Morning in Arizona

Morning in Arizona
Rainbows over Canyonlands - Dave Stoker

The Headline Animator

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - Congratulations Graduates, Yada, Yada, Yada

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW + 158 = 16,533
SPX + 15 = 1888
NAS + 34 = 4131
10 YR + .02 = 2.53%
OIL – .33 = 103.74
GOLD – 2.40 = 1292.90
SIL  un = 19.49

Earnings season is winding down; about 96% of S&P 500 companies have reported results, with profit growth this quarter of 5.5% and revenue up 2.8%. While more companies have topped earnings expectations than usual, fewer have beat on the revenue side. This has been an ongoing theme for corporate profits; bottom line growth without corresponding sales. If this formula sounds unsustainable, it is, unless there is some other factor pumping up the markets.

Follow-up from yesterday: China has signed a 30-year deal to buy Russian natural gas worth about $400 billion. The gas deal gives Moscow an economic boost at a time when Washington and the European Union have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on dozens of Russian officials and several companies over Ukraine. It allows Russia to diversify its markets for gas, which now goes mostly to Europe; essentially opening the door to Asia’s gas market and potentially closing the door on the petro-dollar.

The Federal Reserve today released the minutes of the most recent FOMC meeting. Fed policymakers considered several approaches to tightening monetary policy, but decided to remain flexible; which is another way of saying QE is a big experiment and they are just hoping nothing explodes in their face. By making no decisions, the Fed is making it difficult for Wall Street to be spooked by tightening talk, at least for now.

In the minutes, the Fed made no decisions on which tools to use. One great advantage of extending the debate about how to tighten is that it keeps the question of when stuck in background. If the Fed laid out a detailed exit strategy the markets would start to trade the strategy and essentially kill it in its tracks.

The minutes show the Fed still thinks the first quarter slowdown was weather related, and things will pick up, any day now. Fed officials still see slack in the labor force, but there wasn’t consensus on how much slack or what to do about it. Inflation is picking up just a little, but is regarded as stable and not a problem.

After the minutes were published, we heard from several Fed officials, starting with Janet Yellen delivering a commencement address to NYU grads. Yellen delivered what you might expect, and nothing to do with monetary policy: graduates, she said, should “tend the fires of curiosity,” listen to others, show grit in the face of failure, and the courage of her hero Ben Bernanke (yada, yada, yada).

Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco President John Williams said he’s inclined to delay any action that would allow the central bank’s balance sheet to get smaller until after the Fed has lifted interest rates for the first time. Williams  believes the Fed needs to take into account the troubles it had last year when it first floated plans to wind down its bond-buying policy, and make sure markets understand what the central bank does with its bond holdings is entirely different than what it does with short-term rates.

Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Narayana Kocherlakota said the Fed is still failing to deliver on its employment and inflation goals. Kocherlakota says the current unemployment rate of 6.3% overstates the nature of the improvement. He said the labor market is not healthy but he didn’t call for additional levels of stimulus, but he did say it was possible for the Fed to switch to a system where instead of targeting a specific level of inflation, it could shift to a regime where it allowed inflation to rise above target to make up for past shortfalls.

One area of agreement in the FOMC minutes is that officials are concerned about weakness in the housing market; citing factors like higher home prices, construction bottlenecks from a shortage of labor and harsh winter weather, as well as tight credit.

Former White House advisor Larry Summers thinks student debt is slowing the housing market, which in turn is slowing the broader economy. Since 2003, student loan balances have nearly quadrupled to $1.2 trillion, during a period when mortgage debt rose “only” 65% to $8.2 trillion and credit card debt actually declined by 4.2% to $660 billion. The burden of servicing that ever growing student loan debt is eating into other forms of borrowing and spending, such as the purchase of a home. And so the proportion of first-time buyers has been shrinking for years.

Over 70% of the students who are sitting through a commencement speech this spring have student loans. They will start their career, if any, with about $33,000 in debt. Even when adjusted for inflation, it’s about twice as much as 20 years ago. Back then, only 43% of students graduated with student loans. And as education costs have jumped, the idea of working your way through school just doesn’t work anymore.

One of the reasons why education costs have jumped is because of austerity. States cut back on funding for state universities; the schools raised tuition and they discovered they could charge whatever they want, or get away with, because the students just borrow the money. Once upon a time state governments held the reins of university budgets and they would tighten their grip occasionally; no more; and through the student loan programs, designed with whatever intentions, the government is simply aiding and abetting colleges in extracting ever more money from the future lives of their students.

And so for the Class of 2014, you now face the prospect of rising interest rates, a mountain of student loan debt, almost no chance of buying a home in the foreseeable future, and the prospects for a good job in your chosen field are not looking good. Congratulations, don’t despair, just have the grit and courage of Ben Bernanke (yada, yada, yada) and you’ll work your way out of your parents’ basement in 10 or 15 years.

Earlier this week, the Oregon Legislature approved a plan that could pave the way for college students to finance their education by selling equity stakes in their future income. It’s an interesting idea. With both unsubsidized and subsidized Federal loan rates now at 6.8%, and Grad PLUS rates even higher, the student loan burden that comes with an undergraduate degree, let alone further education can be daunting. Unfortunately, Federal loans are often the only option that a student has to pay for school nowadays.

Equity financing would allow these students to avoid debt in exchange for a portion of their future income for a set number of years. Proponents of the Oregon plan claim that 3% per year for 20 years would be enough to keep the program afloat. One concern is that students who expect to be high earners will not participate if it could mean they end up paying more in tuition when all is said and done. Equity financing would be costly for a medical student. A cap on repayment could help solve such a problem. The cap would still have to be higher than the average tuition rate charged by the school. Meanwhile, a equity financing might be a sweet deal for a student taking classes that don’t lead to a big paycheck; it might even encourage them to pursue higher education without regard to finance.

The best that can be said for the plan is that it is a tax on future earnings, the worst is that it is a newfangled name for indentured servitude.

So, back to the housing market for a moment; you have a massive number of young adults living at home with very little financial means for purchasing a home. The recent argument was that as economies grew, this wealth would eventually lift the standard of living for all. There is new economic research showing that this isn’t always the case especially when a rentier class emerges. In fact, this wealth gap is being fully visualized through real estate. Some analysts have been scratching their heads wondering how housing prices could go up while homeownership is actually falling.

How do you have soaring home prices with household incomes dropping? The fact that investors are dominating in the housing market shows how large and powerful these big pools of money have become. The financial sector rarely had an interest in being actual property owners until the housing market imploded. But in the first quarter of this year, cash sales from investors reached an all-time high; that isn’t Mom and Pop buying a crib with cash and it certainly isn’t the first time buyer a few years removed from college.

Since 2005, we have increased the number of rental households by roughly 7 million (a 21 percent increase). Interestingly enough, we have a foreclosure graveyard of 7 million over this same period. Owner occupied housing has actually fallen over this period. We are looking at close to one decade of data and we have fewer individual homeowners today than we did in 2004.

In previous recoveries, you would also see home building picking steam up but that hasn’t happened. In better days, we would see more than 2 million housing starts per year. In this recovery, we’ve been doing our best to close in on 1 million.

And when the Fed last year floated the idea of taper, the markets responded with a taper tantrum, and rates increased, modestly, but an increase; and that was enough to slam the brakes on regular home buyers last year. Mortgage apps are now near an all-time generational low. Regular buyers are becoming a minority. Many of the “pent up demand” argument assumes first, that younger buyers have the means to buy. Second, it also assumes homes are affordable based on their income (which they are not). And so we have cash investors, spurred on by strong stock returns, but what happens if or when the inevitable stock market correction comes along?

No comments: