Saturday, August 19, 2017

Will There Be Tax Reform?

Popular Economics Weekly

After Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare, they will now attempt to pass a budget, and tax reform plan. But the $1 trillion in spending cuts (mainly from Medicare) they hoped with the repeal of Obamacare, which would go into tax cuts for corporate, capital gains and upper income personal tax brackets, probably won’t happen.

And that could be a good thing, if it focuses solely on enriching a few. Corporate taxes aren’t too high with all the loopholes that bring down the effective corporate tax rate to 13 percent, rather than the nominal 23.8 percent rate, while the maximum personal tax rate was 92 percent in the 1950s under President Eisenhower when the U.S. was building our modern productivity- enhancing infrastructure, which badly needs an upgrade. And corporations already have record corporate profits as a percentage of GDP, which most aren’t using to increase capital expenditures and so productivity (and growth).

Any attempt at tax reform will run into the moderates in a split Republican Party that want to maintain Medicare and other social programs that aid those in the poorest overwhelmingly Republican red states. So the moderates will stymie efforts to cut spending in social programs, which means that Repubs can’t cut taxes without creating a very large budget deficit—even larger than it is now.

Tax cuts matched with spending cuts have only increased the budget deficit under the various Republican plans. Whereas the Obama administration drastically reduced annual budget deficits while rescinding most of the Bush tax cuts. The formula worked. This raised most taxes back to Clinton administration levels, while maintaining the various social programs that benefited the poorest and disabled.

Corporations are not investing what they should and could because they prefer using financial engineering to finagle stock prices to enrich investors (and executives) while squeezing employees’ incomes that hurts their producitivity. 

Whereas public sector investment is so important when it gets spent on productivity-enhancing infrastructure upgrades. It becomes revenue neutral because it stimulates higher growth, just as it did in the last 4 years of the Clinton administration, which yielded actual budget surpluses.

Republicans’ sole focus on spending and tax cuts is a mistake. The CBPP reports the House GOP agenda issued in 2016 a tax reform plan, which they haven’t amended, and that a 2016 Tax Policy Center (TPC) analysis shows would overwhelmingly benefit the highest-income households.  Under the plan, 76.1 percent of the net tax cuts would flow to the richest 1 percent of households in 2017.  And by 2025, essentially all of the net tax cuts — 99.6 percent — would go to the top 1 percent.

The figures are similarly striking for households with incomes over $1 million, who would reap 71.2 percent of the tax cuts in 2017 and 96.5 percent of the net tax cuts in 2025.[1]  The plan is actually more regressive and more heavily tilted toward those at the top of the income scale than past GOP tax cut proposals.

On the individual tax side, the new tax rate structure would have three brackets of 12 percent, 25 percent, and a top rate of 33 percent.  High-income people’s pass-through income — business income that’s claimed on individual tax returns — would be taxed at a special lower top rate of 25 percent. 

Evidence of the damage from corporations’ financial engineering (instead of productivity-enhancing investments) is the collapse in the number of listed companies. In a Credit Suisse report released in March titled “The Incredible Shrinking Universe of U.S. Stocks,” there were 7,322 in 1996; today there are 3,671. It is important not to confuse this with a shrinking of the stock market: the value of listed firms has risen from 105 percent of GDP in 1996 to 136 percent now. But a smaller number of older, bigger firms dominate bourses.

Consequently between 1996 and 2016, the number of publicly-listed stocks in the U.S. fell by roughly 50 percent — from more than 7,300 to fewer than 3,600 — while rising by about 50 percent in other developed nations, said Credit Suisse. 

A spike in M&A activity also accounted for the rapid acceleration in delistings (and fewer stocks) as well. Private equity has been a dominant force. In 1980, PE deal volume slightly exceeded $1 billion. By 1996, that number had reached $80 billion. And today, it sits at a staggering $825 billion.

Though it’s an old (but time tested) proverb, when private enterprise won’t step up to save economic growth, government has to fill the void.  The best tax reform is that which invests in the future of American productivity, rather than in Wall Street's financial engineering.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Retail Sales Back, But Not Consumers

The Mortgage Corner

It turns out consumers decided to shop again in July, as retail sales surged in all categories. This includes online sales these days, as retailers adapt to the new reality that one large store size doesn’t fit all. But it may be a one-time surge, as wages are barely rising above inflation, while major brick and mortar stores are disappearing, and factory discount outlets thrive.

Nonstore retailers, vehicle dealers, building materials stores lead the report -- all major categories. Secondary readings are all strong: up 0.5 percent ex-autos, up 0.5 percent ex-autos ex-gas, and up 0.6 percent for the control group. Annual sales had risen above 5 percent in January, then declined until this month. So it’s hard to know if consumers in fact feel more prosperous.

Target, for instance, is opening more than 100 ‘small-store’ outlets near universities and colleges that was announced at their second quarter earnings call. Target Chief Executive Brian Cornell said the retailer would be nearly doubling the number of small-format stores it has this year, with the ultimate goal of having more than 100 open for business over a three-year period. The plan is to have 30 in 2017, said Chief Operating Officer John Mulligan, with nine opening in July and four opening in the first quarter.
“While we’ve only been open a few weeks, our July openers have been particularly strong out of the gate and as Brian highlighted, the guest response has been phenomenal,” Mulligan said on the Wednesday call, according to a FactSet transcript. “For the seven smallest format stores that have been open for more than a year, we’re continuing to see sales productivity more than double the company average and these stores have been delivering high-single-digit comp increases so far in 2017.”
We reported earlier that most households aren’t earning enough income to do more than pay their bills, such is the record income inequality. The monthly reading for this measure did finally show some life in the prior week's employment report with an unadjusted 0.3 percent gain, but it will take a continued run of strength to level out the 2-year trend line which remains in a deep downslope, said Econoday.

So we remain doubtful this retail surge can continue given all the actual brick and mortar stores closed or about to close. Brokerage firm Credit Suisse said in a research report released earlier this month that it's possible more than 8,600 brick-and-mortar stores will close their doors in 2017.

For comparison, the report says 2,056 stores closed down in 2016 and 5,077 were shuttered in 2015. The worst year on record is 2008, when 6,163 stores shut down, due to onset of the Great Recession.

Why? Is it only Amazon online shopping? No, because consumer incomes are barely rising, as I said, they look for discounts everywhere, and brick and mortar stores with their higher overhead, can’t cut prices as much, and can’t offer the variety that Amazon offers.

Now we hear that Amazon also wants to compete on the ground. What next? It will probably be more like an Apple store that samples its services and directs customers to its online warehouses, also springing up everywhere. Who can match that kind of cost-cutting when workers’ stagnant wages and salaries mean they will continue to discount shop for bargains.

Guess what is missing that would boost economic growth? Infrastructure spending, and now that Big Business has walked away from President Trump’s business councils, and Prez Trump is dissing Senate Republican leaders, good luck on getting anything done!

Harlan Green © 2017

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Why the Greater Lawlessness?

We knew as far back as Nixon’s Watergate that the Republican party harbors a lawless tendency when it suits them. Why else would President Reagan engineer the illicit Iran contra arms deal with the Ayatollah Khomeini, or, President GW Bush invade Iraq when UN inspectors already knew Saddam Hussein had destroyed his weapons of mass destruction a decade earlier?

The lawlessness of Republicans’ hunger for power has now reached such a point that they have selected and continue to support a president who has lied and cheated his whole adult life; from Trump Casinos to Trump Towers, from stiffing bankers and his workers to cooking the books. This has been documented in many of the 3,500 plus lawsuits Trump has been involved in, and the reason he settled the Trump University lawsuits, one of which alleged he ran a fraudulent enterprise under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

The sins of Hillary and Bill Clinton pale, yet Republicans impeached Bill for lying about a sexual encounter and continue to hound Hillary over lost emails. So why aren’t they impeaching Donald Trump who hasn’t divested himself of his assets to avoid conflicts of interest and continues to profit and even solicit favors from foreign governments in direct violation of the constitution?

President Trump's current 34 percent Gallup popularity rating is testimony that his support is now only restricted to those that would support him, even if, ““I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” said at a January 2016 Iowa campaign rally.

And now we have President Trump condoning the lawlessness of his neo-nazi and white nationalist supporters holding a torchlight parade in Charlottesville, Virginia, Jefferson’s hometown.

CNN commentator David Gergen, advisor to four presidents, chastised Trump yesterday in commenting on the Charlottesville riot and death of a counter-demonstrator. “He said he wants to bring love, not hatred to the country,” Gergen said. “Good. We need to deal with hatred, but he needs to deal with the hatred in his own heart if he wants to bring more love to the country.”

When will the Republican party stand up to such blatant lawlessness? Only when they can deal with the lawlessness in their own hearts. In selecting an autocrat to further their agenda, they are in effect saying freedom means anarchy, rather than living within a democracy of laws based on the world’s first constitution that guarantees equal rights for all of its citizens.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Why Aren't Wages Rising Faster?

Popular Economics Weekly

Everything should point to higher wages and salaries ahead for employees with a 4.3 percent unemployment rate and record corporate profits, but corporate profits go mainly to their executives and owners (and their stockholders) these days. The result is stagnant wages and household incomes.

Graph: Econoday

“Real", or inflation adjusted average hourly earnings slipped 2 tenths in July to a year-on-year 0.7 percent. This reading has been under the 1 percent line since October last year. The monthly reading for this measure did finally show some life in the prior week's employment report with an unadjusted 0.3 percent gain, but it will take a continued run of strength to level out the 2-year trend line which remains in a deep downslope, says Econoday.

It’s as if corporate bosses no longer are interested in maximizing their growth, which is the normal way to maximize profits. They have been successful in boosting profits, but mainly through financial engineering—that is, stock buybacks paid with borrowed money, or mergers and acquisitions that consolidate markets into fewer players.

This increases their monopoly powers to boost profits and resist employee calls for higher wages. It has helped to keep the stock market humming, but not the economic growth that should accompany such profits.

Wages in the United States increased 2.95 percent in May of 2017 over the same month in the previous year. But a better idea of healthy wage growth in the United States is a historical average of 6.26 percent from 1960 until 2017, reaching an all-time high of 13.77 percent in January of 1979 and a record low of -5.77 percent in March of 2009, according to Trading Economics.

This is what normal wage growth should look like, if workers were earning a living wage, and inflation was rising at a normal rate. The inflation rate in the United States averaged 3.28 percent from 1914 until 2017, and was 14 percent in 1980. Wages since then have been suppressed in the name of suppressing inflation, as employees’ bargaining power has been curtailed.

That’s why the national minimum wage is still $7.25 per hour, last raised in 2009, though some cities and states are beginning to raise it to $15 per hour, which is what economists calculate is the minimum living wage for a family of four. And that is just enough to cover what a household has to pay for housing, gas, food, clothing, and other everyday items.

But it’s an uphill battle when business interests rule the markets with little push back or bargaining power held by 80 percent of the workforce that are wage earners, and we wonder why so many refuse to return to work. So we shouldn’t wonder why U.S. labor productivity, which ultimately sets our standard of living, has remained so low of late. It increased at an average annual 2.5 percent from 1948-2007, but just 1.2 percent from 2010-14.

It’s also the reason the U.S. have the highest income inequality in the developed world. The U.S. ranks 106th of the 149 countries in income inequality as ranked by the CIA’s World Factbook with a Gini inequality index of developing countries like Peru and Cameroon. 

Harlan Green © 2017

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Friday, August 11, 2017

More Job Openings, Lower Inflation, Mean What?

Popular Economics Weekly

The job market continues to fluctuate, as job openings rose sharply in June to 6.163 million from 5.702 million in May. Hires, however, fell sharply, to 5.356 million from 5.459 million. This data set can be volatile but the underlying theme is a separation between openings and hiring, says Econoday, which rather than meaning full employment and higher inflation points to workers who refuse to return to work, unless employers will pay enough to entice them to return.

The number of unfilled jobs rose again to 807,000, whereas the unfilled total had fallen to 194,000 in May, and there were1 million openings the month before. See what I mean?

Graph: Econoday

There is really no inflation to speak of, in fact the looming danger is disinflation (meaning falling inflation), which can lead to outright deflation and falling prices. Economists don’t like falling prices because it could lead to a recession.

That hasn’t happened yet, but interest rates plunged again. The Fed’s preferred Personal Consumption index that measures overall prices is too low.

The main determinant of inflation is the cost of labor, which accounts for approximately two-thirds of labor costs. Though wages have risen slightly of late, it still can’t buck the 2.5 percent annual increase it’s been for years.

“At 4.3 percent unemployment, earnings in theory should be much higher, at least above 3 percent where many believe it needs to be before feeding into overall inflation,” said Econoday last week. “And overall inflation, tracked here by core PCE prices, hasn't been moving higher either, dipping to the 1.5 percent line.”

It is the meaning of disinflation, and a reason the Federal Reserve will be hesitant to raise their rate another 0.25 percent in their September FOMC meeting. The Prime Rate that controls revolving debt, and even equity line mortgages has already risen from 3.50 to 4.25 percent.

This is while long term Treasury yields continue to drop. The 10-year Treasury yield is now 2.2 percent, which is why the conforming 30-yr fixed rate is still at 3.50 percent for a 1 pt. origination fee. This is what is called a declining yield curve, which means less profits for banks, since they borrow money at a short-term rate, and lend it at longer term rates.

Consumer prices have risen an unadjusted 1.7 percent over the past 12 months, up slightly from 1.6 percent in June. But on a core basis (without food and energy price changes), which is watched more closely by Fed officials, consumer prices remained at a 1.7 percent annual rate, the same rate as in May and June.

So, we have all these job openings that far outnumber hirings, while consumers can’t or won’t push up prices because their incomes aren’t rising enough to boost product costs and so prices.

