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Sequestration: The Destruction of a Nation?

Budget CutUnless there is a last-minute deal in Washington, which no one expects to happen, the reductions in federal government spending known as sequestration will start tomorrow.   Some politicians, economists and leaders have shrugged off the cuts as having a negligible effect on the economy and government services, while others are predicting a near cataclysmic effect.

The following are just some of the claims made by President Obama and others opposed to the cuts.

  • Police, fire and other first responders will be laid off.
  • Classroom sizes will swell as teachers lose their jobs.
  • Air travel will become more dangerous when traffic controllers are let go.
  • Security lines at airports could be 4 hours long when the TSA is forced to trim its ranks.
  • Food will be dangerous to eat because the FDA will need to reduce the number of inspectors.
  • Criminals will go free because there aren’t enough federal prosecutors.
  • And my favorite…  Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards says battered women will be forced to remain with their abusers because hotlines for battered women will go unanswered.

We expect a certain amount of posturing and hyperbole in political discourse, but some of the recent statements sound like fear mongering.

In reality, no one knows for sure what the sequestration cuts will do to the economy or government services.  There is certain to be some effect, but if the impact is anything close to what has been predicted in the past weeks, then we are in serious trouble as a nation.

Consider these facts about the sequestration cuts.

  • Total federal spending will be reduced by $85 billion this fiscal year.
  • Half of the cuts are borne by the defense department and the remaining half over the other agencies.
  • Total federal spending in Fiscal 2013 will be approximately $3.8 trillion.
  • The Fiscal 2013 budget deficit is projected to be $894 billion.
  • The sequestration cuts amount to 2.2% of all spending and would reduce the deficit by less than 10%.
  • US GDP is estimated to be over $13 trillion.
  • The sequestration cuts would account for 0.65% of annual GDP.

If 2.2% of federal spending and 0.65% of GDP sends our nation and economy spiraling out of control, the future is much worse than the grim predictions of the sequestration cuts.  Federal spending would have to decrease by 25% to balance the budget.  If a 2.2% reduction caused this kind of havoc on our society, imagine what it would be like if we had to cut spending to balance the budget.

Without question, sequestration will be painful for people directly or indirectly affected, and the across-the-board nature of the cuts probably isn’t the most effective or efficient manner to reduce government spending.  However, if the current sequestration cuts can destroy our nation, we’re already destroyed; we just don’t know it yet.

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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.

Paying for Stimulus II

President Obama unveiled his latest jobs plan before a joint session of Congress last night.  Click here to read the summary of the proposals included in the American Jobs Act.  Since many of the proposals are essentially the same as the $827 billion Stimulus Bill passed in February 2009, many people consider the recent proposal to be Stimulus II.

The debates and discussions about the effectiveness of such the programs can be tackled later.  In this article, I simply want to explore the way the government is going to pay for any new spending, should it pass Congress.

Although many of the details are still being hammered out, President Obama estimated the cost of his proposals to be $450 billion.  He expects to pay for the additional spending by closing corporate tax “loopholes” and raising taxes on wealthier Americans.  Closing loopholes usually involves minor tweaks to selected tax provisions, and typically don’t raise huge amounts of revenue.  For the past few months, President Obama has been touting the need to close a “loophole” for corporate jets.  The “loophole” is all about depreciation, which is merely a timing issue.  Jet owners will still get to depreciate their aircraft, but it will take a little longer.  The additional tax revenue from closing this “loophole” is estimated to be $3 billion, over ten years, or the equivalent of $300 million a year in additional revenue.

See the graph below of the total government revenues.  You’ll notice total tax revenues are approximately $2 trillion annually.  Thus, total tax collections would have to increase by nearly 25% to raise an additional $450 billion.  Congress will need to close a lot of “loopholes” and increase rates substantially to raise an additional $450 billion, which is extremely doubtful in the current political environment.

Although this may seem like simple arithmetic, but there is a twist.  You need to understand Washington code to decipher what President Obama really means.  Just like the $3 billion in savings from closing the corporate jet depreciation “loophole,”  the $450 billion will come trickling in over the next decade, not next year.

