Current Affairs

Hey, the market is working!

“Finally, our insurance system drives up costs for everyone. Between 1998 and 2015, the cost of cosmetic surgery for top procedures, which is paid by the consumer and not covered by insurance, rose at about half the rate of inflation, while overall health care rose at around double the rate of inflation — more than a threefold difference.”


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A Missed Opportunity

We’ve often lamented the low level of capital spending—bad news for productivity and income growth—despite high rates of corporate profitability. Here’s another perspective on that: real rates of return are higher than returns on financial assets, but that hasn’t led to a rush of capital into real investment.

Graphed below are two financial rates of return—the earnings yield on stocks (the inverse of the P/E ratio) and the ten-year Treasury yield—against our measure of nonfinancial corporate profitability (pretax profits from the national income accounts divided by the value of the tangible capital stock from the Fed’s financial accounts). Note that in recent years, returns on real capital have been comfortably higher than financial returns. Since 2012, the earnings yield on stocks has lagged real returns by an average of 1.1 percentage points—not as big as the 1.9-point gap of the late 1990s, when there was a gusher of real investment that produced a serious acceleration in productivity growth, but still wide compared to the -0.3 point average of the full 1952–2015 scope of the graph.


The gap with Treasury yields is even more striking—4.4 points since 2012, compared to an 0.3 point average in the late 1990s and 0.4 for the full 63-year history presented here.

Profitability is now weakening, so the relative lure (at least on paper, or its silicon equivalent) of real investment is losing some of its charm. But this period of high real returns and low investment is looking like a missed opportunity. That so much corporate cash has been either hoarded, or devoted to buybacks and M&A, is not what long-term prosperity is made from. (Along with mildly tightening standards on C&I loans, the Fed’s recent loan officer survey found weakening demand for them, with “decreased investment in plant or equipment [as] the most commonly cited reason.”) Thirty years ago, as the buyout and buyback booms were just getting going, Peter Drucker wrote: “Everyone who has worked with American management can testify that the need to satisfy the pension fund manager’s quest for higher earnings next quarter, together with the panicky fear of the raider, constantly pushes top managements toward decisions they know to be costly, if not suicidal, mistakes.” It’s amazing how little has changed since the mid-1980s.



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Telling it like it is in the Great Plains

We thought you all might like this comment on gas prices and overall spending from one of our tax contacts in the Great Plains:

I think of savings on gas as pre-spent money. Spending on gas is inelastic, and the average consumer saves about $1,500 a year [for every dollar drop in price]. For the working-class person that $1,500 may have already been spent. Now, instead of being $150 in the hole each month, they are only in for $25. That would explain why the $500 payment back in 2001 didn’t provide substantial gains, and why we didn’t see an increase in spending when gas prices halved.

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The late Ed Hart of the late Financial News Network used to refer to the set of topics around broad price changes as “’flation,” which neatly covers inflation, deflation, and disinflation in a single word.

Some analysts in the U.S. are getting worried about the “in-“ kind of ’flation. With core inflation hitting 2.2% for the year ending in January—though the headline figure, dragged down by the collapse in oil prices, was just 1.3%—hawks are fretting that the Fed has fallen behind the curve.

Maybe, but maybe this is better news than it seems. Graphed below are headline and core inflation for the U.S., the eurozone, and Japan. The latter two are in or near deflation, a sign of profound and extended economic weakness. The U.S., for all its troubles, is not suffering from those maladies. That 2.2% core reading is just slightly above the average since 2000; the 1.4% headline is 0.8 point below that average.
It might be a good idea to relax and give thanks that the U.S. is not caught in what our beloved if irascible John Liscio used to call “the tractor beam of deflation.” There’s plenty of time to get on top of this one if the rise persists.


Consumer price index all and core

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