Tag Archives: US economy

Why are so many families feeling extreme financial stress? Here’s one of the main reasons…

When the cost of living rises faster than paychecks year after year, eventually that becomes a very big problem.  Every month, tens of millions of American families struggle to pay the bills, and most of them don’t even understand the economic forces that are putting so much pressure on them.

The United States never had a persistent, ongoing problem with inflation until the debt-based Federal Reserve system was introduced in 1913.  Since that time, we have had non-stop inflation and the U.S. dollar has lost more than 98 percent of its value.  If our paychecks were increasing faster than inflation this wouldn’t be a problem, but in recent years this has definitely not been the case for most Americans.

Unfortunately inflation is starting to accelerate once again.  In fact, it is being reported that inflation rose at the fastest pace in four years in January…

The prices Americans pay for goods and services surged in January by the largest amount in four years, mostly reflecting a rebound in the cost of gasoline that’s taking a bigger chunk out of household incomes.

The consumer price index, or cost of living, rose by a seasonally adjusted 0.6% in January, the government said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, incomes have been so stagnant that median household income did not go up at all during 2016.

This is one of the reasons why we consistently see families fall out of the middle class month after month.  Even if you keep the same job year after year, your standard of living is going to steadily go down unless your pay goes up.

The things that we all spend money on month after month just keep going up in price — food, housing, medical care and other essentials.  If there is one thing that we can always count on, it is the fact that things are going to cost more tomorrow than they do today.

Let’s talk about food for a moment.  Remember a time when you could get everything you needed for an entire week for about 20 bucks?  These days you can’t even fill up a cart for hundred-dollar bill!

Food prices have been rising aggressively for many years.  The following is a list that was posted on The Economic Policy Journal showing how much some food and grocery items have increased over the past decade:

1. Tobacco and smoking products

-Price increase: 90.4%

2. Margarine

-Price increase: 63.6%

3. Uncooked ground beef

-Price increase: 46.3%

4. Shelf stable fish and seafood
-Price increase: 45.0%

5. Prescription drugs
-Price increase: 43.5%

6. Rice, pasta, cornmeal
-Price increase: 40.3%

7. Bread
-Price increase: 38.9%

8. Snacks
-Price increase: 38.4%

9. Miscellaneous poultry including turkey
-Price increase: 37.0%

10. Apples
-Price increase: 36.6%

11. Frankfurters
-Price increase: 35.8%

12. Canned vegetables
-Price increase: 35.3%

13. Salt and other seasonings and spices
-Price increase: 34.0%

14. Miscellaneous fats and oils including peanut butter
-Price increase: 34.0%

15. Miscellaneous processed fruits and vegetables including dried
-Price increase: 33.7%

16. Bacon and related products
-Price increase: 33.2%

17. Fresh whole chicken
-Price increase: 32.5%

18. Cakes, cupcakes, and cookies
-Price increase: 32.1%

19. Flour and prepared flour mixes
-Price increase: 32.1%

20. Canned fruits
-Price increase: 32.0%

And thanks to out of control government spending and reckless manipulation by the Federal Reserve, inflation is starting to accelerate once again.

According to John Williams of shadowstats.com, if honest numbers were being used the government would be telling us that inflation is rising at a 6 percent annual rate for the first time since 2011.

At the same time, evidence is mounting that U.S. consumers are simply tapped out.  Interest rates are going up, consumer bankruptcies are rising, and lending standards for consumers are really tightening up.  All are things we would expect to see if a new recession was starting.

And today we learned that the number of Americans refinancing their homes has fallen to the lowest level since 2009

A slowdown in refinancing pulled down the total mortgage application volume last week as changes to certain government-loan programs made refinances less lucrative. Refinance volume now stands at its lowest level since June 2009.

You might remember we also saw a slowdown in mortgage refinancing just before the great financial recession of 2008.

For mortgage applications overall, they are now down almost 31 percent from where they were a year ago…

Total mortgage application volume fell 3.7 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis last week from the previous week, and are nearly 31 percent lower than the same week a year ago, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

A 31 percent decline in a single year is catastrophic.