Members of Congress and the President frequently talk about the current budget and the 10-year budget horizon simultaneously and interchangeably.  It most applications, it means spending will be paid in the current year, and any additional revenues or spending cuts take place over the next decade.

Time will tell if I’m correct, but I expect the President wants us to borrow the $450 billion over the next 12 months in an attempt to spur economic growth and pay it back over the next decade.  Given our current economic situation, you may think this is a wise decision and/or necessary.  I’m not convinced.  With a $14.7 trillion debt, which is growing by $100 billion a month, I’m not sure adding another $450 billion is the best for our long-term financial future.

Before you decide if it’s a good idea or not, at least make sure you know what the President and Congress want to do.  Like so many other things in Washington, you may think they mean one thing, only to find out our leaders meant something else.

If anyone says the American Jobs Act will be fully paid for, check to see how and when.

Details of the Debt Deal

After weeks of political wrangling, Congress and President Obama enacted the Budget Control Act of 2011.  The legislation provides for an immediate increase the debt ceiling of $400 billion, averting a potential default by the U.S. government.  Avoiding default is probably the one thing most Americans are pleased with in this bill.

The debt deal is long on political rhetoric and short on details.  While many of our political leaders are touting the success of this legislation as a significant step towards dealing with the fiscal challenges of our country, there is little discussion of what is actually going to happen.  Beyond deferring the most significant spending cuts to a Joint Select Committee (JSC) composed of 12 Congressional leaders, evenly divided by house and party, there are few details of how the actual spending cuts are going to be achieved.

The Congressional Budget Office scored the spending cuts to be $2.1 trillion between 2012 through 2021. Of this amount $917 billion is supposed to be guaranteed in exchange for allowing the Treasury to sell another $900 billion in bonds.  The remaining $1.2 trillion is supposed to be determined by the JSC.  At this point, no one knows what is going to be cut to achieve any savings.

From what has been released, the bill calls for $21 billion of spending cuts in Fiscal 2012 and $42 in 2013.  Not surprisingly, the substantial cuts happen far in the future, which means there is always the chance the cuts won’t happen.  For those of us who believe government spending is on an unsustainable path, this is not very encouraging.  Here are a couple of things to consider.

President Obama’s 2012 Budget  proposal calls for $2.6 trillion in revenue and $3.7 trillion of spending; resulting in a $1.1 trillion deficit.  The House passed a budget with $2.5 trillion in revenue and $3.5 trillion of spending; racking up a $1 trillion deficit.  According to the debt deal, spending will be trimmed by a measly $22 billion.  This is about 0.6% of all federal  spending for the coming year.

Talking in trillions and billions can seem rather esoteric, so think in these terms.  Assume you make $50,000 this year.  If you managed your finances like the federal government, you would spend over $70,000, borrowing the difference.  If you cut your spending like Congress and the President have proposed, you would only trim your spending by $420 for the next year.  That’s right… just a mere $8 per week, even though you’re overspending by $20,000.  Given those parameters, would you say you were serious about changing your spending habits by cutting $8 per week?

Many politicians and commentators are calling this a historic piece of legislation.  They refer to it as a down payment on our debt and an important first step.  This may be true, but it’s an indication of how difficult it is for Congress to cut federal spending.   If they can barely manage to trim $22 billion, how are they going to come anywhere near close to $1 trillion?  It would take over $1 trillion of additional cuts and/or revenues to balance the budget, before we can even begin to pay down the debt.

The debt deal further illustrates the Congressional propensity to defer hard decisions.  Effectively, it will be a future Congress and potentially a different President, who will have to make the hard decisions to cut spending and balance the budget.  Given the history and culture of Congress, it’s no wonder the debt deal is long on politics and promises and short on specifics and spending cuts.

A Double Dip Recession

Many recent economic indicators are pointing to a slowing of the U.S. economy.  This has raised the speculation that we may be headed for a double dip recession.

