Thursday, June 23, 2016

The National Debt Problem

Despite what the title above may imply, there are many that do not see the dramatic rise in government debt as a problem. In fact, very few nations see their sovereign debt as an issue, despite the unprecedented rise in borrowings over the past several years. Most recently China, whose total debt has now risen to eye-popping levels, was quick to dismiss their levels of indebtedness as a reason for concern.

Let's put this in perspective for China. According to a recent study published by McKinsey & Co, in 2000, total China debt was roughly $2 trillion. By 2007, China debt had risen to $7 trillion and by 2014 to a whopping $28 trillion. In fourteen years, China's debt has grown by 600%. Yet, Chinese officials are eager to dispel any concern by claiming just earlier today that there is no problem with the debt, as long as GDP continues to grow.  

This has always been the rationale, hasn't it, or at least for the past ten years when debt in China, the US and around the world has exploded higher? The argument is supported by the primary metric for evaluating sovereign debt, the ratio of debt to GDP. China's total debt is currently 250% of GDP and, as shown from the chart to the rights, is expanding at an alarming rate. 

US debt, both total and US federal direct borrowing is also a key problem, however, and here's why. First, let's look at the US national debt and it's growth over the past ten years. Total US government debt in September 2015 was $18.1 trillion, according to official records of the US Treasury Department. In 2007, or eight years prior, the national debt was $9 trillion, representing growth of roughly 100% over this period. Eight years prior to this, or 1999, US government debt was $5.6 trillion, implying a growth rate of 60%. So clearly, the rate of growth is accelerating, in this case, by a factor of 2/3rd.  But let's leave this aside and return to the argument that it is only the ratio of debt to GDP that is relevant in quantifying the level of debt burden of the American people.

This ratio, as well, paints a fairly stark picture as can be seen from this graph of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.  But this chart shows Federal debt at just over 105%, a level that the government would argue is manageable given the breadth of the US economy. 

But is this metric of debt to GDP even meaningful? Let's remember that the government's ability to pay the interest (and principal) on the national debt is derived from tax revenue. Now while taxes are collected on economic activity, or GDP, it follows that the greater the GDP, the greater the tax revenue, etc.  But is this reasonable if US tax revenue represents a fairly small share of total US economic activity?

According to the Tax Policy Institute, total US tax revenue currently represents just 17% of GDP. With the national debt at $18 trillion and 2015 tax revenue of $3.2 trillion, the ratio of debt to tax revenue (or the portion of GDP that relates to the Federal government) was 562% at the end of last year! Now what other corporation or individual borrower in the United States has a debt to income ratio of 562%? Exxon, one of America's largest companies and with substantial capital investment, had total debt in 2015 of $20 billion. With annual revenues of $51 billion, however, a debt to income ratio of 562% would support debt of $286 billion (it would also make them insolvent to the tune of $116 billion). Perhaps the board of Exxon has considerably more common sense in its judicious use of debt than the US Congress, in its unwillingness to take cover in this questionable metric of debt burden.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Valuing Stocks in a World Gone Mad

An abundant supply of capital sloshing around the global markets in search of return. The idea has been discussed extensively over the past few years. The argument was first made that excesses found their way into mortgages and mortgage backed securities, then US and Japanese bonds and ultimately, US and foreign equities. In times of bubbles or "irrational exuberance" as Fed Chairman Greenspan was fond of saying, investors tend to find rationales that fit otherwise irrational investment decisions, thus allowing bubbles to form. This may be true of stock valuation metrics, as well.

What prompts me to get into this topic was an episode from earlier in the week of Mad Money, where TV persona Jim Cramer, ever the bull, argued that the drop in stock prices over the last few days was a "blip" presenting a trading opportunity for smart investors. His choice sector for the next rotation of our sloshing mound of capital: consumer staple stocks. This on a day, most interestingly, when leading hedge fund manager Stan Druckenmiller advised investors at the Sohn Conference to sell stocks and head into gold. Given Druckenmiller's stellar investment performance, it's a notion we can hardly dismiss.

But let's look at a few names Cramer threw out as investment ideas, raising the much larger question of how and when the metrics for stock valuation had changed so dramatically. The first name Cramer offered was Clorox (CLX). Clorox trades at a trailing price/earnings multiple of 25.33x. Higher than the broad market multiple, and significantly greater than the historical trading average of the S&P, but not stratospheric. But at $129, Clorox is trading above its five year average multiple, of a still aggressive 21x.  If Clorox were to simply trade at its historic multiple, the price would drop to around $111.

Let's take another example. Colgate Palmolive (CL) at $71.88 is trading at 47.5x trailing 12 month earnings, well above its lofty 5-year average of nearly 26x.  Proponents of the stock, however, will make two arguments. First with interest rates as low as they are, they would argue, stocks "deserve" a higher multiple (as if companies have an inherent right to the higher stock price). Hmm. They will also point to the far more reasonable forward p/e projection to justify the price - and this is the fundamental point to be made here.  

The forward multiple for Colgate is now just under 26x, wholly in line with the company's historic 5-year multiple. But here's the point. To roughly halve the multiple on a forward basis (i.e., from from 47.5 to 26) requires earnings to grow over the next 12 months at roughly double the level of the past 12 months, or by 100%. More specifically to Colgate, for the company's annual earnings to align with a 26 p/e at the current stock price would require earnings to climb from the roughly $1.3 billion they made in 2015 to $2.6 b in 2016!

Now, here's the rub. That basic math would be true, but only if the share count outstanding remained fixed. But Colgate, as true of many consumer staple and industrial companies in this environment, is buying back shares, reducing the number of shares outstanding by some 15 million per year. They've done this at the expense of adding leverage, or debt, to the balance sheet, but we'll leave that issue aside for now.

But even with the adjustment, or on a constant share basis, Colgate would need to grow its earnings by 80% in 2016 to achieve a 26x multiple at the current stock price. All this, for a company whose net income has declined sequentially in each of the past five years. I can't help feeling that Druckenmiller might be right.  With these kind of metrics, how will we ever get the toothpaste back in the tube?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Investing in Utility Stocks

Those who read my post from early January, "What's Working in this Market Correction", will know I favor utility stocks in the current market.  In fact, the utility ETF, XLU rose from 43 on January 4 to 50 on March 28, or a gain of 16% in 12 weeks.  It's since backed off, now trading at 48.  I'll explain why in a moment.  First, why I like utility stocks and what their performance this year says about the economy.


Utility stocks essentially trade like bonds.  Known for consistent and high dividends, investors buy utility stocks as they would fixed income securities, for their predictable level of dividend payments.  The dividend yield, or the relationship between the annual dividend and the stock price, is often equated to a bond yield for more traditional fixed income securities.  Utility stocks are not pure dividend plays, though, and we'll get to this issue in a moment, as well.

Trading like bonds, of course, means that price and yield vary inversely.  As interest rates rise, the price of bonds and utility stocks decline.  As rates decline, utility stocks tend to appreciate. Over the past two months, since the lows of the stock market in February, stocks have rallied following a risk on momentum trade.  Bonds have weakened.  The US 10-year has traded as low as 1.63% and as high as a 1.97% over this period.  

If this risk on rally that has been leading momentum into the least favored sectors of the market is about to turn once again, however, the focus will shift back to the continued weakness in GDP, consumer spending, capital investment, durable goods orders, commodity prices and corporate earnings.  This perceived weakness will damage stocks, but boost fixed income securities that rally in the face of low growth and inflation.

This being said, while factors favor utility stocks, I don't prefer the ETF alternatives, and here's why.  Utility stocks largely trade like bonds, but not entirely.  Their values also swing based upon forecasted revenue on energy sales to their customer base.  In some regions of the country, that customer base can be heavily industrial, for instance Texas, Oklahoma and much of the mid-west.  If the economy is in fact slowing, industries in these regions will likely reduce their consumption of power, impacting utility revenues.

Residential demand for power, on the other hand, is highly stable and far less impacted by economic cycles.  For this reason, better opportunities present themselves in utilities with higher residential customer profiles, than what might be achievable with the XLU.  A few large utilities that fit this profile and should be considered are Duke (DUK) with 6.2 million of its total customer base of 7.2 million being residential, Southern (S0) and Exelon (EXC).

Thursday, April 7, 2016

San Bernardino's Pension Fiasco

New details emerged this week on the City of San Bernardino's bankruptcy recovery plan. Reuters reported a proposed settlement with two of the creditors of the city's 2005 pension obligation bonds. That plan calls for bondholders to write off as much as 60%, or $30 million of their original $50 million investment. 

