Thursday, April 23, 2015

Unpaid Commercial and/or Cultural Announcement

It is true that music can calm the savage beast.  It can also bring peace to a tormented soul, at least temporarily.  It is a type of medicine for most.  I hate to see it suffer.

For the first time, I ask for your support of the Virginia Symphony (VSO) in general and their patriotic July 4th performance in particular.  Here is their request:

You are probably aware that the funding for the VSO July 4th Celebration has been withdrawn.  Williamsburg is one of only four places on the east coast (Williamsburg, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.) that has a symphony playing wonderful appropriate music to enhance the celebration

We are trying to continue this symphonic enhancement of the Celebration for all of us to enjoy. In order to do that, Bert Aaron and Adam Steely have opened a KICKSTARTER crowd funding site. We urge you to please pass on this link to all of your contacts, media and otherwise. 

Click on this link to go to the KICKSTARTER site. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1194763102/virginia-symphony-and-a-revolutionary-4th-of-july

If you lose the link, just Google KICKSTARTER Virginia Symphony.  The more people who are aware the more the possibility of success!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Kindly Advice

Somebody needs to call Central Casting in Hollywood and tell them the perfect stereotype for a kindly uncle is Dr. Jeremy Siegel of Wharton.  However, his kindly demeanor hides his razor-sharp mind and legendary forecasting record.  Here are some of his latest thoughts:

Despite lower gas prices and improved consumer sentiment, consumer spending was disappointing during the first quarter.  He thinks GDP estimates for Q1 will be reduced a full 1% when released next week.  Largely because of this, he sees no chance of the Fed increasing interest rates in June and only a 50/50 chance in September.  (I think the odds of any increase this year are less than 50/50.)

He thinks the wild 280-point drop in the Dow last Friday was all about Greece, which will continue to unsettle the markets.  The EU will never expel Greece, and Greece will realize the impact of leaving the euro will hurt even worse than staying with the euro.  This is because their own currency, the drachma,would lose value so quickly that "hundreds of billions of dollars of Greek wealth could be destroyed in a day."  (I do feel sorry for the Greek people, but their older generations have robbed their younger generations.)

Corporate earnings have been better than expected so far, but the full impact of the strong dollar is only just beginning.  For example, it is costing P&G some 7% in corporate earnings.  The strong dollar will continue to hurt corporate earnings for the foreseeable future.  Nonetheless, the stock market is NOT currently OVER-valued.

You just have to believe anybody so kindly, don't you?   No, but I do believe this one!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Reminder

Part of your job as a concerned American is to visit this website frequently:

http://www.usdebtclock.org/ 

In fairness to those who can sleep well after looking at this website, it should be pointed out that the website does not show the declining ratio of debt-to-GDP, which is improving, unless you consider the present value of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, which are getting worse.

Which is worse:  Tax and Spend . . . or Don't Tax and Spend?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Quarterly Column

Inside Business is the Hampton Roads Business Journal, and I write a column for them each quarter.   Here it is:

  http://insidebiz.com/news/q1-still-shifting-gears 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Disproving A Negative

How can I promise the world will not end tomorrow?  How can I promise the stock market will not drop 50% tomorrow?  How can I disprove something negative?

A friend in Europe sent me an interesting article titled "Damned if they raise, damned if they don't:  The Dilemma of U.S. Central Bank" by Stewart Richardson.  It begins with a quote from well-known perma-bear Marc Faber, who lives in Thailand and writes the "Gloom, Boom, and Doom" newsletter.  Enough said!  Faber is paraphrased as saying:  "equity markets are going to fall a long way but it could be from a higher diving board."  How can anybody promise that will not happen?

It also quotes Ray Dalio, manager of the world's largest hedge fund, as saying …“We don’t know — nor does the Fed know — exactly how much tightening will knock over the apple cart,…What we do hope the Fed knows, which we don’t know, is how exactly it will fix things if it knocks it over. We hope that they know that before they make a move that could knock over the apple cart.”  Of course, we don't know!  If we knew everything, there would be no uncertainty.  In graduate business school, we called it "conditions of uncertainty."  There is always uncertainty!  And, Ray Dalio knows that as well as anybody.  (I don't know where his quote comes from but suspect it is taken out of context.)

