Friday, January 29, 2016

Next Bubble to Burst

Many today believe the 2008-2009 recession was caused by a credit crisis in the banking system. They view the levels of debt that had built up in the consumer and financial sectors as excessive and somehow "blowing up" like a form of spontaneous combustion. The credit crisis, however, was preceded by a number of developments, not the least of which was the vast expansion of debt and the instruments that created and compounded that debt. But, the most immediate precursor of the crisis was a sudden and rapid repricing of risk that was well underway by the middle of 2007. In the years prior to 2007, risk had largely been discounted in the corporate, financial and consumer sectors, as yield spreads narrowed to historic lows. By 2014-2105, junk bonds were trading at yield levels below that of high grade corporate bonds throughout much of the 1990s.

Credit spreads, or the yield differential of a corporate bond, mortgage security or other debt instrument, relative to the US Treasury benchmark rate, is at the center of the way in which bonds are priced in the capital markets. The lower the credit rating, or the higher the perceived riskiness of a bond, the greater the yield spread relative to a Treasury bond of equivalent maturity.

Now the thing is, credit spreads are not static, but rather vary from time to time. During periods of relative calm and optimism in the financial markets, credit spreads tend to compress (often just as lending criteria become more relaxed). In times of uncertainty or distress, credit spreads widen. In the period 2003-2007, high yield bond spreads declined to levels that were absurd, with junk bond spreads compressing to less than 2.5%. By the time the 2008 recession was fully underway, however, these spreads would widen to an all-time high of 21.0%!

As can be seen from the graph below, debt levels are now once again at record levels, although today the debt is concentrated in the corporate and sovereign sectors, rather than the mortgage and financial sectors, as was the case leading up to the financial crisis. In fact, absolute debt levels in the US today are much higher than they were before the 2008 financial crisis.

Amidst this expansion of debt, a similar pattern of ultra-low risk premiums has been underway for several years, as a rapid expansion of liquidity by world central banks flowed into the sector. By mid-2014, high yield credit spreads had fallen to 3.3%. But now, the tide is once again turning. Rapidly widening credit spreads for high yield bonds are again underway, showing a similar pattern of risk re-repricing to what we saw in 2007. Today, the high yield index shows a credit spread of just under 8.0% (roughly the same levels as 2008).

The near default in Venezuela, deepening recession in Brazil and devastation in the energy sector has us also wondering about the vulnerability of bank stocks, with material emerging markets and oil patch exposures for these institutions. If the value of publicly held high yield debt is rapidly deteriorating (as price moves inversely with yield) mustn't the same value deterioration be equally true of these bank loans?  JPM Chairman, Jamie Dimon was quick to play down the issue of his bank's risk profile in energy, arguing that the bank is well reserved against potential losses. As if to further comfort JPM investors, Dimon continued to offer that bank loans to oil and gas companies are asset backed; that is, losses would be offset by the realization of collateral.

The question, of course, remains as to what these assets would be worth in an environment of plunging oil prices, record excess capacity and massive inventory build. Taken in the context of the repricing of risk, the high yield bond market does appear to be telling us something about the near-term future of the economy that is increasingly difficult to ignore.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hillary Clinton's Plan for Social Security

Faced with increasing pressure from Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, the Clinton camp has recently found it necessary to finally address the issue of Social Security, a topic widely discussed by Senator Sanders. We've written at length about the issues facing Social Security, as well as the flaws in Bernie Sanders' well-intentioned plan for revitalizing this program, upon which so seniors widely rely.

Ms. Clinton's proposal, however, not only lacks substance, but credibility. After all, in previous mention of the topic, her comments have been limited to "don't touch it". Then, as now, not touching Social Security puts us on a path to the program's demise. This is not our view, but that of the Trustees of the Social Security Administration. And lest you believe as Ms. Clinton proclaims that the whole idea of Social Security insolvency is a myth promoted by the GOP, consider that the Trustees of the Social Security Administration, the same ones attempting to alert the public to the impending disaster, are all Obama appointees - and all Democrats.

Clinton's plan to fix Social Security is, first, to kill the notion of privatizing the system. Well, she may be right about this, but killing a proposal hardly provides a fix. Second, she'd "consider" raising the cap on wages subject to the Social Security tax (currently $118,500 per year). Lastly, she'd like to make some sort of adjustment for women, seeing that women often work less years than men, and therefore accrue less Social Security benefits. And, sorry folks, that's about it.

Just to recast the problem, quoting the 2015 report of the Social Security Administration, the present value deficit of the Social Security Trust Fund, in other words, the difference between what is projected to be paid in benefits and what is expected to be gathered in taxes and investment income, is roughly $10 trillion. Removing the cap on wages alone (which goes somewhat beyond what the candidate has proposed) is a relative drop in the bucket. And this is the only aspect of her plan that can actually be quantified.

Here's the basic problem. With an aging society and demographic imbalances, the current level of tax and earnings will only float the Trust Fund until 2034, or roughly another 20 years. After that, benefits, already meager, would have to be reduced by a third. Now here's the tough part, There are only two possible solutions for addressing this crisis: either increase taxes, or cut benefits, or provide some combination of the two. The subtlety comes in how this is done. How do you raise taxes fairly and keep from cutting benefits to those who need them the most? For this, we've previously provided our views, available here.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

What's Working in this Market Correction

The New Year starts with a bang, with hundred points swings in the Dow Jones Industrial Average each day this week. Unfortunately, the swings have all been to the downside, with the S&P falling nearly 5.0% this week. In this environment, investors may be tempted to throw up their hands and sell everything, or watch from the sidelines like a deer in the headlights as portfolio values head ever lower. Let's look at what's actually working.

First, while some portion of the selloff was likely initiated by the Fed's modest rate hike in December, the 0.25% increase has all been directed at the short end of the yield curve. Bonds, especially long-dated bonds have performed quite well, with the yield on the 30-year UST falling below 3% (2.93% as of this writing) from a level of 3.04% just last week. Eleven basis points of declining yield has the price of the US Treasury 2x ETF (UBT) rising from $73 to $76 over the same period. That's a 4% gain for the week, while everything else seems to be swimming furiously in a sea of red.

This leads us to our first trade for the New Year, bonds, and specifically UBT as an ETF play available to retail investors. UBT is levered 2x which means that a rise in long term interest rates would also cause this instrument to fall disproportionately in value. But if your view is that the economy may be hitting a rough patch, where stocks are susceptible, then bonds may provide a safe port in the storm. This is especially true if you believe economic growth and inflation, the principal enemies of bonds, will continue to be subdued. It's also worth noting that UBT traded as high as 97 back in February 2015, when the long bond traded at 2.25%. Not to say this is where things are headed, but with the softness we're seeing in global markets, difficult to rule it out either.

Oil continues its rapid decline, now bordering on a free-fall. The inverse leveraged ETF, SCO, has done especially well over this period, rising from $80 in the beginning of November to its present level of $160. How much lower oil can go is anyone's guess, but WTI is now roughly where it was during the 2009 recession (along with other commodity prices). Hard to believe it falls much further, yet SCO may still form a reasonable hedge against long positions, certainly in energy and perhaps, also, industrial stocks.

SKF, the inverse leveraged ETF on financial services stocks, also has our attention. This instrument can not only provide a hedge against other long equity positions, but highlight the risks specific to the financial services sector. Some concern with financial services profits may be warranted following the poor performance of markets in the latter part of 2015 and the disastrous 4th quarter results posted by Jefferies on December 15. Customarily a harbinger of things to come at the larger Wall Street names, our concern can only be amplified by the exposures of these firms to deteriorating credits in the oil patch.

On the long side, defensive sectors like healthcare and utilities may prove a good place to hide, collecting dividends and waiting for markets to sort themselves out. As to cash, which investment advisors tend to dismiss, it's beating stocks by 4.89% this year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2016 Market Predictions

It's time to take stock of markets in 2015 and provide our thoughts on where things are headed in 2016. Before we get to the predictions, let's take a look at the consensus view of economists and market mavens heading into 2015 to see what they got right, and what they got wrong.

Consensus forecast for 2015 GDP by economists under a survey conducted by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank at this time last year was for 3.00% growth. This view was confirmed in a similar survey of the Wall Street Journal on January 5, 2015.  Now, with only one day remaining in the year, it looks like 2015 GDP will be closer to 2.00%, a substantial miss. Not surprising, really. In a recent report of Goldman Sachs, researchers found that the consensus forecast for GDP has been wrong in 13 of the past 16 years with economists consistently erring on the side of optimism.

Stock market predictions are equally skewed it turns out. With the S&P 500 wavering on either side of flat for the year, the consensus forecast of stock gurus by CNN Money for 2015 was for a gain of 8% on the year (the index is at 2063 as of this writing, in the red for the year). Nonetheless, stocks still trade at over 19x trailing earnings, a historically high market multiple.

Predictions for the bond market were even further from the mark, with market forecasters expecting a substantial rise in bond yields (and decline in bond prices) for several years now. Yet the UST 10-year currently stands at 2.29% (versus 2.22% this time last year). Hardly the drubbing professionals were expecting. 

This having been said, let's take a look at where things could be headed in 2016.

GDP will likely slow further from its tepid pace of 2015 as the dollar strengths, global demand weakens and oil (as well as other commodities) continue to drag down the energy and materials sectors. With the economy reaching full employment (irrespective of the falling labor participation rate) gains in personal income will likely be limited. While the argument can be made that a low unemployment rate increases the leverage of workers over management, income gains from this source will be far lower than moving people from unemployment to employment, as reflected by a lowered unemployment rate. 

At the same time, consumers continue to be concerned about the economy and their personal levels of savings, as reflected in a rising savings rate. Rising savings with limited income gains spells trouble for retailers and consumer spending more generally. Don't look for any gains in governmental spending either in an election year. At the same time, a strengthening dollar jeopardizes corporate profits and exports. Piece it all together and it's hard to make an argument for rising GDP in 2016.

In this environment, and with stocks at lofty levels, the market will be vulnerable. Against a backdrop of Fed tightening volatility will be inevitable. Profit margins will compress and if p/e multiples contract, the downside for stocks could be pronounced.

US Treasury bonds may present the best opportunity for gain, if the foregoing conclusions about growth and corporate profitability are plausible. With slower growth comes lower inflation, benefiting holders of fixed income instruments. While the Fed may be tinkering at the short end, their ability to control the long-end (absent an unwind of long QE positions) is limited. With a lowered Federal budget deficit forecast for 2016 comes lower Treasury issuance, with an emphasis on the short end, as the Treasury has already so indicated. If there is global turmoil in the year ahead, the fear trade will rush investors into UST, with significant price appreciation a distinct possibility.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Banks Hike Prime Rate, but leave Savings Rates Untouched

Yesterday, in what must be the most telegraphed increase in interest rates in American history, the Federal Reserve Bank moved to increase interest rates by 0.25%. Major US banks quickly followed suit, hiking the Prime Lending Rate by the same amount. But banks have left the deposit rate paid on consumer savings at close to zero. First reported by ZeroHedge, banks one after the other, including Wells Fargo, Citi, JP Morgan and US Bank moved within minutes of the Fed hike to raise their bank's Prime Lending Rate to borrowers.

What's shocked investors is that after seven years of near zero rates of interest on savings and money market balances at banks, the Fed's long awaited rise in interest rates would have no corresponding increase, not even a comment, on raising the rate of interest for savers on bank deposits. But when you look at how banks have managed the interest rate cycle following the financial crisis, it's really no surprise.

While corporations and banks alike have seen their cost of borrowing fall precipitously following the financial crisis, banks by and large have been unwilling to pass these savings onto consumers through lower interest rates on credit card balances and consumer loans. Banks, who have been able to borrow at interest rates near zero and have paid substantially less than 1% of interest on consumer deposits for the past seven years, have held credit card rates near their all-time high. 

Data of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve in a 2012 report to Congress on trends in bank credit card pricing found that average bank rates had fallen from 14.68% in the period leading up to the recession to just 13,09% by 2011. By November of 2014, this rate had fallen to just 12.89%. At the same time, the average rate of return on assets of large US credit card banks had climbed from 2.75% to 5.25%. With the funding cost of banks near zero for this period and the interest rates charged on consumer loan balances stuck at 13%, it's quite shocking that returns on bank assets weren't actually far higher.

This points to the great failure in Federal Reserve monetary policy over the past seven years and why US economic growth isn't far more robust, following seven years of zero interest rates and $4 trillion of bond purchases under the Fed's program of Quantitative Easing. The answer, in short, is that the benefits of easy money and ultra-low interest rates have been retained by the banks, rather than passed along to consumers. With the banks serving as the Fed's only transmission mechanism for monetary policy, this is not only unfortunate, it's unconscionable. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dark Clouds on the Horizon

It's that time of year again when financial markets are dominated by trading for year-end tax purposes, to clean up portfolios and to window dress statements for investors. Volatility is expected. This December certainly hasn't disappointed, with triple digit swings in the DJIA in each of its eight trading days.

But beyond the customary year-end positioning, there's a sense of real trouble brewing in markets for 2016. Here's what concerns us about the economy and financial markets for the New Year:

Plunging Commodity Prices - By mid-year 2015, the Bloomberg Commodities Index fell to a 16 year low, falling to levels below that of the 2009 Great Recession. The Index has since continued its downward spiral through year-end in sectors ranging from oil to natural gas to precious and industrial metals. The plunge in commodities has taken with it resource laden emerging market currencies whose economies and production capabilities had boomed in prior years. The culprit, many suspect is China, having pulled back from its massive infrastructure build of years prior, its financing of still empty cities and its failed attempts to spur internal consumption. Of a scale never quite seen before, in December of 2014 Forbes reported that China had used more concrete in the prior three years than the US used in the entire 20th Century. With the spigot dialing down, demand for raw materials worldwide is plummeting. But our concern is that falling commodities prices bring with them more that just price deflation, but also income, employment and consumption implications, as producers realize substantially less income for the same resources and production expense. A recent New York Times article chronicled the impact of declining commodities here at home upon America's Heartland.

The Collapse of Emerging Markets - Emerging markets currencies have been falling throughout 2015, following devaluations in China and Vietnam and trading weakness in Russia, Turkey, Malaysia and Brazil. The plunge in EM is driven by commodities prices, but also by the high levels of US dollar denominated borrowings in these countries, and borrowers now faced with paying back their loans against a strongly appreciated dollar. But others have questioned whether the ephemeral commodities demand from China is only half the problem. The corollary concern is that ultra-loose monetary policy drove capital to flow into these markets, with that capital now being repatriated as GDP and return prospects for EM countries flounder. Foremost among troubled EM countries is Brazil, once a stalwart of the Emerging Market BRICs, now in a full-scale economic depression. Goldman Sachs believes that a developing crisis in EM is the third wave of the Great Recession; the first being the US housing crisis, the second the European Sovereign Debt Crisis (i.e., Greece, Portugal, Spain, etc.)

Distress in the High Yield Bond Market - Credit spreads in the high yield bond market have been blowing out all year, with CCC rated junk bond prices down 20% from mid-2014.  And bond maven, Jeff Gundlach, head of DoubleLine Capital believes the carnage is about to get a whole lot worse as the markets prepare for liftoff by the Fed.

Weakness in Retail - A slew of third-quarter earnings reports of retail giants Macy's, Nordstrom's and Tiffany's and smaller hot retailers like LuLuLemon, have sent share prices of these companies down 10-20% in a single day following their release of dismal same store sales, top line revenues and earnings. While some of this retail demand may have been made up by online shopping, it's unnerving in what it says about the state of bricks and mortar retail and the US consumer.

Shrinking Corporate Profits - Corporate earnings for 2015 Q4 are estimated to decline -4.3%. If so, it will mark the first three consecutive quarters of year over year earnings declines since 2009 Q3.  A total of 83 companies have issued negative guidance for 2015 Q4. With the S&P 500 currently trading at 17x forward earnings, shares prices could decline amidst falling earnings while still leaving us at historically high valuations. And if both earnings and multiples contract, look out below.

Fed Policy - the 800-pound gorilla of market worries is the Fed, as it prepares to raise interest rates for the first time in ten years. While some believe the impact has been built into the markets, given its long-telegraphed move, concern is growing that implementation may be far more difficult and disruptive to markets that anyone believed.

While there are other concerns looming that bullish investors tend to dismiss, arguing "the market likes to climb a wall of worry", adages aside, investors are wise to take note of what increasingly appears to be a gathering storm.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Can the Fed Raise Interest Rates?

With talk in financial markets this month once again focusing on a Fed rate hike, many are wondering, why so much controversy over a mere 0.25% rise in the Fed Funds rate? Viewed from this perspective, it is of course, puzzling. After all, the Fed Funds rate has been pegged to a range of 0-0.25% for seven years. Will a modest rise in the range to 0.25-0.50% even make a difference?

In terms of corporate and consumer borrowing costs, an increase in the Fed Funds rate of this magnitude will do little to slow borrowing and investment. The concern in financial markets, though, is increasingly focused on how the Fed gets there. Even in this topsy-turvy world of the Federal Reserve, the Fed can't simply will it and it will be so. In other words, the Fed will be required to intervene in financial markets to engineer a rate rise, even as small as 0.25%. And given the massive amounts of liquidity it has supplied, this may not be easy.

Fed policy is largely carried out through Open Market Operations: the buying and selling of US treasury securities between the Fed and its universe of primary dealers, typically large Wall Street banks. These banks are required to bid on the sale and purchase of securities at the Fed's request. While the Fed does buy and sell securities directly, as it did to the tune of $4 trillion through its program of Quantitative Easing, its operations are more commonly carried out in the market for repurchase agreements.

Repurchase agreements, or REPOs, involve short-term loans secured by the pledge of US treasury securities as collateral. When the Fed wants to loosen monetary policy, or increase liquidity, it does so by lending to the banks through the REPO market. Banks pledge US treasuries against short term loans from the Fed. The flow of cash (or credits) to the banks, increases liquidity in the banking system.

Now, to drain liquidity and drive the trading range of Fed Funds higher, the Fed does the exact opposite, or as they have imaginatively called it "Reverse REPOs". In reverses, the Fed pledges its collateral against short term borrowings from the banks. The operation serves to drain reserves from the banking system, thereby tightening credit and raising short-term interest rates.

This is all basic to the monetary system. The question that now arises is just how much reverses the Fed must do to get the desired 0.25% effect on the Fed Funds rates. For this, no one really knows. After all, we're through the looking glass on everything that financial markets professionals have learned in business school. This remains the question and that is why markets are so focused on not only when, but how, the Fed will drive interest rates higher.

A Bloomberg article of Sep 16, 2014, estimated the volume of reverse repos necessary to drive interest rates higher at $250 million per day. A hefty chunk of change. But that was a good fifteen months ago. An article in US Today from earlier this year questioned not how much, but whether or not the Fed could raise interest rates. From their report: "Nobody's ever done this before," says Jon Faust, director of the Center for Financial Economics for Johns Hopkins University and special adviser to the Fed's board of governors until last September."  Their argument being, that with $2.5 trillion of excess reserves in the banking system, the Fed has lost the ability to engineer monetary policy with anything less than dramatic intervention in the financial markets. 

But a recent article by the Mises Institute goes even further, questioning whether the Fed even has the tools any longer to effectively raise rates. They highlight Japan's dismal experiment with monetary policy that has now led to sub-1% interest rates for twenty years. One way or the other, it looks like we may soon find out the answer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Why the GOP's Flat Tax is a Terrible Idea

Over the past few weeks, GOP presidential hopefuls began offering their views on US tax reform. From Rubio to Cruz to Ben Carson, the idea of a flat tax, a single tax rate applied to all taxpayers, has become the rallying cry of GOP candidates. Simple, swift, fair, except for the fact that it would be an outright disaster. 

In October, the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion column by GOP candidate Rick Santorum entitled, A Flat Tax is the Best Path to Prosperity, heralding the coming of a new, just and simplified tax system. In it, Santorum proposes a single tax rate of 20% that would be applied to all income in the US. His plan would eliminate the marriage penalty, the death tax and the alternative minimum tax, pernicious taxes paid by a great number of Americans. In its place, each taxpayer would be given a $2,750 standard deduction, as most other deductions and credits would be eliminated. Santorum estimates that his tax plan will reduce federal tax receipts by $1.1 trillion over ten years, to be paid for in part, he explains, by repealing Obamacare. Hmm.

But a flat tax ignores several important realities about the US economy and its tax base. First, among these is the fact that 43% of American taxpayers pay nothing in federal income tax. Moreover, roughly 14% of US households pay neither federal income taxes nor payroll taxes (with two-thirds of these taxpayers being elderly). The reason for the low rate of tax participation, according to the Tax Policy Center, is fairly straightforward: half simply earn too little, while the other half reduce their taxable income through the earned income and child tax credit.