The following  definitions will help us to speak the same language:

  • Recession – two successive quarters of negative economic growth as measured by GDP
  • Recovery – increase in economic activity and growth in GDP following a recession
  • Double Dip Recession – short period of recovery followed by another recession

As much as we may like steady economic growth, history has proven that the economy is cyclical.  There are periods of economic growth and decline.  There are also times of boom and bust.  While there have been several recessionary periods, the last double dip was thirty years ago when the economy slowed in late 1981 after rebounding from a recession in 1980.

The most recent recession may have officially ended in the summer of 2009 as GDP stopped declining, but that doesn’t mean that all has been well with the economy for the past two years.  Growth has been rather meager and sporadic, and there certainly hasn’t been any boom in economic growth to restore the trillions of dollars of wealth lost from 2007-2009.

Here are some of the recent economic statistics that make the current outlook a little bleak.

  • The unemployment rate bounced back up to 9.1% in May 2011
  • 54,000 new jobs were created in May, down from 232,000 in April
  • Retail sales dropped 0.2% in May 2011, the first decline since June 2010; auto sales were down 2.9% for the month
  • For the ninth straight week, over 400,000 people filed new claims for unemployment
  • Although oil prices have declined in recent weeks, gas is still approximately $1.00/gallon more than a year ago, and continued unrest in the Middle East and the upcoming  hurricane season in the U.S. could cause another spike
  • Higher fuel and commodity prices are causing significant inflation in food prices
  • Housing values continue to fall and an estimated 25% of all homeowners owe more on their home than its current market value
  • A $14 trillion national debt and $1.4 trillion annual budget deficit make it difficult for the U.S. government to spend money to help stimulate economic growth

Time will tell if we have a double dip recession or be able to avert it.  Irrespective of the economic terms of recession and recovery, the immediate economic outlook is not exceptional.  Things may not get much worse, but I don’t think things are going to change all that dramatically in the near future.

I believe there are three primary factors that will continue to hinder our growth.

  1. Unemployment – It’s hard to have strong economic growth when 10% of the population is out of work, and another 5-10% have either given up looking for work or are underemployed.
  2. Housing – Aside from the fact that housing has historically been a leading contributor to economic recovery, current market values put more people at risk for default and make it difficult for people to relocate.  Additionally, your house is often your largest asset, and it’s hard to have much confidence in the economy when you consider how much money you have lost and continue to lose on your investment.
  3. National Debt – The magnitude of the debt and annual deficits pose a substantial risk to the country and the economy.  The debt is manageable because interest rates are at historic lows.  A return to even moderately normal rates would place tremendous pressure on the Treasury and a rise in government interest rates will reverberate through the entire economy.

Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to any of these problems, and our political leaders have not demonstrated the ability or willingness to seriously tackle the issues.  Thus, I think the best we can hope for in the near term is an economy that sputters along with relatively stagnant growth overall.  The worst could be traumatic.

These are a few of my thoughts… what do you think?

The Crushing Power of Debt

If you’re like me and a lot of other people, you’re a little concerned with the ever-increasing government debt.  According to the most recent estimates, the U.S. Government will rack up a record-breaking $1.6 trillion deficit this year.  This doesn’t include the billions of dollars of current deficits and $2.4 trillion of debt by our state and local governments. 

I would encourage you to read this Washington Post article.  It analyzes the current debt levels with those in 1946, immediately following World War II.  Keep in mind that the Washington Post doesn’t have a reputation as a conservative news organization.  In my opinion, it’s significant that people from both ends of the political spectrum are sounding the alarm about the national debt.

I particularly liked the quote by Robert D. Reischauer, former director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.  He said that the debt accumulated by 1946 “was for a very different purpose, which was to preserve freedom and democracy versus totalitarianism rather than to throw a huge party and put it on the credit card.”  Like every other party, the celebration eventually ends and someone has to clean up the mess, which I think is a good description of our current times.

I’m not a pessimist or an alarmist, but I do agree with the general premise of the article – there are tough times ahead. I believe the economy is incredibly resilient, and I don’t think an economic apocalypse is on the near horizon. However, I do believe that it’s possible.  Call me crazy, but I know that we can’t continue overspending at the current rate without severe consequences.