Yes, if the Fed doesn't raise interest rate enough and soon enough, we do risk asset inflation, especially in the stock market.  Yes, if the Fed raises interest rates too much and too soon, we do risk going into another recession.  And, yes, that is always true anyway.  This is not a unique situation.  Since the Fed was born in 1913, it has occasionally erred between too tight or too easy.  But, the last time I looked, we're still here?

So, the argument becomes -- until we have perfect certainty, bad things may happen.  Just the opposite, I can promise that bad things will certainly happen --  but does that mean they will happen tomorrow?  Does that mean anybody knows which particular bad things will happen?  (Believe or not, there is more to life than stock markets.)

Rather than ask for a promise against uncertainty, think about an action plan for when something bad does happen, because it will.  In the meantime, continue as if the bad things will only happen later.  The alternative is to go back to bed, pull the blanket over your head, and suck your thumb!

"The New Oil Order"

The research department of Goldman Sachs just did an excellent analysis of the oil industry.  They explain that the $60/bbl decline in oil prices over the last year is due to three reasons -- normal supply & demand fundamentals, cost deflation, and technological shifts.

$25 of the $60 decline was due to increased supply, $10 was due to decreased demand, which explains $35 of the $60 decline.

Shale oil mining turns out to be easier, less costly and less risky than expected.  "There is no such thing as drilling a dry hole."  This reduced the cost of oil by another $25.

Improved, less expensive technology decreased the demand for capital needed to drill, leaving this industry over-capitalized.  I know that is a little nerdy, but it means a smaller share of revenue is due to capital, further reducing costs and ultimately prices.  The impact of this goes into the future, deferring a new point of equilibrium until early next year.

They believe oil will remain near $40/bbl most of this year, before establishing a new equilibrium price of about $65/bbl next year.  And, they should know!  After all, nobody ever said Goldman Sachs was not "oily".

By the way, guess which legendary Wall Street investment bank just announced great quarterly earnings this morning, crushing forecasts . . .

A Cut In Pay

Imagine your boss telling you that he needed to cut your pay by 7% -- you would probably survive, but you would not be happy, and that job would be a whole lot less valuable to you.

Johnson & Johnson, the huge multi-national consumer staples company announced their quarterly earnings this week.  Sparring you the many details, one item jumped out at me -- their profits were down 7% because of the strong dollar!

Also, the International Monetary Fund routinely estimates GDP growth of most countries.  They just cut our 2015 GDP growth estimate by half of 1%.  That doesn't sound like much, until you recall our estimated growth rate was only about 3.5%.  That means our GDP growth is expected to decrease by about 14%, due to the stronger dollar.

Now, what is so patriotic about having a strong dollar?  Tell me again!

Does this mean stock prices will necessarily drop?  No, history shows us that a rising dollar usually accompanies a higher price multiple.  In other words, investors are willing to pay more for each dollar of earnings when the dollar is high.  This is probably because a strong dollar sounds so patriotic??

Does that mean our exports will decrease?  Yes, because we sell our exports for dollars, which are now more expensive for foreigners to purchase, to pay for the stuff we export to them.  If your job is making stuff to be exported, update your resume.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

First Quarter Slow Down

The four pieces of economic data released today confirmed what we already knew, i.e., that the first quarter was a disappointment -- not a tragedy, just a disappointment.

Today,we learned that retail sales increased less than expected.  Expecting higher sales, retailers naturally increased their inventories.  Not surprisingly, today we learned that inventories rose more than expected.  Holding inventory is not without cost to retailers, suggesting lower retail profits later.  Today, we also learned that small business optimism decreased broadly, which should not be surprising with disappointing retail sales.

The fourth piece of economic data released today was that the producer price index actually rose this month, after dropping three straight months due to dropping oil prices.  Firmer prices in the supply chain suggests some firming of demand, which might be the "green shoot" we're looking for.

Knowing the first quarter was a little slow is simply confirmed by today's releases.  More importantly, how does the second quarter look?  So far, so good . . . stay tuned.

Time For Golf

I live in a fancy condo on the beach, where I can watch sunbathers, ships, and dolphin.  I live with a lady who is lovely both inside and out.  I even drive a fancy car.  So, life is good!  Except . . .

I have bronchitis.  Coughing myself awake at 2AM, I slipped into the guest room and turned on the TV, finding that the old movie Dirty Dancing was playing.  At first blush, it is about the sweetness of first love and the bittersweet joy of dancing.  At second blush, it is a requiem for a lost version of America, as well as a study in the pain of class distinctions.

I smiled at the swing music from the 1940's and the early be-bop music of the 1950's. I laughed at the dated clothes and fashion in this period piece.  But, the thing that really grabbed my attention was wholly irrelevant to the story.  Late evening scenes contained that "symphony of nature" when frogs, crickets, and other critters make that cacophony of sound that has lulled me into sleep so many times.

While it certainly not a hardship to live here on the beach, listening to the waves breaking onto the sand, the movie did make me nostalgic for wilderness living, for sleeping on the ground, counting the stars, enjoying the sounds of nature, and for re-asserting my independence from the narcotic comforts of easy living.

Instead, I think I'll just go outside and play golf . . . after I stop coughing and take a nap!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Patience Is A Virtue ??

Checking into the Marriott World Center in Orlando for a conference some years ago, I noticed the quiet, unassuming guy in front of me was having trouble with the front desk.  After displaying an unusual amount of patience, I finally stepped in front of him and said to the desk clerk "I'm sure if you called Mr. Marriott, he would be pleased to offer Dr. Blinder the Presidential Suite FREE.  Maybe, you should call Mr. Marriott NOW!"  Suddenly, the seas parted, and a reservation was discovered.

I chuckled about that incident this morning, while reading the excellent article by Alan Blinder on the Opinion Page of The Wall Street Journal   He was Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve System and is now one of America's most respected economists.  I read anything he writes, and I'll bet Mr. Marriott does too!

Today's article argued that the Fed is not going to raise interest rates in the near future.  I love it when the "big cheese" economists agree with me!  The logic is the same:  (1) there is no inflation on the immediate horizon, and (2) the true employment picture is not as good as the unemployment rate suggests, primarily due to still-large number of the long-term structurally unemployed.  He does not argue that raising interest rates should be delayed in order to keep the dollar from getting even stronger, which hurts large multi-national companies.  (Obviously, I think that is a bigger deal than he does, but he is the "big cheese.")

 He concludes the article with:  "To be sure, the Federal Reserve will not maintain near-zero interest rates and a $4.5 trillion balance sheet forever.  Monetary policy will eventually begin to normalize.  But not in June, and maybe not in September.  Timing, they say, is everything.  This is a time for patience."

I wonder if he appreciates that I ran out of patience behind him at the Marriott front desk?

Theory vs. Practice

Some things, oddly enough, work better in practice than theory, such as quantitative easing.  Most things, however, work better in theory than in practice, especially within the investment world.

The hot debate within the investment world for the last decade has been the argument that index investing beats active management.  In other words, you should just buy the S&P 500 index without trying to buy any particular stocks to beat the market or reduce the risk.  There have been numerous theoretical studies to show this argument is correct, at least in theory.  (Interestingly, it seems to work better in bull markets than bear markets.)  In practice, however, there are mutual funds and hedge funds who do routinely outperform indexes, disproving the theory.

The conventional wisdom within the investment world for the last three decades has been Modern Portfolio Theory, which says you can improve investment performance over the long term, while reducing risk, by allocating portions of your portfolio to all the asset classes, e.g., large caps, bonds, cash, commodities, international, etc.  The problem in practice is knowing how much to put into each asset class.  This is called the "efficient frontier."  I can graph that frontier for you, but there is one problem -- it changes every day.

The latest fashion within the investment world is something called "robo-advisors."  Your portfolio will be invested in the index of each asset class.  As an example, Schwab has introduced something called "Intelligent Portfolios" which has taken in over $500 million in just three weeks.  The theory of combining index investing with Modern Portfolio Theory sounds great, but what you don't know in practice is how much is invested in each asset class and how often is that allocation changed and how is that decision made.  The lack of a flexible, understandable "efficient frontier" dooms robo-advisors.