That is why there are so many unfilled jobs, and such low inflation. Producers would have to boost wages to attract more workers, and they haven’t done so to date. Why? It could be corporations are choosing to use record profits to overpay their executives and stockholders, in effect rewarding themselves, instead of growing their markets.
It's not what all corporations choose, of course, but we know the 7 million total of unemployed and part time workers that want to work full time hasn’t changed in a long time, according to the Labor Bureau—which is why economic growth is still stuck at 2 percent. Economists have yet to come up with a better answer, whereas many workers have answered such employers with their refusal to return to work.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Monday, August 7, 2017

Another Great Jobs Report?

Financial FAQs

No economist predicted another 209,000 private payroll jobs would be created in July, or that the last 2 months’ total would be 431,000, or the y-t-d total would be 1,290,000 payroll jobs created this year.

But they should have. The May JOLTS report was an indicator of higher employment numbers, as the unfilled jobs total dropped to 194,000 from 1 million the month before, for a total of 5.472 million hirings in May.

Job gains occurred in food services and drinking places, professional and business services, and health care. Employment growth has averaged 184,000 per month thus far this year, in line with the average monthly gain in 2016 (+187,000), said the Labor Bureau.

The only glitch, if that can be considered a problem, is that wages are still rising at 2.5 percent annually, which means two things. It means consumers won’t buy more than they are already buying, which would in turn increase demand and so increase economic growth, and there’s very little inflation, which means interest rates won’t be rising soon.

Wages aren’t rising faster because there are still many unemployed, or working part time when they would rather be working full time. “Both the unemployment rate, at 4.3 percent, and the number of unemployed persons, at 7.0 million, changed little in July. After declining earlier in the year, the unemployment rate has shown little movement in recent months,” said the BLS.

June’s Real Disposable Income was unchanged and May revised 1 tenth lower to a 0.3 percent gain, as I said in an earlier column. The real problem is weak wage growth, as most jobs being created are in low wage industries, like hospitality and even healthcare. Year-on-year, overall prices are up only 1.4 percent with the core little better at 1.5 percent.

Graph: Econoday

The 3 major employment sectors were Professional and Business Services, Healthcare, and Leisure and Hospitality as usual, all generally lower-paying job sectors.

Employment in food services and drinking places rose by 53,000 in July, said BLS. The industry has added 313,000 jobs over the year. Professional and business services added 49,000 jobs in July, in line with its average monthly job gain over the prior 12 months.

In July, health care employment increased by 39,000, with job gains occurring in ambulatory health care services (+30,000) and hospitals (+7,000). Health care has added 327,000 jobs over the past year.

What are those wages? In July, the BLS says, average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 9 cents to $26.36. Over the year, average hourly earnings have risen by 65 cents, or 2.5 percent. In July, average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees increased by 6 cents to $22.10.

So the U.S. economy is in a bit of a bind, if it wants to grow faster. And that is a lack of population growth, one of two main drivers of GDP growth, when conservatives want to limit immigration?

The U.S. native population is barely growing, so where else are those workers coming from? And businesses are investing a bare minimum in capital expenditures, robots and other technologies that would increase productivity, the other driver of growth.

And then we have jumped off the Paris Accord bandwagon, when China is tripling its investments in alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar farms. That will also boost productivity and hence growth—for China and the rest of the world that isn’t ignoring climate change.

But conservative still have their heads stuck in coal mines, for some reason. Go figure. What century do they think we are living in?

Harlan Green © 2017

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Great Q2 GDP Growth, But Q3?

Popular Economics Weekly

Second quarter GDP came in at a 2.6 percent annualized growth rate. This is one of the best showings of the last 2 years and keeps overall growth at 2 percent; because first quarter's growth was downwardly revised to 1.2 percent. And Q3 growth isn’t looking good, as June personal income and expenditures (PCE) just took a huge plunge—not a good omen for Q3.

June PCE income was unchanged and May revised 1 tenth lower to a 0.3 percent gain. Consumer spending was up 0.1 percent gain. Price data are flat, unchanged in the month with the core rate (less food and energy) up 0.1 percent for a second weak month in a row. The real problem is weak wage growth, as most jobs being created are in low wage industries, like hospitality and even healthcare. Year-on-year, overall prices are up only 1.4 percent with the core little better at 1.5 percent.

Graph: Econoday

What is wrong with the U.S. economy that it can’t grow faster? Nothing, really, given almost no productivity growth, and an aging population. This is maximum speed without an increase in productivity, in other words, and that won’t happen unless some of the $4.6T in deferred infrastructure spending gets done.

Can you imagine what new highways, bridges, airports, energy infrastructure, city and state water treatment facilities would do to productivity growth? Labor productivity rose at an average annual rate of 3-1/4 percent from 1948 to 1973, says the Federal Reserve, whereas, the average growth rate of productivity was about 1.7 percent in the period 1974 to 2016.
“If labor productivity grows an average of 2 percent per year,” said Fed Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer in a recent speech, “average living standards for our children's generation, will be twice what we experienced. If labor productivity grows an average of 1 percent per year, living standards will take two generations to double.”
“Governments can take sensible actions to promote more rapid productivity growth,” continued Fischer. “Broadly speaking, government policy works best when it can address a need that the private sector neglects, including investment in basic research, infrastructure, early childhood education, schooling, and public health.”
But construction spending also dropped in June—1.3 percent, mainly highways and streets in the government sector. Construction spending in manufacturing was also down. Doesn’t congress realize this is a sign that infrastructure expenditures are going down, rather than rising? This should be the priority, not attempting to repeal Obamacare, or cut taxes.

Our deficit problems would be solved if congress would focus on policies that really matter—like increasing spending on factors that enhance productivity, which would in turn increase GDP growth, which would in turn lower the budget deficit and obviate the need for draconian tax cuts.
“Reasonable people can disagree about the right way forward, but if we as a society are to succeed, we need to follow policies that will support and advance productivity growth. That is easier said than done. But it can be done,” says Fischer.
Economists such a Stanley Fischer know how this is done. In fact, we can only really survive as a viable democracy if we listen to the experts, rather than political ideologues.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Why are Americans So Unhealthy?

Financial FAQs

Americans have just avoided a health care disaster in voting down the Senate’s ‘skinny’ Obamacare Repeal and Replace bill. Even though maintaining most of the taxes to pay for the Medicaid portion, it would have made insurance coverage prohibitively expensive for those older and sicker users with the removal of the private and employer mandate requirements that would cause younger and healthier people to leave the insurance markets.

This is really the latest precipice that’s been averted. Americans already have the worst health outcomes in the developed world, precisely because America is the only developed country—in fact, of most of the rest of the undeveloped world—that doesn’t have universal coverage.

The result is one of the highest birth death rates, as well as heart, diabetes, and infectious disease rates—which are diseases usually associated with poorer, undeveloped countries and regions.

Why has this happened in the America? Because Americans have the worst income inequality in the developed world, according to the CIA World Factbook. And studies have shown that those countries with the greatest inequality also rank lowest in healthcare benefits.

The U.S. ranks 106th of the 149 countries in income inequality as ranked by the CIA’s World Factbook; with a Gini inequality index of developing countries like Peru and Cameroon. Whereas Finland and the Scandinavian countries are at the top of equality rankings, as I’ve highlighted in past columns. The higher the index in the graph, the greater the gap between wealthy and poorer citizens of a country’s population.