The bonds in question were originally issued by the City back in 2005 to help shore up the city's struggling public employee pension fund, held by the California Public Employee Retirement System, or CalPERS.  Unable to come up with the funds to fulfill its commitment to retirees, the city turned to the public bond markets, selling bonds and using the proceeds to pay CalPERS. In being granted authorization under law to issue the pension bonds in 2005, the city obtained a court ruling confirming that the city wasn't issuing new debt, per se, but rather refinancing debt it owed to the CalPERS pension fund.

By July 2012, though, soon after it filed for bankruptcy, the city failed to make required semi-annual payments on the bonds, throwing the bonds into default.  Interestingly, in its bankruptcy filing, the city blamed the high costs of its fire and police labor contracts, including pensions as the main issue forcing the bankruptcy filing. Now in bankruptcy, the city failed to make payments on the bonds funding that pension liability, as well.

The two principal holders/guarantors of the bonds sued the city soon thereafter, arguing that the bonds should be paid on an equal basis with the city's continuing obligations to fund its pension account at CalPERS.  But in the end, the powerful, $300 billion CalPERS prevailed in court. In May 2015, a bankruptcy judge threw out the bondholder suit, allowing the city to proceed with its plan to make pension payments to retirees in full, while forcing bondholders to suffer significant losses on their loan to the city.

Now let's step back here a moment and take a look at what has actually transpired.  The city, through negotiation with its employee unions, had agreed to make a certain level of lifetime pension payments to retired city employees. Unable to come up with the funds from tax revenues and other sources to do so, the city borrowed $50 million from investors. It deposited these funds with CalPERS, the pension trustee, on the city's behalf.  

Now, in cramming down a loss of $30 million (or 60%) to bondholders, the city is arguing that it doesn't have the funds to make full repayment. However, it actually does. The full $50 million that the city borrowed, plus interest, remains on deposit in the city's pension account with CalPERS. So, in effect, what has happened is that the city effectively stole $30 million from investors (the difference between the original borrowing and the amount to be repaid) using the money to make whole on its pension commitment to employees.

Now, here is where this gets truly galling. As reported in our blog from May 2015, a study of salaries of the 120 highest paid firefighters in San Bernardino reported by Bloomberg shows the top one-third drawing an average salary of $190,000 per year; the next third $166,000 (this is in a city where the median household income is $52,112 per year). In retirement, as early as age 50, these firefighters may be eligible for annual pensions of up to $171,000 per year, an obligation the city will need to pay for many years to come. This might, in part, explain the types of management decisions that led up to the city's bankruptcy and its nearly unconscionable deal with its bondholders.

Much more on the public pension and retirement crisis can be found in my new book: Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream, available on

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Dash For Trash in Stocks

Following an unusually rough start to 2016, the last four weeks have seen a dramatic turn of events in stocks, oil and commodity prices. The question we ask is "what has changed?" Unfortunately, not very much. Our concerns entering 2016 are still with us: record low commodity prices, weak oil, widening junk bond yields, declining corporate profits and a less accommodative Fed.  These concerns are superimposed upon a bleak macroeconomic picture, with many starlets of the emerging markets stumbling, including China, and others falling hard, like Brazil.

Amidst this backdrop the rally in stocks has been puzzling. Driving these gains, in part, was a race to hastily cover short positions in oil, as a rumored OPEC alumnae reunion quickly sent the price of oil up by 50%.  Oil analysts, though, shrug off the effect of a plan to freeze production at today's record levels (even assuming parties would hold to it) as having little impact on ever-growing inventories.  However, as weak shorts run to cover in oil and beaten down oil stocks, hedge funds and algorithmic traders have been quick to ride the tailcoats of all the buying.

But let's look at one non-oil, non-mining blue chip stock to see what has happened to valuations over the past several weeks. Boeing Corp (BA) bounded off its mid-February lows of 108, to now trade at a robust 130.  Little has actually changed at the company over this period. In fact, the company announced in late February that it would be laying off employees, including highly paid engineers, as it faces stiff competitive market pressures, principally from Airbus. This news followed a downbeat earnings report for 2015 Q2, released on January 27, in which the company lowered forward earnings guidance on an expectation of slower 2016 sales. Boeing's net in 2015 Q4, it turns out, was $1.03 billion, down from $1.47 billion in the same quarter a year earlier. 

Yet despite this 29% drop in Q4 earnings and lowered guidance for 2016, Boeing stock is up a stunning 20% from its February 11 low.  So how is this possible?  Multiple expansion. Today, BA trades at 17.15x twelve month trailing earnings, above its 5-year historical range of 16.19x. But with earnings projected to decline, even if not nearly to the degree the company experienced in 2015 Q4, this TTM multiple will jump significantly, without any further gain in the price of its stock.

Now this isn't to say that Boeing is a weak or troubled company. It is an outstanding company, with excellent long term prospects. But these prospects must be set against global macroeconomic conditions that support, or in this case, limit growth. This issue, in fact, is precisely what the company warned in its Q4 earnings statement.

Meanwhile far trashier stocks, like Chesapeake Energy (CHK) are up 201% over the past four weeks, while Freeport McMoran (FXC) is up 187%.  It's much more difficult to value these stocks on a TTM p/e basis, because these stocks do not have earnings.  Not by a long shot. FXC lost $12.2 billion in fiscal 2015. If you think this might give pause to the reasonableness of a 187% rise in FXC's stock price, you might want to consider treading cautiously in this newfound market rally.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The Rising Mountain of New Jersey Pension Debt

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States moved to uphold a 2015 ruling of the New Jersey Supreme Court, thereby defeating a challenge to the state's plan of pension funding brought by public employee labor unions. The unions sued the state over the underfunding of the state's staggering employee pension deficit. The unions alleged that in 2014 Governor Christie failed to fund the plan at an agreed upon level, per a deal negotiated by state legislators and the unions in 2011.

To understand where this story begins, or just how dire the circumstances are surrounding the New Jersey Public Employees Pension Fund, a bit of background is required. In 2014, the State of New Jersey deposited roughly $700 million of taxpayer dollars into its employee pension fund. The State spent an additional $2.8 billion of public monies to fund retiree health care benefits. Yet, despite these significant investments in shoring up the retirement plan of its past and current employees, the State actually underfunded its statutory funding obligations by nearly $3 billion.

To understand how this is possible, we need to delve into the murky world of state and local government accounting. To fully fund the state's requirements, simply to keep pace with current pension costs - with no effort to catch up on past underfunding - would have required the State of New Jersey to contribute $6.5 billion of taxpayer funds, or 20% of the entire state budget to its pension funds. So the state "saved" $3 billion by underfunding in 2014. But year after year of these kinds of "savings" or deferrals, simply builds one heck of a mountain of debt, or pension liabilities, for the state (or more specifically, taxpayers) to climb in the future. In fact, by 2015, New Jersey's total benefits liabilities had reached a staggering $90 billion - $37 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and $53 billion in unfunded health benefits.

Now back to the Supreme Court. The case revolved around the agreement negotiated in 2011. In order to gain concessions from the unions on greater employee pension contributions, the state agreed to gradually increase its funding of pension contributions in each year, until reaching the required annual level. And in fact, things proceeded just this way in 2012 and 2013.  But in 2014, in an effort to pass a strained budget, the state reduced its annual pension contribution by the aforementioned $3 billion. Governor Christie claimed financial hardship. The unions sued saying the stated had breached its 2011 deal. The Supreme Court has now sided with the state, allowing the State of New Jersey further leeway in kicking the can down the road on its pension obligations.

Looking ahead, for the state's fiscal year 2017 beginning on July 1, the Governor has proposed $1.86 billion in pension contribution, or just 40% of its required annual contribution. And while this may help the state balance its 2017 budget, the state's pension mountain continues to rise before New Jersey public employees and cast an ever-greater shadow over its taxpayers.

Much more on the public pension and retirement crisis can be found in my new book: Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream, available on

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Retail Spending and the Consumer

I had lunch recently with a friend in a fashionable urban restaurant. When the conversation came around to the economy he said, just look around. Everywhere I go restaurants and retail shops are crowded with people eager to spend. From Fifth Avenue to Rodeo Drive. From San Francisco to Miami Beach, restaurants are crowded and consumers are spending, spending, spending.

The problem with this image, of course, is consumer behavior in these tony high end locations tells us very little about the overall health of the American consumer. How little, may be just 1%. 

For the month of January, total retail sales grew by 0.2% over the prior month. These weak results were at least partially due to falling gas prices - a good thing for consumers. Retail sales ex-auto, gasoline, building materials and food services (i.e., core retail sales) were up 0.6%. While not stellar, the January report followed an outright decline in core retail sales of 0.3% in December. Not great, but certainly not recessionary. Bear in mind also that retail sales figures are not adjusted for inflation. So 2% sales growth in an economy with 2% inflation, would mean essentially flat unit sales. 

Against this backdrop, consider that four states are already officially in a downturn, as reported by Bloomberg News: Alaska, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming. Likewise, other states are threatened, as well, including Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, according to Moody’s Investors Service. And of course there is Texas, which is also struggling with plunging oil prices, layoffs and reduced consumer spending.

So what's going on? Fortunately, the Commerce Department, in its monthly report of consumer spending, gives us a broader view of how people are spending, or not spending. If we drill down into the January Retail Sales Report, here's what we find beneath the headlines. On a year over year basis, food and beverage store sales were up just 1% (the CPI in January on a year over year basis was up 1.4% so sales grew by an amount less than inflation). But sales at bars and restaurants were up a solid 5.4%, indicating a preference for meals out to those at home for many consumers. Yet, furniture and home furnishings grew by just 1.4% (about the rate of inflation) while clothing stores were flat (no increase in sales, before inflation). And department store sales fell 4.5%, while electronics stores were off 5.4%.

So while the anecdotal evidence of a healthy consumer eating out more often and buying lavish clothes may be what some of us see, others see a far more bleak picture of retail spending, lending yet further support to the case for an impending recession.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How to Spike Your Pension

When Marty Robinson was elected Chief Executive of Ventura County, California in 2008 supporters cheered her appointment. A councilwoman from the Ventura County city of Oxnard claimed, “That’s a glass ceiling broken”. At her retirement ceremony in 2011, her colleagues offered tributes that lasted nearly two hours. The Board of Supervisors renamed a stretch of the County Hall of Administration, “The Marty Robinson Trail”. Ms. Robinson’s compensation that final year? She was paid a total of $330,000.  

Startling as this may be for a public servant, this level also forms the basis by which her lifelong pension payments will be calculated. Her highest year compensation of $330,000 entitles Ms. Robinson to lifetime annual retirement benefits of $272,000, an amount it turns out, that is actually higher than her base salary for the year of $228,000.  By adding unused vacation time, overtime, car allowances and other perks, Ms. Robinson was able to significantly raise (or "spike") her final year compensation as the basis for all future pension benefits she will receive in her retirement. While this practice was outlawed by the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) in 1999, counties like Ventura who do not participate in CalPERS, but rather manage their own internal employee retirement systems are free to allow the practice to continue. In fact, twenty of the state’s fifty-eight counties run pension plans that are outside of this CalPERS mandate, following a 1937 law that granted counties a choice between joining the statewide retirement system and creating their own. These twenty counties, known as 37 Act counties, are not required to follow mandates of CalPERS or other statewide directives.

Assuming Ms. Robinson lives to age 85 and the CPI averages three percent over the next twenty years, Ms. Robinson will receive total retirement benefits from Ventura County of $15,702,608 (or $24,221,167 should she live to age ninety-five).  Now here’s where it gets interesting.  Had she not tried to manipulate the system by spiking her final year income - artificially boosting her salary in the manner described above - her total retirement benefits to age eighty-five would still have totaled $10,849,000, placing her in the top 0.01% of retirees.  

Sadly for us, as taxpayers, Ms. Robinson is not alone. Despite a $761 million unfunded pension liability for Ventura County, 84% of its retired county employees earning more than $100,000 per year pre-retirement saw higher income in retirement than they did as employees on the job. The former Ventura County Sheriff is reportedly receiving $272,000 per year in retirement pay (twenty percent higher than his salary) while the former county Undersheriff is receiving $257,997, a full thirty percent above his base due to spiking.

Following these and other alarming details of the Ventura County retirement system, a measure was placed on the November 2014 ballot called the Sustainable Retirement System Initiative, designed to stop these and other abuses. Among other reforms, the Sustainable Retirement System Initiative would shift new county employees to a 401(k) style defined contribution retirement plan, thereby relieving county taxpayers of future pension liability for these employees. Proponents argued that the measure could save county taxpayers millions. 

A group backed by the Ventura county employee unions quickly sued, however, arguing that if such a measure were to be approved, the county would face great difficulty in recruiting new employees (i.e., if their benefits more closely resembled those of private sector employees). Before taxpayers could have a say one way or the other, on August 4, 2014, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Kent Kellegrew ordered the item be removed from the ballot, thus denying taxpayers an opportunity to vote on the proposal. One last thing in case you are wondering. Yes, County judges are covered by the same Ventura County pension plan.

Much more on the public pension and retirement crisis can be found in my new book: Up In Smoke: How the Retirement Crisis Shattered the American Dream, available on

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.