Stockman Slams “The Awesome Recovery” Narrative
One of the great philosophers of recent times was surely Sgt. Easterhaus of “Hill Street Blues”. As he assigned his men to their daily rounds in the crime infested streets of the Big Apple he always ended the precinct’s morning call with his signature admonition:
“Let’s be carful out there.”
That wisdom has been long lost on both ends of the Acela Corridor. In the face of blatant dangers and even existential threats, their denizens whistle past the graveyard with alacrity. So doing, they turn a blind eye on virtually all that contradicts the awesome recovery narrative, the indispensable nation conceit and the Washington can Make America Great Again (MAGA) delusion, among countless other fantasies.
For example, the GOP should be literally petrified by an horrid fiscal scenario for the coming decade that entails Social Security going bust, another $12 trillion of current policy deficits and a prospective $33 trillion public debt by 2027. And even that presupposes a macro-economic miracle in the interim: Namely, a 207 month stretch from 2009 to 2027 without a recession—–a feat which is twice the longest expansion in recorded history
Instead, they have passed a FY 2018 budget resolution which implicitly embraces all of the above fiscal mayhem, and then adds upwards of $2 trillion (so far and counting interest) of incremental deficits to fund an ill-designed tax cut that is inherently an economic dud and political time bomb.
As to the former, the GOP is lost in ritual incantation and foggy Reagan-era nostalgia. Unlike the giant Reagan tax cut of 1981, the pending bills do not cut marginal tax rates measurably—or even the individual income tax burden in any meaningful sense.
In fact, if you set aside the so-called pass-thru rate for unincorporated businesses (see below), the entire 10-year tax cut on the individual side amounts to just $480 billion. In the scheme of things, that’s a tiny number; it represents only 2.2% of the $22 trillion CBO baseline for individual income tax collections over the next decade; and it also is equal to just 0.2% of the projected nominal GDP over the period.
By way of comparison, the Reagan tax cut amounted to 6.2% of GDP when fully effective; and the net cut for individuals taxpayers alone averaged 2.7% of GDP over a decade. In today’s economy, that would amount to a tax cut of $6.5 trillion during 2018-2027 or 14X more than the $450 billion net figure estimated by the Joint Committee on Taxation.
To be sure, the abused citizens of America are more than entitled to even this tiny tax cut and much more. That is, if their elected representatives were willing to cut spending by an equal amount or even raise alternative, more benign sources of revenue (i.e. a VAT on consumers vs. the current levy on producer and worker incomes). But unless a rapidly aging society wishes to bury itself in unsupportable public debt, it simply can’t afford deficit-financed tax cuts for either the principle or the politics of the thing.
Moreover, to pretend that the tax concoction fashioned by Congressman Brady—- with a pack of Gucci Gulch jackals nipping at his heels— will actually generate enough growth and jobs to largely pay for itself is to make a mockery of Sgt. Easterhaus’ admonition. Rather than an exercise in fiscal carefulness, it is the height of recklessness to assume that much enhanced domestic growth, employment and Treasury receipts will result from any part of the $2.8 trillion cut for the rich and corporations that is at the heart of the GOP tax bill.
Actually, it’s the heart and then some. With recent modifications (including dropping of the $150 billion corporate excise tax intended to prevent companies from hiding domestic profits via over-invoicing of imports from their own affiliates), the net revenue loss of the Brady bill is calculated at about $1.7 trillion.
That means, of course, that fully 165% of the net tax cut goes to: (1) 5,500 dead rich people’s heirs per year ($172 billion for estate tax repeal); (2) 4.3 million very wealthy loophole users ($700 billion for the minimum tax repeal); and (3) the top 1% and 10% of households who own 60% and 85% of business equities, respectively, who will get most of the $1.95 trillion of business rate cuts.
In this context, we cannot stress more insistently that Art Laffer’s famous napkin does not apply to business tax cuts in today’s world of globalized trade and labor rates and artificially cheap central bank enabled debt and capital.
That’s because the business income taxes are born by owners, not workers. The wage rates and incomes of the latter are determined in a saturated global labor market where the China Price for Goods and the India Price for internet based services sets wages on the margin.
At the same time, owners are not deterred from making investments by the proverbial “high after-tax cost of capital”. That’s because it isn’t.
Even at the current statutory 35% tax rate (which few pay), the absolute cost of equity and debt capital is cheaper than ever before in modern history.
In fact, the after-tax cost of equity to scorched earth investment juggernauts like Amazon is virtually zero, while the cheap debt-fueled boom in conventional plant, equipment, mining, shipping and distribution assets over the last two decades has stocked the planet with sufficient capacity for decades to come.
In short, if you lower the business tax rates to 20% and 25% for corporations and pass-thrus, respectively, you will get more dividends, more stock buybacks and other returns to shareholders. Those distributions, in turn, will go to the very wealthy and to pension funds/non-profits. The latter will pay no taxes on these distributions while the former will pay 15%-20% at current law rates of o%, 15% and 20% on capital gains and dividends, which the Brady bill does not change.
In short, maybe the $2.8 trillion of tax cuts for business and the wealthy will generate a few hundred billion of reflows over the decade. And even that will not be attributable to the “incentive effect” of the Laffer Curve at all; it’s just tax collection mechanics at work as between the personal and business taxing systems.
By the same token, the Sgt. Easterhaus principle is also being ash-canned by the GOP on the politics side of the tax bill, as well. In fact, Republicans have been chanting the “tax cut” incantation for so many decades that they apparently can’t see the obvious. Namely, that among the middle quintile of households (about 30 million filers between $55,000 and $93,000 of AGI) the ballyhooed “tax cut” will actually be a crap shoot.
When fully effective, roughly two-thirds of filers (20 million units) would realize a $1,070 per year tax cut, while another 31% (roughly 9.5 million filers) would experience a $1,150 tax increase!
That’s a whole lot of rolling dice—-depending upon family size, sources of income and previous use of itemized deductions. Yet for the heart of the middle class as a whole—-30 million filers in the aforementioned income brackets—the statistical average tax cut would amount to $6.15 per week.
That’s right. Two Starbucks cappuccinos and a banana!
So we’d call the GOP’s noisy advertising of a big tax cut for the middle class reckless, not careful. Indeed, the Dems will spend hundreds of millions during the 2018 election season on testimonials and tax tables which prove the GOP’s claim is a pure con job.
They will also prove the opposite— that the overwhelming share of this unaffordable tax cut is going to the top of the economic ladder. After all, the income tax has morphed into a Rich Man’s Levy over the last three decades. So if you cut income taxes—-the benefits inherently and mechanically go to the few who actually pay.
Thus, in the most recent year (2015), 150.5 million Americans filed for income taxes, but just 6.8 million filers (4.5% of the total) accounted for 35% of all AGI ($3.6 trillion) and 59% of taxes paid ($858 billion).
By contrast, the bottom 64 million filers reported only $928 billion of AGI, and paid just 2.2% ($20 billion) in taxes. That is, owing to the standard deduction, personal exemptions and various credits the bottom 44% of taxpayers accounted for only 1.4% of personal income tax collections.
Even when you widen the bracket to the bottom 123 million tax filers (82%), you get $4.3 trillion of AGI and just $284 billion of taxes paid. In other words, the bottom four-fifths of filers pay only 6.6% of their AGI in tribute to Uncle Sam. They may not be getting their money’s worth from the Washington puzzle palaces, but you can’t get blood from a turnip, either.
In short, Flyover America desperately needs tax relief for the 160 million workers who actually do pay up to 15.5% of their wages in employer/employee payroll tax deductions. Yet by ignoring the $1.1 trillion per year payroll tax entirely and recklessly and risibly claiming that its income and corporate tax cut bill materially aids the middle class, the GOP is only setting itself up for a thundering political backlash.
Nothing makes this clearer than some recent (accurate) calculations by a left-wing outfit called the Institute for Policy Studies that boil down to the proposition that “It Takes A Baseball Team”.
That is, the top 25 US persons (like the full MLB roster) on the Forbes 400 list now report about $1 trillion in collective net worth. That happens to match the net worth of the bottom 180 million (56%) Americans.
Needless to say, that egregious disproportion does not represent free market capitalism at work; it’s the deformed fruit of Bubble Finance and the vast inflation of financial assets that the Fed and other central banks have enabled over the past three decades.
In terms of the Sgt. Easterhaus metaphor, monetary central planning has planted some exceedingly dangerous political time bombs in the precincts, neighborhoods, towns and cities of Flyover America. Accordingly, if the GOP succeeds in passing some version of its current tax bill, it may be what finally brings the Dems back into power on an out-and-out platform of socialist healthcare (single payor) and tax redistributionism with malice aforethought.
Even as the GOP recklessly plunges forward with gag rules and its sight unseen legislative steamroller (echoes of ObamaCare in 2010), it will never be able to hide what is buried in the bill’s tax tables. Namely, an average tax cut for the top 1%—even after accounting for elimination of upwards of $1.3 trillion of itemized deductions—-that would amount to $1,000 per week.
Moreover, for the top o.1% (150,000 filers), the Dem campaign ads will show a cut of $5,300 per week; and for a subset of 100,000 of the top 0.1% filers, the GOP’s tax cut would amount to $11,300 per week .
That’s right. Each and every one of the very ultra rich would get a tax break equivalent to that which would accrue to every 2,000 middle bracket filers under the Brady bill.
As Sgt. Easterhaus might have said: They have been warned!
Meanwhile, at the other end of the Acela Corridor, the good precinct sergeant gets no respect, either. Indeed, gambling in today’s hideously over-valued and unstable casino is exactly the opposite of being careful; it’s certain to lead to severe—even fatal—financial injuries on the beat.
In this context, we have been saying right along that the essential evil of monetary central planning is that it systematically falsifies asset prices and corrupts all financial information. That includes what passes for analysis by the Cool Aid drinkers in the casino.
But when we ran across this gem from one Steve Chiavarone yesterday we had to double check because we thought perhaps we were inadvertently reading The Onion.
But, no, he’s actually a paid in full (and then some) portfolio manager at the $360 billion Federated Investors group who appeared on CNBC, and then got reported by Dow-Jones’ MarketWatch just in case you had the sound turned off during his appearance on bubblevision.
So here’s how the bull market will remain “alive for another decade.” According to Chiavarone, millenials who don’t have two nickels to rub together will make it happen. No sweat.
“Millennials are entering the workforce, but their wages are going to be under pressure their whole career,” he explained to CNBC’s “Trading Nation” on Friday. “They won’t make enough money to pay down their debt, fund their life and fund retirement where there is no pension. So, they’re going to need equities.”
Then again, aspiration and capability are not exactly the same thing. In fact, the frequent yawning difference between the two puts us in mind of the Donald’s characterization of his primary opponent as Little Marco Rubio. The latter never stops talking about himself as the very embodiment of the American Dream come true—-so for all we know perhaps Marco did aspire to be an NBA star.
But when he famously couldn’t reach his water bottle from atop a stool during his nationwide TV rebuttal of an Obama SOTU speech a few years back, it was evident that NBA stardom wasn’t ever meant to be.
Nor during the coming decade of stagnant wages and rising interest rates is it any more obvious how millennials will beg, borrow or steal their way to massive purchases of equities. That is, how they will finance what will actually be an avalanche of stock sales by 80 million fading baby boomers who will need the proceeds to pay their nursing home bills.
But never mind. MarketWatch caught the full measure of what shines on the inside of Mr. Chiavarone’s financial beer goggles:
The risk is not being in this market,” says Chiavarone, who helps run the Federated Global Allocation Fund. The firm’s current price target is for 2,750 on the S&P by the end of next year and 3,000 for 2019.
“We are probably frankly low on both of them,” he said. “Tax reform could push up the markets.” That’s not to say there won’t be some pain along the way, specifically the potential for a recession in 2020 and 2021, according to Chiavarone.
What’s an investor to do in that case? “Buy the recession,” he said.
Indeed, it doesn’t come any stupider than the market blather that is constantly published on MarketWatch. Today it also informs us that not only have US earnings been galloping forward in recent quarters, but its actually a global trend:
However, this is hardly a U.S.-only story. Corporate earnings have been improving globally, and some of the fastest growth has come from international companies, as seen in the following chart from BlackRock, which looks at U.S. growth against the globe, excluding the U.S.
The chart below is supposed to be the evidence, but we are still scratching our heads looking for the point. It seems that global corporate earnings ex-US based companies have surged…..all the way back to where they were in 2011!
You can’t make this stuff up. Did these geniuses notice that China just went full retard in credit expansion to insure that the coronation of Mr. Xi was the greatest since, apparently, the Ming Dynasty invited the civilized world (not Europe) to the coronation of its fourth emperor in 1424?
In fact, the 19th Party Congress is now over, and the Red Suzerains of Beijing are back to the impossible task of reining in the massive malinvestment, housing, debt and construction bubbles which have turned China’s economy into a $40 trillion powder keg. So right on cue it reported a sharp cooling of its red hot pre-coronation economy last night.
Thus, value-added industrial output, a rough proxy for GDP, expanded by just 6.2% in October compared to double digit increases a few months back.
Likewise, fixed-asset investment climbed 7.3% in the January-October period from a year earlier. Notably, that’s way down from high double digit rates during most of the century, and, in fact, is the slowest pace since December 1999.
Needless to say, the latter data point amounts to a clanging clarion. At the end of the day, the ballyhooed Chinese growth miracle is really a story of construction and debt-fueled asset investment gone wild. And that party is now over.
So whatever Sgt. Easterhaus actually meant during the seven seasons of “Hill Street Blues” which always started with his famous admonition, we are quite sure that today it would not have meant buying the dips in a casino that is rife with unprecedented danger.
Finally, when it comes to real danger we think the most precarious spot along the Acela Corridor is about one mile from Union Station. We are speaking, of course, of the Oval Office and the Donald’s questionable tenure therein.
Even as he meandered around Asia double-talking about trade and basking in the royal reception put on by his duplicitous hosts in Tokyo, Seoul and most especially Beijing, the Donald did manage to hit a fantastic bull-eye stateside.
Indeed, his takedown of the three stooges—Brennan, Clapper and Comey—–of the Deep State’s spy apparatus will be one for the ages. Not since Jimmy Carter has a president even vaguely admonished the intelligence agencies, but as it his wont, the Donald held nothing back—naming names and drop-kicking backsides good and hard:
“And then you hear it’s 17 agencies. Well, it’s three. And one is Brennan and one is whatever. I mean, give me a break. They’re political hacks. So you look at it — I mean, you have Brennan, you have Clapper, and you have Comey. Comey is proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker,” Trump told the reporters on Air Force One…..
Yes, the next day he backed away in what appeared to be a pro forma nod to be his own courage-challenged appointees.
We don’t think so, however.
The truth is, the Deep State is already in the precinct house. And Sgt. Easterhaus is talking to the wall.