This is while congress has even been attempting to take away Medicaid benefits for the poor, elderly and infirmed? It doesn’t compute. Just 3 Senators—Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and John McCain—were courageous enough to stand up to the conservative lobbies that would only worsen healthcare outcomes.

What if conservatives had succeeded in repealing Obamacare? “Republicans' Obamacare repeal bill would leave 17 million more people uninsured next year, and 32 million more in 2026, the Congressional Budget Office said in an estimate Wednesday. It also said premiums would double by 2026. …By 2026, three quarters of the population would live in areas with no insurers participating in the non-group market, due to upward pressure on premiums and downward pressure on enrollment, the report found.”
On the other hand, a 2016 Commonwealth Club study lists Obamacare’s many benefits. “…evidence indicates that the ACA has likely acted as an economic stimulus, in part by freeing up private and public resources for investment in jobs and production capacity. Moreover, the law’s payment and other cost-related reforms appear to have contributed to the marked slowdown in health spending growth seen in recent years.”
Some of those benefits are:

· Health care spending growth per person—both public and private—has slowed for five years.
· A number of ACA reforms, particularly related to Medicare, have likely contributed to the slowdown in health care spending growth by tightening provider payment rates and introducing incentives to reduce excess costs. 

· Faster-than-expected economic growth and slower-than-expected health care spending have led to multiple downward revisions of the federal deficit and projected deficits.

· These trends have also been a boon to state and local government budgets, as job growth has improved state tax revenues while cost growth in health care programs has slowed. At the same time, expanding insurance to millions of people who were previously uninsured has supported local health systems and enhanced families’ ability to pay for necessities, including health care.

· The accrued savings in health care spending relative to their projected growth prior to the ACA are substantial: Medicare alone is now projected to spend $1 trillion less between 2010 and 2020.

We can thank Senators Merkowski, Collins, and McCain that the so-called ‘freedom’ lobbies behind the Obamacare repeal efforts have not succeeded in making more Americans ill. I don’t even want to imagine the increased death totals due to lack of care of the 32 million aged and infirm that could ultimately lose their coverage.

So now is the time, in Senator McCain’s words, for Republicans and Democrats to work together in “regular order” to craft a truly bipartisan healthcare bill that could actually improve the health of Americans.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

The End of Easy Money?

Popular Economics Weekly

The Fed just completed its July FOMC meeting and said the sale of some of its $4.5 trillion in securities would begin this year. CNBC has predicted the first installment of $300B in sales could begin anytime. This is a mere drop in the bucket and shouldn’t affect interest rates immediately.

Why? There is simply too much easy money in circulation, which is why the 10-year Treasury yield is still in the 2.3 percent range, and 30-year conforming fixed mortgage rates are below 4 percent. Money is cheap, in other words, which hurts savers but helps borrowers, such as homebuyers.

This is indeed helping homeowners, as June new-home sales just jumped 0.8 percent and are 11 percent higher this year. Should the Fed begin to sell securities they bought via the various Quantitative Easing securities purchases, it will take some of that excess money out of the economy, but should not slow down home buying.

This is because interest rates only go up if inflation rises, and the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, the Personal Consumption Expenditures index, has tapered off to 1.4 percent growth over 12 months from a five-year high of 2.1 percent. That is not a good sign for future demand and hence growth, as I’ve been saying. But it’s good for borrowers and homebuyers.

“The month’s (new-home) sales report is consistent with our forecast, and we should see further gains throughout the year as the labor market continues to strengthen,” said NAHB Senior Economist Michael Neal. “While new home inventory rose slightly in June, it remains tight as builders face lot and labor shortages and increases in building material costs.”
The assessment of both current and future business conditions is also strong with more describing them as good. Buying plans for homes is also a positive, up a sharp 7 tenths to 6.7 percent with buying plans for autos also up, 1 tenth higher to 12.7 percent.

Graph: Econoday

So the expected rise in interest rates is just not happening. Inflation is really a gauge of present and future demand and the demand by consumers, even for so-called capital expenditures by businesses that would expand production, isn’t happening. Capex spending jumped slightly earlier this year, but has slowed and manufacturing activity is still in a positive but narrow range.

However, consumer confidence continues to soar. The Conference Board’s index is back to its highest level this year. The index rose nearly 4 points in July to 121.1. Confidence has risen about 20 points following the November election, hitting a 17-year peak of 124.9 in March. Is this due to the Trump election? We haven’t yet seen higher retail sales and other indicators of greater consumer spending that would boost GDP growth to 3 percent as Republicans have promised.

So what are consumers up to? They seem to want to save most of their earnings at present, which is a sign that consumers are not yet convinced higher economic growth is in the cards, in spite of the availability of so much easy money.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Home Sales Disappoint

The Mortgage Corner

Existing-home sales were at a 5.52 million seasonally adjusted annual rate in June, the National Association of Realtors said Monday. That was 0.7 percent above the year-ago rate, but 1.8 percent lower than in May and marked the second-lowest monthly total of 2017.

Why? There’s a severe housing shortage with inventories down to a 4.3-month supply at the current sales rate. It is so bad that Zillow Chief Economist Svenja Gudell in a Marketwatch interview said, “There are about as many homes for sale now as there were in 1994 (1.96m), except there are about 63 million more people in this country now than there were then.”

The supply imbalance continues to push prices higher. The median sales price was $263,800 nationally, a 6.5 percent increase compared with the year-earlier period. The median price in California is now $500,000. That sets a fresh record and marks the 64th consecutive month of yearly price gains, with housing prices growing at roughly double the rate of wage gains.

It’s hard to understand why builders aren’t answering the call with demand so high and interest rates still at record lows. Part of the problem is that there are so few entry-level homes being built.
“Closings were down in most of the country last month because interested buyers are being tripped up by supply that remains stuck at a meager level and price growth that's straining their budget," said NAR economist Lawrence Yun. "The demand for buying a home is as strong as it has been since before the Great Recession. Listings in the affordable price range continue to be scooped up rapidly, but the severe housing shortages inflicting many markets are keeping a large segment of would-be buyers on the sidelines."
First-time buyers were 32 percent of sales in June, which is down from 33 percent both in May and a year ago. The longer-term average is 40 percent for first-timers as a percentage of all buyers, which are mainly younger buyers.

Graph: Apartment List

CNBC reports new data from Apartment List  that shows, although 80 percent of millennials would like to purchase real estate, very few are in a good position to buy, largely because they have nothing saved. According to the report, "68 percent of millennials said they have saved less than $1,000 for a down payment. Almost half, or 44 percent, of millennials said they have not saved anything for a down payment."

That is probably why mortgage lenders are now offering more exotic products, such as a 1 percent down payment for the conforming 30-year fixed rate with the lender chipping in another 2 percent, so that it satisfies the minimum 3 percent minimum down payment requirement for conforming loans.