If this continues, it won’t be too long before everyone is talking about a new housing crash.

And we also learned this week that FHA mortgage delinquencies increased during the fourth quarter “for the first time since 2006″

Federal Housing Administration mortgage delinquencies jumped in the fourth quarter for the first time since 2006, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported Wednesday. The FHA insures low down-payment loans and is a favorite among first-time homebuyers.

The seasonally adjusted FHA delinquency rate increased to 9.02 percent in the fourth quarter from 8.3 percent in the third quarter, MBA data show.

So many negative things are happening now, but most people are choosing not to see these red flags that are popping up all around us.

None of our long-term economic problems have been fixed.  Even though Donald Trump won the election, the truth is that our economy is in the worst shape it has been in since the last financial crisis.  Just like back in 2007, we are experiencing a wave of optimism with the new administration, and most people think the party can somehow continue indefinitely.

Whether Donald Trump won the election or not, the truth is that a major economic downturn was going to come anyway.  Mr. Trump is not some magician who can just wave a wand and somehow make results from decades of very foolish decisions instantly disappear.

We’ve been on the biggest debt binge in human history, and there is going to be a terrible price to pay when this immense debt bubble finally bursts.

 

[From an article published by The Economic Collapse Blog]

 

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As always, posted for your edification and enlightenment by

NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis
normal@usa1usa.com
612.239.0970

 

 

 

 

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Government bureaucracy has worked tirelessly to manipulate statistics to falsely reflect an overall recovery…most of us have little clue that the collapse of 2008 never actually stopped, it just shifted into a state of slow motion

 

In life there are only two kinds of people: Those who know, and those who don’t. Some might claim there is a third option: Those who don’t want to know. In any case, if you want to be able to foresee geopolitical and social trends, you have to be one of the people who know.

 

The narrative of the “new normal” has been around for so long now that many people have simply grown used to it. The assumption is that the fiscal “new normal” has become the fiscal “normal,” and though the fundamentals continue to strain under the weight of poor global demand and historic debt levitated by extraneous fiat stimulus, the masses feel far less fear than is warranted. Hey, why should they? We’ve managed around eight years skating on thin ice, why shouldn’t we expect eight more years of the same?

The banking elites have done the job they set out to do, which was to drive the economy to the very edge of the financial cliff, and then keep it suspended there until the general public became comfortable living next door to the abyss.

Why do this? Well, the greater dynamic at play here is something the average person will not understand or refuses to examine — economics today is about mass psychology. The economy is a tool, or a weapon, by which international financiers can influence the public mind and the emotions of the mob. In order to grasp the mechanics of economics it is not enough to deal in statistics and trade principles; one must also grasp human behavior and how it is manipulated. One must acknowledge that in economics we witness the transmutation of societies by word and by force, by chaos and by order. Economics is alchemy.

The globalists (in their twisted view) seek to change lead into gold, and just as in alchemy, these elements are a metaphor for psychological evolution. For the globalists, social engineering is a form of witchcraft; they see it as creation, or a grand form of architecture.

But it is not creation. The globalists are incapable of such art because true art requires wisdom and empathy. All they know is how to deconstruct existing systems generated by nature and free men and rearrange the left over pieces into something more oppressive and ultimately less interesting than what existed before. Give the internationalists a Mona Lisa and they will shred it, reconstitute it and regurgitate a paint by numbers coloring book.

The globalists only know how to turn gold into lead.

If you do not understand the reality of globalist influence in markets and the nature of economics as a weapon; if you actually believe that the economy operates purely on some kind of free-roaming free market principles, then you will never be able to wrap your head around the otherwise absurd behavior of our financial structure.

The psychology of fiscal “recovery” is a vital tool for change and for developing false dichotomies. For example, I recently came across this article from the pervasive propaganda hub of Bloomberg. In it, Bloomberg outlines a story we are by now very used to hearing from the mainstream — that the presidential era of Barack Obama has left the economy of the U.S. in particular in “far better shape” as he leaves office than when he entered office.

