A little bird and a big crow

While at a stop light, I saw a flying metaphor. A little bird (about three inches in height) chased off a big crow who is closer to a foot in height. The little bird chased the bigger one for well over 100 feet, most likely a mother defending her nest from an egg stealer.

I feel the big crow is analgous to the America First mindset, where we are devaluing our relationships and bullying people into action. Now, some might say we have always thrown our weight around. Yet, our allies are reacting to being treated worse with tariffs and talk of more, our pulling out of multilateral or global agreements, our denigrating respected multinational groups, and telling countries who they can and cannot do business with.

The little bird represents individual countries, businesses and farmers who are doing what they must to perpetuate commerce. When certain avenues are closed or made difficult or costly to use, they have to find new suppliers or customers. They are chasing away the impact of the crow. It is a simple equation – the more difficult an entity becomes to deal with, others will seek other options. Plus, the more difficult we make it for all transactions, then fewer transactions will be made and global trade will suffer.

It is reported the President reached out to former President Jimmy Carter. The reason is Trump’s having concern over an ascendant China. This was happening any way, facilitated by actual long term planning by China. Yet, what Trump fails to realize is his role in greasing the skids. By retrenching from our position of strength, pulling out of a Trans-Pacific trade deal meant to even the playing field with China, he has allowed China to fill the void. By telling countries they will face tariffs if they deal with Cuba and Iran, we are greasing the skids for China to fill the void.

These little birds have to eat. They will look out for their best interests. If they must acquiesesce to the big crow, those actions will be remembered, if they are needed in the future by the crow. It should be noted,  a foreign diplomat said two years ago, the strength of the US is its allied relationships – failing to nurture them comes at a cost.

And, that Chinese bird is getting even bigger and faster than this old crow.

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Fast break

With the NCAA March Madness tipping off, let me use fast break as a way to quickly comment on news items. For non-basketball fans, a fast break is an attempt to score before the defense sets up after a possession change.

– Congressman Devin Nunes is suing two Twitter accounts for making fun of his questionable and unethical actions as a Committee chair. Unfortunately, he has brought more followers to the two sites.

– There are a number of experienced and quality candidates running for the Democrat Presidential nomination. Dems need to avoid the “circular firing squad syndrome” which attack candidates’ imperfections. My suggestion is to listen to what each has to offer.

– The US President is headed to Ohio to save face by asking in person for GM not to close two plants hastened by his tariffs and not helping when asked last year. The union leader and two Ohio Senators asked  the President to help GM retool the plants to build SUVs rather than the sedans last year. Senator Sherrod Brown noted now the President is paying attention as it makes him look bad.

– The Brexit “troubles” continue, but hopefully the EU will agree to the delay. And, Parliament needs to use the time to clearly define what Brexit means versus staying with the EU, something they have not done. This needs to be thoughtful and data-driven. I would hate to see a state leave the US based on politics only to wake up to a terrible hangover.

That is all for now. I hope your bracket for the tournament is successful. Fast breaks are fun to watch and usually the team doing more of them wins.

Friday follies

I hope you have had a great week. Since there are several issues bouncing around inside my head, here is a summary review of the follies for the week.

The Brexit clock keeps ticking while the British parliament keeps placing their collective thumbs in their more southern orifices. A second Brexit vote would likely end with a different conclusion, but it would take more time than they have and would involve another decision by an uninformed public. Let me give Parliament its out, but it will take more courage than they have. They should either accept May’s terms or vote to remain. I would urge the Brits to remain, as I would hate to see Northern Ireland and Scotland leave the UK.

Here in the US, Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was sentenced to 47 months in prison. While a much lighter sentence than many felt, he does have another sentence coming in another court. If Trump is as innocent as he proclaims, with the guilt of Manafort and other Trump associates, Trump is not very good at judging friends and associates. Yet, as I have witnessed time and again as a consultant, an organization takes on the personality of its leader. So, if subordinates are guilty of lying, cheating, and criminal behavior…

China’s slowing economy is impacting orher countries as expected. It was reported yesterday that China is buying less from abroad and using those dollars internally. The US trade deficit with China has grown not lessened the past year. And, the EU banks have softened economic projections as a result. What continues to surprise me is how little the US President understands how trade deficits and tariffs work. This may be the best metaphor of his Presidency as economics were supposed to be his strength.

Finally, populists are popping up in more countries in greater numbers. To me, a name that implies a broader appeal should not give greater license to spread hate and bigotry. In spite of all of our many faults here in the US and some leaders who need to find a conscious, we have benefitted greatly from being a melting pot. Diversity is a strength. I fully understand the need to govern the numbers of people immigrating in, yet painting all newcomers as evil, is not appropriate. What frustrates me is issues over immigration should be fact-based and reflective of the country’s mores and ideals and not sold on fear.

That is all for now. I know I have overlooked a great deal. Have a great weekend.

 

 

Farm bankruptcies on the rise

There have been numerous stories on the rise in farm bankruptcies in 2018. Picking one from December 1, 2018 in the Lincoln Journal Star by Matt Olberdin called “As ag economy continues to struggle, farm bankruptcies rise,” through October, bankruptcies in a seven state region including and around Nebraska are up 45% compared to all of 2017.

Trade issues and low crop prices are two main issues driving down farm incomes. Coupled with rising interest rates and property taxes, and it is a tougher road for farmers. Per PBS Newshour, trade issues means tariffs getting in the way of the farmers’ markets.

These farmers use Chapter 12 bankruptcy that makes it easier to file and reorganize. This approach allows a higher debt limit as well. Per The Wall Street Journal, farm bankruptcy filings are the highest they have been in ten years.

As with the shutdown, real people are impacted by ill-conceived decisions by the President. Loyalty to a President becomes tough when you cannot feed your family and may lose your livelihood. With the tariffs blocking markets for the farmers’ products, the buyers must look elsewhere. These farmers will have to dump product or let it go to waste.

This is a key reason economist say trade wars cannot be won. More people lose than win on targeted tariffs. Yet, this does not seem to bother the man in the White House. That is troubling and sad for our country.

This, that and another thing

Now that the state of the union and Democrat rebuttal are behind us, it would be nice if an independent voter had a turn. On the talk (and some shouting) shows, the independent views do not get heard enough and that is disappointing. For once, it would be illuminating for a member of neither party to share their thoughts.

For example, we might learn:

  • Global warming really is a concern and we should be doing something about it. On Bill Maher’s Friday show,  he noted that Senator Marco Rubio used the argument against the President for declaring a national emergency to build the wall, as what would stop President Kamala Harris from doing so to address climate change? Maher correctly pointed out the latter is becoming a national emergency, while the wall is not even a top ten issue and is overblown as a solution. He also noted, with the very real concerns over Miami, Rubio may become the Senator of Atlantis.
  •  A growing debt which is around $22 trillion with an annual deficit about to hit $1 trillion is a problem, especially with the deficit in a good economy. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget models the debt to be around $34 trillion at the end of the 2027 fiscal year. We must have spending cuts and revenue increases both. The math will not otherwise work. If a politician tells you differently, he or she is lying to you. Don’t let them.
  • The Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are the same thing. So is KyNect in Kentucky. Too many people still don’t realize this in the GOP. But, don’t look to politicians to solve this, as they really do not understand how our complex healthcare system works. We need to stabilize the ACA and stop sabotaging it, as the GOP has done.  My recommendation as a retired benefits consultant, actuary and manager is to fund money promised to insurance companies to pay for adverse selection and committed to deductibles, copays for people beneath 2 1/2 times the poverty limit. I would also expand Medicare as a pilot, measured effort to retirees below age 65, such as 60 or 62. This will reduce the cost rate in the exchanges and Medicare. The remaining states need to get off the dime and expand Medicaid – it is a no brainer per GOP Governor John Kasich.
  •  Addressing America’s crumbling infrastructure would help rebuild assets and provide good jobs. We also need to build on the community college system with some added funding to retrain people to do the jobs of the future, as technology claims even more (this is the major threat, not immigration or trade). Also, building on the bipartisan idea pitched to the President last year by Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman from Ohio, we should co-invest with car manufacturers to retool plants to make the cars in demand and keep the factories open. This idea was ignored and the President was offended when GM announced some plant closings.
  •  There are so many more ideas around rethinking ill-conceived tariffs and trade fights, poverty issues, and gun governance, but let me make a general statement that is important. Start treating our allies and citizens with fairness and dignity. Stop the adversarial BS. A country and business makes more money long term by having a productive long term relationship. We need to stop measuring success on short-term transactions. Listen to your advisors as they actually study our problems. And, stop beating up on a free press. From where I sit, they are not perfect, but the true journalists try to get it right. The main source of fake news in the country sits in the oval office and he only cares about looking good.

