The Spending Crisis: Monopoly Money

Americans are not accustomed to thinking about currency risk; this needs to change.

 

The Spending Crisis: Monopoly Money

By: George Noga – May 17, 2020

       My last post on May 10, 2020 established new all-time MLLG records for forwards and reader feedback. If you missed it, go to www.mllg.us to understand what all the hullabaloo is about. It was one of the most consequential posts in my 13 years of blogging – until this post. This post may be even more consequential!

           I now can see clearly how the spending crisis plays out and, as a corollary, how better to prepare for it. Due to an unforeseen confluence of events, the end game came into focus. More time at home due to coronavirus restrictions allowed for discernment. Second, mountains of new pandemic-related debt made the crisis imminent. Third, as shown in my May 10th post, we have passed the point-of-no-return and are nearing critical mass. Fourth, I read excerpts from a new, unpublished book by Ray Dalio, arguably the most astute investor of our era, that crystallized my thinking.

Possible Government Responses to the Spending Crisis

         There are five main ways government can respond to the crisis: (1) cut spending; (2) raise taxes; (3) default and/or restructure; (4) seize pension assets; and (5) print money. The first two options clearly are untenable. Spending cuts would need to be so deep and tax increases so huge the social cost would be unacceptable. Moreover, such actions would need to be sustained for decades – an impossibility. Default would be too painful as the defaulted debt represents someone’s assets. Seizure of pension assets (by converting them into government pensions) would be a hard sell. That leaves option five – print monopoly money. BINGO!  (See our 5/12/19 post for more on this.)

        Government will print money because it is expedient, poorly understood by most people and results in the least (apparent) pain. Printing money and inflating (basically the same thing) historically has been the go-to choice for governments with their backs against the wall. It is likely there also will be token spending cuts, tax increases and other actions, but they will be more symbolic than consequential. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib’s proposal to issue trillion dollar coins may not be that far fetched.

        A few words about timing. The analysis in my May 10th post shows the debt ratio at 169% in 2025 and 264% in 2030. That makes the onset of the crisis no more than 5 to 10 years away – perhaps less. Ray Dalio has stated the US is in the seventh inning of its debt crisis – that means he believes we are 78% of the way to Gotterdammerung!

Preparing for the Crisis – Protecting Your Family and Your Assets

         Readers always ask what measures can be taken to prepare for the crisis and I am frequently asked what I am doing to prepare for the inevitable. At this juncture, I am taking the most obvious, commonsensical and lowest-risk actions described below. Note: My posts of 10/14/18 and 10/21/18 (on website) discuss these issues in depth.

1. Firearms: Although I strongly support the second amendment, I do not presently own firearms. The debt crisis will be accompanied by a high probability of civil unrest, breakdowns of law and order, interruptions of public services and financial chaos. Therefore, I am reevaluating and likely will acquire guns and ammo.

2. Gold: I will begin investing in gold, precious metals and hard assets. Initially, this will be 5% of my portfolio – perhaps increasing to 10% over time. It also is wise to keep a supply of small denomination gold and silver coins at home for use in a crisis.

3. Currency: Americans are not accustomed to thinking about currency risk. This needs to change. Per Ray Dalio, Americans need to think about currencies in the same way they think about holding any other asset. I am diversifying my currency risk with a foreign bank account denominated in a foreign currency and by buying bond funds that focus on highly rated bonds in currencies of countries with low debt ratios.

4. TIPS/Long Bonds: The hardest hit asset when the monopoly money starts flying off the printing presses will be long-dated bonds. I am divesting such assets. I also will take a position (5% to begin – more later) in TIPS to protect against hyperinflation.

       The above measures are only initial responses; there will be more to come. It  appears my analysis and writing about the spending crisis soon will be validated. I derive no pleasure whatsoever from this and wish I was wrong. I do take some small consolation however, if I am able to help readers better prepare for the inevitable.


Next Sunday: A memorable posting about school choice and the LGBTQ issue.
More Liberty Less Government  –  mllg@mllg.us  –  www.mllg.us

Inequality in America V – Putting it All Together

Surprising answers to questions about inequality in America

By: George Noga – May 29, 2016

   Even socialists agree inequality from newly created wealth (even massive wealth a la Gates and Jobs) is an unalloyed benefit to society because it is the best metric for how well an economy is innovating, becoming more productive and responding to the needs of all people. Inherited wealth is mostly dissipated in a few generations, heavily taxed and often used charitably. Last, if Social Security and Medicare benefits were capitalized and included in wealth measurements, inequality would plunge markedly.   At the outset of this series, I promised to explore and to answer many questions about inequality in America based on facts and logic. Following are the answers.

