The primary focus on the economy is not just make believe

The coronavirus is a tough one. It may be less deadly than other illnesses, but it is still killing many and impacting others. And, while we have heard the young need to worry the least, the numbers indicate that people the ages of 54 and below are the largest group being hospitalized. One ER nurse said it surprised her how many younger folks were being stricken.

Yet, deal with it we must or it will overwhelm our healthcare providers. We simply do not have an abundance of free beds. We are still awaiting a workable vaccine. So, we must do what is asked of us to control its spread. We must “flatten the curve” of the virus.

But, this social distancing has caused our global and US economy to understandably grind to a halt. In essence, our economy is simple – people who need things buy them from people who have them to distribute and so on down the supply line. When people stop buying things, the supply chain grinds to a halt.

Focusing on the economy, people impacted by the virus and the companies that have had to furlough them, is not unwise. But, it cannot be the primary focus. It is an important one, but keeping people safe is the key. Getting them money to buy groceries, medicines and non-durable products is important. Making sure they have a job to return to is important.

But, we cannot lose sight of what this virus can and could do. One of my concerns that precedes the current tenure of the incumbent president, is the significant majority of his decisions can be traceable back to his fragile and large ego. He cannot tolerate looking poorly or accepting blame for anything. So, that has always been his top-of-mind mission. It is also one not conducive to solving problems.

Since the president thrives off the stock market (his main barometer for the economy) success, the fact it has tanked due to the virus reflects poorly on him. It matters not that any president does not have a huge impact on the economy good or bad, but as Warren Buffett said of the current president, “If he is going to take the credit for the rise, he must take blame when it falls.”

So, many fear that decisions will be made that prop up the stock market, but put us at risk. And, until people start buying more things, taking more trips, etc., the economy will still lag. Yes, the economy is important, but let’s focus on it from a people impacted lens. The article below is telling.

https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/opinion/trump-is-in-a-frenzy-over-the-economy—not-so-much-the-virus/ar-BB11Bkcf?ocid=spartanntp

The Fed needs to act independently

The Federal Reserve was set up to be a nonpartisan governing board over the money supply in the US, which impacts the economy. The president would only appoint members for Senate vetting when terms expired. The Fed is supposed to be independent from pressures from the White House.

Yet, the bull-in-the-china shop president wreaks havoc over what is supposed to be done. He acts regally in what is supposed to be a democracy with rules of governance. The Fed should not succumb to any president, but especially this one, who routinely places his self-interests above the country’s. And, that does not lead to good governance.

Presidents have little impact on the economy, only providing some headwinds and tailwinds. This president has done a little bit of both. But, he championed himself as a superior dealmaker and business person when campaigning and since elected. Yes, he has had success, but given his starting point, some financial people think he should be wealthier than he is.

He touts a $1 million loan from his father, but that is fable. An in-depth study was reported by The New York Times in the fall of 2018, that Trump’s father transferred tax free over $400 million to his son before he died. That is well north of a $1 million loan. Plus, there are Trump’s six corporate bankruptcies on failed projects. That caused US banks to stop lending to him, so he went to Deutsche Bank for money. But, there have been other failed investments – airlines, mortgage company, etc.

Trump has eagerly patted himself on the back about the economy. But, the economy was just over 7 years of economic growth and the stock market had more than doubled under his predecessor when he took office. But, as with Trump, Obama should not get too much credit for the economy either. He provided mostly tailwinds and a few headwinds. What is revealed by the stock market fall off due to global softening, falling oil prices and the coronavirus, is the president does not have much to do with the stock market. As Warren Buffett once said, if the president is going to take credit for the stock market increase, then he must take the blame for the fall.

So, the Fed would do well to ignore the president. Yes, the president is entitled to his opinion, but what has been shown over his history, is maybe his financial advice is not as sound as he (or his followers) think it is. My concerns are we are using tools that should be reserved for even tougher times. The stock and bond markets seem to be more jittery with moves like this. And, when people are staying home, traveling less and eating in, reducing interest rates may not be creating a needed salve, if less spending is occurring.

Yet, as noted earlier, what bothers me most is the president is interested in his own optics, not fixing a problem. He has and wants to trade short term gain for his benefit, at the expense of future problems. He did this with the debt and deficit and he has and will do it with the Fed. They need to tell the president, thanks but no thanks.

Bank CEO blasts peers for not seeing inequality (per The Charlotte Observer)

With more interest and advocacy for the disenfranchised in our midst, an article by Austin Weinstein of The Charlotte Observer caught my this week called “Bank CEO blasts peers for not seeing inequality. A link to the article is below.

I have written often about the “haves and have-nots” in America. The disparity has been worsening for years and it now matters more to whom and where you were born than merit. Sadly, the declining middle class and growing poverty problem has been addressed by more trickle down economics and attacks on benefits to help people in need.

