Millennials increasingly cash strapped as incomes are hit by rent costs

Millennials increasingly cash strapped as incomes are hit by rent costs

No wonder younger Americans are taking longer to leave the family nest – it’s expensive out there! While growth rates in rents have slowed this year compared to the last few, Freddie Mac’s April Outlook report said that higher housing costs and younger adults’ decisions to delay buying have led to an uptick in apartment sharing and multigenerational households, thereby delaying the formation of new households. That’s a serious headwind to the economy given the mutiplier effect of housing on the economy.

Odds are this means the housing market will continue to face consumer spending headwinds as upcoming Fed rate hikes make the cost of owning a home even more expensive. Freddie Mac’s economists say that mortgage rates should edge upwards this year and in 2019, hitting 4.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018 and 5.4 percent a year later. Meanwhile, potenial homeowners struggle to save for the down payment given disposalbe income that is being hit by rent costs as well as servicing student debt costs and rising living costs.

This likely means the slowdown witnessed thus far in 2018 for rent growth will be a temporary one. While others watch for a would be rebound in the domestic housing market, we’ll be watching new apartment construction and what it may mean for rental rates, and discretionary consumer spending.

 

Younger adults are spending a stunning amount of money on rent — $93,000 by age 30, according to a new study. More important, rent sucks up about 45% of their income during this first, critical decade in the workforce. That leaves precious little left over to save for a down payment and work towards entering that second phase of adulthood — household formation.How does that compare to earlier generations? Not well.

Researchers at RentCafe who crunched numbers available from the U.S. Census say that, yes, on this front, things are harder for today’s 30-somethings.

GenX adults spent only 41% of their income on rent by age 30 ($82,000, inflation-adjusted) while Baby Boomers spent just 36% (about $71,000).

Things are not looking up for the next generation, sometimes called GenZ, either. RentCafe estimates that they’ll spend just more than $100,000 on rent by age 30, or nearly half their expected income during their 20s.

Source: Millennials spend a large percentage of income on rent

Are you part of the shrinking middle-class? Think again…

Are you part of the shrinking middle-class? Think again…

Normally we’d say we love it when third parties come out with data that supports one of our investing themes. In the case of the Fall of our Rise & Fall of the Middle Class not so much as it means slower spending, a key engine of economic growth in the US economy. We can’t put a sunny disposition on the data that says the middle class has been shrinking inside the US. It’s a common trap to superimpose one’s view on the data, which is why we let the data talk to us so we here at Tematica can make informed decisions.

More and more people are falling out of America’s middle class.In fact, the Pew Research Center reported in 2015 that middle-income Americans no longer make up the majority of the people in the nation: “The American middle class is now matched in number by those in the economic tiers above and below it. In early 2015, 120.8 million adults were in middle-income households, compared with 121.3 million in lower- and upper-income households combined.”

Source: Here’s how much you have to earn to be considered middle class in the US

Why so many Americans in the middle class have no savings 

New data from the Federal Reserve points to the fragile state of American households, confirming our Rise & Fall of the Middle Class and Cash-Strapped Consumer investing themes in the process.

Most American households did slightly better economically in 2015 than 2014, according to a recent survey by the Federal Reserve; 69 percent said they were living comfortably or doing OK, up from 65 percent. But 31 percent said they were either struggling to get by or just getting by, a figure that includes millions of middle-class Americans.

The median income in America is somewhere around $50,000. So a middle-class existence was more than two times as great as the median income. And what that tells you is that the face of financial fragility is the face of the college-educated, as well as those without a high school diploma.

Source: Why so many Americans in the middle class have no savings | PBS NewsHour

Michael Jordan and the B-Ball Inequality

Michael Jordan and the B-Ball Inequality

MKI know that this may come as a surprise to many of my regular readers, but I have a confession to make.  Michael Jordan is a better basketball player than I.  This basketball skill spread needs to be addressed. He shouldn’t be that much better than I. It isn’t fair.  No matter how much I practice, no matter what coaching I get, no matter how hard I train in the gym and follow a strictly regimented diet, he will always be better than I.  Unfortunately for Mike, the only way to address this issue, (given that there is a clear cap to my potential at 5’8″ with a proportional wingspan and at best, only slightly better than average springs) is to handicap him.  Now wouldn’t the world be a better place if the difference in our abilities were materially reduced?

You probably get where I’m going with this.  Before anyone gets into a tizzy and starts making all kinds of accusations about how mean and uncaring I am.  There is a serious problem today with respect to income, but the problem, thus the cure, isn’t what is preached in the popular media.

The billionaires at Davos, in what can only be described as irony of epic proportions, all agreed that “Severe income inequality” is one of the top 10 global risks of greatest concern for 2014.  You can read the report here.

So let’s break this problem down.  When people talk about income inequality there is a knee-jerk assumption that by definition, income inequality is bad, which in reality is quite destructive to society as a whole.  It intuitively doesn’t make sense that as a society we should strive to have income equality where regardless of what value an individual generates, income ought to be equal.  The guy who chooses to work 3 days a week sweeping floors at the local Walmart clearly should not enjoy the same income as Steve Jobs! So some degree of income inequality is Ok, right?  But not too much?  Hmmm, ok, then how much?  Who gets to decide how much is too much and how do they make that determination?  Then how do they enforce it? How do we trust that the person we give such enormous power to won’t abuse that power?  For argument’s sake let’s say they don’t.  What about their successor?  How likely is it that we continue to have only angelic geniuses that are able to manipulate society into a Utopian income spread without ever falling prey to corruption and graft?  So far the record throughout history doesn’t lead one to believe that is it all likely.

I spend a great deal of my time in Italy, where I sadly witness first-hand the awful consequences of this sort of societal structure.  If I get paid roughly the same amount whether I work my tail off and take risks trying to improve my performance or if I put in essentially the bare minimum level of effort, why try?  I see this everywhere.  Incredibly bright people who could be innovating like crazy, coming up with all kinds of solutions that would benefit their companies and eventually their nation are beaten down by a system that provides no incentive for those who really try to do something great.  Those who are naturally innovators want desperately to try new things, take risks, but for them there is only downside risk.  They can’t improve their income level through hard work and risk taking.  They only risk annoying their colleagues and supervisors by trying to improve things.  Status quo is the rational choice.  Notice the level of innovation coming out of Italy and its rate of growth!?

I sit at dinner and hear the agony in my friend’s voices as they vent their frustrations and their anger at how a colleague who does very little gets paid roughly the same as they do.  This type of structure infects relationships because it forces people to live in a lie, a lie which is painfully obvious to everyone. The guy who barely shows up to the office and only does the bare minimum knows that the guy who’s working his tail off, (he can’t help but try as innovation is in his DNA) is angry that they both get paid roughly the same.  They both are aware of the resentments, but are powerless to do anything about it because society tells them that this is a far better way to live.  It is more fair. What the hell?  More fair that those who are willing to sacrifice and take risks are basically barred from enjoying any benefit from doing so?  My Italian friends all talk wistfully about how great it would be to work in the U.S. where at least there they can hope to get rewarded for accomplishing something great.

As for the U.S., I struggle to see where this horrific trend we keep hearing about is evidenced.  The table below is from an excellent study by Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute.  You can read the entire report here. The data does not prove out the claims, at least in the U.S..  The bottom two quartiles and the top quartile enjoyed nearly the same increase in income on a percentage basis from 1989 – 2007.  From 2007 – 2010, the bottom quartile experienced a rise in income, while all others experienced a decline.

Now where is inequality a problem?  Barriers and disincentives to improve one’s lot in life ARE problems.  Subsidies such as those in the Affordable Care Act put the poor in a veritable poverty trap in that as they work to improve their situation, the subsidies are taken away at such a pace as to make them far better off overall working less.  That is both demeaning to the individual and immoral in that it forces others to eternally be enslaved to subsidize their fellow citizen, despite the reality that the guy being subsidized may desperately want to get out of his situation, but is faced with overwhelming incentives that keep him dependent, resentful and demoralized.

There is also something horribly wrong with a system in which savers are punished through financial repression.  The Federal Reserve, by keeping interest rates low, forces savers to go into inappropriately risky investments just to try and get a reasonable return.  Those who are already wealthy and are able to invest heavily in the stock market enjoy out-sized returns courtesy of the Fed’s QEInfinity as evidenced by the 90% correlation between the Fed’s balance sheet and the stock market starting in 2008.  Previously the correlation was essentially 0!

The free market system is far from perfect, full of all kinds of flaws, but it is infinitely better than anything else out there.  There are no angelic, omniscient bureaucrats that can manipulate our world into a more Utopian state.  Be wary of any who claim they can.

American Income Levels Stagnant for over 20 years!

American Income Levels Stagnant for over 20 years!

On February 13th, at I must add the ungodly hour of 6:30am PST, I spoke with Stuart Varney on Fox Business concerning the dismal state of income levels in the United States. According to the US Census bureau, median household income is just over $51k, which is about where it was 20 years ago! We also just learned that real disposable personal income has fallen by 2.7% from a year ago, the biggest collapse since the semi-depression in 1974!  American income levels have been stagnant for over 20 years.

On top of weak income levels, the employment situation continues to be of great concern. US unemployment rate is now at 6.6%, but this measure has become relatively meaningless as it no longer accurately describes what is happening in the work force. A more descriptive measure is the labor force participation rate, meaning the proportion of the population either employed or looking for employment as a percent of the population. That number is down at 63%, a level we have not seen since 1978! If the labor force participation rate were still at pre-crisis levels, the unemployment rate would be closer to 13%. Some argue that the decline in the labor force participation rate is primarily driven by the inevitable retirement waves of the baby boomers. However, the chart below illustrates that baby boomers are in fact participating in the work force at a higher rate than in decades, for women we are at all-time highs.


With income struggling, it should come as no surprise that savings levels are well below what they ought to be for a financially healthy country. The IRS’s most recent Quarterly Statistics of Income Bulletin is for the 2010 and 2011 tax filings, so it is a bit dated, but nonetheless, very insightful as to trends. According to the release 145.6 million taxpayers were eligible to contribute to an individual retirement account (IRA) in 2010, but only 3.5 million actually did so and of those that did, 62% were over 49 years old. Uh oh! Only 2.4% of those eligible to contribute to their IRAs did so. The average account value is only $92,000 and only 27.6% of all tax filers even have an IRA. Lastly, that wee bit of spending spree we experienced in December? With income struggling, that was funded by consumers dipping into their piggy banks to the tune of $46 billion causing the personal savings rate to fall from 4.3% to 3.9%, the lowest since January 2013.

Déjà vu all over again?

The market has now risen five days in a row and we’ve been predicting a downtrend. What gives? After a 20% decline in the markets, some sort of temporary uptrend is not surprising. We note that the rise has been on declining volume, evidence of the lack of conviction. Don’t be fooled by the recent trends, the underlying economic conditions have not changed.

Once again the bulls are getting giddy about all the meetings, summits, speeches, announcements, photo ops and “leaks” coming out of Europe. Oh will they never learn! I seem to recall similar such enthusiasm after we were all assured in 2007 that, according to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the sub-prime mess was contained and there was nothing really to fear. There were meetings and discussions and rest assured all is well. We all know how that little tale turned out. It is wise to keep in mind that a politician or bureaucrat in a tenuous situation like the current Eurozone crisis is obligated to do everything possible to assure the markets that all is well so as to not either exacerbate or accelerate the impending crisis.  Their duty is not to provide the public at large with an overabundance of accurate analysis.

Let’s recap just a few of the reality highlights that we believe cannot be ignored:

  • The income of the typical family has dropped for the third year in a row and has dropped to 1996 levels, adjusted for inflation. Real weekly earnings dropped for the third time this year in August with the year-over-year pace at -1.8%. The downtrend has been accelerating since June and is closer to -4.8% at an annualized pace.
  • The household sector is still reducing debt, and has a long way to go. From the mid 1960s to the mid 1980’s household debt to income was relatively stable at about 70%. By 2002 it was 105%. By 2007 the leverage level was a staggering 140% and is currently 120%. There is no quick fix possible here. We are in for a prolonged period of rising personal savings in order to reduce debt, which means weak private sector demand.
  • The Israeli-Egyptian relations situation continues to degrade. It appears Jordan may be getting involved.
  • In August the unemployment rate rose in 26 states, improved in just 12 and remained flat in the other 12. Rising personal savings with rising unemployment makes for deflationary pressures.
  • The consumer spending segment of GDP was the weakest for the year in August. In four of the past five months real consumer spending declined so it was of no surprise to see that US retail sales stagnated in August.
  • The recent moves by the US and ECB to improve liquidity in the EU only temporarily alleviates funding pressures but doesn’t do anything to address sovereign default risks and inevitable bank write-downs. This just addresses a symptom, not the root cause of the problems.
  • US Industrial Production ex-auto in August came in at a feeble 0.1%, the same for the past three months.
  • The Conference Board has upped its probability of a recession to 45%. Whenever this group has taken its recession odds above 40%, a recession has followed. Gulp.

Bottom Line: Economic conditions remain strained, to put it mildly. Temporary market shifts ought not be viewed as the tail wagging the dog.

We've Hit The Tipping Point with Over 50% Not Paying Taxes

My friend Dan Mitchell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, had a frightening blog post today.  According to the Ways and Means Committee, 51% of households paid no income tax in 2009.  Click here for his piece.