Now we can argue that these individuals are not paying their fair share, but the fact is, a flat tax would devastate these households, already stressed to make ends meet on marginal incomes. Moreover, tax collections from this population, in light of their resources would make this proposal not only unfair, but also highly unlikely.

Now the question remains, if 43% of taxpayers pay no federal income taxes, who does pay? Apparently, 83% of the $1.26 trillion in total US income taxes collected in 2014 came from the top 1/5th of taxpayers. The top 20% accounted for 51% of total US personal income and 83% of total personal income taxes (the reason the latter number is higher than the first is, of course, due to the progressive tax system currently in effect).  

A flat tax of 20% would greatly reduce the income collected from this higher income group, while doing little to raise tax collections from the 80% of US taxpayers that account for the remaining 17% of total federal income tax. In short, a flat tax would be a disaster. And while proponents of the flat tax will argue that lower tax rates will incentivize greater production and therefore raise the total level of income subject to tax, there's simply no reliable data to support this conclusion. As we enter the new year, the GOP needs to drop the flat tax and move on to a more sophisticated tax plan if it intends to capture the imagination of the voting public.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Award-Winning Finalist in the Business: Personal Finance/Investing Category of the 2015 USA Best Book Awards

Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream was awarded the Finalist designation in the 2015 USA Best Book Awards category of Business: Personal Finance/Investing.  The book was one of two finalists in the category and the only self-published work to receive this award. Up In Smoke chronicles the underpinning of a crisis in American retirement funding from Social Security to public pension systems, 401(k), IRA and private retirement savings accounts. It is required reading for anyone interested in the state of US retirement savings, the implications for the US economy and the crisis facing 70 million baby boomers now approaching their retirement years. The full list of 2015 USA Book Award recipients can be found here.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Why You Need to Pay Attention to the Retirement Crisis (even if your retirement is fully funded)

A recent survey in Forbes of attitudes toward retirement revealed 18% of Americans believe they are very prepared for the expenses of retirement. A report of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, however, estimates that 43% of Americans believe they are unprepared. The remaining 39% are uncertain about their ability to support themselves in retirement. Many of those who are unprepared believe the government will find a way to support them in their golden years. While those comfortable in their own plans believe the retirement crisis is simply "not their problem". Both groups are wrong. Here's why.

Currently in America, half of pre-retirees (age 55-64) have no retirement savings, while the half that do show median savings of $111,000. The median retirement savings of this age cohort as a whole (including both those with and those without funded accounts) is only $14,000. By 2030, just fifteen years from now, Americans age 65 and over will total 70 million. Half, or 35 million people, will have no retirement savings. The median balance of those with savings will support retirement income of about $370 per month. So, another 17.5 million will be grossly underfunded in their retirement savings. Roughly 9% of this group, or 6.3 million work for public sector agencies, often with good retirement plans and benefits. This means roughly 46 million people will neither have the benefit of public employee pension plans, nor adequate personal retirement savings. By 2030, US total population is projected to be on the order of 375 million people, so this group of economically distressed seniors will represent an estimated 12.3% of the nation's population.

First, as to why the government can't make this problem go away. The 2015 Trustees Report of the Social Security Administration shows a projected date of insolvency of the Social Security Trust fund of 2034. By that date, the Trustees predict, Social Security will only be able to pay roughly 75% of annual benefits. Now, median annual benefits of Social Security last year were just $15,000, so (in current dollars) median benefits would be reduced down to $10,000 per year (75% of $15,000), substantially below the poverty line. For the fund as a whole, the present value deficit of Social Security today, again per the Trustees report, is a staggering $10.7 trillion.

Now, why this is your problem, even if you believe it is not. If you've been reading along, you have a sense of the magnitude of the retirement crisis and can begin to imagine the consequences to the economy of a burden of 46 million seniors living in poverty. But consider this. In addition to the under-funding of personal retirement accounts and Social Security mentioned above, US state and local government pension plans are underfunded by an estimated $4 trillion. These are funds that governments are legally responsible to pay retirees. To raise the funds necessary to pay their pension obligations, governments will turn to...taxpayers. There is no one else. Now, don't shoot the messenger, as bad as the problem is, it's still better to be aware of the issue now, while some solutions still exist. 

If you'd like to read more about the retirement crisis and what can be done about it, please check out my new book, Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream, available now on