Per The Charlotte Observer:

“Kelly King, the CEO of Truist — America’s sixth largest bank — issued an exhortation to the economic elite of North Carolina and the country: We are blind to the difficult lives of many in the U.S. and must work to resolve the country’s educational and economic divides, or risk the consequences.

‘We see what happens when we have this giant divide between the haves and the have-nots,’ King said to bankers and executives gathered in Durham for an annual economic forecast hosted by the North Carolina Chamber and North Carolina Bankers Association. ‘If we have this scenario where people lose hope, they have no sense of opportunity, they’re dysfunctional. They get mad, they get on drugs, they get guns, they start shooting.’…

While there are many origins to America’s widespread educational and economic inequality, King pointed to the perceived failures of American public school system as one of the paramount reasons for the divides in the country. If people can’t read or do simple math, he said, they are effectively left out of much of the U.S. economy.

‘We are cheating our kids and our grandkids of a future,’ King said. ‘They will not have the same kind of life we have had,” he warned, if the current course of the country isn’t changed.'”

We must invest in our children and our communities. Asset Based Community Development means repurposing depleted assets or restoring them to original form. A neighborhood school is more than a place of seven hour education. It offers a community meeting place for after-school programs, neighborhood meetings, civic meetings, exercise classes, etc. Inviting schools, rewarded teachers, safety mind-sets, etc. will reinforce better education for our kids.

King’s admonition speaks to the crisis it is. The US disparity has widened at the same time our educational ranks in science and math have fallen. If we don’t invest in our kids, we really don’t have the standing to speak of American exceptionalism. It is hard to be a shining light on a hill if we fall from the top.

Read more here: https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/business/banking/article239048138.html#storylink=cpy

We cannot solve US debt by charging more on our national VISA

The math problem is large. We have $23 trillion plus in US debt today, per the US debt clock. It is projected to increase by $10 trillion by 2027 FYE (September 30, 2027) before the tax cut in December, 2017. The tax cut added $1.5 trillion to the debt projection over ten years. A later budget change added $500 billion over ten years.

The budget bill just signed last week will add $500 billion over ten years per the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, yet they note all laws passed in 2019 have added $2.2 trillion over ten years. That would make it at least $37 trillion. So, a good working number is $37 trillion sans any action by the end of 2029 FYE.

Tax increases will not solve this problem, nor will spending cuts. Both are needed. Once the interest cost approaches the defense cost, we have a serious problem. At $37 trillion in debt, the interest cost to maintain it inches closer. So, it truly matters not what Democrats or Republicans like, some poor souls in charge will take the heat for trying to solve a problem passed along by poor financial stewards. It will be akin to the Greek people not liking the EU or responsible Greek leaders when they said Greece was in debt trouble.

What frustrates me is the GOP Freedom Caucus who got elected on debt reduction is the biggest bunch of hypocrites. They screamed bloody murder when the debt was $8 trillion, then $13 trillion, but are passing debt increases misleading the public that the tax reduction would pay for itself – no tax bill has ever done that and this one did not. But, Dems are not without fault. What should scare us all, we should be reducing the deficit with a pretty good economy, yet the deficit is growing and will exceed $1 trillion next FYE. What happens when the economic growth softens even more than it has over the past year.

So, my plea to all is dust off the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan and do even more. I am trying to tell folks what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. If I was a young person, I would be screaming bloody murder at inaction on climate change, guns and debt. Debt is not as frightening as guns and climate change, but it is a huge problem.

“Before his death, legendary Fed chief Paul Volcker issued one last warning to the US”

The following reprint of an article is worth the quick read. It is from a very reputable source, retired Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, who passed away this week. An article with the above title was written bu Joseph Zeballos-Roig in Business Insider about Paul Volcker and a caution he left for us all. It speaks volumes.

Per Zeballos-Roig, “Volcker condemned President Trump’s efforts – without naming him – to pressure the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates in an attempt to juice US economic growth, already undergoing its longest sustained expansion.

‘Not since just after the second world war have we seen a president so openly seek to dictate policy to the Fed. That is a matter of great concern, given that the central bank is one of our key governmental institutions, carefully designed to be free of purely partisan attacks,’ the former Fed chairman wrote.

Volcker said he trusted the members of the Fed will fend off any attempts to interfere in its monetary policy decisionmaking so it may act ‘free of partisan political purposes.’

Trump has repeatedly assailed Jerome Powell, the current Fed chair, for not cutting rates. Back in August, Trump called Powell an ‘enemy’ of the United States comparable to China, the Washington Post reported.

The former Fed chair painted a very bleak portrait of the nation’s political environment, noting ‘forces’ are rolling back environmental and other protections considered emblematic of American democracy.

