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

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

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

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Friday, June 9, 2017

What, Too Many Job Openings?

Financial FAQs

We are now seeing real evidence of the need for more working adults, if the US economy is to continue to grow. The Labor Department’s Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS report, said April job openings are nearly 1 million ahead of hirings in a widening spread pointing to skill scarcity in the labor market.

“Job openings totaled 6.044 million in April which is well outside Econoday's high estimate for 5.765 million and up from a revised 5.785 million in the prior month. Hirings totaled 5.051 million which is well down from March's 5.304 million with the spread between the two nearly 150,000 higher at 993,000,” said Econoday.
What to do about it, since infrastructure upgrades are needed to boost economic growth? Private industry has not increased capital expenditures on anything for more than one year, choosing to either hoard their increased profits, or invest overseas. Both state and federal governments have to increase their public works spending as well, which is not yet happening because states have to run on balanced budgets.
And many chose to cut taxes like Kansas in the belief that trickle-down economics was the conservatives’ answer to adversity; which has instead prolonged the pain.
The ultra-conservative Tea Party is in control of Congress and many states, in other words, and they have focused on tax cuts, such as those incorporated in the so-called repeal and replace Obamacare House bill that was passed without updating its CBO scoring, because up to 24 million could lose health coverage, while coverage costs would skyrocket.
The Center For Budget Policies Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank, has been asking states to boost their infrastructure spending for years:
“But rather than identifying and making the infrastructure investments that provide the foundation for a strong economy, many states are cutting taxes and offering corporate subsidies in a misguided approach to boosting economic growth.  Tax cuts will spur little to no economic growth and take money away from schools, universities, and other public investments essential to producing the talented workforce that businesses need.”


As I’ve reported in past columns, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in its 2017 report card on the condition of America’s infrastructure gave U.S. infrastructure a D+ or “poor” rating.  The engineers estimated the cost of bringing America’s infrastructure to a state of good repair (a grade of B) by 2020 at $4.59 trillion, of which only about 55 percent has been committed. 

Improving roads and bridges alone would require almost $850 billion more than states, localities, and the federal government have allocated.  Schools need another $270 billion beyond what’s been invested. 

CBS News reports that the Trump plan specifies only $200 billion in new federal spending even as the administration's budget includes "enormous cuts to public investment," according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute. The administration also did not specify just where the remaining $800 billion would come from and how the spending increases would jibe with the huge cuts in infrastructure spending envisioned in its proposed budget. 

The question now is not only how will these projects be financed, but where will we find the workforce?

Harlan Green © 2017

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Republicans Are About to 'Make America Last'

Popular Economics Weekly

President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change is symbolic in more ways than one. In bringing back the white nationalist call to make America great again, he could set us back decades in bringing cleaner air and reducing global warming, not to speak of what would happen to economic growth.

In fact, he wants to Make America Last in the developed nations in caring for not only our environment, but economic growth as well. The agenda of Trump and his Tea Party supporters seem to want is to knock out the main pillars that grow the economy—a better social safety net (fewer workers lose work time), restriction of immigration and the importation of new workers needed for higher growth, as well as cutting huge chunks out of the budget for education and R&D, which are needed for a more educated workforce and the development of new products, the seed corn for future productivity and prosperity.

We currently have the second highest carbon emissions per capita after China, but could become the highest emitter if Republicans succeed in rolling back 30 years of environmental protection, becoming the country with the least amount of environmental protections.

Why leave the Paris Accord, when it is a voluntary accord to reduce carbon emissions? It was to help the coal industry, where Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is heavily invested in coal and has already made $millions with the 50 percent bumpup in coal stocks since Trump took office.

And the Koch Brothers $millions that were spent to elect Tea Party candidates is paying off as Trump initiated an immediate review of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants, the main vehicle for reduction of U.S. emissions that was promised in the Paris Accord.

Surrounded by coal miners, the president described that plan as a “crushing attack” on workers and vowed to nix “job-killing regulations. We’re going to have safety, we’re going to have clean water, we’re going to have clean air, but so many [regulations] are unnecessary, so many are job-killing,” he said.

The withdrawal process takes a total of 4 years, beginning in 2020 after the next congressional elections. It is totally voluntary, with all but 3 countries now on board, except the US, Nicaragua, and Syria.

But it’s symbolic in another way, as well. Trump and his Republican supporters seem to want to be left out of collective agreements of any kind, and this will hurt us economically as well as isolate US from future attempts to lower carbon emissions.

America will also be last in health care if Republicans succeed in repealing Obamacare, because Repubs want to slash spending on Medicaid and social security disability coverage, needed predominately by the poorer states that supported Trump. Why? So they can use the $1.11 billion is savings to pay for the repeal of the Obamacare taxes that benefit the wealthiest.

Need we say more of why the Trump Team wants to Make America Last? So their own wealthy supporters gain even more wealth, and Trump’s supporters—most of whom reside in the poorest states—will continue to suffer from his sleight of hand.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Friday, June 2, 2017

We Have Reached Full Employment!

Financial fAQs

The U.S. added a modest 138,000 new jobs in May and hiring earlier in the spring was weaker than initially reported, adding to evidence that the tightest labor market in years is making it harder for companies to fill open jobs. So is this as good as it gets for employment and jobs?

The unemployment rate dropped to 4.3 percent because 429,000 workers dropped out of the civilian labor force, while the number of employed fell by 233,000 in the Household survey—one of two reports put out today by the Labor Department.

This was the lowest unemployment rate since 2001, while in March the private payroll (or Establishment) jobs total was revised downward to 50,000, and April was revised downward to 174,000 for a total of 66,000 fewer jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).


But a very good total of 2.23 million jobs were created over the past 12 months, yet there are 5.7 million unfilled jobs in April, according to the BLS JOLTS report. In fact 429,000 fewer looked for work, either because they couldn’t find the job they liked, or more women are leaving the workforce to raise families according to one survey. Jobs are going begging, in other words, which is another sign of full employment.

