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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Mobile homes aren’t too mobile and create financial risk

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” may have a comedic bent, but is one of the best news shows around. The latest episode included a detailed look at the mobile home industry. The key takeaway is private investor groups prey upon the mobile (and modular) home buyers through a rigged system.

Between a truly captive audience (more on this later), the fact the significant majority of mobile home buyers rent the land underneath, and the predatory lending and sales practices, the buyers are at the mercy of greedy players in a shady industry. Adding to that, the value of the mobile home will only depreciate (like an auto), so the buyer truly must beware.

We have come to this problem as several conditions have culminated together. We have an increasing number of “have-nots” in America, so mobile or modular homes are the most affordable route. The mobile home park owners have consolidated and were purchased by several private investor groups, but even the larger regional players operate under this rigged system. These folks see a market to squeeze. Finally, if the buyers do not own the land, they are truly held hostage.

Why? Over 80% of mobile homes never move due to the cost of moving. The property owners know this, so they annually jack up the rent increasing by exorbitant amounts. The renters are then inundated by collection agencies who get them to pay. When they cannot, they eventually move, leaving their home behind. Then, the property owner takes possession of the abandoned home and rents it out.

Finally, the sellers of these products often own the financing agency offering a turn-key purchase. The loans are more like predatory car loans than they are mortgages. So, the interest is higher than normal at the same time the rent is getting increased.

Oliver’s show highlights a couple of the players in the industry. One property owner has sites in 25 states and offers seminars on how to gouge your captive tenants. In one instance, this property owner referred to his tenants as “like being chained to a Waffle House table.”

There is a small movement afoot which will allow homeowners to buy the mobile home park land en masse, as a right of first refusal. Nonprofit funders are helping make this happen. What is needed is more states to have right of first refusal laws, so that the property is not sold to a predatory landlord.

The other need is education. If you must buy a mobile or modular home, place it on land you own or in a tenant owned development. Also, seek better financing than what is offered by the seller. But, know going in this home will not go up in value. If you buy a modular home for $50,000, it may be only worth $10,000 in a few years.

The “have-nots” have little recourse in this industry. Education is a must, as you will truly become a hostage in your home.

 

 

Renewable energy has become cheaper than coal

An article in The Guardian caught my eye yesterday, entitled “‘Coal is on the way out’: study finds fossil fuel now pricier than solar or wind.” This is not surprising to me as the production costs of solar and wind energy have significantly dropped over time, yet it likely catches some as a big surprise. Per the article:

“Around three-quarters of US coal production is now more expensive than solar and wind energy in providing electricity to American households, according to a new study.

‘Even without major policy shift we will continue to see coal retire pretty rapidly,’ said Mike O’Boyle, the co-author of the report for Energy Innovation, a renewables analysis firm. ‘Our analysis shows that we can move a lot faster to replace coal with wind and solar. The fact that so much coal could be retired right now shows we are off the pace.'”

When all of the costs are factored in, coal is even more expensive than indicated above. For example, coal energy continues to be costly long after it is burned through ash maintenance, leakage and litigation. Yet, now production costs are largely higher for coal than renewables. As the article notes the decline of coal is passed the tipping point.

But, don’t just take the word of this article. In the first two years of the Trump Presidency, more coal plants have been closed than in the entire first four-year term of Obama’s Presidency. This would have happened anyway regardless of who was President, but I mention Trump as even someone who campaigned on keeping coal plants open cannot stave off this trend.

If that is insufficient, note there are currently more than four times the number of solar jobs than coal jobs in the US. And, the wind energy jobs are growing very quickly in the Midwest, with Texas, Iowa, North Dakota, and Minnesota among others leading the way. In an article called “Will 2019 be the year of the turbine – wind energy continues to surge in Texas” in the Caller Times, in 2017 Texas provided about 15% of its energy through wind and has and will continue to increase that percentage in 2018 and beyond.

I feel for the coal miners, but they are owed the truth and help in retraining for new jobs and some transitional financial support. In the same areas where coal is found, the wind blows and sun shines. I implore legislators to help invest in the new economy in these areas. This should have been happening all along as this trend is not new.

 

 

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.

 

 

What would you say?

What would you say to a US President where the stock market grew at annualized rate of 12.8% during his tenure, excluding dividends.

What would you say to a President where net new jobs were added at an annual rate of 1.4 million, with a rate of 2.6 million per annum the last four years.

What would you say to a President where the unemployment declined from 7.6% when he started to 4.8% when he left?

