Two Consecutive Negative Quarterly Growth Rates in Business Earnings say we’re in a Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 9th, 2013

Week in Review

Business earnings drive everything in the economy.  Every dollar a person spends in the economy came from a business.  From someone spending their paycheck.  To someone spending their government assistance.  Because business provides every tax dollar the government collects.  Whether from the business directly.  Or from their employees.  So business earnings are everything.  If they’re not earning profits they’re not creating jobs.  And the fewer people that are working the less tax revenue there is.

Lakshman Achuthan with the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) looks at business earnings and has found a direct correlation between the growth rate of business earnings and recessionary periods.  Finding that whenever there were 2 or more consecutive quarters of a falling growth rate in business earnings we were in a recession.  Business Insider has reproduced his chart showing this correlation as well as quoting from his report (see CHART OF THE DAY: A Stock Market Trend Has Developed That Coincided With The Last 3 Recessions by Sam Ro posted 3/6/2013 on Business Insider).

This is a bar chart of S&P 500 operating earnings growth going back a quarter of a century on a consistent basis, as we understand from S&P. Others can choose their own definitions of operating earnings, but this is the data from S&P. In this chart, the height of the red bar indicates the number of consecutive quarters of negative earnings growth.

It is interesting that, historically, there have never been two or more quarters of negative earnings growth outside of a recessionary context. On this chart, showing the complete history of the data, the only times we see two or more quarters of negative growth are in 1990-91, 2000-01, 2007-09 and, incidentally, in 2012. This data is not susceptible to the kind of revisions one sees with government data. The point is that this type of earnings recession is not surprising when nominal GDP growth falls below 3.7%. So, even though the level of corporate profits is high, this evidence is also consistent with recession.

Follow the above link to see this chart.

The stock market is doing well now thanks to the Federal Reserve flooding the market with cheap dollars.  Investors are borrowing money to invest because of artificially low interest rates.  So the rich are getting richer in the Obama recovery.  But only the rich.  For an administration that is so concerned about ‘leveling the playing field’ their economic policies continually tip it in favor of the rich.  Who can make money even if the economy is not creating new jobs.  Which it isn’t.

All of these recessions can be traced back to John Maynard Keynes.  And Keynesian economics.  Playing with interest rates to stimulate economic activity.  The 1990-91 recession was made so bad because of the savings and loan (S&L) crisis.  Which itself is the result of government interventions into the private economy.  First they set a maximum limit on interest rates S&Ls (and banks) could offer.  Then the Keynesians (in particular President Nixon) decoupled the dollar from gold.  Unleashing inflation.  Causing S&Ls to lose business as people were withdrawing their money to save it in a higher-interest money market account.  Then they deregulated the S&Ls to try and save them from being devastated by rising inflation rates.  Which the S&Ls used to good advantage by borrowing money and loaning it at a higher rate.  Then Paul Volcker and President Reagan brought that destructive high inflation rate down. Leaving these S&Ls with a lot of high-cost debt on their books that they couldn’t service.  And while this was happening the real estate bubble burst.  Reducing what limited business they had.  Making that high-cost debt even more difficult to service.  Ultimately ending in the S&L crisis.  And the 1990-91 recession.

Fast forward to the subprime mortgage crisis and it was pretty much the same thing.  Bad government policy (artificially low interest rates and federal pressure to qualify the unqualified) created another massive real estate bubble.  This one built on toxic subprime mortgages.  Which banks sold to get them off of their books as fast as possible because they knew the mortgage holders couldn’t pay their mortgage payment if interest rates rose.  Increasing the rate, and the monthly payment, on their adjustable rate mortgage (ARM).  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought and/or guaranteed these toxic mortgages and sold them to their friends on Wall Street.  Who chopped and diced them into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).  Sold them as high-yield low-risk investments to unsuspecting investors.  And when interest rates rose and those ARMs reset at higher interest rates, and higher monthly payments, the subprime borrowers couldn’t pay their mortgages anymore.  Causing a slew of foreclosures.  Giving us the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