As recently as 1990, the United States had one of the top employment rates in the world for women, says a 2014 NYTimes Upshot article, but it has now fallen behind many European countries. “After climbing for six decades, the percentage of women in the American work force peaked in 1999, at 74 percent for women between 25 and 54. It has fallen since, to 69 percent today.”
The reason? The lack of maternity leave and other social programs that would support child raising. In a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of nonworking adults aged 25 to 54 in the United States, conducted last month in the same Upshot article, “61 percent of women said family responsibilities were a reason they weren’t working, compared with 37 percent of men. Of women who identify as homemakers and have not looked for a job in the last year, nearly three-quarters said they would consider going back if a job offered flexible hours or allowed them to work from home.”
So where do we go from here? What will draw those back into the labor force the approximately 6 million working age adults that no longer want to work at the moment? There is plenty of job growth in Health, Leisure and Hospitality, Professional and business services, and construction, since the housing market is still perking along.

Graph: Econoday

Maybe we should forget about that magical 3 percent GDP growth goal the Trump administration says we can reach with their proposed tax and regulation cuts. The US population isn’t growing as fast as during the baby boom and labor productivity is stuck in the 1 percent range, in part because businesses aren’t investing in new plants and equipment, as we said yesterday.

Harlan Green © 2017

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

This is A Goldilocks Economy!

Financial fAQs

Economists have debated just what ideal economic growth should be, but the Federal Reserve does it for us. The Fed defines ideal growth as when we are at full employment with moderate inflation, inflation that says an economy isn’t overheating (Goldilocks’ porridge is too hot), or the economy is below its growth potential (it’s too cold).

Could we already be at that ideal of an economy that’s not growing too fast, or wants for jobs to be filled? We are at a 4.4 percent unemployment rate, the low of this 8-year growth cycle, and there are 5.7 million unfilled jobs in April, according to the Labor Department’s JOLTS report.

Maybe we should forget about that magical 3 percent GDP growth goal the Trump administration says we can reach with their proposed tax and regulation cuts. Our population isn’t growing as fast as during the baby boom and labor productivity is stuck in the 1 percent range, in part because businesses aren’t investing in new plants and equipment.

Graph: Econoday

But why should corporations invest more with weak Q1 2017 growth at 1.2 percent? Though second Quarter GDP growth may be picking up, which always seems to happen at this time of year. Consumer confidence is holding steady at an unusually strong level, 117.9 in May for the sixth straight reading over 110 and following a revised 119.4 in April and 124.9 in March which were the two best months of the expansion, reports the Conference Board.

So it’s been consumers that have held up this 8-year growth cycle, rather than corporations, which haven’t invested their record profits in expanded production; though profits are up 12 percent this quarter, after another record 22 percent surge in fourth quarter 2016.\


And consumer spending is showing signs of more life as well in April, as the consumer benefited from strong wage gains, kept money in the bank, and was an active shopper at least compared to the first quarter. If both confidence and spending continue to increase at these rates, then a 3 percent growth rate could be achievable for Q2. But that can only be short term without either higher productivity or population growth.

The key positive in the May report is jobs-hard-to-get which is a closely watched current assessment of the labor market. This reading pf the PCE index is down a very sizable 1.2 percentage points to a very low 18.2 percent for a new expansion best, reports Econoday. But inflation is still subpar with the core PCE inflation rate (without gas and food) rising just 1.5 percent.

This is not a good sign for future growth, as we need 3 to 4 percent inflation in an economy growing faster—such as maybe 3 percent, which the Trump administration is predicting for GDP growth this year. It’s really what are called core capital goods—investments in plant and equipment—that will determine future growth, and businesses haven’t yet begun to spend that kind of money with their record profits.

We wonder if businesses are waiting for those promised tax and regulation cuts? The Trump administration can’t accomplish much with executive orders, so Congress has to find a way to compromise. The health care deadlock should tell them that they need Democrats to bring that about, since Republican moderates and extremists can’t agree among themselves.

So maybe we should be happy that we are in the eighth year of this growth cycle, even with 2 percent growth.  We have in fact achieved a goldilocks, steady growth economy .

Harlan Green © 2017

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Has dismantling of American health care system begun?

Financial fAQs

We now know that the revised Republican repeal of Obamacare is really intended to dismantle and perhaps destroy any federally-funded health care program, which would return health care to either cash-starved states or private industry; to the high cost, broken healthcare system it was before Obamacare. And all this is to give the wealthiest among us a tax break they don’t need?

We know because the CBO and JCT estimate just out says that, in 2018, 14 million more people would be uninsured under H.R. 1628 than under current law. The increase in the number of uninsured people relative to the number projected under current law would reach 19 million in 2020 and 23 million in 2026.

We also know this because no public hearings were held on the House plan and none are planned for the still-secret Senate plan, something that Senator Diane Feinstein said has never happened before for major legislation in her 40 years in Congress.

And it is a very major bill. For instance, in 2026, an estimated 51 million people under age 65 would be uninsured, compared with 28 million who would lack insurance that year under current law, according to the CBO. Under the legislation, a few million of those people would use tax credits to purchase policies that would not cover major medical risks, but their costs would rise because no longer protected by the ACA prohibition against raising costs for those with pre-existing conditions, for example.

It therefore dismantles the possibility of affordable health care that covers pre-existing conditions for most Americans. It gives businesses and the wealthiest a juicy $664 billion reduction in taxes, which are the tax revenues needed to pay for the Obamacare state subsidies—mainly to reimburse states that cover their poorest Medicaid citizens. So, it’s to be paid for with a total of $1.111B in spending cuts for Medicaid and social security disability coverage.


It is what the white racist agenda of Tea Party Republicans and President Trump is leading us towards. It is what they mean by making American great again. Let us hope there are enough intelligent Senators to block what is being done in secrecy, in the hopes that most Americans won’t notice there is nothing great about leaving a total of 53 million in 10 years—mostly the elderly and poor—without any healthcare options except the most expensive, and a budget that wants to continue to redistribute our tax dollars to the wealthiest one percent where it will do the least good.