I will start using a robo-advisor when I start letting a computer drive my car with my kids inside.  Theoretically, a computer can already drive a car safely . . . but not with my kids!  Some things are just too important for any nice, neat little theory.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Russian Rat

A rat is a small animal but can be vicious when cornered.  Russia is a large nation but can also be vicious when cornered.  That's why I've so been worried about Russia's ability to be rational over the past year.  However, the latest economic data from that country is a little better than expected.  Their GDP actually had a positive growth rate in Q4 of last year -- not much, only 0.4% but still positive.  Of course, it is expected to be slightly negative in Q1 of this year, before falling even further.

Their economy went into free-fall last year when it was battered both by the fall in the price of its primary export (oil) and the impact of economic sanctions due to its actions in the Ukraine.  Their currency, the ruble, collapsed 50% against the dollar in just six months.  This caused two big problems for the Russian people.  First, their central bank raised interest rates from 8% last October to 17% in December, a catastrophic increase.  Second, the weak ruble drove up the price of their imports, igniting an inflationary outburst over 16%.  Yes, you read that correctly - 16%!

While the ruble has recovered somewhat this year, it is still badly devalued.  The worst is not yet over, especially for the Russian people.  We should not expect Putin to become any more rational in the near future.  He hasn't backed into the corner yet . . . but is getting closer.

I hate to sound like an old Cold-War-warrior, but Putin is still the most dangerous man on the planet!  It may be hard to believe, but he is a greater threat than even Iran or Isis.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Clash of the Brainiacs

Why is it so much fun to watch intellectual titans clash?  Ben Bernanke has been a lifelong Republican, who has been roundly criticized by Republicans for leading an activist Fed.  Larry Summers has been a lifelong Democrat, whom Republicans prevented from getting Bernanke's job at the Fed.

Bernanke believes that interest rates don't need to drop any further, as the economy is getting stronger, albeit slowly.  In fact, it is about time to raise them.  Summers believes growth is slow because interest rates are obviously still too high, preventing necessary investments from being made.  He advocates "negative" real interest rates.

Bernanke believes that there is a global savings glut, i.e., too much savings and too little investment.  Summers argues that is because the interest rate on savings exceeds the rate of return on investments, which justifies lower real interest rates.  He argues we are in a period of secular stagnation, a point of equilibrium where the economy is simply stuck at minimal growth rates.  To disturb that equilibrium so that growth can increase, we need to kick-start investment by lowering real interest rates (or having a large stimulus package, which is impossible politically).

Because these titans are pure "brainiacs," it has been a purely intellectual fight with no name-calling.  It has been fun to watch, because of that - just a clash of ideas only, not people !  Now, if only Republicans and Democrats could clash that pleasantly . . . 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Winter's Death

Religion has done great good for mankind.  Unfortunately, religion has also done great harm to mankind.  In addition to being a river of condemnation, religion also helps us mark the seasons.  All religions (that are based in temperate climates) mark the birth of winter with good cheer, like Christmas or Hanukkah.  Arriving with first birds of Springtime, those religions mark the death of winter, like Easter or Passover.

Passover celebrates something bad that did not happen.  Easter celebrates the good that can come from bad.  Both celebrate something without condemning others.  They celebrate the sun on your face and the simple pleasure of being in God's world . . . which is outdoors.

So, to all the gays, adulterers, thieves, Republicans and Democrats out there, Happy Winter's Death!  Now, get outside and enjoy God's kiss of sunshine . . .

Saturday, April 4, 2015

"The Virginia Way"

Before partisan redistricting gerrymandered Virginia into hardcore red districts and hardcore blue districts. the expression of "The Virginia Way" described our legislature in Richmond.  It was a time when elected politicians forgot the heated rhetoric of campaigns and worked together across party lines to actually deal with issues.  Honor and honesty were taken for granted.

