Posts Tagged ‘economy’

Price’s Law and Why the Early Retirement Community Will Not Harm the Economy

Square root employee?

The FIRE community has been educating the public in attaining financial independence and early retirement for a decade or so now. Whenever the topic arises it is sure to be followed by the exasperated rebuke, “We can’t all do this! Who will do the work if we all retire at 30? The economy will fail.”

The argument has a sort of logic on the surface. If everyone retired by their 30th birthday there could be a problem. A 50% savings rate could crush the economy! Right?

Or maybe not. A high national savings rate doesn’t harm the economy! The United States had a double digit savings rate in the 1950s and the economy roared. China and many other nations with vibrant economies have high savings rates. A low savings rate seems to be the real problem. In the U.S. we struggled more as our savings rate declined to its current low single digit home.

High savings rates don’t kill the economy; it provides a massive pool of ready capital to invest in infrastructure and future economic growth. No wonder our road, bridges, water and sewer works are subpar. The government decided it was good for the economy short-term to spike growth by encouraging excess consumption. As the savings rate kept declining less money was available for high speed rail and advanced internet services. And don’t even think of fully funding roads and upgrading the electric grid.




Price to the Rescue

Derek J. de Solla Price discovered an inverse relationship between how many people actually do most of the work in a given setting. Price discovered the square root of a group did half the work and the remaining members of the group did the other half. If you have a business with 10 employees, then 3 were doing half the work.

Here is where it gets scary. If you have 100 employees, 10 are doing half the work and 90 the other half! As an organization grows, incompetence grows exponentially while competence grows linearly! As the organization grows to 1000, thirty-two are doing half the work with 968 doing the remaining half! This is why it is so hard to grow a very large organization and keep it large.

Price’s law is visible in corporate America. In 1928 the Dow Jones Industrial Average expanded to 30 stocks. Of all the stocks on the original list, only one is still there: General Electric. The other 29 companies are either merged, bankrupt, dissolved or significantly smaller firms. Current financial difficulties at General Electric could soon remove the remaining holdout from the original Dow-Jones stocks. In less than 100 years every single one is off the list!

You don’t need as long a timescale to see Price’s law in action on the S&P 500. Of the ten largest stocks in the S&P 500, most were not on top a decade ago. Companies like Kodak, Sears, and Xerox are nowhere to be found at the top of the list, yet they were the crème de la crème at the height of the Nifty Fifty days of the early 1970s. A damning fact is the average stock in the S&P 500 spends an average of 30 years there. That’s it. Some make it longer, other less. But 30 years is all the leaders can manage on average to stay on top. This is why we buy index funds instead of individual stocks. Individual companies come and go, but as the economy keeps climbing, so does the size of the index.




Faulty Thinking

A quick reader might be thinking of how to game this information to her advantage. A few ground rules are in order before we get cute.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, on January 1, 2016 the U.S population was 322,810,000 and 157,833,000 were in the Civilian Labor Force. You read that right. Forty-nine percent of the total population is in the labor force! As you can see, a very large number of people are not engaged in any kind of formalized labor. Children, the disabled, military personnel, incarcerated and the retired are not part of the labor force.

Running 157,833,000 through a square root calculator gives you around 12,500. At first blush we might be tempted to believe 12,500 people are doing half of all the formalized work in the U.S. with 157,820,500 doing the other half of all the work. Now you know why you’re so tired. You’re one of the 12,500!

Except it doesn’t work that way. As much as you may want to believe you’re carrying an unfair labor burden (and you might be), the truth is far more than 12,500 people are doing half the work of the country.

Price’s law works wherever there is creative productivity. It is certainly possible a mere 12,500 people are providing half the creative productivity as long as you narrowly define “creativity.” Elon Musk is a hyper productive individual. But you can’t discount the workers building the cars!

While Price’s law works wonderfully when applied to baskets scored or city sizes or a single business, it fails to adequately disclose who is productive nationally. If only 12,500 provide half the nation’s GDP there are not enough producers to have at least one productive employee per successful company.

No, the Civilian Labor Force is not “creative productivity” and therefore we should not apply Price’s law. Price’s law explains what happens within an organization. Again, if you have 10 employees, 3 are doing half the work. Thirty percent of employees are kicking out half of the company’s creative production. It could be tax returns or widgets. The percentage contributing to half the company’s production declines to 10% when staff increases to 100. The bigger the company grows the worse it gets.

The Pareto Principle appears more generous in stating 80% of results come from 20% of the inputs. In other words, 20% of employees are doing 80% of the work; 20% of clients are providing 80% of the profits; and so on. In the end Price’s law and the Pareto Principle are explaining a similar reality.

 

Price is Saving the FIRE Message

Back to where we started. The FIRE community message is you can save half or more of your gross income, invest in index funds and retire early, some as young as 30. And then the economy drops off a cliff and nobody is around to get the work done.

Except Price told us what we needed to know! If 30% of the people in a small business with 10 employees are doing half the work, 70% aren’t getting shit done! And business owners, tell me I didn’t just hit the nail on the head.

Square root kitty?

If so many people are unproductive it is easy to have fewer people in the work force and still get all the work done. What we need to do is train employees to be like the minority producers (the square root guys).

How can we do that? First we need to look back at our error in assuming you can apply the square root of the entire nation’s work force and conclude 12,500 people do half the work. A business can be just like the national work force. If you have one huge group within a company Price’s law is going to crush you.

But then explain companies that are large? How come some outperform for very long periods of time?

The solution is simple. By breaking a huge company into smaller groups you can increase the number of productive people. A major corporation can act and perform as nimbly as a smaller company by organizing human resources appropriately.

Of course another issue arises. If some schmuck in accounting can’t get off dead center, how will a smaller group make her more likely to increase productivity? And the answer is: it doesn’t. Merely cutting a larger group into smaller groups will not have a meaningful effect on overall productivity of the firm. Unless you organize the smaller groups to focus on specific tasks.

Large groups tend to get less done because they take on too much. By breaking tasks into smaller sizes handled by smaller groups you can unleash before unrealized creative powers. And there is an example that proves it.

The Richest Guy in the Room

Just as the largest companies don’t stay on top forever, neither do the wealthiest people stay on top of the Fortune 500 list of wealthiest people on the planet. The 1% churns. A lot!

Don’t get me wrong. Warren Buffett was the richest guy on the planet for a while. Now that Jeff Bezos jumped in front, Warren isn’t looking for gainful employment to put food on the table. Bill Gates was on top for a while. Back in the day Rockefeller was on top. What I’m saying is the list changes for people just like businesses.

The insight Price gave us and the understanding we have of the Pareto Principle allows us to better use our human capital. People are the most important resource. But an employee struggling in a large group is far more likely to excel in a smaller group.

You’ve experienced this yourself. You go to a conference and attend a breakout session where 10 people are in the audience. A significant percentage of the people participate by asking questions and adding additional information. If the room fills with 50 people a smaller percentage get involved. The bigger the group gets the more likely you are to keep quiet. A few step forward, but fewer than in smaller groups.

Also, productive people in one setting will be less productive in a different setting. Smaller groups only work if effort is applied into providing the right environment in the smaller group so more people become interactive producers. This is the solution to the problem presented by detractors of the FIRE community.




The FIRE Community was Right All Along

It is possible for people to save more and invest the difference without killing the economy. We can be just as productive as a nation, as a company, as an individual. Even more so if we apply only a small amount of effort.

Reaching financial independence at an early age does NOT harm the nation. Quite the opposite; it makes us tremendously stronger! A nation wallowing in debt loses vibrancy. So do companies and people!

Fewer people need to work when the ones who are working are more productive. The end of formalized work doesn’t mean the end of productivity. Early retirement frees times to explore new ideas. Some of those ideas are the Tesla’s of tomorrow.

Spending down household savings accounts for conspicuous consumption does provide short-term economic growth. Then again, snorting cocaine gives you a high that doesn’t last either.

FIRE is the only way.



Wealth Building Resources

Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?

Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.

PeerSteet is an alternative way to invest in the real estate market without the hassle of management. Investing in mortgages has never been easier. 7-12% historical APRs. Here is my review of PeerStreet.

QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. Quickbooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

A cost segregation study can save $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.