And in a coda, Senate Republicans face increasing pressure to rescue health insurance markets and protect coverage for millions of Americans amid growing fears that the Trump administration is going to let the markets collapse, said the LA Times.

This is because President Trump has repeatedly threatened to withhold federal aid that helps millions of low-income Americans afford their deductibles and co-pays.  The aid, which reimburses insurers for lowering out-of-pocket costs for low-income consumers, was paid by the Obama administration. But it is now the subject of a lawsuit by congressional Republicans, who argue Congress must approve the payments.

In recent days, leading hospitals, physician groups, health insurers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have pleaded with the Senate to step in, effectively going around the White House.

“Congress must take action now,” the groups warned in a letter to Republican and Democratic Senate leaders. “At this point, only congressional action can help consumers.”

Can it be any clearer that health care coverage for many, if not most Americans, is in danger of collapse? 


Harlan Green © 2017

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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What Will Create Higher Growth?

Popular Economics Weekly

Amidst all the talk of Republicans promise to cut regulations and taxes to boost growth, there is one problem. Where are the workers that would boost growth? We are already close to full employment, and in fact Red states like Utah have an unemployment rate of 3.1 percent, per the New York Times  Binyamin Applebaum’s visit to the state.
“After eight years of steady growth, the main economic concern in Utah and a growing number of other states is no longer a lack of jobs, but a lack of workers,” says Applebaum. “The unemployment rate here fell to 3.1 percent in March, among the lowest figures in the nation. Nearly a third of the 388 metropolitan areas tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have an unemployment rate below 4 percent, well below the level that economists consider “full employment,” the normal churn of people quitting to find new jobs. The rate in some cities, like Ames, Iowa, and Boulder, Colo., is even lower, at 2 percent.”
And this is when the Trump administration wants to build a wall and cut immigration quotas in half. There aren’t enough working-age American citizens to pick up growth, in other words. A corporate tax cut may encourage corporations to spend more on business investment. In fact, business equipment, in a positive indication for second-quarter business investment, rose a very sharp 1.2 percent, which should boost productivity from its recent very low 1.2 percent, and is the other component of GDP growth.

There’s a simple reason for the surge in business investment, as I said last week. Businesses need more automation, because they can’t find enough qualified workers to fill the 5.743 million, job openings reported in the Labor Department’s latest JOLTS report, which is far above total hirings of 5.260 million in April, a gap of 483,000.


Then there is the Trump administration budget proposal, which wants to slash healthcare and food assistance programs for the poor as they cut $3.6 trillion in government spending over 10 years, according to the White House's budget proposal for next year.

So instead of increasing revenues to pay for the Wall, tax cuts for the wealthiest, and more military spending, they are reducing revenues by cutting spending on the programs that pay for our social safety net. And studies have shown this will create an even larger hole in the federal budget.

It’s really elementary mathematics. Without the workers to produce them, and consumers with enough money to buy said products (e.g., those middle and lower income workers who lose their Medicare or Obamacare benefits), there can’t be higher growth. And the Fed has said if the federal government increases spending without the concomitant revenues to pay for that spending, they will continue to raise interest rates to avoid higher inflation.

This is the Faustian bargain that the current Congress is attempting to pass. Tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 per year ($250,00 for married couples) takes away much needed revenues that cover benefits for everyone else. For instance, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s tax provisions would provide America’s wealthiest taxpayers with an immediate tax cut totaling $346 billion over 10 years.

That will not fly, as word gets out and more Town Halls are flooded with protesters over the proposed $800 billion in Medicaid spending cuts alone, cuts which would hurt the poorer Republican red states. So, unless lawmakers come to their senses, this could cause Republicans to lose their congressional majorities in 2018.

Harlan Green © 2017

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Increase Industrial Production Sign Higher Growth?

Popular Economics Weekly

Industrial production in April grew at the fastest monthly rate in more than three years on the back of broad-based gains in the manufacturing sector, reports the Federal Reserve. Industrial production grew 1 percent in April led by a 5 percent increase in motor vehicle production. It was because business investment is up sharply, as is consumer spending.

Business equipment, in a positive indication for second-quarter business investment, rose a very sharp 1.2 percent, reports Econoday, which could be a sign of a badly needed business expansion. “Production of consumer goods was even stronger, up 1.5 percent. Two negatives are hi-tech industries with a small decline and also construction supplies which posted a second straight dip that offers a reminder of this morning's disappointing housing starts report.”
There’s an obvious reason for the surge in business investment. Businesses need more automation, as they can’t find enough qualified workers to fill the 5.743 million, job openings reported in the Labor Department’s latest JOLTS report, much more plentiful than total hirings of 5.260 million in April, a gap of 483,000.

That also means an ultimate surge in badly needed Labor Productivity that has been lagging of late. From the first quarter of 2016 to the first quarter of 2017, productivity increased just 1.1 percent, reflecting increases in output and hours worked of 2.4 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively, said the BLS.

And without higher labor productivity, the US economy can’t grow more than the current 2 percent GDP growth rate. What was the rate during periods of higher growth? Until 2000, economic growth averaged more than 3 percent, while productivity averaged 2.5 percent until 2007.

 But then something happened. Average productivity plunged to 1.2 percent from 2010 onward. Why? Businesses stopped investing, for starters. This was partly due to the plunge in oil prices (from $100 to $30 per barrel last year), and consequent plunge in industrial production.

But our population also began declining, the other component to GDP growth (besides labor productivity). Until 2000, the U.S. population grew more than 1 percent, but since 2000 average population growth halved to about 0.5 percent.

Graph: CBO

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that we would need 2.8 million new workers per year to reach the 3 percent growth rate that Trump and Repubs want. Where will they come from? New immigrants, as the U.S. currently generates just 600,000 new job entrants per year, on average.

The baby boom is gone, in other words, and even the record-breaking millennial generation won’t fill the bill.  So we need more immigrants, not less, as well as higher labor productivity, if Repubs are to boost economic growth.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Builder Optimism + Affordability Higher

The Mortgage Corner

Good news is that rising wages and moderating home prices offset a rise in mortgage interest rates to give housing affordability a slight boost in the first quarter of 2017, said the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI) last week.