This is a dangerous tipping point as with over half of households paying no taxes, the incentives to increase government spending are horribly skewed in the voting population.  Why not vote for increased spending when it costs you nothing…. at least not immediately?   As we’ve seen across the world, the entire economy suffers when the government consumes too much of the economy, but that doesn’t always sink in when an individual is at the polling booth, looking for the easiest way to protect their own short-term interests.

Aside from the obvious moral hazard of this type of code, skewing the tax burden so heavily towards the higher income earners makes for vastly more volatile tax receipts than would result from a more broad-based system.  Higher income earners tend to have more volatile income levels, thus their annual tax payments vary more.  Government typically does not cut spending when there is a decline in tax receipts, but rather continues to increase expenditures year after year, regardless of receipts.  Simple math leads one to recognize that a system which generates volatile receipts and a government that tends to spend above the highest tax receipt level, will generate deficits more often than not thus growing national debt will be the name of the game.  This is not a sustainable system.

We Aren't Out of the Woods Yet

We Aren't Out of the Woods Yet

The growth of an economy is dependent primarily on just two factors, (1) the quantity and quality of the labor pool and (2) the amount of available investment capital. With the current unemployment rate, clearly the quantity of the labor pool is not a problem. The quality of that pool is a discussion for another time. So what about the amount of available investment capital? The talk in the investment world is about QE2, and unfortunately they aren’t referring to the Cunard ocean liner. QE2 refers to the second round of “Quantitative Easing” by the Federal Reserve, which is a politically savvy way of describing the Fed printing money. (Please see “U.S. Banking System” on this blog for more details.) At its November 3rd meeting, the Fed is expected to announce the launch of QE2. Expectations are for an initial level of $500 billion, with room for upward revisions. Last week Goldman Sachs opined that $4 trillion is quite possible, according to their analysis using the Taylor Rule, which is a measure of inflation, GDP and the impact of Fed rate cuts. This rule has been fairly spot on so far in tracking the Fed’s rate decisions so their analysis warrants attention.
When credit contracts, the economy is contracting, when credit expands, the economy is expanding. The Fed is hoping that by increasing banks’ ability to lend, it can jump start the economy. Mr. Bernanke is a bit like 49er and Charger fans in the 4th quarter. This time it will be different! Anyone who saw the 49er and Charger games on October 24th understands our pain. For credit to expand, borrowers need to want to borrow, and banks need to want to lend. According to an August 23, 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal, non-financial companies in the S&P 500 are sitting on a record $2 trillion in cash.  Doesn’t sound like the problem is that businesses are lacking the funds necessary to expand, now does it? So what about existing bank reserves? This chart, using data from the Federal Reserve, shows that bank reserves are at record highs, so that seems unlikely as well.

Both corporate and household lending rates are at historical lows. So the lack of borrowing can’t be because the interest rates are too high, yet the Fed is intent on lowering these already historically low rates. Be wary as history shows that excessively low interest rates inevitably lead to asset bubbles as those who have cash desperately seek some place to generate returns.

Household income is showing slight improvements, savings is trending up while spending is trending down. This doesn’t seem to indicate a desire by households to borrow. (The following chart is derived from Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Labor Statistics)

What is QE2 likely to accomplish? The Fed will once again create money out of thin air and most likely use it to purchase Treasury bonds to send long-term interest rates even lower. If this works, bond yields should fall, the dollar will fall and stocks and commodities should rise. A good deal of this has already been “baked in” to the market, meaning since the markets are convinced Bernanke is going for round two, they’ve already adjusted as if it were a done deal. Shorting the dollar has become a favorite pastime of many market professionals, so we could even see a rally in the dollar if QE2 doesn’t come on as strong initially as some have predicted. In the short run, things could go in a variety of directions, all of which are becoming increasingly difficult to anticipate. In the long run, inflation and potentially high inflation is a real possibility with all this expansion of bank reserves. I recently attended a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, (an international organization composed of economists, Nobel Prize winners, philosophers, historians, and business leaders) in Sydney, Australia. A topic of discussion at this conference was the possible destructive consequence of the developed nations’ seeming race towards the bottom through currency debasement. The investing world is becoming a more challenging jungle to navigate as the actions of individuals in governments around the world have increasing impact on the global economy, rather than market fundamentals. This past weekend the finance ministers of the G20 countries met in Korea to discuss “re-balancing the world.” When 20 fallible human bureaucrats, with imperfect knowledge under great political pressure try to impact the world, it usually doesn’t turn out well. For investors a defensive position that does not rely on strong GDP growth or economic stability is in our opinion, a wise choice.