Amazon is a good way to control costs by comparison shopping. The cost of a product includes travel to the store. When you start a shopping trip to Amazon here it also supports this blog. Thank you.

Tariffs, Stagflation and Stock Market Risks

#tariffs #tradewars #stagflation #economy | trade war | tariff | wages in a trade warTrade policy can make for some strange bedfellows. Last week President Trump promised a 25% tariff on steel and 10% on aluminum. The GOP let out a collective gasp while Democrats had manure eating grins spread across their faces.

The stock market reacted negatively to the news. Clients (and a few readers) started asking me what is so bad about a tariff. I pointed them to a post I previously published on the consequences of trade wars, but there are still more questions. I’ll do my best to clear up the issues about why tariffs are a really, really bad idea we need to avoid.

What Really Happens When a New Tariff is Levied?

What is so bad about a tariff? It raises money to pay for the recent tax cuts. It promises to raise prices for steel and aluminum manufacturers. Some laborers stand to benefit from higher wages and with less competition, more job security. At face value it sounds like a good idea!

Of course, it only works if the tariff takes place within a vacuum. The tariffs Trump promises this week are blanket, meaning they hit steel and aluminum from every nation. When such a draconian ax is taken to the playing field there will be a response.

Normally tariffs take a long process to change. Treaties and trade agreements go through a long process of negotiations before each member nation to the agreement presents the details to their legislative branch for approval. Passage isn’t guaranteed. Several safety nets are in place to encourage each nation to honor the terms of all trade agreements.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) has been around since shortly after World War II (January 1, 1948). Over the decades there have been additional negotiations to expand and clarify the agreement. GATT has served the world economy well for 70 years.

Trade disputes can end up at the World Trade Organization (WTO). What makes WTO work is all member nations agree to the final decision of the WTO. In reality there is nothing to prevent a nation from thumbing its nose at the WTO, GATT or any other trade agreement or organization.

Trump’s unilateral tariff on steel and aluminum is certain to end up at the WTO. However, in the current political climate the U.S. can send some return international sign language involving the middle finger if it deems the tariffs a matter of national security. Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Expansion Act allows a president to unilaterally, without input or approval from Congress, set a tariff deemed necessary for the sake of national security.

Now that we’ve concluded the president can set a restrictive tariff if it is to protect national security, we can turn to the consequences of such action.

It’s impossible to know if the president will follow through on his threat, but there is nothing to indicate he’ll back down. What we do know is that there will be a serious response from nations around the world. The EU promised to increase tariffs on select U.S. products, including Harley Davidson motorcycles made right in the authors home state of Wisconsin. The gains the steel industry should experience will be felt in job losses in the Milwaukee area where Harley Davidson motorcycles are produced.




Is it Just a Shift, a Gain or are Real Economic Losses Possible?

The next question I get asked involves the ultimate economic gains or losses. Many people mistakenly believe it ends up a zero sum game. It isn’t!

The losses are best illustrated with a simple example. If steel tariffs on imports to the U.S. happen, the cost of steel to all U.S manufacturers increases. The wage gains in one industry pressure wages in other industries purchasing steel. The U.S doesn’t benefit much from the perceived benefit of closing our borders to free trade. However, nations feeling the pain of the tariff will not stand idle while they are gutted economically. These other nations levy tariffs against U.S goods so their domestic producers have an advantage over U.S. producers. And U.S. manufacturers of steel based products have higher input costs and are uncompetitive internationally.

This is where the problems begin. Economic theory is clear about price and demand. If prices increase relative to wages demand will fall. Steel prices will go up so instead of gaining all the benefits of a tariff there is a loss from the higher price. Other nations lose sales of steel to the U.S. while consumers now choose substitute products whenever possible. Regardless, the finite financial resources of consumer’s means they can only buy fewer goods since prices are now higher compared to wages in their industry.

Here is where a good idea gets ugly. Retaliatory tariffs now decrease demand for selected U.S. products. China can buy soybeans elsewhere and goods exclusive to the U.S. (Harley Davidson motorcycles) can be prices out of international markets due to prohibitive retaliatory tariffs. Even Canada could fight back by disrupting the supply chain of auto manufacturers.

By now it’s easy to see all the expected benefits of a unilateral tariff regresses to lower economic activity, fewer jobs, lower corporate profits and a difficult stock market. This is why President Reagan was a free trade guy. It’s also why the GOP is so against the tariff. It leads to the nemesis of the 1970s: stagflation, where prices rise while economic activity declines.

But what about the Democrats? Are they idiots thinking the tariff will benefit them? Well, the Democrats aren’t idiots. They’re protecting the interests of their constituents. Unions love the tariff because it helps them (in the short run) even if other industries suffer the ripple effect of the tariff. Many Democratic representatives are from areas with heave steel or aluminum production. They also have major union support. Democrats are engaging survival instincts even at the risk of eventual calamity.




A History Lesson

Tariffs have been with this country since its inception. Tariffs were a major source of federal government revenue before the income tax was instituted. In part, the income tax was needed to provide for an expanded government role in national security (fighting wars) and to allow more open trade between nations, fostering economic growth on both side of the agreement.

The threat of tariffs is also devastating! The real risk President Trump takes by announcing the tariffs is that virtually every nation on the planet will gear up to increase tariffs on exclusive U.S. goods in retaliation. The consequences could be catastrophic!

We can see from a famous real life example how the possibility of increased U.S. tariffs can slow an economy for a decade or more. In 1929, freshly elected President Hoover called a special session of Congress to review tariffs shortly after taking office. Hoover’s idea was to get modest adjustments to tariffs to better manage the economy.

Special interests soon got involved. The special session of Congress dragged on. The vibrant economy of the 1920 started to slow and then decline by the late summer of 1929. The stock market crashed in October of the same year with the economy chasing quick behind.

There is a lot more to the 1929 stock market crash. The economy of 1929 was extended and gold started to leave the country. When money is specie (backed by gold or silver) it’s important to keep enough gold around to back the local currency. Today we have fiat money (issued by decree of the government) so they can print to their heart’s content.

What people often forget is the Tariff Act of 1930 slowed the economy and crashed the stock market before it became law! The blowback was already in force and industries already started adjusting to the advantages or disadvantages. In the end the losers always outnumber the winners. Increased prices always lower demand as consumer’s resources buy less. Less demand means fewer jobs and down you go until the cycle of stupidity is broken.




The Game Plan

Only days into the announcement by the president and its clear there will be retaliatory tariffs if the U.S. carries out the threatened tariff increases on steel and aluminum. The economic ramifications should be felt quickly. The stock market will struggle under the potential for lower earnings. The steel and aluminum tariffs alone could undo all the benefits of the recent tax cuts. It’s that serious.

President Accountant

You can’t predict the future any better than I can. Therefore, a steady as she goes approach is advised. Timing the stock market based on tariffs and counter-tariffs is ill advised.

But you must be ready for some pain! The damage done by the threat alone is meaningful. If the tariffs go into effect and the EU and other trading blocks and nations institute their own tariffs against U.S. goods, it will be a painful time to be fully invested.

An appropriate plan is based upon where you are in your life. If you are young and starting out you need to max out your work retirement program (401(k), 403(b), 457, et cetera). Filling your health savings account and IRAs are also a good idea if you are allowed by the tax code.

Older readers and those near or in retirement should always have a few years of liquid net worth in cash (money market and similar accounts). Any market decline then requires only a modest adjustment to lifestyle as you will have plenty of reserves in cash to draw from, plus dividends.




Final Outcome

Something this important and potentially nation-altering requires me to engage in my favorite pastime: predicting the future. It’s all in good fun, understand.

I predict (yes, I am the new Nostradamus!) the next economic savior to ascend to the presidency will kill inflation and spark economic growth by embracing free trade. Reagan’s ideas of supply-side economics have been played out to the nth degree so this time will require different medicine. Once the pain sets in free trade will be the perfect medicine to lower inflation and spark economic growth. Anyone ready to vote for President Accountant?

Remember to vote early and vote often.

 

More Wealth Building Resources

Personal Capital is an incredible tool to manage all your investments in one place. You can watch your net worth grow as you reach toward financial independence and beyond. Did I mention Personal Capital is free?