And In a further sign that the housing market continues to strengthen, builder confidence in the market for newly-built single-family homes rose two points in May to a level of 70 on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI). This is the second highest HMI reading since the downturn.


NAHB.org
"The HMI confidence measure of future sales conditions reached its highest level since June 2005, a sign of growing consumer confidence in the new home market," said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. "Especially as existing home inventory remains tight, we can expect increased demand for new construction moving forward."

But housing construction is not yet catching up to demand, as I said in a recent column. The first quarter ended with a thud for housing starts which fell a very steep 6.8 percent to a 1.215 million annualized rate which is the weakest since November, said the NAHB. Posting similar declines were both single-family homes, at an 821,000 pace, and multi-family, at 394,000. Housing construction does show nearly double-digit year-on-year growth, though quarter-to-quarter movement is barely perceptible. 


It looks like employment is now ahead of housing, hence demand exceeds the supply of new housing, a good sign.
"Ongoing job growth continues to fuel demand for housing, while wage growth is helping to offset the effects of rising mortgage rates and keep home prices affordable," said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. "NAHB anticipates that housing will continue on a gradual, upward path throughout the year."
In all, 60.3 percent of new and existing homes sold between the beginning of January and end of March were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $68,000. This is up from the 59.9 percent of homes sold that were affordable to median-income earners in the fourth quarter.

The national median home price fell to $245,000 in the first quarter from $250,000 in the final quarter of 2016. Meanwhile, average mortgage rates rose nearly half a point from 3.84 percent in the fourth quarter to 4.33 percent in the first quarter.

But mortgage rates have fallen since then, which will increase affordability for first-time home buyers, in particular. The 30-year fixed conforming rate today is 3.625 percent with a 1 point origination fee in California, which means fixed mortgage rates have returned to rates last available in the 1950s.

So, once again, interest rates are not rising with expectations of higher inflation. Inflation is not even showing up in housing prices. So let us hope this continues, even if the Fed does raise short term rates a third time in June, as it has hinted it would do.

Harlan Green © 2017


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Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Declining Treasury Yield Curve—Recession Looming?

Financial FAQs

We are basically at full employment with a 4.4 percent unemployment rate, which should tell us we are nearing the end of this growth cycle.
Econoday reports, “The total number of employed Americans, and this includes both the self-employed and those on payrolls, is 153.2 million and a new record. This total has been rising steadily since falling to a cycle low in December 2009 of 138.0 million. Doing the math here means that 15.2 million jobs have been added during this expansion. The upward slope has been steady and is showing no sign of letting up. The peak in the prior cycle was 146.7 million, hit in November 2007.”



So how do we know we have reached a peak in growth? The National Bureau of Economic Research that tracks growth cycles tells us by using 4 economic indicators: including unemployment, real personal income and real GDP growth (less inflation), and industrial production. Those indicators have already surpassed their last peaks that were reached in 2007, so the question is how much higher can they go before they reach this cycle’s peak.

It is possible the economy may continue to grow with Congress and the White House politically deadlocked and unable to pass any stimulus spending, but that would mean the private sector starts spending more of their $4 trillion plus in unspent profits they have been hoarding, rather than wait for the tax cuts that Republicans have been promising. But don’t bet on that bridge to nowhere, as the saying goes.

On the NBER’s faq page, they define the beginning and end of recessions. “We identify a month when the economy reached a peak of activity and a later month when the economy reached a trough.
The time in between is a recession, a period when economic activity is contracting. The following period is an expansion. As of September 2010, when we decided that a trough had occurred in June 2009, the economy was still weak, with lingering high unemployment, but had expanded considerably from its trough 15 months earlier.”

So June 2009 was identified as the end of the Great Recession (the trough in activity), which began in December 2007 (its prior peak). Calculated Risk’s Bill McBride has followed those NBER recession indicators, and as of April, 2015, they have all exceeded their past highs.

I believe the most important indicator has been personal income, which exceeded its past peak in 2012, but has fluctuated a bit since then.


Employment is also important, but has tended to lag the other indicators in predicting a recession. It didn’t peak until several months into the Great Recession, but is now 2 percent above its last peak.

All four recession indicators are now above their pre-recession peaks. The problem now is we and the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee aren’t sure that economic activity tops out until months later when the NBER sees a sustained drop in activity, as their 2010 example showed. This past quarter’s meager 0.7 percent GDP growth is still growth, by the way.

So another indicator that might indicate a looming slowdown is the decline in slope of the so-called Treasury Yield Curve, which shows the difference between short term rates regulated by the Federal Reserve, and long term fixed Treasury yields determined by the bond markets—such as the 10 and 30-year Treasuries.

The difference between those 2 yields is basically the profit margin made by lenders that have to borrow at short term rates and lend at the longer term interest rates. It is no longer as steep as it has been, which means lenders become more restrictive, which shrinks available credit, always a sign of slower growth.

So, if the Fed continues to raise short term rates, and because of market uncertainty or low inflation long term rates don't rise from their lows, then it could mean a looming recession.  But that is a big 'if'.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Monday, May 8, 2017

TrumpCare--The Un-American Health Care Act

Popular Economics Weekly

It’s incredible. Why have House Republicans just voted for a health care bill that only does one thing in the words of MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber, co-designer of the Massachusetts single-pay healthcare program and Obamacare?

On Lawrence O’Donnell’s Last Word he states that it gives the wealthiest what could be the single largest tax cut in history—almost $1 billion for those earning $200,000 plus per year—but cuts benefits to everyone else.

And this is when 23 percent of Americans have pre-existing medical conditions. The answer in the words of Paul Krugman has to be pure greed. Tax cuts are more important than protecting Americans from loss of coverage due to pre-existing conditions and soaring premium for everyone but the youngest and healthiest among US.

It was also an attempt to make the President look good, regardless of his broken promises that Obamacare benefits wouldn’t be reduced. Trump doesn’t care who loses, in other words, so long as he doesn’t look like a ‘loser’.

But what does it do for the white blue collar male Trump supporters who have suffered most from their loss of jobs, and whose mortality rate due to drugs and suicides is double that of other developed countries that lived through the same Great Recession?

Graph: CBO

The CBO graph pictures the suffering of 45-54 year-old white working class males in our post-industrial age. The rising red line is USA males, the falling lines are white males in other developed countries with Sweden having the lowest mortality rate “for all causes”. Even US Hispanics (blue line) had a falling mortality rate.

The House wouldn’t wait for the Congressional Budget Office latest ‘scoring’ of the costs of the bill, which confirms that House Republicans weren’t even concerned about its effects on federal and state budgets, much less on how many would lose their coverage, if taken off Obamacare.

The Congressional Budget Office projections on earlier House attempts to repeal projected that the revised GOP bill would realize $150 billion in reduced federal spending through 2026, which is less than half of the $337 billion in deficit reductions that the CBO had estimated for the bill's first version, said a CNBC summary of the report.
“But the newer version, like the first, is expected to lead to 14 million fewer people having health insurance in 2018, and 24 million fewer insured Americans by 2026 than would be covered if Obamacare remained as law in its current form. And an estimated total of 52 million people nationally would lack health coverage by 2026 if the revised bill becomes law, according to the CBO's projection. However, if Obamacare remained in effect, 28 million Americans would not have insurance by that year, according to the CBO.”

It cuts almost all Obamacare benefits, including to childcare, Medicare and Medicaid; even employers’ health care plans by turning over implementation to individual states. This is basically returning healthcare to the broken system it was before Obamacare that made US the unhealthiest developed country.

There were 20 mostly moderate Republicans that didn’t vote for the bill. The defectors were primarily centrists who had trepidations about voting for the bill after the addition of an amendment to let states apply for waivers from certain Obamacare provisions that prevent insurers from charging sick people higher premiums and mandate which services insurance plans must cover, said the Washington Post.

What are the effects of 24 million losing their health insurance? The New York Times Charles Blow cites a 2009 study conducted by the Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance: “nearly 45,000 annual deaths are associated with lack of health insurance,” and “uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts.”

Republican House members seem to have no idea that President Trump is leading their re-election chances over a cliff—just so he won’t look like the loser he really is.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

April Employment Up, Q1 Consumer Spending Weak

Financial FAQs

Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 211,000 in April, and the unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent from 4.5 percent in March, reported the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics today. Job gains occurred in leisure and hospitality, health care and social assistance, financial activities, Business and Professional Services, and government.

Both the unemployment rate, at 4.4 percent, and the number of unemployed persons, at 7.1 million, changed little in April, says the BLS. But over the year the unemployment rate has declined by 0.6 percentage point, and the number of unemployed has fallen by 854,000.

 

That is progress, and probably why the Federal Reserve will raise rates again in June. It said in its FOMC press release of this week’s meeting that it left a key borrowing rate unchanged and dismissed a weak first quarter GDP growth as temporary, meaning it is still on track to raise interest rates at a gradual pace.
“The [Federal Open Market Committee] views the slowing in growth during the first quarter as likely to be transitory,” the statement said. Job gains were described as “solid,” as were the fundamentals underpinning the continued growth in consumer spending. Business fixed investment “firmed,” the central bank noted.
The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) declined by 281,000 to 5.3 million in April. These individuals, who would have preferred full-time employment, were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find full-time jobs. Over the past 12 months, the number of persons employed part time for economic reasons has decreased by 698,000, a good sign.

That may be due to very strong growth in both the service and manufacturing sectors. The 16 non-manufacturing (service) industries reporting growth in April include Construction, Retail, Healthcare, Real Estate, Finance & Insurance. The only industry reporting contraction in April is Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing & Hunting.

And in manufacturing 16 of the 18 industries reported growth in April. All parts of the survey registered above 50 percent, meaning most sectors were expanding, signaling continued growth. “The New Orders Index registered 57.5 percent, a decrease of 7 percentage points from the March reading of 64.5 percent,” said the ISM Manufacturing report “The Production Index registered 58.6 percent, 1 percentage point higher than the March reading of 57.6 percent. The Employment Index registered 52 percent, a decrease of 6.9 percentage points from the March reading of 58.9 percent.”
So, business activity is still growing in most of the U.S. economy. Then why doesn’t’ this translate to higher economic growth? Q1 GDP expanded at just 0.7 percent, while Q4 2016 GDP growth wasn’t much better at 2.0 percent. The culprit was lower consumer spending in Q1.

There was a drop in exports, and increase in imports. In other words, consumers bought more from overseas that it produced in the U.S. So, consumers are spending, but it doesn’t help domestic production, and hence GDP growth, so that consumer spending rose just 0.3 percent for the most embarrassing annualized pace since 2009, said Econoday.


Unemployment is unusually low and consumer confidence unusually high making the results difficult to explain. The effect of seasonal adjustments are exaggerated during the winter and may very well be holding back the results. Yet even for a first quarter, this one was slow.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Housing Recovery Still Uneven

Financial FAQs

Fresh data from real-estate website Trulia show that just 34.2 percent of homes have returned to the peak levels registered before the onset of the recession in 2008, reports Marketwatch’s Andrea Requier. What’s more, Trulia estimates it could take until 2025 for a true national recovery in home prices.

That’s almost twice the length of the S&L housing crash that lasted from 1986 to approximately 2006. Why the difference? Because the Great Recession was much worse, with many more homes lost, and incomes for most Americans still below that time. The Great Recession exacerbated already record income inequality, in other words.
Sam Khater, deputy chief economist for CoreLogic, agrees, says Requier. “What’s unusual about this recovery is that it’s been lopsided. Wealth — home equity and financial equity — have recovered. Incomes have not. One-half of all households have participated in the massive run-up of stocks, two-thirds have participated in the gains from home ownership. The flip side is the inverse, the people who have not participated. How has their recovery been?”
 Not very good, as mortgage debt has barely dropped from recession highs. As Regions chief economist Richard Moody pointed out in a research note, 30 percent of all owner-occupied households have no mortgage debt at all, meaning that the 50 million households that do have mortgages have less than the 57 percent equity that’s presented in the flow of funds data from the Federal Reserve in December.