You only need to look at the devastating effects of the recent mortgage crisis to realize the power debt has to inflict financial and personal ruin.  You may believe people are suffering from the consequences of their poor decisions, and you may be right.  However, a lot of innocent people have also suffered, through no fault of their own.

If you’re a student of history, you know that the fall of mighty and powerful nations can have far-reaching impact.  The fall of the Roman Empire was followed by the Dark Ages.  The Great Depression may have been born in the U.S. but soon affected people worldwide.  The economy is much more globally intertwined than ever.  Although the mortgage meltdown was primarily triggered by the collapse of the U.S. housing market, investors all over the globe lost billions.  As the largest economic engine in the world, the U.S. economy and government have tentacles that reach into the lives of people worldwide.  The faltering of the U.S. economy and government will have a global effect.

You may believe it would be a good thing if America lost some of its dominance in the world, and that may happen.  However, if history repeats itself, which it often does, the process of transition may not be very pleasant.

The overall economic recovery that has occurred over the past 18 months has been a mixed blessing.  The good news is that it proves the resiliency of the economy.  The bad news is that it can give us a false sense of security that we as a nation are invincible and too big to fail as well.  As strong as our economy and government may be, debt has the power to crush them both.  It’s not inevitable that it will occur, but if we don’t’ change course soon, it might.  If debt has the power to crush you, it can also crush our nation.

U.S. Credit Rating at Risk

If you’re concerned about the long-term ramifications of the growing federal debt, you’re not alone.   Two major credit ratings agencies, Moody’s Investors Services (Moody’s) and Standard & Poor’s (S&P), issued a warning to investors about the possible future downgrade in the credit rating of the U.S. Government.

 Moody’s report issued this week stated that the U.S. Government “must reverse the expansion if its debt if it hopes to keep its ‘Aaa’ rating.”  Separately, the head of S&P France said that “the firm could not rule out lowering the outlook for the U.S. rating in the future.”

A downgrade in the rating is not imminent, but these statements can be seen as a warning signal to investors. 

Credit rating agencies are supposed to provide an independent and objective opinion of the creditworthiness of publically-traded debts.  The credit rating impacts the interest rate and the value of the bonds when they are traded on the secondary market.

The following are a few of the factors contributing to the forewarnings by Moody’s and S&P.

  • The rapid and continued growth in the federal debt over the past 4 years
  • Rumblings in Congress over the reluctance to increase the debt ceiling
  • Sovereign debt issues roiling Western European countries and the Eurozone
  • The recent backlash to Moody’s and S&P for giving high credit ratings to mortgage-backed securities that turned out to be the equivalent of junk-bonds

Moody’s and S&P may have their own selfish motivations for these advanced warnings, but it’s a message to be heeded.  There were early warning signs that the housing market was in trouble, but most people brushed them aside.  Likewise, there are warning signs that the size and growth of the federal debt poses serious financial threat to us that you should not ignore.  The recent comments by Moody’s and S&P are one of those signs.

So… what does this mean to you? Probably not much at the moment.  However, the long-term consequence may be significant.

A downgrade in the credit rating of U.S. Treasury securities would likely cause an increase in the interest rate on future debt issues. Increasing interest payments will further exacerbate the current budget crisis.  Since more money is required to pay interest on the debt, less money is available for other spending, thereby further increasing the deficit or causing larger spending cuts.

A downgrade in the credit rating would also impact what it costs you to borrow money.  Virtually every loan in the U.S. in directly or indirectly tied to Treasury rates.  Be it credit cards, auto loans, home mortgages or business loans, you can expect the cost of borrowing to increase for any type of credit you obtain.

Moody’s and S&P may have intended their statements to be a “heads-up” to investors, but the audience is much larger.  Hopefully it’s a message our political leaders will heed regarding our current fiscal situation.  It’s also a message to you as an individual.  You may not be able to control what happens in Washington, but beware and be prepared.  A future downgrade in the U.S. credit rating may be coming, and if it happens, it’s going to cost you.