Now, anyone who has been reading my analysis for at least the past six months (if not the past ten years) knows exactly what I think about the current state of the economy and what is likely to happen in the near future. For those new to my position, here is a very quick summary along with linked evidence supporting my claims:

From the 1990’s leading into the year 2007, the Federal Reserve engineered a massive debt and derivatives bubble through the use of artificially low interest rates in the housing market. Alan Greenspan, the presiding Fed chairman at the time, openly admitted in interviews that the central bank knew an irrational bubble had formed, but claims they assumed the negative factors would “wash out.” This is a constant meme set forward by the Fed — that they were essentially too stupid to foresee a collapse of the bubble they knew they had created. They prefer that the public believes that the Fed was “incompetent” rather than deliberately destructive.

The low rates fueled a machine of mortgage backed securities and derivatives based on trillions of dollars in loans to people that had no ability or no intention of ever paying them back. The Fed had aid in this program from the ratings agencies, which labeled obviously toxic debt as AAA for years, and the SEC, which refused to investigate any legitimate claims of asset manipulation and ill intent. This corrupt behavior on the part of the SEC was showcased in the testimony of SEC whistle blower Gary J. Aguirre, who warned of dangerous debt pools and manipulation within the banking industry in 2006 before the derivatives collapse and also warned that the SEC interfered with any investigation attempts into the problem.

This led to the well known “Great Recession” triggered in 2007/2008. The Fed along with numerous other central banks around the world had conjured a crisis and then offered their own solution to that crisis. Namely, the solution of massive fiat stimulus programs purchasing toxic debt, treasury bonds, corporate stocks and anything else that wasn’t nailed down.

The “bailouts” and quantitative easing projects, however, were actually cover for a far larger program of untold trillions in overnight loans to corporations domestic and foreign.  A never-ending river of dollars created out of thin air and pumped into companies for near zero interest. It was these free overnight loans that allowed international conglomerates to purchase their own stocks through stock buybacks, thus reducing the number of existing stocks on the exchanges and artificially boosting the price of the remaining stocks. This caused stock markets to skyrocket from near death to historic highs.

In the meantime, government bureaucracy has worked tirelessly to manipulate statistics to falsely reflect an overall recovery. While some numbers slip through the cracks and issues of true supply and demand continue, the vast majority of the populace has little clue that the collapse of 2008 never actually stopped, it was just shifted into a state of slow motion.

The Fed’s low interest rates, specifically on overnight loans, has allowed the economy to sputter along for eight years, and has greatly enriched the top 1 percent in the process. But now, their strategy is changing.

The problem is that stimulus has a shelf life, and while certain stats can be misrepresented and the stock market can be inflated for a time, eventually, consequences must be accepted for attempting to defy gravity for so long.

The initial collapse was designed to foster an even greater event. Without the derivatives bubble, the central banks never could have convinced the masses to accept the idea of a fiat stimulus bubble which would eventually put the dollar at risk, along with the overall U.S economy. Taking the brunt of the 2008 crash would have been painful, but not insurmountable. But with eight more years and tens of trillions in added debt along with increased geopolitical tensions and an equities bubble for the ages, the scale of the final collapse will be truly unprecedented.

The purpose of this final event will be to generate so much chaos and desperation that the public will be compelled to search for extraordinary solutions. The globalists will be ready with those solutions, including those they have openly outlined decades in advance in publications like The Economist.

The end game? The formation of a single monetary and economic authority under the management of the International Monetary Fund, and the establishment of a single global currency using the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights as a “bridge” for locking national currencies into a harmonized exchange rate until they become pointless, interchangeable and replaceable.

The problem is, the globalists cannot possibly initiate this end game in a vacuum, otherwise, they would take the blame for the inevitable collateral damage to people’s lives as their “great global reset” is undertaken. The globalists need a scapegoat.