 “We are absolutely not out of the woods as far as home-value recovery is concerned,” Trulia’s chief economist, Ralph McLaughlin told MarketWatch. “The housing-market crash was pretty monumental. The scarring of the housing market has not gone away and will be visible for the indefinite future.”

That means some two-thirds of homes are still below housing bubble prices that prevailed in 2006-07. Three cities in California, Las Vegas and Tucson, Arizona have suffered the most, but two cities in Florida—Daytona Beach and Ft. Lauderdale—aren’t far behind.

More enlightened economic policies would help—such as universal health care, a major cause of poverty; more spending in education and the research and development of new products, which would increase labor productivity, one of the 2 major ingredients for higher growth. The other ingredient is a growing workforce, and if Republicans succeed in reducing immigration, which supplies most of new workers, it will also dampen growth.

The homeownership rate slid 0.6 percentage point to 62.9 percent in the second quarter, the Census Department said Thursday. Will the homeownership rate continue to decline? Good question. There are many reasons for lower levels of homeownership, as we know, including delayed marriages, higher student loan debt, flat incomes since the recession, for starters.

So unless more is done to boost incomes (e.g, higher minimum wages), to introduce tuition-free public colleges (only in New York at the moment), more progressive taxation, and other stimulus measures, homeownership will not be able to significantly contribute to future economic growth.

And a whole generation may be left out of the housing market.

Harlan Green © 2017




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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Consumer Spending Down, Recession Looms?

Popular Economics Weekly

Wow! First-quarter GDP was paltry enough at 0.7 percent but consumer spending was even more paltry, at only 0.3 percent for the most embarrassing annualized pace since 2009, said Econoday. Unemployment is unusually low and consumer confidence unusually high making the results difficult to explain.


Could it be that nothing is happening in Congress and the White House on all those promised initiatives? The 5-month budget agreement left all spending priorities in place for the rest of this fiscal year (i..e., until September). That meant no money for a border wall, no defunding of Obamacare (as promised), or Planned Parenthood, or cuts in the EPA budget that protects our environment.

All the post-election euphoria for change hasn’t translated into actions, in other words. So, consumers may be keeping their powder dry, as their savings rate rose 0.2 percent to 5.6 percent.

Another worrisome indicator is almost no inflation, as core Personal Consumption Expenditure prices had the weakest showing in 16-1/2 years, according to Econoday. Core PCE prices fell 0.1 percent to take down the year-on-year rate by a sizable 2 tenths to 1.6 percent.

And if there’s no inflation, or falling inflation, it means there’s falling demand, which means falling profits. And that’s when a business cycle ends. So unless Congress and the Trump White House decide to stop playing with people’s minds on repealing Obamacare, or trying to pass a budget that cuts taxes for the wealthiest while cutting benefits to seniors and the sickest, we could see a looming recession.

The ineptitude of government is at the moment startling. The budget agreement leaves everything in place, which includes, thanks to the Washington Post’s Daily 202:

1. There are explicit restrictions to block the border wall, but final agreement goes further, putting strict limitations on how Trump can use new money for border security (e.g. to invest in new technology and repair existing fencing). Administration officials have insisted they already have the statutory authority to start building the wall under a 2006 law. This prevents such an end run.

2. Non-defense domestic spending will go up, despite the Trump team’s insistence he wouldn’t let that happen. The president called for $18 billion in cuts. Instead, he’s going to sign a budget with lots of sweeteners that grow the size of government. Mitch McConnell made sure $4.6 billion got put aside to permanently extend health benefits to 22,000 retired Appalachian coal miners and their families.

Nancy Pelosi made sure $295 million was included to shore up Medicaid in Puerto Rico. Chuck Schumer got $61 million to reimburse local law enforcement agencies for the cost of protecting Trump when he travels to his residences in Florida and New York. There is also another $2 billion in disaster relief money for states, which bought a couple votes. (Kelsey Snell, our lead budget reporter, has more examples.)

3. The administration asked to slash spending at the National Institutes of Health by $1.2 billion for the rest of this fiscal year. Instead, the NIH will get a $2 billion boost – on top of the huge increase it got last year. Republican appropriators who care about biomedical research, including Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), delivered.Trump also failed in his efforts to cut money for other kinds of scientific inquiry. For example, he proposed defunding the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. Instead, it is getting a $15 million increase.

4. Trump fought to cut the Environmental Protection Agency by a third. The final deal trims its budget by just 1 percent, with no staff cuts. As part of a compromise, the EPA gets $80 million less than last year, but the budget is $8 billion.

5. He didn’t defund Planned Parenthood. Despite the best efforts of social conservatives, the group will continue to receive funding at current levels.

6. The president got less than half as much for the military as he said was necessary. Trump repeatedly prodded Congress to increase military spending by $30 billion. He’s getting $12.5 billion, with an additional $2.5 billion if/when he delivers a detailed plan on how to defeat the Islamic State.

7. Democrats say they forced Republicans to withdraw more than 160 riders. These unrelated policy measures, which each could have been a poison pill, would have done things like get rid of the fiduciary rule and water down environmental regulations. On the other side of the ledger, this budget blocks the Justice Department from restricting the dispensing of medical marijuana in states where it has been legalized.

8. To keep negotiations moving, the White House already agreed last week to continue paying Obamacare subsidies. This money, which goes to insurance companies, reduces out-of-pocket expenses for low income people who get coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The Trump administration justifies giving up on this because of the potential to resolve the bigger issue by repealing Obamacare.

Need we say more?  If ideology trumps common sense; such as the promised $1 trillion infrastructure bill, we can see the confidence balloon also lose its air. Then watch out below, as I've said.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Slow Q1 GDP Growth Means What?

Financial FAQs

Real gross domestic product (GDP) increased at an annual rate of 0.7 percent in the first quarter of 2017, according to the "advance" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the fourth quarter of 2016, real GDP increased 2.1 percent.