Medi-Share is a low cost way to manage health care costs. As health insurance premiums continue to sky rocket, there is an alternative preserving the wealth of families all over America. Here is my review of Medi-Share and additional resources to bring health care under control in your household.

PeerSteet is an alternative way to invest in the real estate market without the hassle of management. Investing in mortgages has never been easier. 7-12% historical APRs. Here is my review of PeerStreet.

QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. Quickbooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

A cost segregation study can save $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregations studies work and how to get one yourself.

Amazon is a good way to control costs by comparison shopping. The cost of a product includes travel to the store. When you start a shopping trip to Amazon here it also supports this blog. Thank you.

 



Could We Get a Single Digit P/E Ratio?

Recent volatility and decline in the broad markets in the U.S has people wondering if the correction returned the market to typical valuations. There are several tools used to measure the market’s value. One of the most widely used is the price/earnings (P/E) ratio, derived by dividing a stock’s price by its trailing twelve months (TTM) earnings.

The P/E ratio on the S&P 500 stands at 24.46 as I write (February 11, 2018). The ratio has been above 20 since early 2015.

When you take long periods of market data and shake them together you end up with an average P/E somewhere in the mid-teens. There is no hard and fast rule stating what a fair or reasonable P/E should be though plenty of opinions exist.

Another way to look at the P/E ratio is to flip it upside down where you divide the earnings by the price. This is called the earnings yield.

The earnings yield is an easier way to understand if your investment is paying enough to justify the risk and lost opportunity cost of investing elsewhere. The S&P 500 earning yield is 4.09% as I write. This means if all the companies in the S&P 500 paid all their earning out as a dividend you would have a 4.09% yield.

Again, there is no hard and fast rule on what an appropriate earnings yield should be. However, if Treasuries are considered a risk-free investment and yield more than 4.09% you might want to reconsider your strategy.

History of the P/E Ratio

The P/E ratio has been all over the map. We sit near record highs in the  ratio currently, but have been above 20 for several years. This in and of itself is a bit unusual.

The other side of the spectrum had the ratio in the single digits with the earnings yield double digits. (If the P/E is 10 then the earning yield is also 10%. If the P/E is 5 then the earning yield is 20%. Example: A $100 stock has a $10 per share profit. If they paid all the profit as a dividend it would equate to a 10% yield. If the $100 stock earned $20/share the P/E (100/20) would be 5 and if the $20 were all paid out it would equate to a 20% yield.)

The actual dividend is almost always less than the profits of the underlying company as a higher dividend would require borrowed money or liquidation of assets to pay. The earnings yield is the highest amount a company could consistently pay out. Realistically, most companies can’t pay more than 80% of profits in dividends so resources are available to invest for future growth.

The P/E ratio has climbed above 20 many times in the past. Concerns over high valuations based solely on the P/E is short-sighted and a poor investing barometer.

Up until the early 1990s when the P/E climbed above 20 either earning grew bringing the ratio back below 20 or stocks declined in price or some combination of both. Since the early 1990s the ratio has been above 20 more often than not. During the dotcom craze the ratio exceeded 40 and during the Great Recession (2008-9) the ratio briefly pierced 70 as earnings declined (especially in the energy sector) faster than the market declined.

In both cases the excessive P/E ratios returned to the upper teens in a short period of time. Earnings rebounded even as stocks advanced. The faster growth rate in profits reduced the ratio. The excessive losses due to falling oil prices eventually ended and the ratio declined.




Why is this Time Different?

Why have stock prices stayed so high for so long? Except for brief periods the P/E has been above 20 for twenty-five years! This has never happened before in U.S. markets.

‘This time is different’ is the battle cry just prior to bloodlettings. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Each era of stock market history has different events moving prices. If you dig down you will find the differences are only cosmetic.

What drove stock prices in the past drive them today.

The P/E chart shows the ratio climbing steadily from the early 1980s until shortly after the turn of the millennium where it made traumatic moves as it settled into the lower 20s zone.

What caused this steady ratio increase? First, the increasing ratio means the stock market has been climbing faster than earnings for a long time. People are paying more and more every year for the same dollar of earnings. At first blush this seems insane. But there is a valid reason for the activity.

Inflation was rampant (double-digits) in the late 1970s. Interest rates were increased repeatedly by the Fed until borrowing costs reached well into the double-digits.

After years of high interest rates to fight inflation, the price of goods and services stopped the rapid climb. The back of inflation was broken. Price increases moderated. Each economic hiccup reduced price pressures further until the 2008 recession when deflation (declining prices) made an appearance.

With each step lower, interest rates dropped in tandem with inflation pressures. It’s been so long since we felt the sting of inflation most people investing today don’t remember what it was like. A certain accountant in the room does, though.

Inflation and Stock Prices

Many factors drive stock prices. Earning top the list. But what is the value of those earnings?

Why did investors pay less than 8 times earnings in 1980 and now pay close to 25 times? Investors today pay three times what they did in 1980 for a dollar of earning!

In 1980 inflation was high; today inflation is low, almost nonexistent, and has been for a decade.

Inflation drives interest rates. The higher inflation the higher interest rates will climb.

If prices are steady (no inflation or zero inflation) and a company grows earning 10% the future value of those earnings are worth their full value.

If the same company were operating in a 5% inflation environment the discounted value of those future earnings are reduced by half. (This is an over-simplification to keep our story moving. Each successive year earnings are reduced by the risk-free rate of return. It has a compounding effect.) That means investors will pay less for those earnings. This is why investors pay three times what 1980 investors did for the same dollar of profits.

Future Growth Problems

When inflation climbs, interest rates follow and hence the risk-free rate of return.

As interest rates climb on the risk-free alternative (Treasuries for U.S. business and investors) it gets harder to justify many projects considered for future growth.

Value is created when the return on invested capital exceed the cost of capital. The cost of capital on excess cash held by businesses is the risk-free rate. When Treasuries pay almost nothing virtually every project projected to show any return is viable. Increase the risk-free rate to 5% or higher and many projects no longer make sense.

Of course, a margin of safety will be added by the company. In a zero rate environment a company will not accept a project with a projected rate of return of 1% just because it exceeds the risk-free rate. They will need a margin of safety to account for errors in calculated returns and to compensate investors for the risk taken.

As rates rise and fewer projects are approved, the number of goods and services eventually declines along with the number of jobs until equilibrium is found.




What Could Cause Inflation and Lower Stock Returns?

For 35 years investors have watched stocks climb faster than earnings. Deflationary pressures were more common in the 19th Century as prices swung wildly with the economy’s ups and downs. Over long periods prices were stable with the exception of the wild internal fluctuations.

Refer back to the P/E ratio chart. You will notice three times in the last 150 years the ratio dropped below 10 for an extended period: after WWI, after WWII and during the late 1970s. The starting point of the chart showing a low ratio came right after the U.S. Civil War.

At first glance you might think war was the cause of low P/Es, but you’d be wrong. Then you might wonder why the most pronounced period of low P/Es was the only one not following a war.

Well, the 1970s low P/E ratios followed a long war in Vietnam. War seems once again the cause of a low market ratio.

War does funny things to an economy. Both World Wars had price controls as the U.S. dealt with the economic stresses of fighting the war. Pent up demand and a higher savings rate allowed people to chase goods and services they were denied for a period of time. Business ramped up production and prices stabilized. With prices under control investors calculated the future value of earning at a higher rate causing the P/E ratio to climb.

The 1970s had additional issues pushing prices higher. Spending to fight the Vietnam War primed the pump for price increases. The first oil embargo in 1973 sent energy prices rapidly higher. President Nixon took the U.S off the gold standard further unleashing prices as the Federal Reserve had no real limit other than self control on how much money they could pump into the system.

Stubborn inflation was pushed even higher with a second OPEC oil embargo in the late 70s.

Now inflation became entrenched. Killing the beast wasn’t going to be easy. People expected wages and prices to climb. It felt normal so the tendency was to push prices higher.

This may seem strange to people living in a world of remarkable stable prices. But that could all change and rather fast.




Fixing Inflation

Stagflation was a new animal for economists in the 1970s. A stagnant economy still generated large price increases. It made no sense.

The newly elected President Reagan had an idea. He built a tax cut around combating stagflation problems with supply-side economic theory.

