weakness in Europe and some emerging markets. They also said looming trade tensions and the longer-term ramifications of the U.S. government shutdown could further destabilize a slowing global economy.

“After two years of solid expansion, the world economy is growing more slowly than expected and risks are rising,” IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said.

In addition to other forces, IMF economists pointed to: (a) challenges to German auto manufacturers due to new fuel emission standards; (b) uncertainty in Italy where a newly elected coalition government has clashed with EU leadership over a budget proposal which would dangerously increase the Italian sovereign deficit, combined with limp domestic demand; and (c) the uncertainty of fallout from a less-than-smooth exit from the European Union by the U.K. a.k.a. ‘a no-deal Brexit’.

Fears of a global slowdown began to jinx financial markets in early November 2018 as investors began to worry about increasingly weak signs in China.

The ripple effect of Sino-U.S. trade frictions over the past year apparently has exacerbated the slowing of China’s official growth rate to its weakest level since 1990, attributed to a combination of diminishing domestic demand and damaging U.S. tariffs.

Each of these issues is important, and they generally share a common theme:  bad policy decisions made by incompetent and/or uninformed people, some of whom are voters; some private-sector executives; and some unconstrained elected officials.

On Day 30 of the 2018-19 U.S Shutdown:  It is becoming increasingly evident that this partial federal government shutdown is taking an increasingly negative short-term toll on consumer and business confidence, and by extension, the overall US economy.  The White House’s Council of Economic Advisors recently updated their estimate that the shutdown will reduce current economic growth by 0.13% for every week that it lasts.  Doesn’t sound like much, you say?

We can look back to the “Ted Cruz Green Eggs & Ham” shutdown of 2013 – a mere 16 days – to see estimates of negative economic impact:

  • $24 billion in lost domestic economic output;
  • $2.1 billion in non-productive government costs (primarily the cost of paying furloughed workers for hours they didn’t actually work);
  • $2.4 billion in lost travel spending (based on a combination of estimated reductions in business travel for federal contractors and federal employees, plus cancellations of discretionary travel by tourists);
  • $7.2 Million in lost revenue at National Parks (based on an average collection of $450,000 per day);
  • Most alarming? While we can estimate current economic effects, there really is no valid means to estimate long-term economic – and societal – effects of an extended shutdown.

The message?  Political decisions made by unqualified and/or inexperienced individuals can and do have long term negative consequences. A comprehensive system of checks and balances is a critical ingredient in the long-term viability of any institution. In the public sector, a key ingredient seems to be the involved and active participation by a well-educated and well-informed body of citizens who are able and willing to vote.

Labor Day Reflections

September 2, 2018

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is an outcome of the U.S. Labor Movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It is an annual national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, in accordance with the plans of the Central Labor Union.  It didn’t take long for the federal government to recognize it (1885), and it became a national holiday in 1894.

The inspiration of Labor Day is closely tied to both the roots of Capitalism and the emergence of Labor Unions in the U.S.

In 1983, the first year for which union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.

By 2017, the union membership rate had declined to 10.7 percent, and – most alarmingly – union representation of public-sector workers (34.4 percent) had become more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.5 percent).

The origin of Capitalism as economic system assumed that private individuals or families who directly invested in (and directly took on the risks of loss) would own the means of production, distribution, and thus ensure a free and fair market for goods and services: They had real skin in the game.

Relying on the theories that: (1) people (consumers) are rational and will seek maximum utility from their economic actions; (2) information is transparently available to all who participate in the economy; and (3) markets are self-correcting; the concepts of Capitalism are compelling to most people when contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.

Worker exploitation was one of the early criticisms of the Capitalism model. The Labor Movement in the U.S. was instrumental in creating a buffer (safeguard) to help ensure a safer workplace, fair wages and reasonable hours and benefits.  The Labor Movement was enabled by Labor Unions.

Today’s version of Capitalism has morphed into ownership of corporations by passive investors (mutual funds, pension funds, venture funds, etc.) which seek maximum current ROI with little or no regard to sustainability or externalities.

The executives who are charged with achieving the expectation of the passive investors are “hired guns” who begin with no skin in the game, yet who often are rewarded with stock options when short-term outcomes are positive.

In 1978, the average CEO earned about 30 times as much as the average worker.  U.S. Census data tells us that the average income for U.S. households was $17,730, pegging average CEO income at $531,900.

In just 40 years, statistics from 2017 indicate that CEOs in the 350 largest companies in the U.S. are earning over 300 times as much as the average worker (actually, 312:1).

A recent survey by Glassdoor found that the median salary for U.S. employees is $51,272, implying median CEO compensation at nearly $16 Million.

There is no rational explanation for the explosion of the CEO to Worker compensation ratio.  It seems to reflect a total lack of oversight by those individuals who have been elected to represent the interests of the American people.

Current economic conditions ought to raise a red flag to our elected officials that our nation has navigated very close to a Feudalistic System which is on track to implode and to destroy the very notion of what is described in the Declaration of Independence.

Labor Day seems like an appropriate time to pause and reflect on what seems to be an egregious obstacle to the healthy future of our American society.