Enter Donald Trump, the Brexit Referendum, and the rise of “populist” movements. For the entire first half of 2016, globalists were “warning” non-stop that a rise in populism (conservatives and sovereignty champions) would result in international financial catastrophe. It was as if they knew that the Brexit would succeed and that Donald Trump would win the election…

This has been my position for the past half year — that globalists were planning to allow conservative and sovereignty movements to take the reigns of power, that they would allow the passage of the Brexit and the rise of Trump, just before they pull the plug on the system’s life support. The Federal Reserve in particular has already launched the final phase by beginning a series of rate hikes which will remove the safety net of free overnight loans to companies, thereby sabotaging equities markets. I specifically warned about this over a year ago when most analysts were stating that negative rates and QE4 were “just around the corner.”

And this is where we are today. As noted above, Bloomberg writes an interesting bit of propaganda starting with a bit of truth. Here’s the beginning quote from their article:

“Research suggests factors beyond the control of any U.S. president, not their actual policies, set the course of the economy. Yet with voters, President-Elect Donald Trump will secure much of the praise or blame when it comes to the impact of his agenda over the next four years.”

The recovery narrative from 2008 to today was imperative to the globalist’s greater agenda. For a considerable portion of the public must be made to believe that under a socialist and decidedly globalist president (Barack Obama) the general trend in the economy was positive and that “things were getting better.” This sets the stage for the final collapse and the IMF’s great reset, in which conservatives and sovereignty activists will be blamed, whether there is any evidence of culpability or not, for the crash that the globalists have spent the better part of two decades setting in motion.

After the dust has settled, the argument will be that the world was on course before the Brexit, before Trump and before populism. The argument will be that globalism was working and conservatives screwed it up with their selfish nationalist endeavors. After the final crash and perhaps numerous deaths from poverty and violence, the argument will be that the only conceivable solution must be a return to globalism in an extreme form; or total global centralization, so that such a tragedy will never happen again.

Bloomberg helps to set up the scenario, by claiming that Trump is “inheriting” a stable and improving economy compared to the economy that Barack Obama inherited:

“While today’s economy is a mixed bag by historical standards, one thing is clear: Obama has left Trump a 2016 economy in a better state, by many measures, than when he was first elected president in 2008 in the middle of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.”

Of course, Bloomberg fails to mention that the standards and statistics by which they measure economic “improvement” are entirely fraudulent.

For example, real GDP is at -2 percent, not +2 percent as Bloomberg claims, when one calculates for distortions such as government spending, which is counted towards GDP even though government does not actually produce anything. Government can only steal productivity from citizens and reassign that wealth elsewhere.

Bloomberg also cites a vastly improved unemployment rate. They once again refuse to bring up the fact that over 95 million Americans are no longer counted as unemployed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics because they have been jobless for so long they do not qualify to be included on the rolls. This lie of reduced unemployment has been pervasive through the entirety of the Obama Administration.

Bloomberg then mentions a greatly improved housing market that Trump will enjoy when he takes office. They certainly do not include the fact that pending home sales are now plummeting. And, they do not mention that the majority of the boost in home sales during Obama’s two terms was due to corporations like Blackstone buying up distressed mortgages and turning the homes into rentals. The housing market is not being supported by individuals and families seeking home ownership, but corporations snatching up real estate on the cheap and driving up prices.

And there you have it. The globalist setup continues with mainstream outlets telling Americans that the economy is in ascension as Trump and populists move into positions of power, when in truth the economy is as dire as it ever was if not worse off. The false recovery narrative will indeed die in 2017, and it will be because the globalists want it to die while nationalists are at the helm. This is perhaps the biggest con game in recent history; with conservatives as the fall guy and the rest of the public as the gullible mark. One can only hope that we can educate enough people on this scenario to make a difference before it is too late.

 

[From an article published by PERSONAL LIBERTY]

 

NORM ‘n’ AL Note:  This article is long, well-written, and extremely important.  We suggest you read it two or three times to make sure you understand and internalize it.