In between these two government-caused disasters was another.  The dot-com bubble.  Where artificially low interest rates and irrational exuberance gave us the great dot-com bubble.  As venture capitalists poured money into the dot-coms who had nothing to sell, had no revenue and no profits.  But they could just as well be the next Microsoft.  And investors wanted to be in on the next Microsoft from the ground floor.  So they poured start-up capital into these start-ups.  Helped by those low interest rates.  And these start-ups created a high-tech boom.  Colleges couldn’t graduate people with computer science degrees fast enough to build the stuff that was going to make bazillions off of that new fangled thing.  The Internet.  Even cities got into the action.  Offering incentives for these dot-coms to open up shop in their cities.  Building expansive and expensive high-tech corridors for them.  Everyone was making money working for these companies.  Staffed with an army of new computer programmers.  Who were living well.  The brightest in their field earning some serious money.  So they and their bosses were getting rich.  Only one problem.  The companies weren’t.  For they had nothing to sell.  And when the start-up capital finally ran out the dot-com boom turned into the dot-com bust.  As the dot-com bubble burst.  And when it did the NASDAQ crashed in 2000.  When it became clear that all of President Clinton’s prosperity in the Nineties was nothing more than an illusion.  There would be 4 consecutive quarters of negative growth in business earnings before the dust finally settled.  One quarter worse than both the S&L crisis and the subprime mortgage crisis recessions.

And now here we are.  With 2 consecutive quarters of negative earnings growth under our belt.  Based on this chart this has happened only three times in the past 3 decades.  The 1990-91 recession.  The 2000-01 recession.  And the 2007-09 recession.  Which if his theory holds we are in store for another very nasty and very long recession.  No matter what the government economic data tells us.

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Social Security Receipts, Outlays and Surplus 1940-2012

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 19th, 2013

History 101

Social Security is going Bankrupt because of an Aging Population, Inflation and Untrustworthy Politicians

Social Security introduced the era of Big Government.  When the Roosevelt administration passed it into law it faced fierce opposition.  For it wasn’t the job of the federal government to provide a pension.  If it was the Founding Fathers would have included it in the Constitution.  But they didn’t.  Thanks to the Great Depression, though, a serious crisis FDR didn’t let go to waste, FDR was able to change America.  By taking the federal government beyond the limits of the Constitution.

The fear was that it would grow into a massive program requiring more and more taxes to support it.  Which the FDR administration refuted in a 1936 pamphlet (see The 1936 Government Pamphlet on Social Security).

…beginning in 1949, twelve years from now, you and your employer will each pay 3 cents on each dollar you earn, up to $3,000 a year. That is the most you will ever pay.

Of course, that wasn’t true.  It was either a lie.  Or a disbelief that anyone would ever decouple the dollar from gold.  Or wishful thinking that we can trust politicians.  Whatever the reason the Social Security tax rate is a long way from that 3% today.  And the maximum earnings amount is a lot higher than $3,000.  But despite the tax rate and the maximum earnings amount soaring from these promised lows it’s still not enough.  For Social Security is struggling to avoid bankruptcy in the near future.  Because it has become a massive program requiring more and more taxes to support it.

Social Security is suffering from three major problems.  The first is an aging population (fewer people entering the work force to pay for the greater number of people leaving the workforce).  The second is inflation.  And the third is that politicians manage it.  Who just can’t control themselves around big piles of money.

The Social Security Surplus increased in the Nineties thanks to the Peace Dividend, Japan’s Lost Decade and the Dot-Com Boom

Social Security is off-budget.  Employers and employees pay into the program to provide for the program’s benefits.  These are dedicated taxes.  They are only to pay for Social Security benefits.  That is why it is off-budget.  They don’t mingle Social Security taxes with all the other taxes the government collects.  To pay for all the things in the federal budget.  Technically, those taxes are supposed to go into a retirement account that grows with interest.  And this big, growing pile of money is supposed to pay the benefits.  But in reality it doesn’t work this way.  The government collects taxes.  From these taxes they pay current benefits.  And anything left over, the Social Security surplus, goes into the Social Security Trust Fund.  We can see this graphically if we plot receipts, outlays and the surplus (see Table 2.1—RECEIPTS BY SOURCE: 1934–2017 and Table 3.1—OUTLAYS BY SUPERFUNCTION AND FUNCTION: 1940–2017 at FISCAL YEAR 2013 HISTORICAL TABLES).