    It is nigh impossible to get an accurate picture of inequality of income due to deeply flawed statistics based on AGI and household income, inconsistencies between income cohorts and flawed comparisons that don’t track the same people over time. One conclusion is certain. Accurate data would show much less inequality of income. Progressives oppose disparity in pay between CEOs and workers but are okay with similar clefts for athletes and movie stars. Steve Jobs took a nearly bankrupt Apple and created $750 billion of value; he made $2 billion, or 0.27%; was he overpaid?

    Data based on spending shows sharply less inequality; the lowest income cohort spends $2 for each $1 of income. There is no inequality based on taxation (including payroll taxes) as America has one of the most progressive tax systems in the world. Nor would a $15 minimum wage reduce inequality; less than 1% earn the minimum and their average household income is $50,000. Young, poor, minorities and the unskilled are harmed by minimum wage laws. The truly poor need jobs not a higher minimum wage. Progressives claim a moral imperative to increase the minimum wage knowing aforehand it creates unemployment. Where is the morality in that?

    The chasm between reality and rhetoric is wide. All measures of inequality, Gini, Theil and MLD, are markedly worse under Clinton compared to Reagan and under Obama versus Bush 43. Inequality is fueled by progressive policies including: (1) tepid economic growth; (2) higher taxation; (3) opposition to school choice; (4) energy policies; (5) ObamaCare; (6) opposition to trade; and (7) spending, debt and deficits. It is progressive dogma that creates inequality despite its self righteous rhetoric.

    All metrics show less inequality in Europe; however, we must ask if that is a good thing or a bad thing. Many Europeans lead lives of quiet desperation with no economic mobility and a permanently moribund economy; they even refuse to reproduce or to defend themselves. Europe produces no innovations in electronics, software, drugs or even pop culture. The former USSR would have scored favorably on measures of inequality as does Botswana; where everyone is poor, there is no inequality. The Gini coefficient for happiness in America is the highest in the world; that says it all!

    There are some things we should do to reduce inequality. Foremost is to stop corporate welfare as wealth created by government is illegitimate. Too big to fail needs to be eliminated as this is but another form of government largess. Capitalism must be based on both the carrot and the stick. Most Americans understand and accept inequality created by the marketplace; their beef is with government playing favorites.

    At its beating heart, inequality is mostly an imaginary problem. The vapid dogma of progressivism is incapable of solving real problems; therefore, it creates a series of phony problems for political maskirovka. As demonstrated in this series, progressives have created the very inequality they now hypocritically rail against. In sum, inequality in America is not a serious problem except when created by government.


The next post June 5th entitled “Hurricane Warning” is particularly pithy.

Inequality in America IV – Reality versus Rhetoric

There is an abyss between what progressives say and do. They vehemently condemn inequality while advocating policies that create and exacerbate it.

By: George Noga – May 22, 2016

    There is a staccato drumbeat from progressives asserting there is a grave and metastasizing crisis of inequality in America. In this fourth part of our series, we reveal the specific policies of Obama and progressivism that result in greater inequality.

1. Tepid economic growth is the 900-pound gorilla. Under Obama, coming off a bad recession, there has never been a year with 3% growth. It is the worst economy ever under these circumstances. The lack of growth is due to Obama’s policies for taxes, regulation and health care amidst great uncertainty. A languishing economy coupled with tiny wage gains is radioactive for poor and minorities and exacerbates inequality.

2.  Black youth unemployment is over 50%. Obama refuses to consider a temporary entry level wage. Instead, he wants to increase the federal minimum wage by 40%.

3.  Higher taxes are like steroids for inequality. Obama’s tax increases on dividends, capital gains and small business constrain capital investment and are a death-knell for job creation. His refusal to lower the corporate tax rate keeps trillions locked up abroad instead of financing jobs at home. Tobacco taxes have skyrocketed, disproportionately harming the poor; one pack a day costs $1,000 a year more in taxes – more inequality.

4.  Opposition to free trade is harmful. Obama deserves credit for the TPP; however, progressives led by Clinton and Sanders are demagoguing it to death and want to kill it. The underclass benefits more than any other group from free trade. For liberals however, obeisance to labor unions trumps the welfare of the underclass.

5.  Opposition to school choice keeps poor kids in failing schools. School choice is not only the civil rights issue of our time, it is a potent economic issue. Liberals choose to pander to teachers unions while throwing poor kids under the school bus. Lack of school choice could very well be the number one contributor to increased inequality.