 

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As always, posted for your edification and enlightenment by

NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis
normal@usa1usa.com
612.239.0970

 

 

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Americans and their money: Some startling admissions from people just like you

42% of Americans say they will not be able to retire by age 70, or will never be able to retire. Nearly one in five Americans earning at least $100,000 yearly say they could not immediately pay an unexpected $400 expense; among all incomes 46% of American adults say they would not be able to cover such an expense. More below…

 

In the USA today 31% of American adults, or 76 million people, say they are struggling to get by or just barely making it, according to the Federal Reserve Bank’s latest survey on Americans’ economic well-being, which looked at 2015.  (And that’s actually good news. Two years earlier, the Fed found that 38% of Americans were in weak financial shape.)

Seven years after the end of the Great Recession, millions of Americans have yet to find any firm financial footing. That’s one reason why the economy remains a top concern in the 2016 presidential election.

“It’s important to identify the reasons why so many families face continued financial struggles and to find ways to help them overcome them,” said Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard.

The Fed survey highlights many of Americans’ continuing economic worries. Some 46% of adults say they can’t cover an unexpected $400 expense or would have borrow or sell something to do so.

While lower income Americans said they’d have the toughest time handling this emergency charge, some 38% of middle class Americans reported they’d have trouble too. Even 19% of those raking in over $100,000 a year said they couldn’t pay the bill promptly.

About one-third of Americans also say that their income varies month-to-month, mainly because they have an irregular work schedule. Some 45% say their expenses shift each month. Some 42% of those with these volatile income streams or expenses say they struggled to pay the bills at least once in the past year.

Many Americans want to work more or are already holding down multiple jobs. Some 35% of those who are not self-employed said they’d prefer to work more hours (at their current wage). This was particularly true of lower-income respondents, non-Hispanic blacks, younger folks, Hispanics and and those with less education.

And though wage growth began picking up last year, only 23% of those surveyed felt their income would be higher in the coming year. That’s down from 29% last year.

When it comes to savings, the picture is mixed.

Nearly half of Americans spend less than their incomes. That savings rate is 9 percentage points higher than it was two years ago.

But nearly one-third of non-retired adults have not socked away anything for their Golden Years nor do they have a pension. This includes 27% of those age 60 and older.

This is probably why many Americans plan to continue working when they hit retirement age. Some 42% expect to either retire at age 70 or older or to never retire. Also, 38% expect to work in retirement to give them a source of funds, and nearly 22% think their spouse or partner will also work.

The report had a few bright spots, including more adults saying they were living comfortably or doing okay and the greater rate of savings. Also, just over half of Americans felt that their home value increased over the past year and 43% expect it to increase in the coming year.

 

[from an article by Tami Luhby, writing for CNN MONEY]

 

NORM ‘n’ AL Note:  Next time you hear the government telling you how well we’re all doing in our robust economy, send them a copy of this post. When close to half of Americans say they will likely never be able to retire, or cannot retire by age 70, that is NOT an economy that is doing well, not by any measure. When an even higher percentage of us cannot cover an unexpected $400 expense, that is NOT a country that has a healthy economy. Think very carefully as you prepare to vote in the upcoming election. To continue the policies of an administration that has more than doubled our national debt, lied to us over and over (and over) again, refused to listen to its own military advisers, and has put itself above the law rather than be subject to it, would be lunacy in the highest degree. If America decides to continue down the same road we are now on, then we will deserve any disaster that comes upon us as a result.

 

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As always, posted for your edification and enlightenment by

NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis
normal@usa1usa.com
612.239.0970

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Losing ground in America’s heartland, continued…

(THIS IS A LONG ARTICLE, BUT WELL WORTH READING.)

 

The Fed’s crusade to pump-up inflation toward its 2.00% target by hammering-down interest rates to the so-called zero bound is economically lethal. The former destroys the purchasing power of main street wages while the latter strip mines capital from business and channels it into Wall Street financial engineering and the inflation of stock prices.

In the case of America’s 80 million working age adults (25 or over) with a high school education or less, the Fed’s double whammy has been catastrophic. As we demonstrated yesterday, the employment-to-population ratio for this group has plummeted from 60% prior to the great recession to about 54% today.