Social Security Receipts Outlays Surplus 1940-2012

For the first 30 years or so of this program it hardly made a dent in our lives.  Small amounts were going in.  Small amounts were going out.  And small amounts were going into the trust fund.  Then a lot of people started retiring.  Just as birth control and abortion changed the family size.  And President Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold.  Allowing them to print money like never before.  Which, of course, depreciated the dollar.  This is why receipts and outlays started trending up after 1971 (when Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold).  To get a better look let’s zoom in and look at the years from 1970-2012.

Social Security Receipts Outlays Surplus 1970-2012

The Seventies were a horrible time economically.  As the government went all in with Keynesian economics.  Which resulted with high inflation and high unemployment.  And stagnant economic growth.  Stagflation.  And Social Security was in trouble.  Receipts were greater than outlays.  But not by very much.  Receipts and outlays may have been trending up but the surplus was pretty flat.  Until President Reagan and the Democrat Congress fixed Social Security to avoid bankruptcy.  After 1983 receipts trended up greater than outlays.  Which caused the surplus to trend up.  Thus saving Social Security.  For awhile.  Now let’s zoom in further to the years 1990-2012 to see what happened in the last two decades.

Social Security Receipts Outlays Surplus 1990-2012

President Reagan won the Cold War by spending more on defense than the Soviets could ever match.  At least not without starving her people to death.  And the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars) was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  In 1991 the Soviet Union was no more.  Creating a huge peace dividend for President Clinton.  Which coincided with the dot-com boom.  And Japan’s Lost Decade (Japan’s economic woes were America’s prosperity).  Making the Nineties a very good time economically.  And that healthy economic activity translated into a nice uptrend in the Social Security surplus.  However, low interest rates and irrational exuberance fed the dot-com boom.  It was not real economic growth.  It was a bubble.  And when it burst it gave George W. Bush one painful recession at the start of his presidency.  Which was compounded by the tragedy of 9/11.  Causing a fall in economic activity.  Which caused Social Security receipts to fall.  While outlays continued to grow.  Causing a decline in the Social Security surplus.  Once again cuts in tax rates restored economic activity.  And the Social Security surplus.  Which continued until another bubble burst.  This one was a housing bubble.  Caused by President Clinton with his Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Where his justice department pressured lenders to qualify the unqualified.  And when the housing bubble burst into the Subprime Mortgage Crisis giving us the Great Recession receipts fell while outlays increased.  Sending the surplus into a freefall.

Social Security is Doomed to Fail because you just can’t Trust Politicians around Great Big Piles of Money

There is both a Social Security tax rate.  And a maximum amount of income to tax.  Both of which they have had to increase to keep up with inflation.  To make up for that aging population.  And to offset the corrupting influence of politicians around big piles of money.  And contrary to that 1936 pamphlet those tax rates started rising early.  And often (see Historical Social Security Tax Rates).

Social Security Surplus and Tax Rate

The Social Security tax rate rose as high as 12.4%.  Which is a 313% increase from the maximum amount guaranteed in that 1936 pamphlet.  And this great upward trend began in the Fifties.  Continuing through the Sixties.  In fact most of the increases came before Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold.  Showing what a horrible job the government actuaries did in crunching the numbers for this program.  As it turned into exactly what the opponents said it would.  A massive program requiring more and more taxes to support it.  And President Obama reducing the tax rate from 12.4% to 10.4% didn’t help the surplus any.  Or the solvency of Social Security.

Social Security Surplus and Maximum Earnings

While the tax rate began rising in the Fifties the maximum taxable earnings amount didn’t.  This amount was pretty flat and able to produce a surplus until 1971.  When President Nixon unleashed the inflation monster by decoupling the dollar from gold.  And the only way to produce a surplus after that was by continuously increasing the maximum earnings amount.  Further proving what a horrible job the government actuaries did in crunching the numbers for this program.  But why are they projecting Social Security will go bankrupt after raising both the tax rate and the maximum taxable earnings amount?  For despite all of the ups and downs there has been a surplus throughout the life of the program.  Some seventy years of a surplus and the miracle of compound interest should have built up quite a nest egg in the Social Security Trust Fund.  But it hasn’t.  Why?  Well, we can see what it could have been.  If we take each year’s surplus (starting in 1940) and add it to an account earning interest compounded annually at an interest rate of 3% through 1971 and 6% after 1971 (to account for inflation) it would look something like this.