6. Higher prices for food and energy wreak havoc on the poor. Food prices have surged due to Obama and progressive support for ethanol subsidies. Energy takes 25% of the income of poor families but only 10% for a high income household. The average price of a kilowatt hour was up nearly 40% under Obama – until the recent drop in oil and gas prices – which occurred despite, not because of, Obama’s policies.

7.  ObamaCare is a disaster and poor Americans bear its brunt. Health care costs are rising along with taxes to fund it while access and quality of care plummets. Doctor shortages, rationing and death panels will have more impact on the poor. Meanwhile, the legions of 29ers and 49ers are growing due to perverse incentives in the ACA.

8.  Obama’s spending, debt and deficits savage savings. Poor elderly Americans have seen incredibly low interest rates damage their lives. For every $25,000 a retired couple has in savings, monetary policy under Obama costs them $100 per month.

9.  Increasing the minimum wage fuels inequality. Progressives claim a moral imperative to raise the minimum wage knowing it costs poor and minority jobs. The real minimum wage always is zero, and that is exactly what the wage will be for many.

10.  Obama has created a poverty trap. If a low-middle income family with children has a second worker enter the labor force, the effective tax rate on the extra earnings is up to 80% due to phaseout of benefits. Under Obama, the number of single earner households has increased 2.6 million and households with no earners by 5 million.

    Every one of the above factors increases inequality and every one is a creature of progressive dogma. The difference between progressives’ rhetoric and reality is indeed a bottomless abyss. Progressives created the inequality in America they now demonize.


Part V, the final post in this series, is scheduled for May 29th.

MLLG

The Panacea of Economic Growth

By: George Noga – November 1, 2014
       Throughout its 238 years, the US economy has grown by over 3.0% annually, although data for the early years are problematic. For the 60 years from 1940 to 2000, the US economy grew at a rate of 3.6%. For the following 14 years from 2001 to the present, GDP grew by 1.8%, exactly half that rate. If growth remains tepid, Americans will not recover the ground they lost and their children and grandchildren will, for the first time, be worse off than the previous generation.
        America has transmogrified into Europe which is in permanent recession due to its failed economic policies. Even stalwart Germany is beginning to stagnate. France is destroying its economy in a fit of socialistic angst. Italy has a lower GDP per capita than it had 15 years ago. Meanwhile in Brussels, Jean-Claude Junker continues to strangle EU countries with bureaucrats and regulations. In Europe a 2% growth rate is seen as optimistic, 1.5% as acceptable and no growth as possible. The average European in one generation fell 25% behind the average American due solely to differences in GDP growth. As I wrote last month, just in the past 5 years, the average American has been impoverished by 17% due to the low growth rates coming out of the recession compared to the historic growth rates in similar times. In short, we already have become like Europe although Europe continues to plumb ever new depths. We are well along in suffering a lost decade on the path to a lost generation; our progeny, like Europeans today, will lead lives of quiet desperation.
“Failure to grow America’s economy is a choice; decline is not inevitable.”
        Failure to grow our economy is a choice; decline is not inevitable. It is a choice made by our political leaders solely because they prefer to demagogue inequality, class warfare and corporate profit for perceived electoral gain. It is a choice made by the media because they are lazy, economically illiterate and prefer to flog dead camels. It also has been a choice made by ordinary Americans in the voting booth for all of the aforementioned reasons advanced by politicians and the media. There are strong signals however that ordinary Americans now are beginning to want economic growth.
Economic Growth as the Panacea

        As trumpeted by the headline of this blog post, economic growth is a panacea; indeed, it is the only solution for every problem (real and perceived) that we face today and for the coming generation. It is apropos that Panacea is the Greek Goddess of healing because strong economic growth will heal everything; to wit:

  • The crisis of spending, debt and deficits: A sustained period of strong economic growth (combined with some spending restraint) will enable the US to restore fiscal balance and to stabilize its debt thereby gradually lowering the Debt/GDP ratio to its long-term historical level of around 30%.
  • Climate change and environment: If in the distant future climate change causes some issues, the best antidote is a vibrant economy that will easily enable us to spend whatever is needed to mitigate any such problems.  Only countries with strong economies can afford to spend copiously on the environment.
  • National security: The single greatest asset (weapon) we possess for our national security is a growing, resilient economy. This enables us to spend whatever is necessary to deter any possible adversaries and to defend ourselves should that be necessary. Weakness invites aggression and fosters terrorism.
  • Jobs, poverty and inequality: It is economic growth, not government, that creates jobs. It is sustained growth that fulfills the American dream and eliminates poverty; moreover, growth is the great equalizer.
  • Unfunded mandates: The USA is facing $350 trillion (over one-third of a quadrillion) in unfunded commitments in the next 50 years for Social Security, Medicare, government pensions, Obamacare and other programs.   Absent  a high rate of growth, these promises not only cannot be kept but will require drastic reductions in programs.
Recipe for Economic Growth

      Okay, so economic growth is the panacea; what must we do to achieve it? The answer is straightforward and attainable. If we do the following  we will achieve vigorous, long-lasting economic growth.