Today, heated rhetoric continues to the Chamber floors, making it impossible to work across party lines.  And, our last governor is headed to jail, along with his wife.  "The Virginia Way" has become a sad reflection of an earlier age.

While I no longer feel the pride of being a Virginian, I still love the geographical diversity, the four seasons, and the abundance of history. However, a new survey has given me some cause for pride again.

Can you believe that Virginia is now one the top ten states in terms of financial literacy?  Our high school dropout rate is down to 1.9%.  The percentage of Virginians with a savings account is up to 40%.  We are #3 in "Knowledge and Education" about personal finance!

How did this happen?  Who deserves the credit?  Regardless, I'm delighted to see it and wish I could "high five" somebody . . . Keep it up, Virginia!!

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Jobs Juggernaut ??

Forgetting that GDP growth in the first quarter has averaged a miserable 0.5% since 2010, the market was still expecting a robust 248 thousand jobs to be created last month.  However, today's Jobs Report indicated a mere 126 thousand jobs were created.  I guess all those people expecting the higher number of jobs spent the month of March on the beach in south Florida and didn't realize how lousy the weather was up here?

Today's report also lowered the estimate of jobs created in January and February by 69 thousand, remembering that weather wasn't exactly great either.  The jobs juggernaut has apparently come to a halt?

But, something else is happening.  Average hourly earnings increased 0.1% last month and were expected to increase 0.2%.  Instead, they increased 0.3% -- a nice surprise.  Also, the percentage of the working-age population that is actually working or looking for work (AKA the Labor Force Participation Rate) increased from 62.5% to 62.7%.  In addition, the "oil patch" only lost 12 thousand jobs last month,  substantially less than expected.  Most importantly, the U-6 level of employment, which includes those working part-time because they cannot find full-time work, dropped to 10.9% -- the lowest since August of 2008!

We may be seeing the U.S. jobs market changing from that of a recovering economy to that of a healthy economy.  Let us pray!

The immediate impact was that the euro soared, as investors guessed the U.S. economy is really not that much better than the European economy.  However, there is no way that the increase in the value of the euro can be sustained in the face of quantitative easing by the European Central Bank.  Also, the futures for the stock market suggest a modest sell-off when the market opens on Monday.

Over the longer-term, this reduces pressure on the data-dependent Fed to begin increasing interest rates this year.  The stock market will realize this before Monday, and I expect it will react more positively than the futures currently indicate.  

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Step Away From The Ledge!

If the stock market rose 20 points every single day, then investors would overreact on the one day it only rose 19 points.  There are only two guaranties to investing.  The first is that the stock market will always overreact to geopolitical news, and the second is that investors will always overreact to the stock market.

Certainly, the stock market was forced to digest a huge amount during the first quarter.  First, there was the brutal winter weather.  Second, there was the latest flare-up in the Greek tragedy, with a deadline next week.  Third, Putin continues to prove he is a better warmonger than economist.  Fourth, the "just-in-time" supply savings used for corporate budgets nationwide was wasted on the west coast cargo strike.  Fifth, the Fed all but officially announced an interest rate hike is certain this year.  Sixth, the dollar got too strong, seriously hurting the earnings of large multinational companies, causing small caps (who are not export dependent) to outperform large cap companies (who are export dependent).  Seventh, did I mention ISIS?

The stock market is shifting gears from a zero-interest-rate economy with the U.S. being the world's economic engine to a rising-interest-rate economy with the rest of world finally starting to catch-up.  This is also being done during a period of increased geopolitical uncertainty (think Iran negotiations).  While it may not be fun, it is still not a bad thing,  Stay invested and, most importantly, stay calm!

If you do need a little something to help you stay calm, take a look at this chart:

Chart of the Day
It shows that April is the best month of the year for the Dow.  What it doesn't show is that all that impressive gain traditionally enjoyed during the month of April actually occurs during the last half of the month.  During the first half, investors are often selling stocks to pay their tax bills due at mid-month.

So, stay calm . . . and stay patient!