Lenders are also offering high end buyers a 40-year fixed rate program for super jumbo loan amounts with the first 10 years at interest only payments. Payments then become standard 30 year principal and interest payments for the rest of the 30-year term.

Meanwhile the standard 30-year conforming fixed rate is 3.50 percent for 1 origination point in California, as it has been for months. There are still many buyers out there, in other words, but the most important population segment is the millennials, who marry later and have those student debt problems.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Financial FAQs

The Bureau of Labor Statistic’s JOLTS Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey out Tuesday showed a huge boost in hiring and shrinkage of available jobs. What to make of it with almost nonexistent inflation, and the Fed’s Janet Yellen still making noises about raising interest rates?

Job openings fell back 5.0 percent to 5.666 million in May from 6 million, and hiring shot up 8.3 percent at 5.472 million from 5 million in April. So the number of net new job openings shrank from 1 million to a mere 194,000, while more than 400,000 new jobs were created! This is big news, and sets a record for this series while the number of job openings are the second lowest of the year.

Meanwhile, Janet Yellen can’t seem to make up her mind on the direction of economic growth in her latest congressional testimony. So she won’t commit to further rate hikes at the moment, which without growing inflation would slow growth, rather than be a sign of inflation (and growth) ahead.
“As I’ve said on many occasions, the new normal with respect to what level of interest rates is neutral appears to be rather low, so we have raised the federal-funds rate target. I believe policy remains accommodative.”
In what is one of the very weakest 4-month stretch in 60 years of records, says the Census Bureau, core consumer prices could manage only a 0.1 percent increase in June. This is the third straight 0.1 percent showing for the core (ex food & energy) that was preceded by the very rare 0.1 percent decline in March. Total prices were unchanged in the month with food neutral and energy down 1.6 percent.

The JOLTS report looks like employers’ job openings are finally catching up with their hiring. Other movement in this report is a 1 tenth rise in the quits rate to 2.2 percent which hints perhaps at worker confidence and willingness to switch jobs which may be a positive for wage.

Such a strong jobs report should mean wages are about to rise. At least the Fed believes so, but it ain’t yet happening, no matter what Dr. Yellen says. Wages have been at 2.5 percent over the past 2 years; just enough to pay current bills, but not to boost retail sales, a major component consumer spending, hence GDP growth.

Retail sales fell an unexpected 0.2 percent in June. This follows a revised 0.1 percent decline in May and a revised 0.3 percent gain for April which proved to be the quarter's only respectable showing.
Econoday says it “…shows wide weakness with vehicle sales coming in with a marginal 0.1 percent increase, the same for furniture and also electronics & appliances. Declines include food & beverage stores, down a sharp 0.4 percent, and department stores down 0.7 percent following the prior month's 0.8 percent plunge.”
So where is the inflation? Economic growth is still weak because demand is weak and maybe declining. This is worrisome.

Today’s CPI retail inflation report should convince Dr. Yellen that no further Fed rate hikes are warranted. Annual inflation has increased just 1.6 percent; 1.7 percent without volatile food and energy prices. And we have June’s unemployment report with 222,000 new payroll jobs, another sign of full employment. (It is seasonally adjusted, which is why it differs from the JOLTS numbers.)

Then there is the fact that interest rates aren't rising.  The 10-year Treasury yield is still at 2.26 percent, which would normally signal an incoming recession.  Let us hope not, since there are still jobs available and we have to first see wages rising!

Harlan Green © 2017

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Housing Construction Rebounds, For How Long?

The Mortgage Corner

The Conference Board’s Index of Leading Indicators (LEI) that predicts future growth says it is being boosted by a rebound in housing starts, which means more badly needed new homes being built. Its June report posted a 0.6 percent gain. Permits had been soft through most of the spring before gaining sharply in this week's housing starts report.

But there’s concern over how long this might last, though I predict full employment and the prospect of low interest rates for the rest of this year could prolong the trend.

Starts for all homes jumped 8.3 percent in June to a 1.215 million annualized rate with permits up 7.4 percent to a 1.254 million rate. As weak as the details were in the prior report, is how strong they are in the latest. Single-family permits rose a huge 4.1 percent to an 811,000 rate with multi-family permits up 13.9 percent to 443,000. Permits are strongest in the Midwest followed by the West and South.

Actual starts for single-family homes rose 6.3 percent in June's report to 849,000 with multi-family up 13.3 percent to 366,000. The Northeast is in front followed by the Midwest. Starts in the West are up slightly and are down noticeably in the South, probably due to all the errant weather, including floods and a few tornadoes.

The LEI tracks 12 indicators of growth, including interest rates spreads and hours worked. The fact that housing permits provided the biggest boost to the LEI means that housing is probably a leading indicator of future growth as it has been in past recoveries. So why has it taken so long for housing construction and sales to catch fire? The busted housing bubble left millions of vacant homes first had to be reabsorbed into the housing market.

Then all those homeowners that lost their homes had to reestablish their credit bonafides. This is while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac haven’t sufficiently lowered their credit and loan qualifying requirements that would add some 1 million prospective homebuyers to the list of eligibles, according to the Urban Institute.

Then there is the millennial generation saddled with all that student debt that the current administration doesn’t want to forgive or amend terms. The list goes on and on, in other words, for what needs to be done to make housing more affordable.

The NAHB, or National Association of Home Builders, also puts out a builder sentiment index that attempts to predict future activity, but which may lag housing starts data. The report cites the effects of high lumber costs on home builders in showing construction, for instance, but shows slower activity evenly divided among the 3 components in its index.

Higher future sales still lead for 73 percent of respondents with higher present sales at 70 percent of those polled. But only 48 percent report higher traffic, which is below the breakeven 50 percent for the 2nd month in a row. Regionally, the West remains the strongest for homebuilders followed by the Midwest and South and the Northeast far behind. So is optimism leading reality, if fewer buyers are lookng?

These are still terrific numbers, however, and it looks like lower interest rates are here for the rest of this year, with the conforming 30-year fixed rate holding at 3.50 percent for one origination point in California.

Why are rates still at such record lows with the Fed having already raised their overnight rate 3 times to 1.25 percent? Consumers aren’t borrowing more, which would increase loan rates.

Graph: Econoday

For instance, retail sales are still stuck below what is considered to be a robust demand for more goods and services. Annual sales are under 3 percent for the first time since August last year with the 3-month average below 4 percent. And 6 percent annual sales increases have been the norm during past recoveries.

This really means a certain middle and upper segment of income earners are doing well, but not the rest of US. The boosting of the minimum wage in the more prosperous cities and states is a start, but that is happening in only a handful of states, as I’ve said.

Much more needs to be done, in other words, to help the still record income inequality that haunts this laggard recovery from the Greatest Recession since the Great Depression.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Minimum Wage Raises Should Boost Spending, Employment

Financial FAQs

Minimum wages are about to rise in several cities, and eventually states. San Francisco and Los Angeles minimums are rose last weekend to $14 and $12 per hour, respectively, and ultimately to $15 per hour by 2021. But Seattle, Washington, Washington D.C., Chicago, Maryland, and New York will be raising their minimum wages, as well.

This should finally boost incomes, and maybe consumption for the rest of 2017. Central Banks are beginning to raise their rates, as well, which means they see stronger growth ahead.

But this all depends on the consumer, as businesses won’t spend and boost hiring until they see consumers spending more. Friday’s unemployment report told us we see growing demand ahead. The various QE programs and extremely low inflation have kept long term rates below 3 percent for several years because consumer incomes have been trending down lately, as I’ve said.
Graph: Econoday

For instance, personal income has been struggling, posting only a 3.5 percent year-on-year rate the last two months with the trend line pointing to just under 3 percent, reports Econoday. And that has kept spending in a narrow 4-5 percent range, as well.

Last week’s ISM service sector activity report could mean more hiring ahead, since the service sector employs roughly two-thirds of American workers. Its non-manufacturing survey continues to report extending strength with the index up 5 tenths in June to 57.4. New orders, at 60.5, remain unusually strong with backlog orders, at 52.0, also rising in the month. New orders for export, at 55.0, are also up solidly though to a lesser degree than domestic orders.
“The non-manufacturing sector continued to reflect strength for the month of June. The majority of respondent’s comments are positive about business conditions and the overall economy," said Anthony Nieves, Chair of the Institute for Supply Management Non-Manufacturing Business Survey Committee.
But this is anecdotal evidence only, and actual government statistics don’t reveal increased activity yet. Factory orders show manufacturing activity still rising at 5 percent, but autos and aircraft orders are down now, after surging earlier this year.

Manufacturing was once known to have high paying jobs. That's old history with pay, now at about $26.50, only 25 cents above the average. And payroll growth has also been slow with this trend also fighting to stay above zero.
“Backlogs are the bottom line and, despite all the confidence in all the private surveys, they are still under water, says Econoday. “Until unfilled orders pile up, gains for factory payrolls and wage will be limited. Despite a big jump in ISM's employment index, actual factory payrolls rose only 1,000 in Jun
So while jobs continue to be filled, wages aren’t rising in tandem, and that is another sign that there are still 6 million workers looking for jobs. Until that happens we cannot say we have reached full employment.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Great Employment Report

Popular Economics weekly

The U.S. created 222,000 new jobs in June as hiring accelerated in the spring, showing that companies are still finding ways to add staff despite a growing shortage of skilled workers.

The increase in new jobs was the largest in four months and second biggest increase of the year. Hiring was also stronger in May and April than previously reported, said the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The most important take from the labor report was that a total of 361,000 new workers entered the labor force, which is why the unemployment rate ticked up slightly from 4.3 to 4.4 percent.

Also good news was that governments hired 35,000 more workers. It was a sign that state governments are financially healthy again, and beginning to spend on needed infrastructure repairs. How are they doing this?

California is one of seven states raising gas taxes (since the federal government won’t) to pay for the backlog of work that needs to be done, and at a time of record low gas prices. It will also boost economic growth. They aren’t waiting for congress and the White House to make up their minds on spending priorities, in other words.

California Gov. Jerry Brown just signed into law its increase in higher fuel taxes and vehicle fees, which gives the state an estimated $52 billion more money to help cover the state’s transportation needs for the next decade.

The money comes largely from a 12-cent increase in the base gasoline excise tax and a new transportation improvement fee based on vehicle value. Other money will come from paying off past transportation loans, Caltrans savings, and new charges on diesel fuel and zero-emission vehicles.

“The bulk of the revenue raised will go to various state and local road programs, as well as public transit, goods movement and traffic congestion,” said the Sacramento Bee announcement.

Seven states raising the gas taxes, according to The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). Indiana, Montana and Tennessee lead the raises. California’s increase just kicked in July 1. Iowa and Nebraska, meanwhile, are the only states to lower their gas taxes.

April and May employment were also revised higher by 47,000 jobs, in the BLS unemployment report, “which signals that the apparent weakness in past months was just a blip due in part to late data reporting,” said Danielle Hale, managing director of housing research at the National Association of Realtors, as reported by Marketwatch.

It is, all in all, a very optimistic employment report. Government spending is the biggest plus, as that has been the most significant lack in the eight years of this recovery from the Great Recession. All those infrastructure upgrades are needed, right?

I have cited several times that of the more than 600,000 bridges in the U.S., at least 200,000 are more than 70 years old and need immediate repairs, not to speak of our electrical grid that is as old. In fact, not much has been done to our transportation network, in general. Most of our highways are more than 70 years old, as well.

This should be a no-brainer. Productivity and hence economic growth depends on these repairs and upgrades. Washington has been unable to do the needed work because it is locked in political gridlock, so it’s great news that the states want to take up the slack.

Conservatives can certainly agree on that.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Friday, June 30, 2017

Interest Rates On the Rise!

Financial FAQs

Central Banks everywhere seem to be following our Federal Reserve in selling bonds they had accumulated to keep interest rates low for so long—in fact, since the end of the Great Recession. They also seem to be crossing fingers that it won't hurt growth.

The 10-year Treasury yield rose 1.8 basis point to 2.285 percent, contributing to a 14 basis point jump over the past week. The 30-year bond, or the long bond, gained 1.7 basis point to 2.831 percent, according to Marketwatch.

Our Fed Chair Janet Yellen took the lead in calling for more Fed rate hikes this year at the last FOMC meeting; as well as beginning to sell some of the $4.5 billion in Treasury bonds it had accumulated during the various Quantitative Easing programs first initiated by former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke.

The QE programs and extremely low inflation have kept long term rates below 3 percent for several years. The Fed’s actions in tightening credit mean they see higher inflation and growth ahead. But so far it’s just words. They are hoping that talking up interest rates will have the effect of boosting growth, for some reason.

I don’t see how, since consumer spending and business investment are still at post-recession lows. First quarter GDP’s final growth estimate rose from 1.2 to 1.4 percent and it’s averaged 2 percent annually since 2009, the end of the Great Recession. That’s the reason for the various QE bond buying programs that have taken so many bonds out of the market.

So the question is, as the Fed begins to sell them back into the bond market will interest rates rise? They are taking a gamble, since consumers aren’t spending as they should, and inflation is falling, rather than rising—another sign of weak demand.

Graph: Econoday

Real disposable personal income has fallen precipitously since 2014, and the Fed’s preferred PCE inflation index is down to 1.4 percent annually. That should be a danger sign, rather than a sign of higher growth.

Maybe the Fed is looking at consumer optimism, still holding at November post-election highs. Both the University of Michigan sentiment survey and Conference Board’s confidence survey show extreme optimism about future prospects.

Why such optimism? We are nearing full employment, or perhaps there is the hope that Republicans may be able to pass an infrastructure bill that would boost state and federal work projects.

But then Congress has to begin work on legislation that both Republicans and Democrats can agree on. They shouldn’t wait on much more partisan legislation that isn’t likely to pass—like reforming health care and cutting taxes, which no one seems to be able to agree on.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

What Healthcare System Do Americans Want?