The first estimate of first quarter economic growth usually means little. Consumer weren’t spending, and they never seem to spend much in Q1, as in past years, as the BEA graph show. But with consumer confidence still sky high because of optimism that President Trump and Congress might still agree on some stimulus, spending may pick up.
There were signs of higher growth in Q1 outside of the consumers, particularly in real estate. “The deceleration in real GDP in the first quarter reflected a deceleration in PCE and downturns in private inventory investment and in state and local government spending that were partly offset by an upturn in exports and accelerations in both nonresidential and residential fixed investment,” said the BEA.
So consumer sentiments can be deceptive, even misleading, given the lack of higher consumer spending in Q1. The Conference Board reported the consumer confidence index eased back to 120.3 in April vs a revised 124.9 in March with these two months the best of the 8-year expansion. “Readings remain strongly favorable including jobs-hard-to-get which is steady at a very low 19.1 percent and points to strength for the April employment report,” said Econoday. 
Weak vehicle sales are a major negative in the quarter's consumer breakdown, pulling durable sales down at a 2.5 percent rate and offsetting a 1.5 percent rise in non-durables and a slow 0.4 percent showing for services. Weakness in consumer spending is worrisome but not other data in the GDP report. Residential investment posted a second straight very strong quarter, up 13.7 percent. And in a rare show of strength, nonresidential investment, which has been subdued, jumped at a 9.4 percent rate with both structures and equipment showing unusual strength. A surge in mining investment is a standout of the report, said the BEA.


There are more signs that growth could pick up in coming quarters. The Institute for Supply Management’s Chicago Business Barometer, a proxy for Midwest growth, ticked up 0.6 Points in April to 58.3 in April from 57.7 in March, the highest level since January 2015. New orders are the highest since May 2014, and in a sign of ongoing strength deliveries continue to slow. 

Optimism among firms about business conditions rose for the third month in a row. Three of the five Barometer components led April’s increase, with Production and Order Backlogs receding, said the report. Third Consecutive Rise in Business Confidence, New Orders Highest Since May 2014, Inflationary Pressures Ease Slightly, Prices Paid fall, as the MNI Chicago Business Barometer increased to 58.3 in April from 57.7 in March, the highest level since January 2015.
“The April Chicago report showcased another impressive month, with firms reporting solid growth. Rising demand and firm production led to a pick-up in hiring by firms. Although the employment indicator has been bumpy, in and out of contraction, if the current month’s rise is sustained, it could provide a boost to the labor market,” said Shaily Mittal, senior economist at MNI Indicators, compiler of the report.
But optimism doesn’t always translate to spending, as we know from past reports. Consumers’ incomes keep rising and were very solid in the fourth quarter at a 3.5 percent pace, but rose at only 0.3 percent in first-quarter 2017 on weak vehicle sales and lower heating bills. This is by far the worst showing since no change in fourth-quarter 2009, and would be the lowest showing for consumer spending in 5 years. What will it take for consumers to spend again?

Harlan Green © 2017


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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Pending Home Sales Decline, Because No Inventory!

Popular Economics Weekly

The Pending Home Sales Index, www.nar.realtor/topics/pending-home-sales, a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, declined 0.8 percent to 111.4 in March from 112.3 in February. Despite last month's decrease, the index is 0.8 percent above a year ago.

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says sparse inventory levels caused a pullback in pending sales in March, with existing-home inventories in the 5 month range, but activity was still strong enough to be the third best in the past year. "Home shoppers are coming out in droves this spring and competing with each other for the meager amount of listings in the affordable price range," he said. "In most areas, the lower the price of a home for sale, the more competition there is for it. That's the reason why first-time buyers have yet to make up a larger share of the market this year, despite there being more sales overall."

That’s why the Case-Shiller Home Price index has increased 5.8 percent YoY. Housing prices are entering bubble territory, as the accompanying Calculated Risk Price-to-Rent comparison shows. It measures the ratio between housing prices and rents, and reached its highest level in 2006—meaning the housing price ratio had soared far above the historical 1-to-1 ratio of price-to-rents that prevailed in the 1980s and 90s, when housing prices rose more in line with rents. So, home buyers were paying prices they couldn’t really afford during the housing bubble, since rental rates are a better measure of incomes.



On a price-to-rent basis, the Case-Shiller National index is back to November 2003 levels, the Composite 20 index is back to August 2003 levels, and the CoreLogic index is back to July 2003, says Econoday, so we are not yet back to pre-recession price levels.

Pointing to revealing data from the March Realtors® Confidence Index, Yun worries that the painfully low supply levels this spring could heighten price growth — at 6.8 percent last month — even more in the months ahead. Homes in March came off the market at a near-record pace, and indicating an increase in the likelihood of listings receiving multiple offers, 42 percent of homes sold at or above list price (the second highest amount since NAR began tracking in December 2012).


The main reason for such “painfully lw supply” is soaring existing-home sales. “Existing sales rose a very sharp 4.4 percent to a higher-than-expected annualized rate of 5.710 million,” said Econoday. “This is the best rate since February 2007. Both components show strength with single-family sales up 4.3 percent to a 5.080 million rate and condo sales up 5.0 percent to a 630,000 rate. And year-on-year sales are moving higher, up 5.9 percent divided between 6.1 percent for single-family homes and 5.0 percent for condos.”

And housing construction is not yet catching up to demand. The first quarter ended with a thud for housing starts which fell a very steep 6.8 percent to a 1.215 million annualized rate which is the weakest since November, said the NAHB. Posting similar declines were both single-family homes, at an 821,000 pace, and multi-family, at 394,000. But housing construction does show nearly double-digit year-on-year growth, though quarter-to-quarter movement is barely perceptible.

The hope is housing construction will continue to pick up, as we expect housing demand to remain strong, and interest rates to remain low for the foreseeable future.

Harlan Green © 2017

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

No “Art of the Deal” in 100 Days


It’s 100 days into the Trump Presidency and looking more and more like President Trump is no more effective at running the country than his business interests. His book, The Art of the Deal was meant to tout his negotiating skills, but the results were never very successful.