What would you say to a President where the US economy had 91 consecutive months of economic growth, which eventually became the second longest in US history?

What would you say to a President that saved the largest car company in the US?

You would say thank you President Obama. The economic growth has continued under the current US President, but we should not forget he was handed the keys to a pretty good economy. It should also be noted the country was in a housing caused recession when Obama got the keys.

I mention this as the current President is too busy taking credit to give a thumbs up to others. With that said, Presidents get too much credit and blame for the economy. They only provide headwinds and tailwinds.

Yet, if people want to go there, Democrats need to do a better job of marketing. Under 12 1/2 four-year GOP Presidential terms as compared to 12 four-year Democrat Presidential terms since 1921, the number of jobs created under a Democrat President dwarfs that under a GOP President, by 2 to 1. Further, the stock market results since 1901 is markedly better under Democrat Presidents.

So, the Dems can rightfully claim they are the party of jobs and economic growth. I am delighted the growth continued under Trump, but the headwinds do not look favorable. The tariffs and added debt on top of expected increases is bothersome.

Hey Dems, focus on these four issues

One of this Independent voter’s frustrations with politics, which is exacerbated by this President, is pressing issues are not getting discussed. And, some are made worse or are sabotaged by the current White House incumbent as we are told to focus our attention on issues he has overstated in importance or sold on fear.

While there are many issues, it is hard to boil the ocean. So, my advice to all politicians, but especially the Democrats who are pushing these ideas, is to narrow the focus to the following four issues.

– Stabilize the healthcare system and have a good debate on Medicare for All, which is a hard sell. The GOP has failed to realize that a reason they lost the House is not listening to most Americans, instead sabotaging the ACA reneging on commitments to insurers and trying to repeal it. As a retired benefits actuary, consultant and manager. I would suggest an idea to stabilize the ACA is to expand Medicare to retirees at age 60 or 62 and measure the impact for its veracity. But, we need to start by paying insurers what we committed to them.

– Climate change is real, is happening and is man-influenced. AOC is dramatizing a little about the end of the world, but the data point she is citing is if we do not make huge strides by 2030 (12 years), our ability to stop the warming trend impact is minimal. She has been ridiculed for he Green New Deal by the GOP, but I would rather discuss her plan than Senator Marco Rubio ignoring the fact the largest city in Florida is the most at risk city on the planet and is seeing a larger number of sunny days flooding from the rising tides. Who is the crazier person, the one speaking to a problem or the one ignoring it altogether?

– Job retraining is key, but we need to understand the major reasons the jobs are going away are technology/ robotics and CEOs chasing cheap labor. It is not immigration or trade, which are down the list. This especially true in those impoverished areas where industry has left them behind moving or closing a plant.

– Finally, the debt and deficit are critical to discuss. The debt just passed $22 trillion and is headed to $34 trillion by the end of 2027. The annual deficit will pass $1 trillion this year, which is nearly 1/3 of our annual revenue. My former party and, in particular, the Freedom Caucus, are as hypocritical as they come. When the Dems had the White House, the Freedom Caucus screamed bloody murder when the debt was $8 trillion, then $13 trillion. But, I give the same caution to Dems I give to the GOP, we must reduce spending and increase revenue. The math will not work otherwise, so says the CBO, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, The Concord Coalition and Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Committee.

Of course, there are other critical issues. But, if you focus on the important few, it will resonate. This is especially true for younger folks – climate change, debt, future jobs and healthcare are important. In my view, the GOP has lost its way on issues of import. When I left the party twelve years ago, a key reason was its global warming denying stance. My thesis is if you are denying the greatest threat facing our planet, how can I trust you on resolving other issues?

We are behind the eight ball on too many issues. We are leaving our problems to our children and grandchildren. They will ask us, why did you do that? Why, indeed?

Real problems are not getting addressed

In lieu of focusing on problems that have been overstated by fear and misinformation, several real problems remain. Just to name a few – $22 trillion in debt with an expected $1 trillion annual deficit; ill-crafted tariffs which are slowing the global economy; increasing poverty and hunger; climate change interventions; infrastructure needs that are ticking time bombs; retraining workers impacted by technology; domestic terrorism and gun deaths; and stabilizing the ACA. These are the concerns of this independent voter, who has belonged to both parties.

Note: I wish to applaud Germany for announcing last Friday they plan to phase out coal energy by 2038. It should be noted that in 2018, renewable energy surpassed coal energy in Germany. This is what can be done when real problems are addressed with planning. The US is doing many good things with renewable energy, but it could do so much more with supportive federal leadership.