Now how about those banks that Bernanke wants to nudge along with increased reserves? This past week PIMCO, Black Rock, Freddie Mac, the New York Fed, and Neuberger Berman Europe, LTD., collectively sued Countrywide for not putting back bad mortgages to its parent, Bank of America. This is surely the first in a series of suits aimed at getting control of the mortgage-backed security portfolios. Then there is the testimony from Mr. Richard Bowen, former chief underwriter with CitiMortgage given in April to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Hearing on Subprime Lending and Securitization and Government Sponsored Enterprises, (why are government activities always so wordy!?). He stated that, “In mid-2006 I discovered that over 60% of these mortgages purchased and sold were defective. Because Citi had given reps and warrants to the investors that the mortgages were not defective, the investors could force Citi to repurchase many billions of dollars of these defective assets….We continued to purchase and sell to investors even larger volumes of mortgages through 2007. And defective mortgages increased during 2007 to over 80% of production.” Does anyone really believe that Citibank was the only one up to this mischief, and we use the term mischief generously! We could see substantial level of lawsuits launched against these institutions, which would further serve to undermine an already weakened economy.

As for the banking sectors’ recent financial performance, there were mixed results with Bank of America posting a $7.3 billion loss in the third quarter and Goldman Sachs profit down 40% and Morgan Stanley’s profits fell 67%. Regional banks have shown some positive results, but smaller banks continue to close. There have been more than 300 bank failures since the recession began with 132 this year alone. There is considerable opportunity in the banking sector for mergers and acquisitions and all this tumult provides some opportunities, but again, defensive posturing is the name of the game for those investors who want to be successful in the long run.

Consumer confidence, which improved to August to 53.2, dropped to 48.5 in September. According to Lynn Franco, Directors of the Conference Board Consumer Research Center: “September’s pull-back in confidence was due to less favorable business and labor market conditions, coupled with a more pessimistic short-term outlook. Overall, consumers’ confidence in the state of the economy remains quite grim. And, with so few expecting conditions to improve in the near term, the pace of economic growth is not likely to pick up on the coming months.”

Is there any hope? I attended an investment conference in July where Niels Veldhuis of the Fraser Institute discussed the Canadian success story. Canada came through the recent financial crisis with no major bank failures, stronger GDP than the U.S. and the Canadian dollar is now selling at close to par against the USD. It has one of the lowest debt to GDP ratios among industrial nations and one of the fastest economic growth rates since adopting fiscal reforms in 1995. The Heritage Foundation/WSJ Economic Freedom Index ranks Canada No. 7, the U.S. is now at No. 11.

In 1995 Canada faced a crisis similar to the one facing the U.S. today with a downward spiraling currency, huge deficits, a tripling of the national debt since 1965, ballooning entitlements, government spending approaching 53% of GDP, and rampant inflation. The government cut spending by 10% over two years, laid off 60,000 federal workers over three years and eliminated the deficit in two years. For the next 11 years they ran a surplus, cut the national debt in half and reduced the size of government from 53% of GDP to today’s 39% all without raising taxes.

There is hope, but it will require discipline and an end to kick the can down the road solutions. We are positioning our clients to be able to take advantage of and be protected from the inevitable volatility as sovereign nations take actions that are impossible to predict in addressing their economic and financial problems. We are also cognizant of and prepared for impending inflation, that while unlikely in the short-term is highly likely in the longer-term and will be devastating for those who are not prepared.

KEY ECONOMIC METRICS

Gross Domestic Product (GDP): GDP dropped to 1.7% annualized rate in Q2 from 3.7% in Q1 and 5.0% in Q4 of 2009. GDP is expected to remain at 1.5% in Q3 and drop to 1.2% in Q4. Traditional buy-and-hold strategies struggle with such dismal growth prospects.

Unemployment continues to be the biggest economic concern and appears to be stagnating. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a rate of 9.6% in September with the number of unemployed persons at 14.8 million, essentially unchanged from August. There are currently 1.2 million discouraged workers, defined as persons not currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them, which has increased by a staggering 503,000 over the past year.

Housing: Mortgage rates have dropped nearly 1% in the past year to a historic low of 4.42% for the 30-year, yet existing home sales dropped a record 27% (measured month-over-month) to an all time low, since data tracking began in 1999, of 3.83 million units at an annual rate. If record low rates cannot stimulating housing, pay attention!

Market Volume: CNBC recently reported that currently 90% of all trading volume in the markets is in 5% of the stocks. This means that a very small number of stocks are moving to manipulate the indices, which calls in question the meaning of the trends. In addition, the majority of the trading that is taking place is now generated by high-frequency computers and these programs can enter more orders in one second than a whole trading room of traders can enter in a month. Just one more reason to maintain a defensive portfolio.