Supply-side economics has received a bad rap at times, but it was the perfect medicine for low economic growth and high inflation.

What the 1981 tax cuts did was lower rates for business and individuals. This could cause inflation to flare higher. Buuuuuut . . .

For businesses some expenses are depreciated. Back then small businesses had to depreciate assets expecting to last more than a year and costing more than $100. This kept businesses from increasing production as costs came 100% out-of-pocket (or from borrowed money) while it took years to depreciate the entire asset.

What Reagan did was genius! Before the two big tax changes of the 1980’s small businesses could elect to expense assets (IRC Section 179) up to $10,000 with certain limitations instead of depreciating. The tax law was changed to increase this to $20,000.

Small business owners could now write-off more of their investments immediately. Businesses responded. Capital investments increased requiring more employees. The extra supply brought down pricing pressures.

Over the next decades Section 179 asset expensing was constantly increased until it was well into the six figures. Bonus depreciation is similar to Section 179, allowing for additional current deductions for asset purchases. Section 179 and bonus depreciation are so high now any further increases have no real effect at sparking additional economic growth.




Primed for Inflation

The medicine needed to kill inflation worked. Unfortunately, the same medicine was used again and again driving down inflation until deflation was the issue.

Supply-side economics has run its course until the next round of inflation appears. Supply-side tax bills don’t have the desired effect to the chagrin of politicians. Might I suggest to the elected officials in Washington to think of something new once in a while.

Back in 2008 the Fed’s balance sheet was under $1 trillion. It now stands at $4.5 trillion! This is one of the biggest, if the not the biggest, percentage increase in the nation’s money supply in such a short period. Even major wars didn’t create so much additional money.

Once again, this time was different in the details. All the excess money creation was sopped up by central banks around the world and the Fed. (Yes, the Fed holds much of its own money! The offsetting entry in the ledgers is held by the balance sheets of money-center banks to make them look solvent when they had lots of bad loans.)

Lots of new money didn’t cause inflation because it never hit the economy; it’s like it didn’t exist. Money in bank vaults might be a neat gimmick to make banks look sound during an economic crisis, but it does nothing to spur economic growth.

All the money in bank vaults didn’t disappear. It was waiting for a spark to be release it. That spark came late last year with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Gas was thrown on the flames with an additional $400+ billion in new spending in a bill meant to keep the government open.

To Infinity and Beyond

The money is printed and the match lit. It is of vital interest to investors what happens next.

When the P/E ratio climbs as it has over the last 35 years the stock market advances at a rate faster than earning growth. The opposite happens when the ratio declines!

I have no crystal ball. Predicting where the stock market goes next is a fool’s errand.

With the facts listed above there is ample concern for an underperforming stock market for an extended period. Those most at risk are those in retirement, just entering retirement or retiring in the near future.

History is clear. Inflation causes higher interest rates and lower market multiples. Higher earnings can keep the market ratcheting higher, albeit at a slower rate as investors pay less and less for each dollar of earnings as inflation increases.

Excess money thrust into an economy has a high probability of affecting prices. The current economic experiment is gargantuan. The pile of new money waiting for freedom has a green light. As money flows through the economy at normal velocity, the effects of the new money are magnified.

It could be self-feeding; it could be an old accountant reading the tea leaves wrong.

Ah, who am I kidding? My cup of hot tea is just fine! Massive new spending by the government means the balance sheets at banks look better so they can now lend out all that money they’ve been dying to earn a profit on.

I don’t know the future, but I bet it’s going to be one helluva ride.



Crying Over Spilled Milk or What to Do if You Missed the Stock Market Rally

Crying over spilled milk is an adage most of us first heard at a young age. Minor inconveniences are blown out of proportion when they happen. Eventually someone says you should stop crying over spilled milk

We’re living a spilled milk event as I write. The stock market and the economy have been growing steadily for about eight years now. Constant media covered convinced a large percentage of the population things were dire. We were scared shi+less and tucked our hard-earned money in the mattress. There was no way you would be tricked into investing in a bad economy.

The years kept rolling by as the economy ticked ever higher with the stock market in tow. You not only kept your powder dry, you spent a large portion of it (a 100% loss) and kept the rest in a 0%, or nearly so, bank deposit.

Now the media says everything is good news. The economy and stock market have bent heavy to the left as it heads for the stars.

Tax cuts will stimulate an economy at or near full employment. Things have got to be good. They have to be!

You missed the bitcoin craze, but you refuse to be left behind again. This is it! You’re going to do it. You’re going to jump into this high flying market for your share of the bounty even if you have to borrow to do it.




The Road Well Traveled

You might not believe it, but I’ve seen this storyline play out before. The last time we saw tax cuts of this size the DJIA was under 800 (that is NOT a typo). The year was 1981. Inflation and unemployment were both double digits and draconian measures were needed as the economy was heading into the back leg of a double recession.

By 1987 the party was in full swing before a sunny day in October refocused attention on reality. In a few years the market was at new highs again and all was good.

The dotcom bubble — like the Nifty Fifty of the early 1970s — promised a brave new world of ever increasing profits. Then the century turned and so did the market.

The beginning of the current run started in 2009 with people screaming the world was coming to an end and the sky was falling. The ugliness started a year or so earlier.

In each case the market found a bottom, the world went along just fine and the market eventually made new highs.

We had the Nifty Fifty of the 70s, the tax cuts of the 80s, the dotcom world of the late 90s, and the housing bust of 2008. Now we are back to tax cuts, low inflation, low unemployment and a market promising to rise every day as if the Lord promised it himself.

So now you’re ready to invest.




Reality Check

I’m the last guy to tell you to time the market. This thing could rock for longer than anyone expects. What is certain is the day will come when it will stop going up temporarily. That is the day greed turns to fear. And fear is a far more powerful emotion than greed.

If you stayed out the stock market the last ten years I have a suggestion. Don’t invest now! This is not a market timing call either!

The market direction or conditions should have a relatively small bearing on your decision to consistently invest.

After all these years of economic and market growth and only now you think it’s the right time to invest? If this is true you don’t have the temperament to invest in equities (stocks, mutual funds, index funds or ETFs). Buying because everyone is talking about it is insanity!

My granddad was a farmer who saved at an insane rate. The guy tucked away in the neighborhood of 70% of his income. When he hit retirement age his saved half or more of his Social Security check! (You read that right.) He even took a part-time job to fill his days when he was in his 70s and 80s and saved the entire take-home pay!

I always called granddad Doc because he always studied natural healing. Doc is a value lesson in today’s market.

Doc invested about 10% of his money at AAL, now Thrivent, the Lutheran investment house. The rest of his money sat in several banks. He had CDs, money markets, savings accounts and some land.

The 1929 stock market crash was etched into his young mind. He was born in 1922. The Great Depression colored his opinions on money.

Doc understood guaranteed money. Banks offered guarantees up to the FDIC limits. My dad convinced Doc to put at least something in the broad market. Only the investment house connected to the church could be trusted.




Better Safe than Sorry

Putting money in the bank is not a good way to build your net worth fast. Regardless, he managed a sizable (seven figures) of liquid net worth before the farming world collapsed and he lost most of his money trying to save the family farm.

Undeterred, Doc went back to what he knew worked. He started filling bank accounts again and had another seven figures liquid by the time he died.

To recap, Doc spent a lifetime building a seven figure liquid net worth, lost it in the farming crisis of the early 1980s, kept saving all he earned, put maybe 10% in a rip-roaring market, put the rest into bank deposits and had seven figures liquid again when he died ~ 10 years ago.

Not Cowardice

People are passionate about the market as I write. Netflix in the last month alone went from 187 to 272. From top to bottom this is a 45% gain. This is rare for any company to accomplish, but even more significant from a company slated to burn up to $4 billion in negative free cash flow this year!

Coupled with the recent bitcoin craze and people are primed for action. It has the feel of a casino! (As a reminder, the house always wins.)

There are only two mistakes that will kill you in the market. The first is getting enticed into buying when everything looks perfect and the market is parabolic. And second, getting scared out of the market when the market is suffering a gut wrenching decline.

Most people fail at investing because they trade the market. Emotions WILL get the best of you if you PLAY the market. Doc knew his emotional readiness and did what any smart man would: put his money in guaranteed bank deposits.

