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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Well, It IS Later

Sorry for not posting earlier, but I have been very busy. Also I have been trying to calm myself down. I watched Obama's health care speech, and I was furious by the end. He was lying. He is promising stuff we cannot deliver, and the end result will be to greatly impair the health care system. Camille Paglia is right (see NOFP, Maggie's Farm):
Why has the Democratic Party become so arrogantly detached from ordinary Americans? Though they claim to speak for the poor and dispossessed, Democrats have increasingly become the party of an upper-middle-class professional elite, top-heavy with journalists, academics and lawyers (one reason for the hypocritical absence of tort reform in the healthcare bills).
But affluent middle-class Democrats now seem to be complacently servile toward authority and automatically believe everything party leaders tell them. Why?
Ooooh, oooh! I can answer this one. It is because Obama is telling them what they want to believe - that they can have guaranteed freedom from high medical bills, plus great medical care, without paying for it. The current leadership of the Democratic party is trying to turn itself into a European-style socialist protect-the-cadre party. This is setting the Democratic party at war with itself, because in the US there is strong populist support for the Democratic party. Assistant Village Idiot commented to this:
We have an entire political party with father issues.
It only looks that way if you live in some urban, coastal areas. Elsewhere, the bedrock of the Democratic party is a very different social component. The catch here is that what Obama proposed would be lethal for the Democratic party in those areas, because Obama is really proposing a shift in medical spending away from the poor and the aged toward the upper middle class. This is not going to be an electoral winner over the long term, as Paglia notes:
(Who is naive enough to believe that Obama's plan would be deficit-neutral? Or that major cuts could be achieved without drastic rationing?)

By foolishly trying to reduce all objections to healthcare reform to the malevolence of obstructionist Republicans, Democrats have managed to destroy the national coalition that elected Obama and that is unlikely to be repaired.
I fail to understand Paglia's willingness to blame Pelosi and excuse Obama. Obama did not give that speech at gunpoint. Anyway, we are now going to see just how stupid the American voter is, and the economic backdrop for this electoral drama is not favorable for Obama.

In a highly compressed fashion, here's the deal:
1) Warren Buffett is wrong - the economy has improved over the summer. We are not just flat - we have turned in some measly growth.
2) Since June, inland water, rail, truck and ports all showed a real move upwards. Also hiring in low-end/economy retail improved.
3) The biggest factor in producing actual growth appears to have been the Cash for Clunkers thing. I suspect it might continue on with a toe, but it will not even be limping along on one leg.
4) The increase in home sales is purely an artifact of the tax credits and loose underwriting, and has no legs. Unfortunately, an historically disproportionate portion of people who used the tax credit as a downpayment are going to default within the next 4 years, which is going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money. In the annals of stimulus programs, this will prove to be one of the worst ever - we have just killed off Fannie and FHA.
5) The underlying growth trend, which is slow, low and vulnerable to dollar weakness is a slackening of inflation for basic needs.
6) The underlying collapse trend is a drop in real incomes for higher-end and retired persons. This has legs. Eight or nine of them.
7) Anyone who isn't watching H.8 Assets and Liabilities is kind of missing the main drama. Over the last few months we have entered a deflationary spiral. It is remarkably evident in stores. What is occurring is that big banks are levering up, constricting lending, and replacing the lending with Treasuries.
8) You can see the effect in part in Treasury yields, which are now showing lower growth over the next two years. The one year trend ought to panic anyone who thinks we are shifting into high growth. The mechanism that throws the signal is both government and bank buying. However the shift from banks lending to banks constricting credit (assets) and shifting to buying Treasuries is most definitely a down signal for the economy after the next few months. Between August of last year (the onset of severe recession) and spring of this year, Loans and Leases grew or remained stable. Over the summer that trend shifted abruptly downward. If anyone truly believes that taking over 250 billion out of Loans and Leases (Feb 7,182.5; Aug 6,886.2) is not a downward signal which greatly overcomes any stimulus the government is throwing out there, I've got some really nice second liens to sell them.
Over the last six weeks, my indicators have shifted so sharply negative that I am awed and horrified. I can hardly stand to write about this.

