Infrastructure, India and Intellectual Capital

These are three very powerful “I” words – Infrastructure, India and intellectual capital. They are related in one key fashion. The failure of the US to address each of these issues has hastened its forthcoming demise as the world leading economy. China, of course, plays a key role, but we sometimes lose track of the other fastest growing economy in India, who has been creating a technology proficiency that rivals and may surpass Silicon Valley.

Per Vice News, India is well positioned for two key reasons. They have one billion people and are much more heavily focused on STEM education than the US. Even if the US had the same focus, India is three times larger and has been doing major call center and technology outsourcing for US and other companies for years. Now, they have companies that only focus on the domestic market in India. And, one other key is important. Indians who have traveled to the US to be educated are returning home rather than staying here. Why? Opportunity back home and the fact the welcome mat has been thrown away by the current US President for immigrants of color.

The other two “I” words are crucial. India is investing in their infrastructure and intellectual capital. The US has forgotten what got us to a world dominant economy. In the book “That used to be us: How America fell behind in the world it created and how it can come back,” by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, it describes an America that used to invest along with a blend of local government and private funding to do great things. Now, we are more concerned with cutting revenue to dare fund things like our dilapidated infrastructure and intellectual capital.

Both the US Chamber of Commerce and labor unions have been pleading for years to invest more in our infrastructure. While interest rates were low, it was the ideal time to borrow to invest in depleted assets. Infrastructure investing also would create jobs and enhance productivity, the latter through saving of time by reducing the time when roads, canals, locks and bridges have to be shut down for repair. The President rightfully noted this need on the campaign trail and then shelved a report to do anything about it one month into his Presidency. Who says so? The man he asked to do the report.

Like India, we should be investing in new technologies and our infrastructure. Plus, we should be more welcoming of immigrants, especially those who are educated here. Innovation is portable, so if these folks leave the US, the Innovation will occur elsewhere. This coupled with a better and protective patent system will promote growth.

Like America, India is not perfect. But, they are focused on the future moreso than the US leaders are. We tend to be focused more on protecting legacy industries, than greasing the skids for new ones. Fortunately, other Americans are more forward thinking, in spite of our leaders. But, it would be nice if we helped them out more.

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A few select statements

A counterpoint response to my comment that the President needs to tell the truth more than he does not, might be “all politicians lie.” Yes, they do, but he laps the field at a 69% rate of untruthfulness per Politifacts.  But, he also makes decisions off his supporting lies.

One that gives me concern is “You can win a trade war.” History has shown this not to be true and we will soon be finding out as Canada just added their retributive tariffs to those of the EU and China. By the way, the lone constant in these three tariffs is the US. The impact is already showing up in economic decisions by companies,

Today he said “the tax cut is the reason for our economic miracle.” That is a stretch in that we are completing 108 consecutive months of economic growth today, which is the second longest in US history. He has only been President for a little more than 17 months and the tax cut has only been in effect for 6 months. As for the long term, I am worried about the tax cut increasing our huge and increasing debt. To be frank, the tax cut will help some short term, but hurt us in the long run.

Yesterday, he noted again “Russia said they did not meddle in our election,” to me implying his tacit support. But, the US intelligence asserts with high confidence that not only Russia did, but the Trump campaign benefited from it. Plus, they said the Russians are still influencing opinion and sowing seeds of discord. The question we must ask is why? Why say this? Why let it go on? Why is Congress not more assertive to get to the bottom of this? Why do you people believe him when he calls the investigation a witch hunt?

Finally, the Affordable Care Act is in need of stabilization and select improvements. Instead, it has been sabotaged at the expense of Americans, once by Congress in 2015 and just last summer by the President. When he defunded payments to insurers for copays and deductibles for families making less than 2 1/2 x poverty limit, he said “it would only impact insurer profits.” That is simply untrue. The CBO noted that the impact would increase the debt by $10 Billion. Why? As insurers raise premiums as a result of picking up this unfunded tab, the premium subsidies would climb by $10 Billion. That means it effects taxpayers by that amount.

The sad truth is there are numerous instances where lies and oversimplified problems and solutions have caused policy decisions. It is hard enough to solve problems when we use facts. It is nigh impossible when we don’t. The truth matters.

 

 

 

 

 

A few more Sunday sermonettes

Happy Sunday. No, I won’t be preaching this morning, but I will be trying my best to speak a few truths.

It easy to blame someone else or some other entity for your troubles. The European Union is not perfect, but has helped many countries through hard times. When they are helpful, country leaders pat themselves on the back. When times are tough, it is nice to have a scapegoat. Relationships are hard work, but countries need to think hard if they want a divorce from the EU before they have the “what do we do now moment?”

Speaking of relationships, the man in the White House tends to have transactional ones. A pundit said he counts few friends saying he touts a “me against the world” mindset. If he keeps on ticking off our allies, this description will be very apt. Unfortunately he will drag the US down with him.

Two of the worst terms in America are RINO and DINO. They mean Republican (or Democrat) in Name Only. They are used by tribal party members as an insult to someone who is not towing the party line. As an unaffiliated voter who has been a member of both parties, I find these labels offensive. We pledge allegiance to the country, not some party. If someone uses this term, do yourself a favor and pay attention to what the target of their labeling is saying. It likely has more veracity than the claimant’s argument.

The United Nations came out with a report Friday defining how Trump’s policies are detrimental to the poor in America. America has a poverty problem that predates Trump. Too many are living paycheck to paycheck and some are even beneath that. This President and Congress’ solution is to give a huge tax break to wealthy people and companies. And, if the repeal of the Affordable Care Act went through, it would have been even worse. America has fallen in the global ranks on upward socio-economic mobility. It matters more to whom you were born than merit in getting ahead.

On a positive note, Costco raised its minimum wage from $13 to $14 an hour and Walmart increased theirs from $9 to $11 an hour. And more states and cities are making planned and new increases. These are steps in the right direction. It would have been nice for Congress to have increased the minimum wage along with the tax decrease which impacts corporations annually. It would have helped pay for some of the lost tax revenue if companies had to increase pay for those in greatest need, plus this money would be spent as they need it more than the 1% group.

Thanks for letting me preach. Any Amens or rebuttals? Other truisms?

Relationships with countries are vital

There are no perfect people, so we cannot expect perfect leaders. There are also no perfect countries, so we cannot expect perfect agreements among countries. To respond to these short-comings, we must do our best to value relationships.

This works for people as it does for countries. An ambassador noted America’s strengths are its military might and its relationships with other countries. Our relationships predate the existing leadership team, so it is imperative to nurture them. This will help us resolve problems as they arise.

This is not just a US problem where its current front man acts rashly and chaotically, breaks commitments and agreements and lies more than he does not. He has made America less trustworthy and other countries are finding a need to seek better agreements with others that do not include the US.

The imperfect European Union is experiencing significant tension with the pending Brexit, the current difficulties in Italy and the growing nationalistic movements in EU countries. This is made worse by targeted social media efforts by countries that would benefit from a dysfunctional EU and US. Russia is one of those countries and they have been accused of such targeting.

A key part of these relationships is a financial one. The global economy is larger than it otherwise would be due to these relationships. If each country only tried to maximize its own profits in a zero-sum effort, the total pie is smaller and we all lose. This concept is called the Nash Equilibrium, which won John Nash a Nobel Prize in Economics.

Yet, it is more than that. These relationships make the world more secure and safe. The nationalists argue the opposite, but the more commerce is intertwined, leaders work harder to nourish those relationships. A strong EU makes Europe safer and prosperous. A strong relationship with the US and other countries does the same.

Yet, these agreements are imperfect. Not every citizen within a country may benefit equally from a global economy. There is a graph called the “Elephant Curve,” which is a silhouette of an elephant with its trunk raised. The body forms the rampant growth in income of the poorest workers around the world, while the trunk represents the even more significant growth in the highest income earners. The trough inbetween represents the middle income earners who are seeing stagnant incomes, who are in more flourishing economies. This trough has led to populist politicians who over-simplify the problems and come to short-sighted solutions.

Their needs must be addressed, but first we must understand the causes are more than the global economy. The larger threat is techonology advancements. Through our relationships we must invest together on addressing these issues. If we do not, we will create zero-sum contrasts, that will cause even more tension. The rise of fascism in Germany evolved out of dire economic circumstances after WWI.

This last example should inform us of why working collectively is so important. We must value our relationships and make them as beneficial as possible. Going it alone may seem like a good idea to some, but we need to think through the benefit of trade and mutual investment in each other.

If this concept sounds theoretical, let me explain it better by BMW, Mercedes, Hyundai, Toyota and Nissan making cars in America, with GM and Ford making cars around the world. And, Chrysler is owned by Fiat, an Italian company. Jobs are created as we invest in each other’s countries. This is true for other industries and suppliers. And, we may be less inclined to create war, when so much is invested in each other.

US CEO Pay has reached epic differential

As reported in The Guardian today, US CEOs now make in pay 339 times the pay of the average worker according to a Bloomberg study of 225 companies. In retail companies, the ratio is 977 to 1 on average. Let that sink in a little.

A quote from the article entitled “‘CEOs don’t want this released’: US study lays bare extreme pay-ratio problem” by Edward Helmore is very revealing:

“According to a recent Bloomberg analysis of 22 major world economies, the average CEO-worker pay gap in the US far outpaces that of other industrialized nations. The average US CEO makes more than four times his or her counterpart in the other countries analyzed.”

Some people may push back and opine that US CEOs may be worth 4X that of their non-US industrialized nation counterparts. If that were true, it would mean US company performance is 4X that of non-US companies and there would be a huge flight of capital to the US.

In my years as a consultant, I have seen CEO pay ratchet up over time, rewarding CEOs with stock grants and options. What happens is a competitive totem pole exercise, where the competitive pay analyses are upward elastic and downward inelastic (they go up more easily than they go down) over time.

I have also observed the 80/20 rule applies to CEOs as well, with 20% of the CEOs earning their keep. I have worked with egalitarian CEOs, benevolent dictator CEOs and some of the greediest SOBs you will ever meet. Seeing CEOs who realize the teamwork involved in the company making money is admirable. On the converse, seeing CEOs who are imperialistic is off putting. As I write this, I am thinking of the handfuls I worked with and some who were notorious over the years for their greed.

On the bottom end of this exercise are efforts to flatten pay for the average worker. Over time companies will use a variety of rationales and tactics to put lids on pay increases. The salary increase budget may be limited because of the uncertainty in the economy, the company is having some hardship or the company expects to have hardship. Sometimes concurrent with the salary budget, groups of people are laid off. Why is the timing an issue? By moving on lower performers, people whose salary increases would have kept the average percentage increase down are removed from the equation meaning better performers will now get lesser increases.

Coupling this with pressure on not increasing the minimum wage and to diminish the power of labor unions (that is another story), these ratios result. I respect greatly the need for incentives to help reward successful CEOs, but we must not forget who helped them earn those numbers.

We have a poverty problem in this country. We have a middle class where too many are living paycheck to paycheck. Yet, our leaders passed a tax law that benefits CEOs, their companies and the wealthy by a large margin. It would have been nice to have at least obligated the pass through of salary increases or an increase in the minimum wage to a living wage. So, do not expect this ratio to measurably decrease any time soon.

US is going alone again

Unless we alter our course, this period of time will be remembered as when the US ceded its global leadership role. We are following a path of nativism and retrenchment. And, there is one thing for certain – we cannot shrink to greatness.

First, we drop out of an Asia/ Pacific trade partnership early in the Trump presidency. The remaining countries proceeded without the US and inked a deal at the end of last year. Why is this important? When approached to do a bilateral agreement, Japan told Trump to reenter the Asia/ Pacific agreement.

Second, last June we decided to leave the Paris Climate Change Accord, leaving an agreement with pretty much the rest of the world. Even ExxonMobil told us to stay in the accord. Fortunately, businesses, cities and states are picking up the dropped baton, but more is needed from our DC leaders.