If you’ve been investing a portion of your income every month you have the emotional stability to weather the inevitable storm. (Or the intelligence not to look at your retirement account balance.)

Now is not the time to get brave and jump into the stock market. Even if you use index funds or ETFs. Odds are there will come a day soon when painful reality sets in temporarily. The last thing you want to do is buy now and find yourself waiting a few years for a new market high. Or worse, selling at the low due to fear.

Borrowing money to invest in stocks is the worst! You could find yourself forced to sell as the market declines if you buy with debt. DON’T DO IT!




Dos and Don’ts

Missing the current market rally is spilled milk. Chasing the market is a crazy idea. Here are a few dos and don’ts to consider in today’s investing environment:

DO —

  • Use index funds or ETFs
  • Keep investing in your work retirement plan at least to the matching level and to the maximum if you have the mental and financial will to do so
  • Keep calm
  • Stay the course. Stay invested and keep automated investing active. You and I both don’t know where the market will be over the short term so stay the course. The long game is higher

DON’T —

  • Panic
  • Borrow money to invest
  • Try to time the market by selling
  • Listen to the media hype. Wall Street loves the hype so they can sell to the greenhorns as the market weakens
  • Get too excited about your account balance. Those just hitting their FI (financial independence) goal might want to consider sticking around a while long as the FI number is built on a market spike higher with a real possibility these numbers could temporarily decline
  • Listen to your hairdresser, taxi driver, Uber driver, buddy at the bar, mailman, or even your accountant on hot stock tips
  • Look at your account daily

 

Young investors have it worst. They haven’t experienced one of these cycles before. The last real market decline was a decade ago!

This isn’t new either. Every 10 -15 years we rinse and repeat. Each cycle is slightly different while humming the same tune.

Investing, even in a hot market, isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Doing crazy stuff and getting greedy is!

No borrowed money for investments in the market! If you have a regular investment plan, keep it. Your investments will ride out the storm when it comes along. If you haven’t invested yet, now is not the time to be brave. Bravery is easy now because the feeling you have is really FEAR you’ll miss out.

The steady hand will always win in the end. Warren Buffett tells us to be fearful when other are greedy and greedy when others are fearful. Greed is rampant now so a healthy dose of fear is warranted.

Steady, kind readers. Steady.

 



Tax Cuts Don’t Create Value, This Does

The latest tax cuts have sent the eight year old stock market rally on a steeper trajectory after 300% gains to date. Tax cuts and interest rate reductions have a habit of sparking market rallies, but only one has anything to do with value.

To understand why the market is rallying so hard you have to understand what people expect the corporate tax cuts to do. You also need to understand if these gains are based on real increases in value or only a mirage.

Tax Heaven

The corporate tax rate for regular corporations dropped from a top rate of 35% to a flat rate of 21%. For most corporations this means a 40% reduction in federal income taxes.

With all this extra money sticking around the corporate coffers there is ample reason to think this is really something to behold. The extra money can be used to retire debt, buy back stock, pay out dividends or invest for future growth.

But are these companies really worth more? Is there more value just because one expense will decrease for one year?

If a company is earning :

  • $10.00 per share

before the tax reduction and if everything remains exactly the same will see a:

  • $2.00 per share

increase in profits due to lower taxes, what value has been created?*

The company has $2 more per share in cash lying around and that does have value in a manner of speaking, but it’s not repeatable.

The corporation earns $10 per share in year one, $12 per share in year two and again $12 in year three even if the company is bloated and slow. Worse, incompetent management could spend the money on stupid stuff!

Our corporate illustration shows a company with 20% growth over a three year period, but only treaded water in reality. The tax cut makes it easier to hide problems for longer before it becomes apparent to shareholders they are getting screwed.

The Value of a Dollar

Shareholders might not care one iota as long as the money keeps rolling their way. The extra money the corporation enjoys from the tax cut can prop up the stock price if they buy back shares. Additional dividends also put a mischievous grin on the faces of shareholders.

Now think about this for a moment. How much is that $2 per share extra from tax savings worth?

TWO DOLLARS!

The value of the cash is $2. Period. How much will you pay for the $2 of cash? No more than $2, I hope.

By looking at the stock market it appears as if investors are paying more than $2 for the $2 per share tax benefit!

The tax cut isn’t repeatable either! People wrongly think the tax cuts help the next year. It doesn’t! Earnings are now stuck at $12 per share instead of $10 unless there is real growth. There is no growth in our example. How much would you pay for $12 per share if there is no growth with the risk management screws it up and ruins a bad game to start with?

The value of those earnings is based on interest rates. If the risk-free interest rate (U.S. Treasuries) is 3%, then the value of the $12 of stagnant earnings is no more than $396 per share ($396 x 3% = ~$12). If the risk-free rate rises then the value of the future earnings declines.

So why is the market rallying so hard? Because the extra $2 times the risk-free rate translates into $60 or so!




The Bad News

Unfortunately interest rates are not static. They are currently rising at a slow rate. It can only be guessed what inflation (the ultimate factor driving interest rates) and interest rates will do in the foreseeable future.

With an economy near full employment and stimulated with massive tax cuts, my guess is rates will go higher. This means those earning are worth less. And that assumes the extra $2 goes to the owners (investors)!

In the early 1980s the top brass in corporate America earned about 30 times the wage of an average worker. That number now stands well into the 200s. With more cash than ever, corporate America might be seduced into skimming a bit for themselves. I’m not suggesting anything, only making an observation.

Dividends are real cash you can count in your paw. Stock buy-backs are a bit more elusive. Stock buy-backs can mask stock grants and options to insiders.

It is safe to say only a portion of the extra $2 per share in profits due to the tax cuts will actually find its way into shareholders’ pockets. Depending on how you look at it, that could be a blessing.




Creating Real Value

If tax cuts don’t create real value, what does?

As stated before, the quality of future earnings is based on the risk-free interest rate. If you can’t earn more than that, why bother. Just drop your money into the risk-free asset and enjoy a few Mai Ties on the beach.

We discussed in April 2016 how companies create true value. Now is a good time to revisit the issue before your money gets a value lesson of its own.

Tax cuts provide the opportunity to create value; they don’t in and of themselves create anything! If tax cuts are not fully spent and the government lowers spending to offset the lost revenue, the economy will actually decline. If the government keeps spending while reducing taxes they do so with borrowed money. Knowing this, tax cuts have the same stimulus as the government just spending extra money themselves.

And tax cuts have historically not been 100% spent by those receiving the cut. Some people reduce debt or invest some of the newfound wealth. And since tax cuts are only good for one cycle their benefits are fleeting unless you keep cutting taxes every year.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have tax cuts. Heck, no! I love keeping more of my money!

What I’m getting at is this: your income hasn’t increased solely because your tax bracket declined! And once you digest the reduced taxes into your budget you’re going to look for a pay increase to keep feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

So how do you get a raise? Well, inflation can mask any “real” wage increase if it doesn’t exceed the inflation rate. Or, you can increase your productivity so the company has more profits for your labor from which to pay you. (Now you need the corporation to part with a percentage of those additional gains you generated. That hasn’t happened much over the last 30 years.)

If tax cuts don’t create real value, what does?

Simple. Your return on invested capital (ROIC) in excess of the cost of capital (COC) is the textbook definition of value creation.

If the stock market rally is going to have real legs corporations will need to invest the tax savings in a productive way!

Corporate America has experienced record levels of profitability for some time now so the question begs to be asked: If they didn’t invest the extraordinary profits before, why will they be encouraged to do so now?

Good question. Wish I had an answer.

Personally, I don’t think corporations will increase investing anywhere near the levels of the tax break. We see headlines listing a token few major corporations granting a small 2% or so bonus to the rank and file for one year while announcing layoffs a few days later. (Kimberly-Clark announced 5,000 layoffs in their diaper division as I write. Tax cuts will not increase demand for things people don’t want. But automation, which the new tax bill encourages, will make human capital less necessary.)

Only businesses that invest the tax savings wisely will create real lasting value. By investing in increased production which yields more than the cost of capital, value is only realized.