CR is getting worried, although he wrote last night that he still thinks the economy has over a 50% chance to grow. Rebecca is not blind to the trend.

I have shifted to trying to find out if there is any possible path for any sort of sustained growth. Both Rebecca and CR are much more optimistic than I am. I certainly hope they are right.

In order to try to figure out whether there is any way out of this, I am trying to do something new. I am using the latest census, inflation, population, employment and tax data to try to induce a threaded population model split on demographic lines and run a set of simulations. I have done a smaller, less complex version of this sort of thing for local areas in the past with high success over a period of years to assess the likely effect of lending programs and possible default risks. How well it will work on the national level I do not know.

The income data coming out of BEA over the last few months is not indicative of what is really happening. The real incomes of the higher-end consumers are falling much faster than the real incomes of the lower-end consumers are rising. Further, incomes of retirees in everything but the highest bracket are still being eroded by inflation. Thus, the only possible way to get a fix on consumer spending and non-credit-fueled expansionary capacity is from trying to simulate it and figure out what is possible.

In general, over 90% of my economic extrapolations are based on figuring out what is not possible and what is highly unlikely, and that is usually based on analyzing possible money flows. I do conceive of the economy as a dynamic system constantly in motion.

So what I want to determine is whether it is possible that lower-end resurgence, which is happening, has any chance to offset the higher-income negative trends. The CW answer is that no, it is not, but the CW answer may be wrong. Lower end and younger people spend a disproportionate amount of their total incomes, and they have less of an overall credit drag. Further, spending in this group has the potential to create more lower-end jobs, which can create a subsegment of a growing economy.

What worries me so is that the trend in higher-income households is going to be durable for two segments - government and education/health. That is a big group.

I'll probably rip myself out of the programming to post some more on health care economics over the next few days. It is all about the art of the possible. I recommend Shrinkwrapped's post and this NOFP post for some reasonable perspectives (I got into dogfights in the comments on both.) Also see NOFP's post today for more perspective.

There are two issues here. The first is level of funding, which the current administration has decided is too high. The second is method of funding. These two debates should be separate rather than conflated.

However, regardless of the method of funding healthcare, we cannot cut costs when our population is rapidly aging unless we really denigrate medical treatment. There is no easy answer. On average, shifting an older person from hospital treatment to a hospice at the end of their lives doesn't save much, because they frequently live longer in hospice. It might surprise you, but some people recover and go home from hospices! Especially the old - they are the hardest patients to predict in many cases.

The only way to save money bigtime on treatment for the elderly is to do what most socialized health care systems do - they give minimal treatment to the old. If you are in your 70s, you won't get cancer treatments most of the time. If you are in the 60s and experience organ failure, you may not even get dialysis, and you certainly won't get an organ transplant. At one point, the unwritten rule in the UK was that patients in kidney failure over 55 didn't get dialysis. Since treatment options have been greatly liberalized due to public pressure, so now they deny care to the sickest patients, who might well get much longer lifespans, but who would be consistently high draws on the NHS.

For what it is worth, possible health care reform trajectories do have significant effect on likely economic trends. However, picking the option which would provide the most economic growth over the next ten years is:
A) Not on the table in Congress,
B) Going to cost the upper middle class a boatload of money, which
C) Brings us back to Camille Paglia's comments, because,
D) What the current debate is all about is not about providing medical care, but about ways for the upper middle class not to pay for medical care while having economic security from the effects of severe illness, which is
E) Impossible, because only the middle class has the money to provide a system in which we both get high-quality medical care and ensure economic security from the costs of health care, so
F) The current debate is insane or murderous, take your pick.
I'm not going to be polite about this any more. I think health care reform is necessary, because our current system really doesn't provide insurance to anyone in their 50s who becomes severely ill. It does, however, provide very good medical treatment to people in all walks of life. If we are not willing to fund the medical system, we are inflicting worse damage upon the very ill than they now bear. This will not turn out to be an improvement.

Also, I highly recommend the Covert Rationing blog. It is written by a doctor and I recognize a person both in contact with reality and able to maintain a moral stance with respect to reality. Maybe he had a good relationship with his father.

