Check Please

November 1, 2012 1 comment

The Congressional Research Service  issued a report to the Senate Budget Committee outlining the federal spending for benefits to lower income people in the U.S. during Fiscal 2011 (year ending September 30, 2011).  The U.S. government spent $746 billion on programs for lower income people.  If you add in state spending, the total exceeds $1 trillion.

According to the Census Bureau, there were 16.8 million families living below the poverty level in 2011 ($23,000 for a family of 4).  By simple math, this means the federal and state government spent nearly $60,000 for each family in poverty, which is nearly three times the amount they earned during the year.

Less than 10% of the support is in the form of direct cash payments.  Of the $746 billion spent by the federal government, $318 billion is for Medicaid and prescription drug subsidies.  Approximately $66 billion is in the form of direct cash assistance and $73 billion is in the form of tax credits.  The remaining $290 billion of support is delivered through 80 different programs designed to help lower income families.

Given the choice, a number of families might choose to ask for a $17,000 in lieu of the other programs.

It might seem crazy, but do you think it’s efficient to have 84 different programs to help needy people?  Each program has its own objective and purpose, but there is a cost for employees, office space, computers, etc.   The more money spent on overhead, the less is being spent on actually helping people.

A few years ago I helped a school with a grant for an afterschool educational program.  I was surprised and dismayed to discover that over 20% of the grant money was going to be spent for a grant administrator, who would do nothing but complete reports and monitor the work of others.  Sadly, I think that grant is indicative of how many government programs and grants operate; a large chunk of the money is gobbled up in administrative costs.

I’m not against helping lower income families.  In fact, I think we have an obligation to help those who are most vulnerable and in need.  The issue is how the assistance is delivered.

It has been nearly 50 years since Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty and introduced the Great Society.  Trillions of dollars have been spent over the past 5 decades, yet the poverty rate in the U.S. is almost exactly the same as when this great endeavor began. 

Maybe we should consider eliminating a number of programs and giving more cash to those who are in need.  This seems outrageous to most conservatives, who often think people are abusing the system.  Many of us have witnessed people using their food stamps to purchase cigarettes and alcohol.  There will always be people who abuse the system, and they should be punished when possible.  I also believe the current bureaucratic morass often aids them in taking advantage of the system.

Conservatives frequently complain about people being dependent upon the system.  Part of the solution may be giving people more money, which will allow them to be more independent and self-sufficient.  However, this independence must be coupled with more responsibility for their choices.

Your willingness to embrace such an idea is probably influenced by your view of people.  Do you see them as lazy and untrustworthy, requiring a rigid bureaucracy to monitor and keep them in line, or do you trust people to be independent, make good decision and do what’s right when given the opportunity?  Personally, I would rather be trusted to do the right thing, than have some bureaucrat watching over me.  Given the choice, I would prefer to forego all the programs and simply say… “Check Please.”

Arithmetic

A few weeks ago, former President Clinton scored political points while criticizing the economic plan of Gov. Mitt Romney.  He touted the Federal budget surpluses during the final years of his presidency.  He went on to say he was able to balance the budget by simple arithmetic.  He also invoked the simple arithmetic principle to argue that Gov. Romney’s plan didn’t add up and would result in a large tax increase on middle class Americans.

The truth is that neither Gov. Romney nor President Obama’s plans pass the arithmetic test.  A detailed analysis of their plans is far beyond the scope if this article, so I’ll briefly summarize.

The highlights of Gov. Romney’s plan:

  • Cut tax rates by 20% for individuals and lower the corporate rate to 25%
  • Have preferential rates for interest, dividends and capital gains
  • Eliminate loopholes and limit certain deductions for higher income taxpayers

The criticism of Romney’s arithmetic is there aren’t enough loopholes to close which will offset the reduced revenue from the lower tax rates.  Deductions would also have to be limited for lower income taxpayers to make the numbers work.

The main point of President Obama’s plan:

  • Increase the tax rates for people making over $250,000
  • Eliminate the preferential rate for dividends and increase the capital gains rate

These changes are estimated to raise an additional $70 billion in annual tax revenues.

