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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Forecast and Commentary from April 2006

I've been bad about bragging without documenting the correct calls of the past. This is from my stint at the Northwest Progressive Institute. I'm dragging those posts to this site and came across it today.
One of the dreadful experiences of understanding a little economics is to watch those approaching retirement vote against schools. They have dollars in the bank, their kids are grown, Why should they worry?

Another is looking at the enormous investment in housing. Homeownership is a beautiful thing, look at the employment and tax revenue coming in, How can we lose?

The May 2006 issue of Harper's has on its cover a man carrying a house on his back. The article is entitled "The New Road to Serfdom." In it there is a graphic I pray is not correct. It identifies 90% of debt since 2000 as being mortgage debt. That would mean only 10% of debt has gone to credit cards, college loans, and oh yeah, plant and equipment.

The current debt-driven economic activity is founded on housing investment. Investment creates jobs up front. Every kind of investment. But investment in essentially passive assets, like housing, does not generate economic well being down the road like productive assets do – education and equipment and so on. It generates interest payments.

The Harper's article is instructive, if a bit pat. It's great if you like charts, because that's what it is - a dozen charts with explanatory captions. It advises of a possibility that low interest rates lure people into enormous debt loads, possibly shackling the owner to his house for decades, making payments as equity shrinks, giving lie to his hope for a valuable asset at the end of his working years.

The situation is similar to the pension crisis. (See the Seattle Times 04.04.06 article.) For dozens of years people worked, in part, for the promise of an affluent retirement funded by the company's pension. Now, one after the other, the corporation's promise has been turned over to the government for fulfilment. The "self-made" men and women wait in line to see what can be salvaged of their expectations.

Bethlehem Steel, US Airways, Kaiser Aluminum, Pan Am, and locally Consolidated Freightways, Lamonts, and Longview Aluminum, have given up their pension obligations to the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which now has $56 billion in assets v. $79 billion in future liabilities.

The point I want to make is that today's sure bet is tomorrow's last place finisher. Do not look at dollars. Dollars are a great medium of exchange, but a lousy store of value. They're a good way to compare goods, as in eggs are expensive, cars are cheap, but it is wrong to assume that both are being measured by a standard unit which has value in itself. They are expensive and cheap relative to each other. The dollar is simply a medium to make the comparison.

If you want your house to be worth something, or your pension to be there, or your stocks to pay off, you need to build an economy that works, with workers who will be able and willing to pay the price you want. It is their demand, not some numbers on a bank statement, that ensures value. You can lock up your greenbacks and bury them in the ground, but without that growing economy, they'll turn to dust no matter how well you wrapped them. There is no "I've got mine, now you guys fend for yourselves." You can be robbed by inflation, crashing stocks, ballooning health care, etc., etc., etc., but at its root it will always be a weakening economy that could have been floated by sound investments and reasonable trade structures.

Taxes for schools will generate economically viable citizens and reduce unnecessary drains on public coffers in the future. These are the people who will buy your house, fund your pension (including Social Security) and make your stocks worth something.

Mortgage borrowing, federal debt, everyone a millionaire... It's a hoax that is often too disturbing to contemplate, so we don't. But someday we'll have to. Our hind ends will get blasted if we keep our heads buried in the sand.

P.S. - In my last post I forgot to mention that Paul O'Neill, the former Treasury Secretary under Bush, also termed "not acceptable" W's 1990 scam with Harken Energy that we covered earlier this year. "Did I ever do an untimely filing of Form F?" O'Neill said. "No. Any other questions?"

It's timely now because W's fellow travelers at Enron are in the dock this week.