...over 90% of my economic extrapolations are based on figuring out what is not possible and what is highly unlikely....

It seems so simple when you put it that way, my dear Holmes!

You can see the effect in part in Treasury yields, which are now showing lower growth over the next two years.

Not sure I understood that--are you referring to the narrowing of the spread between 1yr, 2yr, and 3yr rates since early June?

About health care:
The most hopeful thing I can see in the health-care debate is that as we stare into the abyss, the previously unthinkable idea of letting people choose how (or whether) to spend their health-care dollars is now being discussed openly. The second-most hopeful thing is the point you correctly made in your comments to the Shrinkwrapped post; namely that as the government-managed health-care market self-destructs, it is inevitable that a parallel insurance-free, cash-on-the-barrel-head gray market will develop which can provide the nucleus of a renaissance going forward.

Like much of what is happening now, it points to a better world after our current troubles pass.
Neil - over the last few days the 1yr has averaged 39.5 basis points.

At the Feb/March intersection, it peaked this year in the low 70s. We are now somewhat below the yield average at the beginning of January.

T-Bill yields can be used as an inverse predictor of the demand for money in the real economy over the particular term.

Note that the 2 year has done better. Well, standard theory would show a steepening T-bill yield as an end of the recession indicator. But let's be real here. Deposits in banks are growing, but banking lending to commercial and consumer units is dropping. Instead that is getting moved toward the Treasuries.

No one believes that consumer credit is going to move up until jobs get a bit better and consumers have paid down or dumped more of their outstanding debt.

So that leaves commercial credit. Well, the NACM business-to-business credit numbers for August were flippin' disappointing. I quote:
After six months of solid gains, the Credit Managers’ Index showed slower progress and registered declines in key indicators. There was still some positive movement in the Index as a whole, but there are obvious weaknesses showing up in terms of credit availability, credit applications and sales. There were also areas of concern in terms of dollar exposure, disputes and other negatives. There was a sense that bigger economic issues began to overtake the sector, slowing down some of the progress noted in the last few months.

Okay, we give up on banks and business to business, and we go to the money market, where we see that commercial paper outstanding is now moving sideways.

There are many things the economy can do, but it is impossible for the economy to expand without money. Since the consumer doesn't need or want money, we are waiting for the companies to pick up. And while everyone's looking at a rash of favorable reports, what money is telling us is that companies are moving sideways or retracting. They got a bit of bump but they aren't gearing up.
Economics is not my field, so I can't say much about that part of your post except that it doesn't clash with anything I'm seeing out there in the world. There's not much real growth happening, and things don't seem to be getting better any faster.

Healthcare -- the current American system is atrocious, being expensive, inefficient, uncompetitive, unfree, patchy, and capricious. However, that's not saying it can't be made worse, and I fear anything that resembles current Congressional proposals will show us that it indeed can be.

In fact, I fear it will be worse than a purely Government-run socialist-type system and worse than a wholly deregulated system and worse than the current system -- perhaps even worse than all three added together. Only narrow interests will benefit, I suspect.
I guess I'm so into the Austrians, MoM, that I just can't get worked up over consumer spending anymore. I agree with you that it will tick up; and it's altogether likely that consumer goods makers will increase production just enough to meet that uptick.

But no money is flowing to the capital goods sector and it's there that economic growth is created. American business is sitting on its assets waiting to see how much new health care mandates will cost; how much the repeal of the Bush tax cuts (capital gains anyone?) will cost and how much cap and trade legislation will cost.

Anecdote warning: My employer (industrial gases) embarked on two huge plant expansions a couple years ago: one in Seattle and the other in Denver. On hindsight, it's obvious that the Fed-induced low cost of capital and the, um, Fed-induced high price of commodities caused the company to make two very bad decisions.

Both plants are ready now to come online but will, instead, be mothballed. In addition, a third to half of the employees in each city are to be let go. In other words, we haven't seen the end of the layoffs.

I realize this is just one company, but our customers are also capital goods producers and the business is just not there and our sales reps tell us it isn't coming back any time soon.

Obama is killing any chance of a recovery, in my opinion, by his insistence on passing very expensive new legislation. Consumer spending will continue to increase, but it will not be enough to spur economic growth. Sorry for the unpardonably long comment, but I'm mad as hell.
Your comment about commercial credit brings up what we're seeing out here, MoM. What we are seeing in customers and vendors is that smaller businesses simply aren't able to borrow as they used to be able, or are having to promise their first- and last-born children for the privilege. Between uncertainty over what the Feds are going to do to us (they certainly aren't going to do anything to HELP us) and uncertainty about getting credit, the capital equipment business is getting crushed.
Craig - the fixation on consumer spending is due to the reasonable uncertainty over capital expenditures. The hope has been that the consumer is going to bail us out, but this does not seem likely.

No need to apologize for the length of comments. I appreciate the information.

The common factor here in most of your comments is considerable uncertainty. We have overcapacity in almost every industry, combined with worries about structural cost changes imposed by politics.

One of the NFIB small business surveys major concerns that raised this summer is regulation. And one of the reasons why I have been watching NFIB so closely since the spring is that small businesses sometimes put a lot into capital expenditures at the first profit uptick, which could cause a potential push through in the general economy. But that hasn't happened yet either.

If we have to wait for significant bumps in consumer spending, I think we have to wait until mid 2010. That's going to hurt.
Matthew "it could be made worse" has been the unfortunate outcome of many an ill-planned implementation of a fundamentally decent idea.

I don't even have a personal strong preference for a particular way of dealing with our medical system's funding problems. The only criteria I would use is that the solution should be tested and well-debated (and funded).

What turns me off the most about this debate is that too many people are trying to prevent a debate.

The one thing I would say is that setting a basic structure that won't change too much is essential for business planning. Suppose you just set a payroll tax. You could phase it in. Okay, maybe you'd be off by a percent or two, but businesses can deal with that and make plans. It's the not-knowing that shakes things up.
Of course Obama is lying.The man is an overeducated fool,bought and paid for.And I do not see insane/murderous as being an either/or choice to my regret.Our system of government has been traveling on momentum for decades and it is finally and messily falling apart.not good,but not avoidable.I hope the honey showed up,Tom

"I think health care reform is necessary, because our current system really doesn't provide insurance to anyone in their 50s who becomes severely ill."

I am 45 years old.

I had my gall bladder removed 3 years ago. In and out of the hospital in just one day. No complications. That represented roughly 2/3rds of the points I needed in order to be denied for individual health insurance coverage (using the state's point system). All 2/3rds of those points can and will be used against me for the next 7 years.

Last year, I had chalazions in my right eyelid. It's basically acne but is considered an eye infection apparently. I had several minor procedures to remove them. It took all of 10 minutes within my doctor's office. That represents 80% of the points needed to deny me. The points drop off rather substantially in a few more years.

Those two conditions alone put me WAY over the limit.

I figure that if I can remain perfectly healthy for the next 4 years, they will accept me.

Here's the thing. I have no known medical conditions right now that require treatment or medication. I cannot get health insurance without using the state's high risk pool. I'm therefore taking the risk and self-insuring. Let's hope I don't end up with a million dollar condition. Sigh.

It doesn't even remotely take serious illness to be denied.

Fortunately, my girlfriend still has COBRA. Had she been scored using the system, she would have been denied 3 times over. Any one of her conditions would get her denied. That actually makes at least some sense though. Her medical bills are VERY high due to her having dystonia.

I very much enjoy reading your blog. Keep up the good work!
"What turns me off the most about this debate is that too many people are trying to prevent a debate."

You have that right. I've heard Obama say the other side doesn't even have a plan, they are just taking pot-shots at his. I hate to say it, but he lies.

How about tort reform?
How about extending the group laws on denying coverage to individual plans?
How about letting people buy insurance out of state?
How about loosening up the regulations on what it takes to open and operate a non-emergency medical clinic?

There are plenty of options out there, the Dem's just don't want to hear about them because the alternate options rely on personal responsibility and have the govt acting as an overseer instead of a provider.
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