The ROIC must exceed the COC or value is destroyed. Automation and technology make it easier than ever to do more with fewer people. This increases quality of life. But if the process is too quick it becomes a painful transition.

Now that most assets can be deducted currently versus being depreciating over a number of years or the life of the asset, businesses are incentivized more than ever to increase their use of technology and automation.

If these investments return more than the cost of capital, even capital derived from tax savings, real and lasting value is created.

And that will keep the stock market riding high, providing us with the warm and fuzzy feeling inside.

 

* I took liberty with the math for easier reading. A company at the top tax bracket of 35% under the old tax law would pay about $3.50 per share on $10 of profits before tax.  Cutting their tax by 40% would not be $2 per share. (40% of $3.50 is $1.40.) In reality it would take ~ $16.67 of profits to pay ~ $6.67 in tax to arrive at $10 of reportable gains to shareholders. Rather than get bogged down in the math I kept it clean, as a family-oriented blog should be.



2017 Tax Bill: Small Business is Punished for Raising Wages

Normally I don’t like to comment on a tax bill before it becomes law, hence the reason I’ve only commented once on the current bill as it wound its way through the halls and committees of Congress. Now that the bill is sitting on the President’s desk awaiting his signature I’m comfortable opening a dialog on some of the issues I see the regular press has missed.

Since the beginning I’ve called this a Swiss cheese tax bill because it has so many holes in it I can drive a truck through with my eyes closed without a worry I’ll hit a wall. I suspect many of these holes will be closed in time. Until then, fuel up the truck fellas. We’re going for a ride.

The Missing Link

Pass-through entities don’t pay taxes at the corporate rate, instead, passing certain items, including profits, to the owners to be reported on their personal tax return. Income is generally taxed at ordinary rates.

The current bill reduces the tax rate for regular corporations (C corps) to 21% while individual tax rates top out at 37% for individuals. To level the playing field between regular corporations and pass-through entities (S corps) the bill included a 20% deduction on pass-through business income.

The deduction is limited to $315,000 of eligible income for married couples and $157,500 for single filers. However, a last minute change greatly enhanced the advantage!

A formula was inserted which will allow the 20% deduction of income on amounts greater than the income limits. The formula for the deduction is the greater of: 1.) 50% of wages, or 2.) 25% of wages, plus 2.5% of the value of qualified property at purchase.

Real estate is the target of this formula. It will allow for massive deductions for certain real estate investors at rates tremendously higher than many other small business owners will get.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about today.




A Load of Swiss Cheese

Traditional news outlets will give you the basics of the tax bill. I’ll touch on the same issues in the near future. For now there is a pressing issue we need to discuss instead.

The above business deduction for pass-through entities makes current year (2017) business deductions more valuable than if taken next year if you are under the income limit! This includes real estate investors where the deduction can be much higher.

As I read the bill, my interpretation is the deduction extends to sole proprietors and small landlords. When the IRS provides regulations on how the new deduction is handled I may have to give updated advice later. It’s unclear if small landlords and sole proprietors get the deduction without creating a pass-through entity. As I read the bill it is allowed without the extra paperwork. But the IRS may disagree and it might be necessary to hold real estate in a partnership, or if there is only one owner, an S corp. (Gulp! Did I say that?) I’ll keep you up to date. As soon as I have more clarity I’ll pass it along. Either way, there should be a way for owners of income property and sole proprietors to take advantage of the new deduction.

There are two reasons for business owners/landlords to accelerate expenses before year-end: 1.) Tax rates are declining slightly for many individual taxpayers, and 2.) A deduction is worth less next year.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but Congress may have passed a tax bill that discourages pay increases and capital expenditures by small businesses and investors of investment property.

Deducting as much as possible this year makes sense with rates going down in 2018. Buying an asset and expensing it, if possible, is worth more now than it will be in a  week and a half after publication of this post due to the lower rates AND the business income deduction!

An example illustrates the disincentive to invest in more capital expenditures and payroll next year. Suppose we have a small business with $200,000 of profits. If the business is planning an investment in a new piece of equipment costing $50,000, the owner’s tax benefit is reduced by 20% in 2018 and after! It looks like this under the new tax bill:

Without equipment purchase:

Income: $200,000

20% business deduction: $40,000

Income reported on personal tax return by owner: $160,000

With equipment purchase:

Income: $200,000

Deduction for expensed equipment purchase: $50,000

Income after equipment deduction: $150,000

20% business deduction: $30,000

Income reported on personal return by owner: $120,000

The equipment cost $50,000, but the reduction in income is only $40,000! The business owner saw a reduction in tax benefits from the increased expense by 20%.

We can debate the method used to deduct the property (expense versus depreciate), but the premise is the same: every business expense is worth 20% less starting January 1, 2018!

Look at it this way. If a small business owner increases wages, as Congress says they are incentivized to do, they will suffer the cost of the higher wages AND a reduction in the new business credit! The business owner will cough up the added payroll expense, plus payroll taxes, and face a decline in the business credit.

If the small business owner REDUCES wages, they are rewarded under the new tax bill! If a business owner cuts payroll by $100,000, she will save payroll taxes AND have a higher income of which 20% is deducted. The $100,000 increase in business income will only have $80,000 subjected to tax.

One last example: Prior to January 1, 2018 it is illegal to deduct 20% of a business’s profits for fake business miles or other non-cash deduction. Starting January 1, 2018 you don’t have to cheat to get the benefit; it’s codified!




Final Thoughts

Congress has sold this massive tax bill as a job creator. Instead of taking time to get a solid piece of legislation written, they rushed it and it shows.

The incentive to small businesses is clear: CUT PAYROLL! This will have the opposite effect of what was intended.

Sure, businesses will need to spend on updating equipment eventually. But the longer they can hold off the better they will fare; they get a 20% deduction off the top before they spend a penny. A smart small business owner will have more incentive than ever to CUT wages and capital expenditures. And for the altruistic business owner, a tax penalty applies in the form of a reduction in the new business deduction if they do increase wages.

Real estate investors tend to hire fewer people so the effect is less. Even still, spending on improvements entail up to a 20% penalty for each outlay as the business deduction is reduced.

My favorite deductions have always been of the non-cash nature; I get a deduction and keep the money, too.

I hope y’all love Swiss cheese because there will be plenty to go around until they change the tax law.

 

Note: This is self-serving as all get-out, but this is one simple example of how this tax bill will harm the economy and the workforce, the backbone, of America. If you can see past my self-promotion, spread this post everywhere: social media, email and links. Don’t forget your elected officials in Washington. Don’t be afraid to expand on the consequences of this tax bill. There is plenty to spur the economy. But there is also plenty to slow the economy as well. With small business employing so many people in this country it is imperative to get the word out so the people who can facilitate appropriate change can take action with this new knowledge.



A Simple Man

I am a simple man with simple tastes living in a complex world. Once upon a time the world was a simpler place. We knew the food we ate and the road we traveled. We trusted the news and those who brought it to us. But simple is not in the nature of man.

Take the United States for example. The premise in the beginning was simple: freedom. But it wasn’t simple as soon as the words left the Founding Fathers’ mouths. Men wanted to be free while holding slaves. It led to Civil War. Women waited until 1920 for the right to have their voice heard.

But this story isn’t about morality. This story is about complexity and how quickly it enters life. A simple thought—freedom—was not as simple as it sounded. The nation needed to declare independence, fight a Revolutionary War and write a Constitution. And that was the simple part.

The Tax Code is the same. A simple concept—raise money to pay the government’s bills—turned into a colossus might quickly. For those reading thinking the tax situation was mucked up only recently, let me enlighten you.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt struggled with preparing an accurate return in the spring of 1938 (preparing his 1937 return) so badly he gave up and sent the Bureau (this was before the IRS) a check for $15,000 with a note that said, “I am wholly unable to figure out the amount of tax for the following reason:”

The President then gave an account of the income he didn’t know how to put on the return. He concluded his letter with, “As this is a problem in higher mathematics, may I ask that the Bureau let me know the amount of the balance due? The payment of $15,000 doubtless represents a good deal more than half what the eventual tax will prove to be.”

If you are ready to allege I am making the whole matter up, see for yourself with your own eyes. You can stalk more tax returns of the Presidents here.

Try to pull the stunt President Roosevelt pulled with the IRS and see how far it gets you. Needless to say, penalties would be applied by today’s kinder and gentler IRS.

To top it off, this was back in the days when taxes were simpler! Sure, Form 1040 was four pages, but there were no schedules or additional forms to attach. The instructions for the entire return was two pages! It was so simple even the President of the United States couldn’t figure it out. And he signed the tax bill into law!

The Growth of Complexity

Nature is simple in its most basic components. Keep chopping stuff into smaller bits until you get to the smallest indivisible piece of matter, the atom. But, wait! The atom can be chopped up smaller still into electrons, neutrons and protons.

Whew! That could have gotten out of control with complexity. Oh-oh! Scientists have been busy busting up the itty bitty parts of the atom into even smaller elementary particles. Now it get complex.

Humans love adding complexity, too. It must be in our nature. (Go ahead and make a face.)

Complexity isn’t always a bad thing. Building an automobile or airplane is complex. Modern medicine uses complex procedures to find novel cures to disease.

But complexity can get out of control. When nature gets too complex we end up with cancers.

When people get too complex we get the modern Tax Code, economic system and monetary policy.

Original ideas start very basic, dare we say, simple. Within seconds the complexity is mixed in. This isn’t a character flaw. Riding a horse to church is a fairly simple process. Once automobiles entered the scene complexity followed. Not only are cars complex pieces of engineering, society now needs to deal with the millions of vehicles on the roads. Traffic lights are not there to annoy you, but to keep traffic flowing. How else do you get endless traffic to all its destinations?




Complex Opportunities

I have made a living in the imaginary world of tax complexities. It’s paid the bills and gave me a good life.

At first it might seem a waste of an intelligent man’s life. Before you go down that road, consider: How would the government function without tax revenue? Our national defense, roads, bridges, public works projects and schools need funding to function.

I don’t work for the government; I work for you, protecting you from overpaying the government. And complexity is my greatest friend. The Tax Code is such a massive muddled mess you can drive a Mack truck through it. Given enough time you can find the answer to pay no tax for virtually every situation. Major corporations do.

Taxes aren’t the only area where complexity works in your favor. Machines and computers have made our lives so much easier that nearly everyone could work half the hours and not notice a change to their lifestyle.

You can see this in action within our own FIRE (financial independence, retire early) community with the plethora of side gigs and people retiring in their 30s. Our society is so rich a large number of people with very little effort can retire really young and travel the planet.

This brings up another complex area we can exploit: travel rewards. Once upon a time it cost money to travel. Today you can hack the system and get massive travel rewards to see the world for pennies on the dollar.

Get Rich by Getting Complex

You would think adding to the already complex mix would be your ticket to wealth. It isn’t. The trick isn’t more complexity; it’s breaking down the complex into small, easy to understand, components.

Complexity leads to error. How many product recalls do we hear of? How many times have governments and corporations been hacked? We can be too complex for our own good.

Take investing. You can go through all the hoopla trying to be the next Warren Buffett. You could be the next one! Or something as simple as an index fund can work miracles for your net worth without any effort on your part.

Credit card rewards are a massive mix of options sure to cause problems for those less than astute in the tracking of their credit card activities. Don’t pay the bill in full each month and trouble is sure to follow.

Yet, a simple spreadsheet can solve the problem. Several credit cards can be tracked simply to serve all your financial needs. Travel rewards are only the beginning. In a few weeks I have a side gig you are sure to want to hear about. I will show you a program where your credit cards could sprinkle $1,000 or more every month on you. You have to come back to learn this little side gig nugget. (Notice my talent at creating a cliffhanger? Hahaha!)

Taxes are the ultimate in complexity. Even this can be segmented into easier to understand parts. Maximizing retirement accounts is a simple and easy way to lower your tax burden. Investment property owners can take advantage of new tangible property rules to modify their tax outcome. Business owners can expense certain assets versus depreciation.



Play the Game

It’s all a game. The Federal Reserve manipulates money supply to manipulate the economy and prices. Congress can’t keep its fingers off the Tax Code for more than fifteen minutes.

Since life is a series of complex systems, both natural and manmade, why not use this to your advantage? Complexity isn’t going away. If anything it will get worse. Those who can break the whole thing down into the simplest parts will control the pot of gold.

Diet and exercise is a simple way to benefit the complex system called your body.

Investing regularly into broad-based index funds is the only proven way to match market returns over long periods of time. Forget Peter Lynch and Warren Buffett. Yes, you could be the next guy to perform miracles in the investment world, but odds are strong you will end up another schmuck who massively underperforms the markets with his dazzling displays in Fibonacci programs of complexity.

The index fund wins.

When I consult on tax and financial matters people always want more. The simple answer isn’t satisfying. Complexity always seems to be the right choice. It looks better. Lots of moving parts must be better. Complex must trump simple.

And then it ends in tears.

Complexity isn’t better. We live in a complex world. Simple solutions solve most problems.

The simplest answer—to stop worrying about things you can’t control—doesn’t seem right. But it is!

You will do wonders for your net worth when you find a way to break down the complex into simple components. This is where you will find massive financial opportunities.

When you get right down to it: I am a simple man who happens to enjoy seven layer cake.

 



Higher Interest Rates Will Cause Inflation

Fed funds historical rates.

There was a time not that long ago when people believed higher interest rates slowed the economy, caused higher unemployment, dampened demand and put pressure on prices. The Federal Reserve in the United States and Central Banks around the planet held this belief tight to the chest. When the economy overheated, causing inflation to creep up, the Fed would start increasing interest rates until demand weakened as consumers faced higher borrowing costs.

The opposite also held true. Low interest rates were thought to spark strong economic growth as lower interest rates freed cash in family budgets for more spending while encouraging businesses to ramp up production with cheap credit. Since the Great Depression this theory held true and worked, even if slowly, in controlling economic activity. Then we had the twin recessions of the early 1980s.

All Downhill from the Peak

Stagflation in the 1970s proved difficult to contain. Two OPEC oil embargoes ramped up prices on oil, causing virtually all goods and services to increase without growing real wages to fund the price increases until wages started getting cost of living (COLA) increases each year. Inflation for the first time was chained with a weak economy.

High inflation encourages spending because the money in your pocket will be worth less in the morning. Businesses faced an opposite effect. Funding capital expenditures became more costly as Paul Volcker, the chairman of the Fed, racketed up interest rates at a steep rate. Killing inflation would require painful medicine. A weak economy was crushed. Housing suffered most. Mortgages rates were comfortably in double digit territory if you could get a loan at all.

The medicine worked. Demand dried up from the higher interest rates causing inflation to abate. It was the last time interest rate changes were so effective on economic performance.

Good Medicine Going Bad

Lower interest rates followed the brutal twin 1980s recessions. The stock market and economy rallied strongly. Pent up demand for housing lifted housing stocks and the building boom was off. The 1981 Tax Code overhaul gave businesses additional deductions for capital expenditures. It might be hard to believe expensing of assets worked this way. Back then the limit on Section 179 expensing of assets was raised from $10,000 to $25,000. Small business was ecstatic.

Increased tax deductions for capital expenditures caused a boom in production which required more workers. Increased production reduced inflation while employment skyrocketed. The world was good with only one warning cloud on the horizon: debt.

Current chairman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen (left). Former chairmen (from second left to right) : Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke and Paul Volcker.

The tax cuts were funded with massive amount of new federal government debt. The annual federal deficit broke $200 billion and kept climbing. The credit card was getting a workout.

The smart money believed the excessive government spending would pay for itself with higher economic output increasing revenues. That promise has never been realized.

Lower interest rates were the perfect medicine for housing and housing creates lots of job, most good-paying jobs. By 1984 the economy was on fire with 7.4% growth that year while inflation was still easing.

The Fed was concerned by the heady growth and started increasing rates until it triggered selling by program trading. The economy barely missed a beat. In 1987 the economy expanded 3.5% and another 4.2% in 1988. The 1987 stock market crash be damned.

High interest rates took some time to reduce economic production, but not real long. Lower interest rates had an almost instantaneous reaction in the markets and marketplace. From Wall Street to Main Street, these were the good times.

The first warning signs something was fundamentally wrong showed up in the next recession which began in July 1990 and lasted for eight months.