Popular Economics Weekly

This is a quiz. What country had the second-highest mortality from noncommunicable conditions — like diabetes, heart disease or violence — and the fourth highest from infectious disease? Also, from adolescence to adulthood to old age, what country has the highest chance of dying an early death?

The United States of America—where else, since the U.S. is the only developed country in the world without universal health care? A recent New York Times Business Insider article by Eduardo Porter highlighted a recent study by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of 16 of the richest countries in the world that set out to assess our nation’s health.

The results are devastating, and show how far America has fallen behind in caring for its citizens. And the new Senate version of repeal and replace Obamacare strips even more benefits and money from Obamacare

This problem should have nothing to do with ideology, and whether access to affordable health care should be a privilege or a right. Too many Americans are dying of drug overdose and violence. Too many Americans suffer from depression, a major cause of drug abuse.
And too many Americans are obese, making them less productive and more prone to accidents in the workplace. “The United States ranks in the bottom fourth among the 30 industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of days lost to disability,” says Porter. “Women will lose 362 days between birth and their 60th birthday; men about 336. Mental health problems like depression will account for most.”

But all of these statistics hide the real problem—rampant income inequality. The U.S. ranks 106th of the 149 countries in income inequality as ranked by the CIA’s World Factbook; with a Gini inequality index of developing countries like Peru and Cameroon. Finland and the Scandinavian countries are at the top of equality, Germany and France are 12th and 20th, respectively. The higher the index, the greater the gap between wealthy and poorer citizens of a country’s population.

And the poorer the person, family, or community, the more prone to illness and drug use is that person, or family, or community. This is where the Senate version of repeal and replace Obamacare hurts the most—in the poorer red states that voted for President Trump.
“What’s more, the United States’ higher tolerance of poverty undoubtedly contributes to higher rates of sickness and death,” says Porter. “Americans at all socioeconomic levels are less healthy than people in some other rich countries. But the disparity is greatest among low-income groups.”
Finally contributing to our health crisis is the incredible amount of violence—both due to guns (33,000 per year killed by guns), workplace accidents, and drug abuse, that a universal health care system could treat via mental health coverages as well.

In other words, there are much higher costs because we don’t have a healthy healthcare system and we the citizens are paying those costs, rather than those that are pushing the $1.1 trillion in tax cuts that Obamacare utilizes to pay for many of those costs.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Housing Shortage Continues

The Mortgage Corner

It was very good news that new-home sales rose nearly 3 percent in May to a 610,000 annualized rate. The report, always volatile, included a big upward revision to April which however, at 593,000, is still the year's low. But that isn’t close to the 1 million plus new homes built annually during the housing bubble.

Existing home sales also proved better than expected, up more than 1 percent to a 5.620 million rate. Low unemployment and low mortgage rates are major positives for housing. But that only exacerbates the shortage of homes on the market.

Graph: Econoday

And that doesn’t even take into account the 1 million prospective homebuyers who could buy a home, if Fannie and Freddie would ease their qualification standards to that which prevailed throughout the last 2 decades. But because the U.S. Treasury won’t release its stranglehold on supervision of the GSE’s, for fear that taxpayers might again be at risk if another housing bubble materializes, there is little prospect of this aid coming to first-time and entry-level buyers, in particular, that must then rely on the more expensive FHA alternative.

This is while the housing shortage continues, even though prices are up a median $252,800 for resales and $345,800 for new homes, a 6 percent rise, whereas household incomes are rising just 2.4 percent annually. The FHFA house price index is another of the week's highlights, up sharply in April to a year-on-year rate of 6.8 percent.

This should boost housing construction, but housing starts are also lagging. And we are hardly in bubble territory. Bubbles occur when there is too much of something—whether housing, or credit—so that the resulting oversupply causes prices to plummet at they did during the Great Recession.

Calculated Risk shows the “Distressing Gap” that occurred with the housing crash, when oversupply of distressed housing caused new-home construction to plummet. It hasn’t yet recovered, but “in general the ratio has been trending down since the housing bust, and this ratio will probably continue to trend down over the next several years,” says Calculated Risk’s Bill McBride.

The National Association of Home Builders reported builder confidence in the market for newly-built single-family homes weakened slightly in June, down two points to a level of 67 from a downwardly revised May reading of 69 on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI).

New-home inventories remain too low to satisfy surging demand that comes from low interest rates and full employment. Full employment is a two-edged sword, however, as it also means labor shortages and unfilled jobs. Where are those workers, when just 2 million are currently employed in construction, and there were as many as 6 million employed during the housing bubble? It could be the recession hangover, such as memories from the housing crash that has discouraged many from re-entering the workforce. Hence the 4 percent drop in labor participation rate since the end of the Great Recession.
“As the housing market strengthens and more buyers enter the market, builders continue to express their frustration over an ongoing shortage of skilled labor and buildable lots that is impeding stronger growth in the single-family sector,” said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz.
Builders can’t keep up with the housing demand, in other words—especially now that the Millennials, those between the ages of 18 to 36, are coming into adulthood and outnumber all other population groups. A good percentage will want to own a home someday as their primary asset.

he younger baby boom generation dominated in 2010.  By 2016 the millennials have taken over.  “The six largest groups, by age, are in their 20s - and eight of the top ten are in their 20s,” reports Bill McBride and the U.S. Census Bureau

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why Home Sales Rising Fast, Construction Lagging?

The Mortgage Corner

We are once again in a housing conundrum. May Existing-home sales just surged 1.1 percent to 5.62 million units, after falling for several months. And housing starts fell for the third straight month an unexpected 5.5 percent in May to a far lower-than-expected annualized rate of 1.092 million with permits for future construction likewise very weak, down 4.9 percent to a 1.168 million rate.

So where is housing to come from with soaring prices, historically low unemployment, and interest rates? At the current sales rate, it would take 4.2 months to clear inventory, down from 4.7 months one year ago. That means a severe shortage of available housing.

The median number of days homes were on the market in May was 27, the shortest time frame since NAR began tracking data in 2011. Housing inventory has dropped for 24 straight months on a year-on-year basis, reports the National Association of Realtors.

Graph: Econoday
"Home prices keep chugging along at a pace that is not sustainable in the long run," said NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun. "Current demand levels indicate sales should be stronger, but it's clear some would-be buyers have to delay or postpone their home search because low supply is leading to worsening affordability conditions."
There is declining affordability because incomes are not keeping up with rising home prices. The median existing-home price has risen 6 percent April-to-April, says the NAR, while median household income rose just 2.4 percent over that time.

The hottest housing markets with the shortest sales’ times in May were Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Wash., 20 days; San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, Calif., 24 days; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif., 25 days; and Salt Lake City, Utah and Ogden-Clearfield, Utah, both at 26 days, said the NAR.
"With new and existing supply failing to catch up with demand, several markets this summer will continue to see homes going under contract at this remarkably fast pace of under a month," said Yun.
Affordability is becoming an acute problem, in other words. The majority of Americans and Canadians say their nations are not doing enough to address and solve affordable housing needs, according to just published Habitat for Humanity’s Affordable Housing Survey. Escalating costs remain a top barrier preventing families from accessing decent homes with affordable mortgages, the survey says.