Social Security Surplus Earning Compound Interest

Note that these amounts are in millions of dollars.  So at the end of 2012 the ending balance in the trust fund would be $16.5 trillion.  Which is large enough to wipe out the entire federal debt.  From 1980 through 2008 the surplus grew on average 8% each year.  If we assume this growth through 2050 that would take the trust fund to $184.5 trillion.  In 2075 it would be $960.9 trillion.  In 2076 it would be $1.03 quadrillion.  Or $1,027.3 trillion.  With this phenomenal growth based on a realistic 6% interest rate why is Social Security going bankrupt?

Because there isn’t a big pile of money in the Social Security Trust Fund earning compound interest.  The money goes in.  And the government takes it out.  Leaving behind treasury securities.  IOUs.  They raid the Social Security trust fund to pay for other on-budget government expenditures.  With the off-budget surplus.  Hiding the true size of the federal deficit.  And putting Social Security on the path to bankruptcy.  Because you can’t loan money to yourself.  You can only take money meant for one thing and spend it on another.  Leaving that first thing unpaid.  This is Social Security.  And why it was doomed to fail from the beginning.  Because you just can’t trust politicians around great big piles of money.

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LESSONS LEARNED #75: “Lower income tax rates generate more tax revenue by making more rich people who pay more income taxes.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 21st, 2011

Inflation is a Bitch

The top marginal tax rate during the Eisenhower administration peaked at 92%.  When it wasn’t at 92% it was at 91%.  This was post-war America.  A happy time.  They even named a TV series after this time.  Happy Days.  Life was good.  There were jobs aplenty.  And lots of baby making.  Everyone lived happily ever after.  Until the war-devastated economies rebuilt themselves and didn’t need American manufacturing anymore.

Things started to change in the Sixties.  Sure, a top marginal tax rate of 92% was high.  But few paid it.  Creative accounting and useful tax shelters avoided that punishing rate.  But government was still fat and happy with the money it was collecting.  Until the Vietnam War came along.  Johnson‘s Great Society.  And let’s not forget the Apollo moon program.  With renewed competition for American manufacturing, trouble in the oil-rich Middle East and rising inflation, the Seventies weren’t going to be happy.

And they weren’t.  Oil shockNixon shockStagflationMiseryKeynesian economics says to tax and spend to tweak the economy back to health.  When you can’t tax enough, you borrow.  When you can’t borrow, you print.  Nothing is more important than creating demand where no demand exists.  Give consumers more money to spend and ignore the debt, deficit and inflation.  The problem is, inflation is a bitch.

Reaganomics increased GDP 82.9%

Ronald Reagan routed Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election.  Carter’s economic numbers were some of the worst in history.  Double digit interest rates, unemployment and inflation.  All being flamed by an expansionary Keynesian monetary policy.  Until Paul Volcker took over the Fed during Carter’s last year or so in office.  And there really is only one way to cure a bad inflation.  With a bad recession.  And the Reagan recession of the early 1980s was one of the more severe ones.

Reagan was from the Austrian school of economics.  Supply-side.  His Reaganomics embraced the following tenets: cut spending, cut taxes, cut regulation and cut inflation.  In 1980 the top marginal tax rate was 70%.  When he left office it was 28%.  During his 8 years in office he took GDP from $2,788.1 billion to $5,100.4 billion (an increase of 82.9%).

The Reagan critics will note this explosive economic growth and say, “Yeah, but at what cost?  Record deficits.”  True, Reagan had some of the highest deficits up to his time.  But those deficits had nothing to do with his tax cuts.  For Reagan increased tax revenue from $798.7 billion to $1,502.4 billion (an increase of 88.1%).  Those deficits weren’t from a lack of revenue.  They were from an excess of spending.  And, therefore, not the fault of the Reagan tax cuts.