  1. Political consensus: Probably the single most difficult hurdle for achieving growth is reaching a political consensus. Politicians and the media must agree to pursue policies that maximize growth and agree to stick with such policies for the long term. They can continue to argue over how to divide the wealth that results; that is what politics is about. Absent some consensus however, achieving sustained growth becomes problematic.
  2. Tax and fiscal policy: Taxes (personal and corporate) must be reduced, simplified and stable. People and businesses must be able to plan ahead and certainty about taxation is indispensable to investment and job creation. In the same vein, spending needs to be restrained.
  3. Eliminate uncertainty: Business hates uncertainty; it stifles planning and results in gridlock. There needs to be a broad and sustained political understanding about taxes, regulations and new initiatives.
  4. Sound money: The Fed should focus only on maintaining sound money and fighting inflation. A strong, stable and sound dollar are indispensable for a vibrant economy.
  5. Regulation: The economy is being strangled by regulation and litigation. We need to have a moratorium on new regulations while we gradually reform and roll back existing ones. Our tort system needs to be reformed.
  6. Energy: We should develop every possible energy source including ANWR, offshore and shale and natural gas on federal and state lands. We should export LNG immediately from many terminals and, of course, construct the Keystone XL Pipeline. Such a policy will create jobs, make us energy independent, stimulate the economy and, importantly, prove to be a potent weapon in keeping Putin and Russia in check.
  7. School choice: I include this because educated, trained workers are a potent economic resource. Further, school choice will bring about more equality and reduce poverty. It also is a panacea.
     The choice is ours. We can continue on our present slow growth trajectory which will condemn future generations to a downward spiraling economy and reduced living standards; they will experience untold miseries as the crisis of spending, debt and deficits culminates in a meltdown. They will inhabit a Clockwork Orange nation drowning in taxes, regulation and uncertainty. They will have part time jobs for low wages. At best they will collect 65% of the present Social Security benefits deferred until they are age 70; Medicare and Obamacare (also age 70) will be busted; health care rationed and long waits common for poor treatment. They will inherit a volatile, dangerous world where nuclear weapons proliferate, a revanchist, aggressive Putin-led Russia and all without the resources for adequate national defense.
       Or, we can make a different choice; we can choose to reject decline and to embrace high-growth policies. This would lead to a virtuous circle of better education, abundant and cheap energy, and to a far safer and more secure nation and world. It would result in fixing the debt crisis and funding all the promises we have made for the future. Most of all, it would help ordinary Americans. As year after year of high growth enriches America, the politicians can fight over how to best divide up this cornucopia – including addressing any inequality issues.
       Firstoff however, we must make the right choice. This gets us right back to the heart of Alexander Hamilton’s question: “Whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend on accident and force.” Is America today still capable of putting politics aside when self preservation is at stake? Or, do we heed the Siren song of politicians advocating failed ideologies, searching for Utopias and demagoguing political correctness, class warfare and inequality?

Inflation and Taxes – A Primer

 Inflation and Taxes – A Primer
By: George Noga – September 20, 2010
 

         So – you think you understand inflation and taxes? Well, you are about to read analysis you haven’t seen anywhere else. There are counter-intuitive aspects to this twin-headed monster, both heads of which are brought to us exclusively by government. This exposé about taxes and inflation is part of our focus on the crisis of spending, debt and deficits. One possible outcome of the crisis is the government will monetize the debt by printing money and presto – we have high inflation. The last inflationary spiral under President Carter peaked at 15%. It likely will be worse next time.