Well, that is enough for now. I would love to hear your thoughts.

The sugar high is beginning to wane

The volatile and recent downward trend in the stock market is an indicator.The slowing of global growth, uncertainty over trade, increasing business costs due to tariffs and increasing interest rates are causing a dampening effect.

While the US economy had 3.5% annualized growth in the 3Q2018 following 4.2% in 2Q2018 (it was 2.2% in 1Q2018), imbedded therein are two numbers that should give pause. Business investment was much higher in 2Q2018 at 8.7%, partly due to getting stuff in the hopper before the tariffs started. Yet, business investment fell to 0.8% in 3Q2018. That is an ominous sign. This concern is also apparent in several third quarter earnings announcements by major corporations.

While we should finish 2018 with annual growth north of 3%, economists have predicted that 2019 will have 2.4% annual growth, falling to 2.0% growth in 2020. I should add they feel the impact of the tax cut for corporations is waning (which is sad because it is an imbedded profit margin increase). In other words, the companies view this tax reduction as a “sugar high” that won’t last.

When the tax bill was passed, the White House and Congress touted that it would take GDP growth to 4% and pay for itself. Tax cuts have never paid for themselves and the best they have done is abet the economy enough to save maybe 20% to 30% of the foregone tax revenue. But, the tax bill was estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to increase the already $21 trillion in debt by $1.5 trillion over ten years. And, the tax bill did nothing to address the projection the debt would increase by $10 trillion by 2027. Absent any change, we are looking at debt of $33 trillion by 2027.

It should be noted the annual deficit increased in the government fiscal year just ended to $779 billion from $665 billion, partly due to foregone $166 billion in tax revenue. The deficit is budgeted to be $985 billion in the 2018-19 fiscal year, on projected expenses of $4.407 trillion and revenue of $3.422 trillion. The deficit is expected to grow past $1 trillion in fiscal year 2019-20.

The US President has tended to be a short-term thinker. He is too focused on doing things that look good now. This is one reason he has had six bankruptcies. The problem is the sugar high is going to end. And, we spent $1.5 trillion to add more sugar to a pretty good economy. We are now beyond 9 years in economic growth (the second longest in US history) and 8 years in job growth, with a bull stock market dating back to March, 2009. Plus, we took one of our levers off the table with an unneeded tax cut. I was all for lower corporate tax rates, but we went well beyond deficit neutral.

This is not a new concern of mine, as I have been actively writing about our debt and deficit for several years, well before the current President took his oath. One of my concerns over Obama was his not doing anything with the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction plan. Both he and Congress just put a very good working draft on the shelf. Our building debt is a ticking time bomb that will cause a huge day of reckoning. And, one things politicians don’t talk about it, is it will take tax increases and spending cuts to get there. The math will not otherwise work. That is the conclusion of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Simpson-Bowles effort.

While my guitar gently weeps

George Harrison of The Beatles was overshadowed by the prolific song writing duo of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Yet, he was an excellent song writer as well. One of his best songs he wrote paired him with Eric Clapton – “While my guitar gently weeps.”

I use this song as a metaphor as many of us are exhausted by the US President and his daily lying and bullying, that we just feel like weeping. But, while we weep, important things are not getting done and some things that should not be are occurring. So, while our collective guitars gently weep;

– our planet continues to heat up and wildfires become more prolific, drought areas become more parched, farms are more at risk, and our coastal cities have many more days of sunny day flooding;

– our oceans have islands of plastic both above and below the surface, landfills are teeming with plastic, especially after China stopped taking plastic shipments at the first of the year and our coral reefs are dying due to a multitude of factors;

– our US debt has passed an unhealthy level of $22 trillion and is expected to grow to over $33 trillion by 2027, with this fiscal year deficit getting closer to $1 trillion, likely exceeding it next year (this is on annual budget of $4 trillion);

– our allies no longer trust the US and its bullying President, so we will continue to suffer as other countries and companies therein seek other avenues for their supplies and products looking for market stability – they will deal with us, of course, but are finding other sources, as well; and

– our democracy is under threat by a regal minded and thin-skinned man who lives in the White House who denigrates any person or entity that does not adequately genuflect to his greatness, which is far more perception than reality.

There is, of course, many other reasons to weep. We need to address real problems and not cause other ones. We are exhausted by the focus on one man 24×7. It is truly all about The Donald.

I sure wish to hear George and Eric playing this song and make it all better.