‘Increasingly, by design or not, there appears to be a movement to undermine Americans’ faith in our government and its policies and institutions,’ Volcker wrote.

‘We’ve moved well beyond former president Ronald Reagan’s credo that ‘government is the problem,’ with its aim of reversing decades of federal expansion.’

He went on: ‘Today we see something very different and far more sinister. Nihilistic forces are dismantling policies to protect our air, water, and climate. And they seek to discredit the pillars of our democracy: voting rights and fair elections, the rule of law, the free press, the separation of powers, the belief in science, and the concept of truth itself.’

Volcker was best-known for waging a campaign to subdue inflation in the late 1970s and early 1980s as Fed chairman. He later sought to keep regulations in place to oversee the financial industry and became an advocate for financial reform.

The former Fed leader later chaired Obama’s Council of Economic Advisory Board after the banking system teetered on the edge of total collapse in 2008.”

May the Force be with you – don’t click

Black Friday turned into hefty cyber sales. Today, is officially Cyber Monday, so the expectation is high for even more sales. However, a key financial lesson is if you don’t buy, you save even more money. So, use the Force to not click.

I realize I am not telling anyone anything new. But. people want your money, so they will make it easier to get it. I think there has been a trend toward more personal purchases from holiday gifts. It is clear the car commercials have gone down that path to lower year-end inventory. If you must buy a car, your best savings will be at the end of December not the beginnning.

Yet, resist the urge as much as you can. I tell people you can go broke saving 1/2 off if it leads to more purchases. The other reason to resist is the hyper-commercialization of Christmas. This is a key reason I am frustrated with the infringement on my favorite holiday of Thanksgiving.

So, use the Force. Resist the urge. Don’t click on Submit or click far less. Black Friday and Cyber Monday lead to Red Debt.

Per Reuters – More foreign firms halted U.S. deals amid Trump administration scrutiny: report

Last week, Alexandra Alper of Reuters Financial News shared findings within a concerning report. The “report released by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), shows that foreign companies abandoned roughly 14 percent of U.S. investments that were investigated by CFIUS in 2017 ‘in light of CFIUS-related national security concerns.’ The percentage in 2018 was 11 percent.

Those figures were sharply up from the period immediately before Trump took office. About 4 or 5 percent of such transactions probed by the committee were dropped annually from 2014 to 2016, the report showed. The Committee, led by the Treasury Department, reviews foreign investment in the United States for national security issues.”

I have raised this issue previously – when any entity makes it more burdensome to deal with, other entities will explore other options. The tariff wars are causing suppliers and customers to find other avenues. John Deere sales are down in the US, but up in South America as more agricultural products are being bought there.

On foreign investment, if we have companies jump through too many hoops, they will take their money elsewhere. These are headwinds to our economy and our growth has been softening.

Coupled with overall global softening, it should give us concern.

Medicaid expansion is needed for NC says this retired benefits professional

As North Carolina continues its stalemate on Medicaid expansion, it might be interesting to heed the words of former Ohio Republican governor John Kasich. When Ohio moved forward with the Medicaid expansion, he called it a “no brainer.”

Now why would he say that? Kasich noted Medicaid expansion would not only help people, it would bring $13 billion to his state over several years. George Washington University did a study that said Medicaid expansion would help a state’s economy, help a state’s rural hospitals and help people. We should also remember NC Republican Mayor Adam O’Neal of Belhaven walking to Washington seeking the expansion of Medicaid after his colleagues in Raleigh turned him down as he tried to save his town’s hospital.

Rather than offer stale arguments, it would be nice if the Senate and House leaders figure out a way to get this done. Let me add the voices of The Commonwealth Fund, RAND Corporation and Economic Policy Institute that echo the results of the GWU study. NC is already in the minority on this. Please let’s find a way to help people.

Let me close with a truism about health coverage to think about. Those with coverage will see doctors earlier and will have access to prescription drugs to avoid future train wrecks. Preventive care and health maintenance are better paths forward for people and healthcare financing.

Note: The author of this post is a retired benefits professional who is a former actuary, former benefits consultant and benefits manager for a Fortune 500 company

Perception matters more than reality to the US president

Our friend Jill has written an excellent post on “Trumponomics 101” (a link is provided below). What I opined in a comment is Trump is more about perception than reality. Here are a few examples:

– he beats his chest on his trade and tariff decisions, but they have dampened the global economy, of which we are a key part, as well as certain US industries.

– he left the Trans Pacific Partnership which was designed to compete better with China on trade (note the other ten countries proceeded without us).

– he claims being tough on immigration and terror, but his travel ban and reduction in legal immigration are dilutive to our economy (note legal immigration has fallen as well).

– he touts his tax law, but it borrowed from our future to make a pretty good economy a little better for eighteen months or so.