“Inflation is an immediate and real cost; it affects not just your expenses but also your capital.” 
          Because we mistakenly believe we are familiar with inflation, it sometimes is necessary to look at it from an entirely different perspective to gain the needed insight. We will consider two examples. The first illustrates the impact of 7% inflation on a just-retired couple age 65 with $1 million of investable assets. Our retirees have no debts and own their home with no mortgage. They take 5% (actually far too much) from their investment portfolio and receive $24,000 social security; hence, their income is $74,000. Their living expenses are a modest $4,000 per month. They have it made; don’t they?
          From their $74,000 income we subtract living expenses of $48,000. Of course, they pay income taxes which at today’s rates would be $12,000; this makes their total cash outflow $60,000. Thus, they have a cash surplus of $14,000 after their first year of retirement. They can look forward to a carefree life of leisure; right? There is one niggling oversight, i.e. they failed to account for inflation. Unfortunately inflation is an immediate and real cost; furthermore, it batters and bloodies not just expenses but also capital.
Everyone understands that with 7% inflation something that formerly cost $100 now costs $107. What precious few people grasp is that inflation also savages capital. Hence 7% of the $1 million portfolio must be viewed as the cost of inflation during the first year of retirement. This $70,000 must be deducted from our retirees’ income and added to their capital; otherwise, they are devouring their principal and their capital loses purchasing power and rapidly is dissipated.

“After properly accounting for inflation, our retirees’ $14,000 surplus transmogrifies into a first year deficit of $56,000.”

          After properly accounting for inflation, our retirees’ putative $14,000 cash surplus transmogrifies into a first year deficit of $56,000. Our retirees’ story does not have a fairytale ending. Their principal increases for the first several years; but as inflation compounds (it is an exponential function) their capital inexorably begins to plummet and all too soon their once seemingly formidable capital base is totally gone – poof!

The Grotesque Mathematics of Retirement, Taxes and Inflation

          We now move on to an example of Mr. and Mrs. Ritz, fairly wealthy new retirees with a stash of $3 million in investments. The Ritzes have no debts and no home mortgage; they spend $10,000 per month for living along with income taxes of $30,000 in the first year of retirement. With the same 7% inflation, investments valued at $3 million must double to $6 million in 10 years just to maintain purchasing power parity. At 7% inflation for ten years, the value of the dollar is cut in half. This is akin to a tax on capital of $3 million.
           But whoa! The Ritzes haven’t yet factored income taxes into the equation. They would have to increase their assets not just to $6 million but to $8 million to allow for the ≈$2 million of taxes on the phantom, tax and inflation-induced investment gain of $5 million – from $3 million to $8 million. In the Ritzes’ first decade of retirement, $3 million of capital would have to grow to $8 million pretax – or by a compound rate of 17% – just for them to remain even with the ravenous tax and inflation monster. Even if the Ritzes made the $5 million ($500,000 per year), they would have gained nothing; this is the utter horror of taxes and inflation.

“Even if the Ritzes made $5 million in 10 years, they would have gained nothing; this is the utter horror of taxes and inflation.”

          Believe it or not, it gets even worse. The preceding data assume the Ritzes do not take any money out of their investments to pay for living expenses. If they take 5% a year out for expenses, they now need to earn about 21% – 22% per year just to break even – just to tread water. This is an impossibility; even Warren Buffet has averaged only between 15% and 18%.
          The preceding discussion focused only on the Ritzes’ first decade of retirement; imagine what fate would befall them in twenty or thirty years. They undoubtedly worked hard, saved money, lived within their means and had every expectation of a lengthy, happy and worry free retirement. Instead, they were brought to perdition by their own government via the train wreck of high taxes combined with the stealth tax of inflation.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

            Prominent liberals and big government apologists writing in the blogosphere have opined with approbation that a decade of high inflation could be an acceptable solution to the debt crisis. One wonders if they comprehend the mortal damage to the fabric of our republic that 10 years of double digit inflation would wreak. If they, like you now should, comprehended the horrors of inflation, they wouldn’t write approvingly.
            As noted in The Crisis of Spending, Debt and Deficits (available on our website), inflation is but one of four major possibilities after the crisis reaches critical mass. I am reminded of the four horsemen of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. The four horsemen appear when the lamb (Jesus) opens the first of four seals of a scroll of seven seals. As each of the first four seals is opened, a different colored horse and its rider is seen by the apostle John.

“The four horsemen of the apocalypse today could auger inflation, deflation, repudiation and economic collapse.”

            When the first seal is opened a white horse appears; its rider is holding a bow symbolizing conquest. As the second seal is opened a red horse appears; its rider holds a sword for war. The third horse is black with its rider holding scales revealing famine. The fourth seal is opened and a pale horse appears; its rider is called death. Today, instead of conquest, war, famine and death, we may substitute inflation, deflation, repudiation and economic collapse.