One major barrier to homeownership cited among survey respondents: the high costs of rent. Eighty-four percent of survey respondents said the high cost of rent was preventing them from buying, followed by 75 percent who said obtaining a mortgage was proving to be a big barrier.

We know why obtaining a mortgage is still a high barrier, even with historically low interest rates. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the major guarantors of residential mortgages are still in government conservatorship, which really means the U.S. Treasury Department is in charge, though the Federal Housing Finance Authority is supposed to be the supervisor. And because Treasury maintains taxpayer monies are still ‘at risk’, it won’t relax credit standards to allow more borrowers to qualify.

The median FICO credit score is still 750 for approved loans, whereas it was closer to 680 during the last decade. It was a much lower bar since most fully-employed Americans have some kind of late charge in their past. And easing the qualification standard could bring 1 million more homebuyers into the housing market, said the Urban Institute in a recent study.

We believe such strict qualification standards are because the U.S. Treasury Department doesn’t want to part with the cash flow from raking in all of their profits—some $5 billion in Q2—so that no capital will be left to cushion any downturn.

Why? Because Treasury Secretary Mnuchin says they are working on a plan to dissolve Fannie and Freddie and come up with something better. But Treasury has been promising the same thing since 2008, and then Obama’s Treasury in 2012 when it decided to put all their profits into the general fund. That amount paid to Treasure has now climbed to more than $271 billion, vs. the $187.5 billion it cost to take over Fannie ane Freddie, making them cash cows at the expense of prospective homebuyers.

We have still not seen an outline of what a future Fannie and Freddie organization might look like. Nor has Congress been able to agree on whether they should be returned to the private sector as stockholding corporations or in a form that more resembles highly regulated VA and FHA loan programs.

So Habitat For Humanity is right in calling for more government action to increase affordability options for home owners and prospective homebuyers.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Consumers Not Shopping Anymore?

Popular Economics Weekly

What has happened to second quarter economic growth? Economists had been predicting 3 percent plus GDP growth for Q2, but consumers are cutting back instead. Retail sales have fallen with inflation, not a good sign for demand, while consumer sentiment is barely holding onto the optimism after President Trump’s election. Maybe it’s because nothing is getting through Congress that Trump can sign into legislation.

Graph: Econoday

Econoday reports that consumers aren’t remaining very optimistic about present or future conditions; an indication there isn’t a quarter-end bounce. June's preliminary consumer sentiment index is 94.5, down from several months at the 97 level and the least optimistic reading since the November election. The current conditions component, which offers a specific gauge on month-to-month consumer spending, shows a similar decline.

Graph: Econoday

Lack of inflation is a serious indication that demand in general is weak, as I said. Consumer spending makes up 69 percent of GDP and has been this year's big flop, but the FOMC in its June statement said "household spending has picked up in recent months". Really? Consumer spending did rise 0.4 percent in April and 0.3 percent in March but that's no better than average. And the first piece for May spending, retail sales, fell 0.3 percent which is far below average.

The housing market seems to be holding up, as long as interest rates stay at historic lows. The 10-year Treasury bond yield is still hovering at 2.15 percent, and 30-year fixed rate mortgages are still below 4 percent.

Housing had been sliding but May's very solid 1.1 percent rebound in existing home sales to a higher-than-expected 5.620 million annualized rate is hopeful and will be covered in a following column. Today's report is mostly solid throughout and includes gains for single-family homes, up 1.0 percent to a 4.980 million rate, and also condos, up 1.6 percent to a 640,000 rate.

So what’s next?  Tomorrow the Conference Board’s Index of Leading Indicators may give us more signs of future growth, and new-home sales come out on Friday. Both are leading indicators, so stay tuned.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Why Did Fed Raise Rates Again?

Popular Economics Weekly

U.S. growth cycles have averaged about 8 years since WWII, yet the Federal Reserve just announced they were raising their overnight rate for the third time—to 1.25 percent. It also forecast that the unemployment rate could fall further, and economic growth continue for another one to two years, before the inevitable downturn.

What is the basis for their very optimistic prognosis with this growth cycle already 8 years old, and as Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius says 8 years has been the average length of recoveries since WWII? We have a 4.3 percent unemployment rate, and one million fewer workers were hired (5 million in May) than the number of job openings (6 million) in the Labor Department’s latest JOLTS report, so what comes next?

Graph: Hatzius-Goldman Sachs

Fed Chair Yellen said that because of the tight labor market, price pressures are more likely to intensify. The unemployment rate fell in May to a 16-year low of 4.3 percent amid widespread reports that businesses are running out of qualified workers to hire, as I said.

In some cases, firms have sharply boosted pay to attract or retain workers, and the Fed believes that is always a red flag for incipient inflation. “Conditions are in place for inflation to move up,” Yellen said in a press conference after the Fed action.

But inflation is nowhere in sight, nor are wages on average rising more than 2.5 percent, still to low to boost economic activity. The May Consumer Price Index was basically unchanged, which may be why retail sales fell in May, but are still rising some 5 percent. Retail sales aren’t corrected for inflation, so when prices fall, it can affect retail sales.

The annual CPI core rate without volatile food and energy prices is just 1.7 percent. The Fed just can’t seem to boost inflation, no matter how hard it tries to talk it up, so it has announced it will begin to sell its $4.5 billion cache of Treasury securities that were accumulated during the various Quantitative Easing programs that have driven interest rates to historic lows. The ten-year bond yield had sunk to an unheard of 2.11 percent, which is why mortgage rates are still at historic lows.

Republicans seem to want to improve the chances of another Great Recession with their passage of the Choice Act that rolls back all the Dodd-Frank regulations that are designed to prevent another Great Recession.

The New York Times just reported on its passage in the House last Thursday, “…a sweeping deregulation of the financial sector. It passed 233-186, with no Democratic support. One Republican, Walter Jones of North Carolina, voted no. This bill rolls back or weakens most of the protections put in place since the 2008 financial crisis through President Barack Obama’s Dodd-Frank Act.”

In their attempts to please Wall Street (how quickly they changed their tune once in power), they are doing everything in their power to remove any oversight, even putting the consumers main protection, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, back into the hands of those regulators that allowed the Bush era excesses to happen by looking the other way.

In their purview, the Lehman Brothers failure that started the panic and consequent Great Recession was “market cleansing”. Republicans are saying someone should be punished for the excesses, rather than those excesses be prevented with regulation, and it has to stockholders and homeowners (Lehman had funded all those liar loans without adequate collateral), rather than the banks which were bailed out by the Bush administration’s TARP program, and are now bigger than ever. So what happened to Too Big To Fail?

So the Federal Reserve seems to be operating in its own bubble of unreality. It is anticipating higher growth and inflation, whereas there are no signs of either. Or, it could be anticipating another downturn, and wants to be prepared for it by clearing out its portfolio of bonds. But in selling those bonds into the open market it will surely raise long term bond rates, and mortgages.

But in pushing up interest rates, it could in fact create the slowdown it seems to believe is about to happen.

Harlan Green © 2017

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