It’s a Downer Kinda Thang

“Never forget that the stock market is just a market for stocks.”
– Herman Miller, an old accountant I knew when I was a kid

The bloodletting on Wall Street may have paused, but no one is taking any chances. We’re not technically in a bear market yet – the S&P500 would have to break its resistance around 1863 before that happens. But the world is braced for it. Morgan Stanley has told its investors to hold on at least into the third quarter – exactly what Barataria said a few weeks ago.

Why all the negative sentiment? After all, China’s loss can only be our gain if you believe what you hear in politics. Then again, investors aren’t that gullible. It’s one big financial world and what goes ‘round comes ‘round. While there are some good reasons to take a six month or so pause, most of the reasons for this downturn are indeed lousy. It’s time to run through, and over, these arguments.

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Too Much Credit?

If you’re like most people, you probably think that you can never have too much access to credit. After all, you never know what might go horribly wrong or when an opportunity to really follow your dream might come up. A little scratch ready in the background might be the difference between the good life and something much less.

Then again, a lot of credit has a corrosive effect. In a world saturated with borrowing everything is judged against the expected return if the money was simply loaned out at market rates. It seems reasonable that where a little credit is a good thing a lot of credit, defining everything in the world, is the biggest enemy of both long-term thinking and a society looking to maximize happiness and human potential.

Logic says that where a little credit is good a lot could be bad, meaning there is an optimal point. Where is that? Where are we with respect to a good level of credit? It turns out that train left the station a very long time ago – and this may explain a lot of the problems in this economy.

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Tax Profits, Not Labor!

Are you properly compensated for your work? As we discussed previously, between 1947 and 1973 worker’s salaries accounted for half of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). There was a solid if unspoken agreement that labor and capital split the spoils of the free market equally between them.

But what of output per worker? Is it possible that workers are slacking off and don’t deserve the same arrangement they had in the immediate Post WWII era? An analysis of productivity, or output per worker, shows some interesting trends that may point to more unspoken agreements that the various markets for capital and labor expect. These trends follow business cycles, and as such point to some important changes that are necessary as we move ahead into the next cycle in the next few years.

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A Not So Bold Plan

President Obama came to St Paul to propose an aggressive new investment in transportation infrastructure, $300B over 4 years.  It was a good show that messed up traffic throughout the city, which was only fitting.  That increase of $75B per year comes on top of the current $48B per year, or a 150% increase.  It’s needed, and as we’ve noted before investments in infrastructure have a great payback for the economy.

But what’s new about this is that the money to pay for it is to come from an overhaul of the corporate tax system, which is also badly needed.  The details have yet to be announced, but the overall hike is $150B per year, with half going to infrastructure and the rest to deficit reduction.   So what’s not to like about this plan?

It’s a half-step at best, and in so many ways.

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Resiliency vs Interdependence

Long ago, most Americans lived as Laura Ingalls Wilder chronicled in the “Little House” series.  Pa Ingalls and family were out in the wilderness, living with the rhythm of the land and putting away what they could to survive long winters and perhaps beyond.  The family’s net worth was what they had around them.

That life has been replaced with interdependence based on a dollar value assigned to absolutely everything.  We all get by with any extra scratch, should there be some, not stored up to get through the winter but properly invested in convertible assets.  This means everyone is subject to  the “free market”, which determines the value of all assets including experience, talent, and work.

That interdependence has changed our world to one with much less hard work or struggles against nature, and yet to many it has become as hostile as any winter on the Great Plains.
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Credit Unions

Fed up with banks?  You’re hardly alone.  Credit unions have grown dramatically in the last 20 years, fueled largely by high fees charged by commercial banks.  Low rates for ordinary loans are also a big draw.  But for all the growth, not much has been written about credit unions other than the occasional puffy story about how much a consumer can save by ditching their bank.  That’s not to say that the growth has gone unnoticed at all – or indeed that it isn’t creating its own problems that need to be addressed.

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