The arithmetic doesn’t work for either of these plans to balance the budget.  For the 2012 budget year, the federal government overspent by $1.1 trillion, and the total national debt has exceeded $16 trillion.  Since the government spends approximately $3.5 trillion each year, it’s a monumental task to close a $1.1 trillion deficit.

The U.S. Treasury collects approximately $2.2 trillion in income tax revenue each year.  To balance the budget under the Romney plan, all current deductions would need to be cut in half to raise another $1 trillion.  Deductions would have to be limited even more if the tax rates are reduced.  The Obama plan is no better.  Even if his tax changes were implemented, he’s about $1 trillion short to balance the budget.  By simple arithmetic, the numbers don’t add up… for Romney or Obama.

We can’t tax our way out of the hole we are in.  We must cut spending in order to balance the budget.  This is not Washington semantics for cuts by reducing the rate of growth or cutting the amount you hoped to spend.  It means actually spending less than the $3.5 trillion we spent last year.

On this front, I give the edge to Gov. Romney.  You or I may not agree with his proposals or priorities, but at least he’s willing to talk about cutting federal expenditures.   He was criticized and ridiculed after the first Presidential debate for trying to kill Big Bird, because he advocated ending the federal subsidy to the Public Broadcasting Service.  He has also been willing to tackle the “third rail” of politics – Medicare and Social Security.

In contrast, I can’t think of one significant cut in federal spending proposed by President Obama.  Counting money which would have been spent for the war in Iraq but isn’t going to be spent doesn’t count in my book.  It’s like saying you cut your spending by $5,000 for the vacation you didn’t take.  Furthermore, the budget deficit for 2013 will still be over $1 trillion without any spending for Iraq.  Instead of talking about spending cuts, the President is pushing for more “investments” (aka spending) for teachers and infrastructure.  These may be good things, but it doesn’t address how to balance the budget, and taxing the rich more isn’t going to close the gap.

Politicians are very good at using sound bites and obscuring the truth.  President Clinton was right… balancing the budget is simply a matter of arithmetic.  In this case, both candidates (and most members of Congress) probably need a remedial math class.

Ignore the WARNing

The Worker Adjustment Retraining and Notification Act (WARN) is a federal law requiring an employer with more than 100 employees to provide at least 60 advance notice of any mass layoffs or plant closings.  The law is intended to alert employees and communities of upcoming layoffs, and a company can be penalized for up to 60 days of employees’ wages for failing to comply with the WARN notification.

The WARN requirements have created a serious political problem.  According to the Congressional budget deal worked out last year, defense spending will be reduced by $55 billion starting on January 2, 2013.  If the spending cuts occur many defense contractors are concerned about a significant reduction in their contracts, which could lead to massive layoffs on January 2, 2013.  In order to avoid penalties and meet the 60-day WARN notification, employers need to notify their employees before November 2, 2012, which just happens to be 4 days before Election Day… ala the political conundrum.

On Monday, the Department of Labor (DOL) mailed a letter to state agencies stating it would be “inappropriate” for employers to send out WARN layoff notifications in anticipation of the defense spending cuts.  This immediately raised many eyebrows as to whether or not the DOL’s letter was politically motivated.   Suspicions were heightened, because the Department of Labor previously issued guidance to employers saying it could not give WARN advice regarding specific situations.

Three primary concerns come to mind regarding this matter.

Undue Political Influence

It’s hard to get away from politics in an election year.  Every decision is interpreted through a political prism, and it’s hard to divorce politics from the process.   Decisions like this one are made by high-ranking political appointees, and their jobs and influence are dependent upon whether or not their boss retains his job.  Thus, it can be near impossible to think politics won’t influence the decision makers.  However, it seems like elected and appointed officials are predisposed to make most of their decisions based on what’s best for their career and pocketbook, instead of what’s best for the country.  We can’t honestly know the motivation of the DOL personnel involved in this decision, but choosing to provide guidance on an issue they previously refused, certainly raises questions.

Meaningless Laws

The primary rationale for the DOL’s conclusion for employers to refrain from sending out WARN notices was the uncertainty of whether or not the cuts would remain in effect. The DOL essentially acknowledged this law was a sham in the first place and was passed for political expediency.  Irrespective of whether Congress ever intended for the cuts take effect, are the spending cuts the law or not??  According to the legislation on the books, the cuts will occur unless a new law is passed to restore the spending.  As a citizen, you’re penalized for disobeying a law or regulation, so why do politicians and government bureaucrats get to decide which laws they enforce or follow?

Ineffective Government

As a nation we are probably more divided than any time in history since the Civil War, yet the problems we face are immense.  The sluggish economy and $16 trillion debt are enormous problems.  Rather than having serious discussions and working towards creative solutions, our leaders are more focused on partisan brinkmanship and political machinations.  If history repeats itself, the defense spending cuts will probably never happen.  Rather than face a disgruntled electorate and risk losing an election, our leaders will forge some “compromise” which maintains the status quo and allows both sides to declare victory.  Meanwhile, nothing is resolved and the country plunges further into debt each day, and our leaders are able to pass laws that are never intended to go into effect to maintain the charade of getting something accomplished.

The DOL’s guidance for employers to ignore the WARN notices should set off a much larger warning.  Aside from the political ramifications, it’s a dangerous place for politicians and bureaucrats to selectively choose which laws to follow and enforce.  We’re either a nation of laws or not.  If not… then God help us.  Lawless nations and those which allow its leaders to use the laws to reward their friends and punish their enemies are always destructive to the people at large.

Should I Refinance My Mortgage?

Mortgage interest rates are at historically low rates.  Consequently, you may be wondering if it makes sense to refinance your mortgage.  Although there may be a variety of reasons for refinancing your mortgage, there are probably three primary reasons for you to refinance your mortgage.

  1. Lower your payments by borrowing money at a lower interest rate
  2. Convert your adjustable rate mortgage to a fixed rate
  3. Access some of the equity in your home (this isn’t as common or easy as it was a few years ago)

Since there are costs associated with refinancing a mortgage, the decision to refinance may not be a slam-dunk.  Essentially, you are paying money today, to save more money later.  As an example, assume that refinancing reduces your monthly payments by $50 per month.  If you have 25 years remaining on your mortgage, you will save $15,000 over the life to the loan.  If you assume you will pay $5,000 in closing costs to refinance, you save $10,000… over the next 25 years.

There are many different mortgage calculators available which will help you calculate your savings.  You can click here for one, or search the internet.  Keep in mind, internet calculators are only estimates, and the computations from your lender may be different.

Here are a few additional things to consider in your decision to refinance.

  • The time value of money – In my simple example above, you save $15,000 over the next 25 years, but you have to pay $5,000 up front.  Not only does it take you over 8 years to recoup your $5,000, you also lost the opportunity to invest that money and earn a rate of return (hopefully).  With interest rates on liquid assets near zero, the time value consideration may be nil.
  • Income taxes – The only refinance costs you can deduct are points paid to reduce the interest rate.  Unlike points you pay when you initially purchase your home, points paid on a refinanced mortgage must be amortized over the life of the loan (25 years in our example).  With a lower interest rate, your current mortgage interest deduction will also decrease, which could cause your current tax liability to increase slightly.  Although you’ll come out ahead by paying less interest over the life of the loan, your total benefit might be reduced by a smaller mortgage interest deduction.
  • Length of ownership – Since it’s likely to take you a couple of years of reduced payments to recoup the closing costs, you need to consider how long you plan to stay in your home.  If you expect to move in the next few years, the monthly savings may not be sufficient recoup your out-of-pocket costs for the refinance.
  • The loan process – The mortgage financing industry has changed dramatically.  It’s not easy for anyone to get a mortgage in today’s market.  I’ve had clients who experienced difficulties and delays in getting their refinancing approved, even though they could have easily written a check to pay off their existing mortgage.  The aggravation may be worth it, but expect the approval to be a hassle.
  • Market value – The fair market value of your home may be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a refinance.  Market value is what prevented many people with subprime and adjustable rate mortgages from being able to refinance.  If you don’t have sufficient equity in your home, you won’t be able to refinance, even if you’re making your current payments, and the refinance will make it easier for you to continue making your payments.

Many advisors will tell you that the interest rate should at least 0.75-1.00% lower than your current rate for a refinance to be economically feasible, but depending upon your situation and long-term goals, a smaller rate differential might still be beneficial.

My advice is to run the calculation with an online calculator and see if it makes sense to you.  If the closing costs can be recouped within the next 5-7 years, and you don’t plan to sell before then, talk to a mortgage broker and get their advice.  A reputable broker will be able to give you a more accurate estimate of what it’s going to cost, the savings you can expect, and the process involved.

Refinancing your mortgage can save you money.  However, there are costs involved, and you want to make sure the benefits exceed the cost.

The Supreme Court Rules on Obamacare

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).  Lawyers, politicians, journalists and citizens are scouring the judicial rulings to understand its implications.  The law is exceptionally complex, so it will take time fully comprehend the ramifications of the ruling.

Here are a couple of the most significant elements of the Court’s ruling.

  • The penalty for failing to purchase health insurance is equivalent to a tax, which Congress has the authority to assess.  Thus, the individual mandate is Constitutional.
  • Congress does not have the power under the Commerce Clause to force you to purchase insurance.
  • Congress can require states to increase their Medicaid roles and provide financial incentives to do so, but it can’t withhold all Medicaid funding if it doesn’t.  It seems confusing and contradictory and will likely lead to further litigation.

Here are a couple of quick thoughts and observations.

  • The logic of the Court regarding the individual mandate was interesting.  Apparently, Congress can’t force you to purchase something, but they can tax or penalize you if you don’t.
  • The Medicaid issue is one of the most unclear parts of the ruling.  Unlike the individual mandate, it seems Congress can require the states to increase their Medicaid roles, but can’t penalize them if they don’t.  The issue hinges on state sovereignty, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out, especially since several states have already passed legislation opting out of Obamacare or the individual mandate.
  • The split ruling was no surprise, but it was a shock that Chief Justice John Roberts upheld the constitutionality and Justice Anthony Kennedy did not.  The unpredictability of judges and juries is what’s often referred to as the hazards of litigation.  No matter how strong you think your case is, a judge or jury may see it differently.

Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court isn’t going to end the discussions or fights over Obamacare.  There is still a lot more to come.

I welcome your comments and thoughts regarding the Supreme Court decision.  Click here if you would like to take a quick poll on whether you agree or disagree.

Is The Fed Giving a Pass on Sovereign Debt?

Part of the role of the Federal Reserve (the Fed) is to provide oversight to their member banks.  Approximately one-third of all U.S. commercial banks are members of the Federal Reserve.  All national banks are required to be members, and certain state chartered banks can choose to become a member.

Fed oversight involves a variety of bank operations.  Recently, the Fed conducted stress tests of the large national banks.  The purpose was to assess the strength of the bank and their ability to withstand another major economic calamity, like what happened throughout 2008.  One of their goals is preventing any bank from becoming “too big to fail.”

Bank capital is one of the measures regulators use to measure bank strength and stability.  Bank capital requirements are intended to guarantee a bank is able to withstand certain losses in its investment and loan portfolio and still meet the withdrawal demands of its depositors.

The following article describes a Citigroup analysis which discovered a recent trend in the U.S. and Europe regarding bank capital requirements and sovereign debt.  The Citigroup study revealed that bank regulators at the Fed and their European counterparts were not counting sovereign debt as part of the bank capital requirements.  The Citigroup analysts concluded the primary reason for excluding the sovereign debt was to help guarantee a market for sovereign bonds.

The United States and European countries are currently experiencing huge budget deficits.  In order to keep their respective governments operating, the nations’ treasuries and central banks are issuing new government bonds on a daily basis.  Thus, there is a constant need for someone to purchase these bonds.  If the market for a particular nation’s bond were to disappear, catastrophe would quickly follow.  Consider what would happen in the U.S. if investors stopped buying the additional $100 billion of new bonds it takes to keep the U.S. government operating each month.

Just imagine what would happen to inflation and the U.S. economy if investors are reluctant to purchase U.S. Treasuries.  You only have to look at the current problems in Europe.  Spanish 10-year bonds issued this past week carried an interest rate in excess of 6% while 10-year U.S. Treasuries were selling around 1.75%.  If the U.S. had to pay interest on our $15.8 trillion debt at a 6% rate, the annual interest cost would be near $1 trillion.  Think that might negatively impact the economy?

The Fed and European Central Bank are largely responsible for the monetary policy of their respective nations.  Interest rates and inflation are critical factors affecting monetary policy and economic results.  Consequently, you can see the vested interest the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank have in making sure there is a steady market for sovereign debt.   As a result, it appears these institutions are willing to give favorable treatment to sovereign debt when measuring bank capital.

I’m not implying there is collusion amongst the bankers.  Contrary to what some people believe, I don’t there is some grand conspiracy.  With a few exceptions, most of the people involved are honest people doing their best in a very difficult economic and political environment.  Central bankers are given tremendous responsibility for a nation’s economic health, yet they are seldom the people making important decisions on taxes, spending and debt, which greatly impact the economy.

My primary purpose in writing this article is sharing information.  I haven’t seen many articles addressing this topic, so I thought it was worth discussing.  Additionally, I think it’s another indication of the long-term problems of deficit spending and huge national debt.   Without realizing it, policy makers can make poor decisions in order to encourage people to buy sovereign debt, because it will be catastrophic if it ever stops.  It’s like a house of cards that’s growing and requires more effort to keep it from collapsing.

Time will tell, but it seems like exempting sovereign debt from bank capital requirements might be one of those decisions.

The Mortgage Mess: It’s Still Messy

Even though the U.S. economy officially came out of recession in mid-2009, do you wonder why it doesn’t feel that way?  There may be a lot of reasons, but I think the continued turmoil of the residential real estate market is one of the key factors.

The housing market and mortgage industry may not be as messy as it was in 2008 and 2009, but it’s still messy.  TARP, HAMP and other government policies and programs may have stabilized the banking system and the financial markets, but the financial situation of many homeowners hasn’t improved much in the past five years… and for many, it’s gotten worse.

As this article cites, Zillow estimates approximately 16 million (one-third of all U.S. homeowners) owe more than their homes are worth (a.k.a. underwater).   It’s quite discouraging to think that after years of slugging through this challenging economy, you might be further behind today than you were five years ago.  Some areas of the country have definitely been hit much harder than others, but on a national basis, if you have positive equity in your house, one of your neighbors does not.  In Las Vegas, where I live, even though thousands of people have lost their homes to foreclosure and values have decreased by approximately 50% from the peak, a whopping seven out of ten homeowners are still underwater.

There are significant economic implications for having so many homes underwater.  It impacts people’s ability to relocate, puts them in a perilous financial position if their income decreases, limits their ability to refinance, and pares back their spending.  However, I think the most significant factor is the psychological effect it has on their outlook about the economy, the nation and their future.

For many people, their homes represent a significant portion of their wealth.  They may have spent years saving up for a downpayment or building the equity in their home, and it’s frustrating to see it wiped out in a matter of months.  Granted there were some people who bought homes they shouldn’t have, took out mortgages they couldn’t afford or treated their home like a personal piggy bank.  However, for millions of Americans, they simply bought at the wrong time and their homes lost value through no fault of their own.

The psychological effects of the mortgage mess should not be underestimated.  Owning a home is considered to be part of the American Dream.  It’s one of the reasons home ownership is much higher in the U.S. than in many other industrialized nations.  Sadly, the dream of millions of Americans turned into a nightmare.  Consequently, it’s only logical for people to feel apprehensive and fearful of the economy and the future, when something they thought was a sure thing (owning their home), turned out to be much more uncertain than they could have imagined.  Furthermore, home ownership is a very personal matter.  It’s unlike any other investment, because it’s the place where your family connects and memories are made.

Unlike the empty promises politicians often make, I won’t say there is an easy solution to the mess, nor do I think it’s likely to get cleaned up any time soon.  If there were an easy solution, it would have already been done by now.  Therefore, I think it’s going to be a long and arduous process to reduce the number of homeowners who are underwater.

Consequently, I don’t think we’ll see a resurgence in optimism about the economy, until the number of underwater homes is dramatically reduced.  It’s hard to feel positive about the future when you feel insecure or afraid of losing the place where you live and raise your family.

Family, Faith and Finances

Had a great conversation with Rob Ekno about faith, family and finances on Rob’s radio program, In Your Face, which can be heard on Indie104.com.  Click here if you would like to listen to the conversation.

Can credit card debt management help you to save dollars?

People in this part of the world are used to using credit cards rather than cash for their day-to-day expenses. The proportion of credit use is far more than their retirement savings. Credit cards have given them immense portability and convenience to make frequent purchases. However, this has given rise to several financial diseases which is affecting the fragile US economy. One of the major setbacks is the accumulation of credit card debt. This makes it imperative for the people to know the ways of credit card debt management to avoid getting into a financially sticky situation.

The ways of credit card management

Here are few methods of reduce credit card debt as well as save dollars:

  1. Transfer your credit card balances – This means transferring all your multiple credit card balances into a zero interest credit card. This may be for a year or so as offered by the credit card company. This creates a great opportunity to clear out all your outstanding bills within the promotional period. In this process, you’ll be paying for the principal balance and not for the interest. However, there is a transfer fee for this procedure which hovers around 3-5% of the balance amount. By this method, you’ll save a lot of money even after paying the transfer fee.
  1. Create a budget: Start developing the habit of spending less. Vow to start living a frugal life. This is because the more you spend on useless things, the less you save. Therefore, to fight back such irresponsible behavior, plan a budget that will be comfortable for you to follow. Keep in mind that this budget should not become a burden for you; instead it should motivate you to spend smartly and save money for the rainy day. Use those savings towards debt repayment and you’ll see a remarkable decrease in the number of outstanding bills.
  1. Lower your interest rates: This is one of the most effective steps in the credit card debt management plan. Be vigilant and do your market research to learn about the recent market offers which various creditors are making. After a getting a thorough knowledge of the market offers, contact your current creditors. Request them to lower your card’s interest rate. The creditors will welcome this sort of gesture from you and will readily oblige. If you’ve been a good customer who has been punctual in making the payments, then the creditors will surely consider your request.

During the negotiation phase with your creditors, tell them that you are considering balance transfer as an alternative to lowering the interest rate. This will give them the necessary nudge to accept your terms.

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This article was written by Grace Ruskin.  Grace is a financial writer and is associated with DebtCC Community.

Is the Unemployment Rate Misleading?

The April employment statistics were released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) last Friday.  The official U.S. unemployment rate for April 2012 dropped to 8.1%.  It hasn’t been this low since January 2009.

According to the BLS, 115,000 new jobs were added to the workforce in April.  Certainly that is good news for the 115,000 who are now employed, and after three years of high unemployment, it’s encouraging to see the rate dropping.

The report has been out for a week, which has given people more opportunity to dig into the numbers.  Unfortunately, the headline is much more encouraging than some of the supporting data.  Here are a few facts to consider

  • 310,000 people left the workforce in April (that’s nearly 3 times as many jobs which were created).  People who are no longer looking for a job contributed more to the reduction in the unemployment rate, than those who obtained a new job.
  • There are 968,000 people looking for work, who are classified as “discouraged.”
  • 7.8 million people are working part-time for economic reasons.
  • 5.1 million people have been unemployed for more than 39 weeks.
  • 324,000 women dropped out of the labor force in the past two months.

So is the unemployment rate misleading?  Personally, I don’t think it’s misleading, but you also shouldn’t take it at face value.  A deeper understanding of the supporting data will provide a better picture of what’s really happening.

Realize the unemployment rate is only an estimate.  No one knows for sure how many people are truly unemployed and looking for work.  For example, many people think it’s misleading to exclude those who have given up looking for work.  While that may be the case for discouraged and frustrated people who can’t find a job, what about those who retire, start their own business or decide to stay home to take care of a family member?  Those people may have no intentions of re-entering the workforce, at least in the near term, so it would also be misleading to count them as unemployed.  Thus, the quandary of who should be classified as unemployed.

I don’t think the unemployment rate is misleading, unless the BLS changes its data collection and classification measures, which happened at the beginning of 2011 (read more here).  Since the BLS hasn’t changed their methodology recently, the drop in the unemployment rate can be considered legitimate.  However, you should investigate some of the supporting data, and draw your own conclusions about the U.S. employment situation.

Since it’s an election year, expect politicians and political pundits to quote the rate as a measure of their job performance or some other elected official and make their political argument for supporting a particular candidate.  Don’t be misled by a headline or political statement, since they rarely tell the whole story.  The unemployment rate may not be misleading, but other people can be.