Interest rates trended down from 1982 onwards. Periodic rate increases gave the economy indigestion causing the Fed to resume lowering rates again. Each peak in the rate cycle was lower and the lows were lower.

And the recoveries were longer, less steep and left more people behind as many high paying jobs never returned.

As the economy began climbing in April 1991 it was like watching water boil or grass grow. Growth was a heck of a lot slower than the liftoff from the 1982 recession. Some blamed it on the first Gulf War. There was merit in the observation. People stopped spending as they sat around the television absorbing their newfound entertainment: bloodshed.




One More Party

The slow growth out of the 1990/1 recession eventually broke loose with several years of 4%+ GDP expansion at the end of the millennium.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 set the tone for the next recession. President George W. Bush came on television and encouraged Americans to keep spending to show the terrorists our nation could not be deterred. The Fed added liquidity to the system (lowered interest rates) to unheard of levels. People began wondering what would happen when rates went to zero. What weapon to spur the economy would the Fed have then?

Lower interest rates did the trick. The 2001 recession was so short and mild the U.S. GDP still expanded 1% for the entire year.

But the economic expansion lower interest rates should have caused didn’t work as well this time. What was a concern in the post 1990/1 recession expansion turned into full-blown panic. The stock market lost half its value. The new money the Fed created stopped the pain on Wall Street. Main Street was not nearly as happy. Job growth was steady, but low. Only two years of the first decade of the new millennium had GDP growth over 3% in the U.S.

The stock market climbed from depressed levels and eventually made new highs. It was an unconvincing multi-year rally.

Then all the printed money that disappeared into derivatives and sub-prime mortgages came home to roost.

Current Economic Cycle

When the first cracks appeared the Federal Reserve had very few weapons in its quiver. Interest rates were already the lowest in recent memory prior to a recession.

Housing was in bad shape after the 2008 recession. My house could’ve used a few new shingles.

The 2008 recession was fast and brutal triggered by a cascading set of events which culminated in money-center banks and investment banking houses on the verge of collapse.  Low interest rates were not enough to stop the bleeding. Rates were now touching 0% and the economy was still in dire straits.

The Fed toyed with negative interest rates and the Japanese, Swiss, and European Union Central Banks all sent rates into negative territory where the borrower gets paid (!) to borrow money instead of paying to borrow. The lender took all the risk for a guarantee to lose money to boot.

In the U.S. the Fed started early in experimenting with alternative methods of pumping more liquidity into the banking system. It worked, sort of. The economic recovery from the 2008/9 recession never exceeded 3% in any calendar year, the slowest recovery in the nation’s history. The growth once again was steady, but painfully slow.

Wages were slow to increase as family budgets struggled to pay the bills. Low wage growth kept a lid on demand, inflation and job growth.

The current economic cycle started from the lowest interest rates in this nation’s history. The federal government kept spending at a rapid pace, all put on the credit card. The current federal national debt is over $20 trillion and growing at around a half trillion more each year. And we couldn’t manage 3% growth.

Where is the Inflation

There have been more predictions all the money printing would cause rampant inflation soon than there have been calls for the world ending. Prices fooled the experts. A basket of goods followed by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) hovered slightly above zero with a few extended periods of deflation.

For eight years the Fed kept interest rates at 0% and the economy slowly clawed forward a few percent per year. And I think I know why.

Typical human blaming a bovine again.

Low interest rates were the medicine our parents and grandparents used to spur economic growth. But this time WAS different! Technology had finally advanced so far it was hurting the economy! Or more accurately, technology was increasing faster than demand could absorb.

Low interest rates no longer increases demand. Even businesses didn’t spend aggressively in the low interest rate environment until the last few years. What business did spend went further than ever. $4,000 computers two decades ago now cost under $1,000 and do a thousand times more and faster. Business spent less because the cost of capital expenditures had declined for many technologies and the cost of capital was nearly free. If technology costs would have remained unchanged, businesses would have created and capital expenditure boom.

Low interest rates after all these years seem to cause deflation instead of spurring economic growth like the good ol’ days. And higher interest rates, if the economic model is truly turned upside down, should cause the economy to overheat and inflation to expand. Here’s why.

New World Order

Keeping Interest rates so low for so long must have caused a few academics to rethink the classical model. Low rates caused bubbles and imbalances in the markets without any money trickling down to Main Street to create jobs and more demand for goods and services. It was a Wall Street pile-up where average people paid the price for the sins of a few with control over the newly created money.

It’s called pushing on a string. More money pushed into the banking system either didn’t find its way into the general economy or people refused to spend it if they did get it. This isn’t all bad if the savinga rate climbs as households save and invest a larger portion of their income.

This wasn’t the case either. The savings rate climbed slightly, but not anywhere near the levels money creation would dictate if the money weren’t spent. Where was the money going? Nowhere. The money supply was larger than ever as the Fed’s balance sheet bloated, but it all sat in money-center and Central Bank vaults around the world.

None of this matters since it was a wasted exercise carried out by central bankers. The money was created, yet most never entered the economy. No wonder the GDP was anemic.




Low Rates Caused Deflation, Now Rising Rates will Cause Inflation

Most businesses today have plenty of capacity. Here is an example from CNBC showing how low interest rates caused a glut in domestic milk supplies. Low interest rates allowed factory farms to add capacity at virtually no cost, over supplying the market and driving down prices. Industry after industry is in the same boat.

Low interest rates encouraged the over production. Higher interest rates will increase the cost of capital expenditures for businesses, eventually reducing supply and increasing prices. This is the opposite effect we might expect in the past. Higher interest rates usually slowed the economy and if raised far enough still will. But the initial effect will be to decrease supply as marginal production is taken offline.

The experiment isn’t over and my supposition could be 100% wrong, not that my batting average is any worse than that of economists. Interest rates are slow on the takeoff this economic cycle. Eventually a trigger point will be reached, causing the economy to overheat and prices to climb faster.

The higher interest rates will not work any better controlling inflation than low interest rates encouraged economic growth.

My concern is the trend. Since 1980, interest rates have been cycling lower. We went negative this time around and the fed funds rate peaked at 5.25% during the prior economic expansion. This cycle the Fed worries the current 1-1.25% fed funds rate might slow the economy. Crazy!

If lower rates don’t encourage inflation and rapid GDP growth, then higher rates probably will. At no time in history has this amount of money ever been created and hyperinflation hasn’t followed. There are no indications of rapidly increasing prices on the horizon, however.

Higher interest rates might do the trick or we could head still lower this interest rate long cycle. Only time will tell.

The earnings stream from a company is worth more in a low interest rate environment. If inflation starts the rear its ugly head the Fed will worry and jack interest rates, causing business investment to slow, marginal production to be taken offline, causing prices to increase. Remember, you heard it here first. And earnings are worth a lot less as rates rise.

Just a few things to consider as you plan the family budget.

 

Side Notes

Ever wonder how your favorite accountant takes notes for a new post idea? Below are my notes used to prompt the writing of this post, unedited. Writers might find the evolution of an article of interest.

The old world paradigm hasn’t worked for a few decades now. The old school says lower interest rates spurs demand and eventually inflation. At no time in history has so much money creation taken place for this long without a massive upturn in inflation. What is different this time?

Lower rates lead to a muted economic expansion with slow growing demand and modest job growth. The economy should have overheated by now. Why?

Instead of inflation, technology made it easy to increase production and the cost of capital was near zero encouraging this capacity expansion. Everything seems to be in a glut. From oil to food, there is plenty enough to satiate 100% of demand. Low interest rates now seem to fund capacity expansion faster than demand.

Higher interest rates will increase the cost of capacity expansion and will lead to higher interest rates.

What worked in the past is turned on its head! The Fed reduced rates for a decade and printed money with reckless abandon to further spur demand. It didn’t happen the way the textbook said it would. Higher rates, the traditional fix for inflation, may also have an inverse effect from the expected norm. When inflation does show up as the Fed increases rates the Fed may overreact and keep raising rates to kill inflation. It will work if rates go high enough. Demand can be quashed by high interest rates.

It would be easier and less painful to consider doing the opposite of what we always did in the past. It might just work this time.

https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/22/dairy-glut-in-us-leads-to-problem-of-spilled-milk.html