Friday, March 27, 2015

A False Cresendo

Before being crushed by the falling sky that they always predict, American neo-conservatives were the only ones predicting an orgy of violence and death in Iraq after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.  However, nobody predicted the Arab Spring, when the governments of several Arab governments including Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya collapsed suddenly into bloodshed.  And, NOBODY foresaw an epic clash between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam in the budding war in Yemen.

As an American taxpayer tired of sending boatloads of dollars to keep Muslims from killing each other, I secretly wish for a climactic "mother-of-all-battles" to conclude this centuries old conflict between Sunni and Shia.  But, this war in Yemen will not do that.  Many more Muslims will be killed, and the hatred between both sects will only harden.

Maybe, the only way to solve such an intractable problem like this . . . is for Starbuck's to write "Islam Together" on all their cups?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Prohibitive Opportunity Cost

One of the most useful concepts in economics is that of "opportunity cost," which means that everything has two costs, i.e., the dollar cost and the opportunity cost.  An example is that a man's suit might cost $300, which is the dollar cost.  The opportunity cost might be a man's suit costs three ladies' dresses and a pair of ladies'shoes.  The classic example is that our nation can have one new aircraft carrier or it can have one new hospital, fifteen outpatient centers, and a transportation system for patients -- which do we prefer?  What opportunities are we willing to give up, in order to get something else?

For many years, I have devoted much of my time to studying and thinking about investing and financial planning.  I think I know a good deal about those subjects.  But, there is an opportunity cost to spending so much time on those subjects.

I know nothing about televisions and the bewildering universe of high-tech electronics surrounding televisions!  That is the opportunity cost to me for studying the things I love.

A few months ago, I went into Best Buy and could not get past the question of "LCD, LED or plasma."  Huh?  So, being able to recognize what I that don't know, I hired a consultant to go back to Best Buy with me.  His dollar cost is part of my opportunity cost.

Today, I am the proud owner of 50" Sony Smart TV, Ultra HD, Wi-Fi certified, 3-D television complete with 3-D glasses.  Huh?  I'm not sure what all that means, but all the components seem to work together, it fits the room, and it looks unbelievable.  The best part is that I didn't have to spend much time learning about all this technology.  The time I would have to spend to understand all that would have been a prohibitive opportunity cost for me.

Remember the good-old-days when the only question was "black & white or color" . . . ?  For a person to make such a high-tech bundle of decisions . . . well, it does require expertise, and I'll pay for somebody else to have that expertise!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Speed Limit 2.2

When I was a young economics student in the last century, a GDP growth rate of 4% was good but not extraordinary.  It was at this rate the economy could grow without igniting inflation.  By the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008, that maximum growth rate was close to 2.8%.  Today, it is probably only 2.2%.

So, why has this maximum safe speed continued to drop, especially since the recovery began in 2009?  One primary reason is that state and local government spending decreased significantly since the GFC and is now just getting back to 2008 levels.  Another reason is that consumers have worked hard on reducing debt by spending less (good in the long run but bad in the short run).  Also, our exports have suffered as the dollar rose against the currency of most other nations.

But, enough attention has not been paid to our aging workforce   The current inflow of new workers is not replacing the outflow of baby boomers retiring or just dying.  The workforce used to grow at 0.9% per year but is now growing at only 0.6% a year -- sounds small but actually makes a big difference.  Productivity per worker used to grow at 1.9% per year but is now expected to grow at only 1.6% going forward, as the benefits of the computer revolution fade into diminishing returns.

Why didn't Japan benefit as much as the U.S. from the computer revolution?  It doesn't matter how much your productivity gains are if your workforce is decreasing.

In 1970, just 9.9% of our population was over the age of 65.  By 2010, that had increased to 13.0% and is expected to reach 16.8% by 2020.  We're getting old!  The baby bust since 1970 is hurting us.  Forget Paul Ehrlich's classic best-seller The Population Bomb in 1968.  We baby boomers should have been making more babies instead of just making love.  That chicken has come home!

While I religiously avoid inflammatory rhetoric, I must ignore my nationalistic leanings to express my gratitude for those brave undocumented workers who come great distances to help their young families and to help our old ones.  We need you!

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Second Time Around

The first President Bush once joked that the best thing about being president was that he didn't have to eat broccoli anymore.  Late night comedians promptly had fodder for a variety of jokes about "negative goals."  You know, the goal for your kid is that he or she grows up and becomes a non-politician.  The goal of athletes is to NOT win, and all that.

Negative goals also exist for retirees, like NOT living at the poverty level.  One retiree I know had a goal of NOT working.  He didn't have any positive goals that I ever knew, like finishing his college degree or hiking the Appalachian trial or taking a cruise or anything else.  His only goal was simply to NOT work.

Maybe, if a person worked in a coal mine, inhaling coal dust, digging the carbon out of a hole a mile deep, then his perception of work would be understandably different from someone who worked in an office all his life.  I do understand that but suspect that is an extreme example.

A new survey by Merrill Lynch found that 42% of existing retirees either have worked or are planning to work during retirement.  Among workers, otherwise known as pre-retirees, fully 72% expect to work during retirement.

Of course, I understand the baby-boomer generation got blindsided by the death of corporate pensions and were slow to grasp the benefits of defined contribution plans, like 401(k)'s.  Still, according to the survey, "retirees are four times as likely to say they are continuing to work because they want to rather than because they must."

Eighty-three percent of the "working" retirees only work part-time.  Sixty percent of them went into entirely new fields.   Incredibly,  one-third of working retirees now own their their own business.

The world of retirement has changed.  No longer does an employee get a gold watch before going off to die somewhere else.  Longevity has changed all that.  Retirement now offers an opportunity for a second career, a second opportunity for growth and a cure for the retirement boredom or emptiness that financial planners see so often.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Pressure Release Valve

I feel qualified to discuss economics, investing, and financial planning.  However, I feel unqualified to discuss religion . . . which I will now discuss.

For convenience, let's assume everybody on Earth is either a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Muslim.  That's five major religions.  Yet, a disproportionate share of world disorder involves Islam.  While all religions have zealots or "true believers," my observation has been that all major religions are able to marginalize their extremists except Islam.

Do you remember the crazy preacher of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas who thought it was a good idea for his congregation to travel around the country, demonstrating at the funerals for our fallen heroes, who died in Iraq & Afghanistan, simply because they died fighting for a country that tolerates gay people?  He was a Christian extremist, whose 15-minutes of fame have thankfully passed.  More importantly, his Biblical poison didn't spread.  He was marginalized, but why?

Increasingly, religion is our country is capitalistic or atomized into independent units.  Preachers rise or fall based on their ability to sell "The Word."  Just as there is a market for tofu, there is a market for extreme religion, but it is a really small market in the U.S.   Except for hot-button social issues like abortion and homosexuality, our government stays relatively un-involved in our religion.  Our extremists are able to vent their spleen without government approval or disapproval.  We have a pressure-release valve for extremism.  Is this the same case in Islam?

A friend tells me that my thinking is flawed, as there are not five major religions but six.  His point is that there are two Islams, i.e., Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, which are wholly different.  The troubles of the world revolve around that divide.  We are just caught up in their civil war.  I understand his point, but still believe that the many respective governments of both Islams are so supportive of religion that they actually encourage extremism.

The first amendment of the Constitution says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

That's a good rule!  Maybe Islamic governments should try it . . .

Friday, March 20, 2015

Fantasy Revisited

Every "C" student in every Economics 101 course in every college in every state of this country knows that a national economic policy has both a monetary policy and a fiscal policy.  Monetary policy are those actions taken by the central bank (Fed) to affect the economy.  Fiscal policy are those actions taken - or not taken - by the central government to affect the economy.

There is general agreement among economists that monetary policy has been the only tool available to recover from the Global Financial Crisis.  Fiscal policy has been absent.  It has been a one-fisted fight!  My fantasy has been to grab Obama and Boehner by their shirt collars, knock their heads together, and use my  precision Army vocabulary to verbally assault them, as well as insult their entire bloodline . . . loudly.