Third, we do our darnedest to restrict immigration into our country from several countries and are actively seeking to expel both undocumented immigrants and children who came forward under DACA. What we fail to understand is immigration is accretive to our economy and this is a key part of our ideals.

Fourth, we have introduced tariffs on our allies and trading partners. Not only are we acting like a bully, we are acting unwisely, so say 1,140 economists including Nobel laureates and Presidential advisors. We could be precipitating a retrenchment of the global economy, of which we are a key part. The economists say this is how recessions start.

Fifth, by pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement, we are heightening global risk. But, we also have turned our back on our allies who asked us to work with them to stay in the agreement. With the reimposed sanctions any EU countries doing business with Iran will also be sanctioned. This will invite sanctions by the EU on the United States’ companies doing business there.

The President views the world in a transactional way which is why he prefers bilateral agreements. He must win the transaction. In multilateral agreements, everyone wins some and loses some. He also does not value diplomacy as we have retrenched in those capabilities. The hard work is done by these folks and China is lapping us in their diplomatic efforts.

We cannot go this alone. We should pay attention to the words of French President Emmanuel Macron when he spoke to the US Congress. He beseeched us to remain involved working with others.

 

A couple of tax truths get revealed

Long before the Tax Plan was passed in December, I have shared my concern about our runaway debt problem. So, I am none to thrilled by a Tax Plan that will make it worse. Yet, that is not my only concern. While I was all for some tax relief on corporations to encourage the repatriation of overseas earnings, Congress and the President went much too deep.

Their stated goal was to fuel even more growth in the economy which was already doing pretty well for a long time – over 8+ years of growth – which is now the second longest growth period in our history. In essence, we borrowed from our future to improve on something that was percolating at a pretty good clip.

Yet, while this was a stated goal, I said then and repeat now, that may have been oversold. My fear is by giving money to corporations with no requirement, they would likely use it to benefit their EPS using a fairly expedient approach – they would buy back shares from the open market. Companies that cannot figure out how to grow earnings, can easily reduce the outstanding shares in the denominator through buy backs. I learned many years ago, share buy backs are usually a sign of weakness. Companies do this to meet EPS targets to pay bonuses. Board members do not complain as they may be doing the same thing at their own companies.

But, don’t take my word for this concern. In an article in Reuters this week, “Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, in a move that may undercut his party’s message about the recent tax overhaul ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, told the Economist magazine there is ‘no evidence whatsoever’ the law significantly helped American workers.

‘There is still a lot of thinking on the right that if big corporations are happy, they’re going to take the money they’re saving and reinvest it in American workers,’ Rubio said in the interview published Thursday.

In fact they bought back shares, a few gave out bonuses; there’s no evidence whatsoever that the money’s been massively poured back into the American worker.’”

Per an article in March by CNN Money reporter Matt Egan, “Buy backs have exploded in 2018 thanks to windfall from the Republican tax law. American companies including Wells Fargo (WFC) and Cisco (CSCO) have showered Wall Street with $214 billion of stock buy back announcements so far this year, according to research firm TrimTabs.

But critics argue Corporate America’s fascination with stock buy backs has come at a real cost to American workers. Instead of focusing on short-term rewards for shareholders, they say companies should make long-term investments by retraining workers, ramping up benefits and boosting wages.

Stock buybacks have been a prime mode of both concentrating income among the richest households and eroding middle-class employment opportunities,‘ said William Lazonick, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who has studied the impact of stock buybacks.”

In my view, it would not be surprising to see some additional growth in our economy, but it is projected to be much less than Congress and the President have touted. What is throwing even more water on projected growth is the President’s announced tariffs. This has thrown global markets in a state of disarray and companies do not like uncertainty. If they don’t know if terms will be favorable, they will choose more cautious roads which lead to less but more predictable profits.

This uncertainty is already showing up in the capital markets. What frightens me is we sold our future with more debt while not even addressing the existing debt. And, for what purpose is to be determined.