A Downward Trend in Prices is like an Upward Trend in Wages

And the Reagan critic will counter this with, “Sure, the economy grew.  But the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.”  Yes, his income and capital gains tax cuts made a lot of rich people.  But they also transferred the tax burden from the poor to the rich.  In 1980, the top 1% of earners paid 19.1% of all federal income taxes.  By the time he left office that number grew to 27.6% (an increase of 44.8%).  Meanwhile the bottom 50% of earners paid less.  Their share fell from 7.1% to 5.7% (a decrease of 18.9%).

Of course, the Reagan critic will then note that Reagan slashed domestic spending to pay for his military spending.  Well, yes, Reagan did spend a lot.  He increased spending from $846.5 billion to $1,623.6 billion (or an increase of 91.8%).  But he made a tax deal with Congress.  For every new $1 in taxes Congress would cut $3 in spending.  Those spending cuts never came.  Hence Reagan’s monstrous $200 billion deficits.  That’s a lot of money for both guns and butter.

But the greatest thing he did for low-income people was curbing inflation.  High inflation makes everything cost more, leaving low-income people with less to live on.  In 1980, inflation was at 13.5%.  When Reagan left office he had lowered it to 4.1% (a decrease of 69.6%).  No one benefited more from this reduction in inflation than low-income people.  A downward trend in prices is like an upward trend in wages.

The Reagan Economy was Better than the Clinton Economy

The Reagan critic likes to point to the Clinton years as a better economic period with better economic (and fairer) policies.  The Nineties were a period of economic growth.  But even with the dot-com bubble near the end of that period the Clinton GDP growth of 56.9% was less than Reagan’s 82.9%.   

Whereas Reagan achieved spectacular GDP growth while fighting inflation, the Clinton growth did not have to slay the inflation beast.  In fact, inflation rose from 3.0% to 3.4% during his two terms, indicting the GDP growth was not as real as Reagan’s.  Reagan’s was measured with a strengthening dollar.  Clinton’s was measured with a weakening dollar.  Also, real prices fell under Reagan.  While they rose under Clinton.  Making life more expensive for low-income people under Clinton than under Reagan.

Thanks to the dot-com boom, though, Clinton continued to transfer the tax burden to the rich.  He experienced a wind-fall of capital gains tax revenue when all those rich dot-com people cashed in their stock options.  In 1992, the top 1% of earners paid 27.4% of all federal income taxes.  By the time he left office that number grew to 37.4%.  This was an increase of 35.9% (compared to Reagan’s 44.8%).  Meanwhile the bottom 50% of earners paid less, too.  Their share fell from 5.1% to 3.9%.  This was a decrease of 22.7% (compared to Reagan’s 18.9%). 

Over all, though, Clinton’s policies increased tax revenue 69.8% compared to Reagan’s 88.1%.  And this was with the dot-com boom thrown in.  Had there been no dot-com bubble (that burst after he left office) no doubt his GDP and tax revenue would have been less.  Some of this economic dampening perhaps being caused by his increase of the top marginal tax rate from 31% to 39.6%. 

Both Reagan and Clinton made more Rich People

Reagan’s tax cuts led to an economic boom.  He cut inflation making life more affordable for lower-income people.  And he transferred the tax burden to the rich.

Clinton increased taxes.  His economic boom was good but not great.  A big part of his GDP growth and tax revenue was due more to irrational exuberance than real economic growth. 

But both Reagan and Clinton made more rich people.  And these rich people paid more taxes.  And because they did low-income people paid less.  Which would seem to prove that the best way to increase tax revenue (and make the tax system more progressive) would be to create more rich people.  And yet the very people who want to do this advance policies that work against these objectives.  Why?

Politics.  Sure, the Austrian school of economics has a proven track record over the Keynesian school.  But Austrian school economics has a terrible side affect.  It doesn’t grow government.  And all the economic growth and tax revenue doesn’t mean a thing if you lose your comfy federal job.  At least to a Big Government politician.

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