However, at a recent conference, I heard Alice Revlin speak.  She is the former director of the Congressional Budget Office as well as Vice Chair of the Fed.  She emphasized that the death of fiscal policy is not recent and, in fact, has been dead since 1974.  I've been reading and thinking about that comment and think she is right, but with the caveat that it has been a slow, gradual death since that time.  Past sins of Congress do not approach the uselessness of the present Congress.

But her point is well made.  While grabbing their shirt collars, I should not fantasize about saying "Mr. Obama & Mr. Boehner, your inability to compromise is seriously hurting our country both now and in the future" (translated loosely from my precision Army vocabulary).  Instead, I should address them more respectfully as "Mr. President & Mr. Speaker" because their predecessors were also guilty, even if less so.

It makes me wonder if the sins of partisan redistricting compound, like interest, and increase over time.  If Republican voters are corralled into one political district, doesn't that tend to make the congressman more highly partisan than a district that is only 50% Republican?  (Of course, the same logic applies when you corral Democratic voters into one district.)  Maybe my new fantasy should be that the cancer of partisan redistricting would be removed from the body politic?  Maybe then we could see a rebirth and recovery of fiscal policy.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What's Wrong ??

Several times in the last few days, I've been asked what's wrong with the stock market?  I guess it must be "wrong" not to set a new record high every other day?  We're only a few percentage points from all-time highs, but that was a month ago - ancient history, I guess.

Yes, volatility in the stock market has increased, but that is a normal occurrence when the stock market is shifting gears.  Over the last few months, there has been a lot of news for the market to digest.  Oil has hit new lows.  This redistributes money within the U.S. economy.  Outside our economy, this sends some oil producers like Russia and Venezuela circling ever closer to the drain, causing geopolitical unrest.  The dollar has hit new highes.  This redistributes income from nations with expensive currencies, like the U.S., to nations with cheaper currency, like the European Union.  Also, don't forget that economy is producing over 200 thousand jobs per month.  (Interestingly, wages earned by farm workers are now growing faster than wages for high school students.)  Don't forget that talks between Greece and the EU are going poorly, and "Grexit"" is becoming a real possibility.

Of course, the biggest adjustment for the market to swallow is the Fed finally letting interest rates rise, after six years of zero rates.  Yesterday's removal of the word "patient" from the Fed's minutes does not mean the Fed is now impatient to raise interest rates.  But, the market will eventually get comfortable with the idea that the Fed can now raise rates, because the economy is actually doing better, not worse.

And, no, the possibility of systemic collapse of the financial system is not becoming more likely.  In fact, once the new rules on derivatives disclosure start in 2017, I will finally stop worrying so much about this.

Despite recent economic data that suggests the economy is stalling somewhat, it is not!  It is shifting gears to grow more later.  Worry about something else . . . like why you didn't keep your New Year's Resolution, for example.  OK, why didn't you?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Don't . . . Eat The Rich

There has been a book, a song, and a play entitled "Eat the Rich."  It plays into a very basic human jealously, but it has been emotionally reinforced by the belief that the rich benefited unfairly during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008/9 . . . while others were suffering.

It is often reported that the rich got richer during the GFC.  Yes, it is true they owned a larger piece of the pie or national wealth after it was all over.  But, it was a smaller pie!  Like almost everybody else, the rich lost money during the GFC.  In dollar terms, they lost more per person than those in the middle or lower classes.  In percentage terms, they lost less.

For the middle and lower class, their home is usually their largest investment.  Housing also got crushed during the GFC.  If you have 10% equity in your home and if the market value drops 10%, then you have lost 100% of your equity.  The vast majority of the rich have little or no mortgage debt.  They argue their percentage of total national wealth increased because they were more risk adverse and avoided mortgages.  In other words, they were smarter.

The rich also stayed in the stock market for the long-run, even when it was down.  The other classes needed whatever cash they had in stocks and sold them, which means they missed the huge bull market that followed the GFC.  In other words, the rich were smarter.

Or, they could afford to be smarter.

Being rich means you can afford to have a nicer lifestyle, PLUS you have more choices and can choose to be smarter.

But, being smarter doesn't make you any tastier to eat . . . The rich benefited because they were lucky, not because they were bad or devious.  The rich are just people too!  Please don't eat them!!