Focusing on another tax cut to lessen the impact of the slowing growth is malfeasance, as was the first tax cut in December, 2017. And, lowering interest rates won’t push a lot of investment as businesses are concerned by the chaos caused by Trump.

So, Trump is worried about the market and economy retrenching from its growth not recognizing the headwinds he created. Note, for brevity I did not speak to other headwinds – not investing more in renewables, infrastructure, healthcare, etc.

Yet, the biggest perception he painted to his followers before the election was the US economy was in trouble citing the unemployment rate at 30%, then 40% then 42%. The reality is the unemployment rate was beneath 5% and we were in an economic growth period of 90 consecutive months (7 1/2 years) which continues to this day. He convinced his followers that he alone helped turn the economy around, which was doing pretty good.

Reality does matter. And, you won’t get a lot of that from Trump, who had a faux reality TV show.

Trumponomics 101

Helping people climb a ladder – a perspective

The following is an edited version of a comment on Hugh Curtler’s (a retired college professor of philosophy) post regarding whether we should help people in need or let them fend for themselves. I provide a link below to his post. I am going to cite the work a charity I used to be a part of that builds off the book “Toxic Charity,” written by a minister who lived with the disenfranchised people he sought to help. His name is Robert Lupton.

Lupton’s thesis is simple: true charity should focus on emergency or short term needs. What he argued for to help others long term and we did (and still do) is help people climb a ladder back to self-sufficiency. That should be the goal. An easy example is he would advocate for food and clothing co-ops rather than giving the food and clothes away. People love a bargain, so let them maintain their dignity while they get discounted help. This dignity thing is crucial – people would rather not have to ask for help.

Note, we cannot push people up the ladder. They must climb it.  A social worker I have advocated with used to say “we walk side by side with our clients.” The folks we helped are homeless working families. We had two keys – they received a subsidy for rent based on their ability to pay, but they had to plan, budget, get financially educated working with a social worker and attending required training programs. Our homeless clients had to be responsible for rent and utilities up to 30% of their income, which is threshold for housing risk. Another key is we measured success. Success to us is being housed on their own without help after two  years.

As a community and country, we need to better identify what we mean by success in our help for people in need. Also, are things like healthcare a right? Is food on the table a right? Is a roof over the head a right? What we need is better measurement of what we spend and how it helps. It actually is cheaper to provide housing to chronic homeless and partially-subsidized housing to those who are more acutely homeless (due to loss of job, reduction in hours,  loss of healthcare, problems with car, predatory lending on a car, etc.) than let them go to the ER or commit petty crimes and be jailed. People should know all homeless are not alike, so the remedies to help need to vary.

My former party likes to argue off the extreme anecdotes – the significant majority of people do not cheat the system, but the perceived thinking of such is much higher in Republican ranks. When I have spoken to church groups, chamber groups, rotary clubs, United Way campaigns, etc., I come across this bias which is firmly believed. Just last month, the US president announced curtailing a rule on food stamps which will put 3 million people at risk, as one man was able to purposefully game the system. Yes, there is a small percentage of folks that do that, but the significant majority do not.

What people like David Brooks, a conservative pundit, tout is a dialogue on what kind of country do we wish to be? Our economy is a fettered capitalist model, with socialist underpinnings to help people in need and keep people out of poverty. What is the right balance? Is it better to pay a much higher minimum wage or have a higher earned income tax credit, e.g. Is it better to have a Medicare for All system, subsidize those in need or have a free market system only? A factor in this decision is many employers now employ a larger part-time or contractual workforce (the gig economy) to forego having to provide benefits. This is especially true in retail and restaurant industries.

At the end of the day, Gandhi said it best – a community’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate. With so great a disparity in the haves/ have nots in our country, I can tell you we are out of whack as our middle class has declined and far more of them fell into a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Ironically, even in the age of Trump promises, we have many people who do not realize they are voting against their economic interests. Doing away with the ACA and not expanding Medicaid are very harmful to rural areas, e.g.

So, I agree with Gandhi, Lupton, and Brooks that we need to help people, but decide what is the best way. We should measure things and adjust them when they get out of whack. It is hard to fix what you do not measure. The group I was involved with would alter its model, if the numbers showed less success than hoped. What I do know is over 80% of the people we helped are still housed on their own after two years of leaving the program. In other words, they live without a subsidy.

Finally, what we need most is for politicians to check their tribal egos at the door when they enter the room. Having been a member of both parties, each party has some good ideas, but both have some bad ones, too. I do not care what a person’s party preference is or if he or she is more conservative or liberal than me  (I am fiscally conservative and socially progressive), we need to use facts and data to make informed choices. And, continue to measure the results making modifications, if needed.

Dilemma