And neither are his legislative efforts; with no repeal of Obamacare, tax reform, an immigration ban, new trade policy, and sanctuary city victories in the offing anytime soon because of poorly thought out strategies. Instead, he threatens judges, sanctuary cities, Congress, and even other countries when they don’t support his various executive orders.

His multiple bankruptcies of the Trump Casinos when other Atlantic City Casinos were successful, Trump University charged as a criminal enterprise (under RICO), and the fact that he had to rely on Russian Oligarchs to finance his real estate empire when U.S. banks would no longer lend to him, are just the tip of the iceberg of business incompetence.

These are the acts of a bully, rather than leader, which is why he seems to have so much in common with V Putin, Marine Le Pen, and other demagogues. Acting tough can be a plus when dealing with North Korea, or even Russia, but not when dealing with Americans who don’t like him or his very anti-American policies.

It’s sad, really, that he doesn’t have the skills to really shake up the Washington establishment, which needs it badly, as the election showed. But being a successful negotiator requires more than bully tactics, even in business. He so badly stiffed his own employees, as well as states such as New York (back taxes), charities, and well as U.S. banks that they want nothing more to do with him, except in court.

This is why he is involved in more than 4,000 lawsuits at last count, according to USA Today, and more are yet to come with mounting Federal court rulings against his executive orders.

Fortune Magazine reported last June on candidate Trump’s negotiating tactics: “The legal actions provide clues to the leadership style the billionaire businessman would bring to bear as commander in chief. He sometimes responds to even small disputes with overwhelming legal force. He doesn’t hesitate to deploy his wealth and legal firepower against adversaries with limited resources, such as homeowners. He sometimes refuses to pay real estate brokers, lawyers and other vendors.”

And, “As he campaigns, Trump often touts his skills as a negotiator,” says Fortune. “The analysis shows that lawsuits are one of his primary negotiating tools. He turns to litigation to distance himself from failing projects that relied on the Trump brand to secure investments. As USA TODAY previously reported, he also uses the legal system to haggle over his property tax bills. His companies have been involved in more than 100 tax disputes, and the New York State Department of Finance has obtained liens on Trump properties for unpaid tax bills at least three dozen times.”

There may be even be more troubles ahead for President Trump, now that he is also stiffing a Republican-run House Oversight Committee investigation into General Flynn’s activities as an unreported lobbyist, which wasn’t apparently disclosed in his application for renewal of his Top Secret security clearance.

So, could this lead to his impeachment?

Harlan Green © 2017

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Why Is Mortgage Lending Still Restricted?

The Mortgage Corner

We can thank the Great Recession for most of it. Banks have become much more conservative, and builders are building approximately 50 percent fewer residences vs. the 2 million housing units at the height of the housing bubble.

And the very Great Recession was in some ways worse than the Great Depression, when FDR’s New Deal created jobs for those that couldn’t find work. Whereas conservative economic ideologies have triumphed since President Reagan under austerity policies (such as the 2011 government shutdown over raising the budget cap), which have restricted government spending at a time when the private sector has refused to reinvest in productive growth, even though corporate profits have soared to record levels as a percentage of GDP.

The Urban Institute has dug even deeper into the causes of tight credit. Since private sector lending dried up after the Great Recession, government GSEs, such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, FHA and VA; all with some form of government guarantee, have had to step in to revive the housing market. So they account for more than 80 percent of all residential lending.

And because the US Treasury completely appropriated all the assets and profits of Fannie and Freddie in 2012, which account for 60 percent of all residential loans, they have imposed additional fees on any but the best credit risks to protect taxpayers. This in effect raised the cost of qualifying, which in turn reduces the pool of eligible home buyers and borrowers.
How much, asks the Urban Institute? “According to our estimates, an additional 1.25 million loans would have been made in 2013 if the cautious standards of 2001, rather than the severe standards of 2013, had been in place. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of “missing” loans grew from 0.50 million to 1.25 million annually, for a total of more than 4 million missing loans over the five years.”
Behind all this data lies another, more sobering fact—the record income inequality that occurred since the 1970s and was the major cause of the Great Recession. Incomes have flowed so fast to the upper income tiers since its end in 2009 that 96 percent of all income gained since then has gone to the top 1 percent.

This is in part because of the stock market rebound and loss of all those homes from the housing bust. It resulted in some $4 trillion in lost housing assets for middle-class homeowners in the main, the main source of their wealth.

It’s a phenomenon named Monopsony by economists, or the increasing monopoly power of Big Business in particular to control labor costs due to marked lack of competition. This is explained in lucid detail by Kate Bahn, an economist at the Center For American Progress, a progressive think tank.
“While overall the labor market looks fairly solid, it’s still lacking on measures of competitiveness that are giving employers outsized ability to set low wages,” says Prof Hahn. “They can reap higher profits by exploiting their workers who don’t feel confident enough to leave their current job in search of a better one. (It’s evidenced) by the historically low rates of people moving across geographies.”


The Labor Department measures it as the quits rate in their JOLTS report (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) that tabulates the number of Hires and Separations each month. There was a 1 tenth downtick in the quits rate to 2.1 percent, “a subdued reading that points to lack of movement between jobs and lack of wage pull for employees,” said Econoday. The separations rate also fell, down 1 tenth to 3.5 percent.

The gap between openings and hiring first opened up about 2 years ago signaling that employers are having a hard time finding people with the right skills, said Econoday. The current spread between openings and hirings is 429,000, the widest since September. But remember, the US economy is so large that more than 5 million jobs are created and lost per month.

One would think the high number of available jobs means higher wages for all, as employers bid up salaries to attract them, but not so; just for the highly skilled. Those blue collar and service jobs that require less skill don’t have the competitive advantage of higher education and training that would boost their salaries.

And that is why the credit and housing markets have skewed towards the highest income earners, and will remain so, unless more New Deal-type programs (such as promised infrastructure spending, universal health care, stronger labor laws) help to bring back the middle class.

Harlan Green © 2017

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