In round terms this means that the number of job holders in that pool of the less educated has shrunk from 49.4 million to 43.5 million since early 2007. That’s nearly 6 million workers gone missing or 12% of the total from just nine years ago.

And as we documented yesterday this plunge is not due to aging demographics. The MSM meme that it’s all about the baby boomers hanging up their spikes doesn’t wash; the labor force participation rate of persons over 65 has actually increased sharply in recent years.

Shrinking Pool Of Workers With High School Education Or Less

But even those who have managed to stay employed have suffered a devastating reduction in purchasing power. In fact, based on our Flyover CPI, each dollar of wages would buy 3.1% less annually or a cumulative 70% less since 1999.

And that assumes just 65% of the budgets of these lower-wage households are consumed by the four horsemen of inflation—-food, energy, medical and housing. There can be little doubt that they actually spend a materially greater share on these necessities than we have allocated to them in our index.

Flyover CPI Since 1999

By contrast, nominal wages rates for the high school and under workers have risen by less than 50% over the same period. That means drastic purchasing power compression.

In fact, flyover America’s vast cohort of less educated workers has experienced an approximate 1.1% decline in their real weekly wages every year this century. In 2015 dollars of purchasing power, average pay has declined from $475 per week to $397 per week.

That’s right. When viewed on an annualized basis, households which were scrapping by on $24,700 per year in 2000 have seen the purchasing power of their pay checks drop to $20,600 today or by nearly 17%.

Yet the house of academic fools in the Eccles Building keep insisting that we have insufficient inflation!

Likewise, the all knowing pundits of the Acela Corridor (Washington/Wall Street) can’t figure out why Donald Trump has come roaring out of nowhere.

Real Weekly Wages- High School Graduates, No College

 

That gets us to the Wall Street/Keynesian cult of consumer spending. The latter holds that Americans who “shop until they drop” are the mainspring of the US economy based on the silly observation that personal consumption expenditures (PCE) comprise 70% of the GDP accounts, which themselves are a Keynesian construct.

Then again, no one told them that fully $3.5 trillion or 28% of total PCE consists of imputed housing consumption via OER (owners equivalent rent) and health care costs heavily funded by third-parties such as government entitlements and employer-based health insurance plans.  No one “shopped” to fund either of these huge PCE components, but self evidently someone worked to pay the taxes and premiums.

That is, real capitalist growth and prosperity stems from the supply-side ingredients of labor, enterprise, capital and production, not the hoary myth that consumer spending is the fount of wealth.

Yet even within the framework of our Keynesian monetary central planners, how did real PCE grow so strongly during the last two decades when real incomes for a huge share of the work force were falling so sharply?

In a word, debt. The flip-side of the Greenspan/Bernanke/Yellen wage crushing operation was a national LBO in the household sector.

During the 21 years between Greenspan’s arrival at the Fed in August 1987 and the early 2008 peak, household debt erupted from $2.7 trillion to $14.3 trillion or by 5.3X.

To be sure, nearly $12 trillion of extra debt, representing an annual growth rate of nearly 8.5%, speaks for itself in terms of the implied monumental excess. But our Keynesian witch doctors have a way of attempting to minimize the import of it by what we call the “inflation lockstep fallacy”.

That is to say, there is purportedly not so much to see here because much of this huge gain represents inflation; and, of course, wages and incomes were inflating over this 21 year period, too. What counts, or so claim our Keynesian bettors, is “real dollar” amounts as computed by their bulimic inflation indices.

Au contraire!

Wages in the Chinese export factories were not being set by the PCE deflator less food and energy as confected and tabulated by some GS-16s in the BLS’ statistical puzzle palace. On the margin, the “China price” in the world’s labor market was less than $1 per hour equivalent during most of that time.

And that’s a full stop. Constant dollar statistical deflators had nothing to do with it.

The Fed’s policy of systematically and massively inflating the domestic cost of living and household debt, therefore, resulted in a giant economic deformation—-one even greater than that implied by the parabolic debt gains through 2008 shown above.

Indeed, the full import can only be grasped by considering the sound money contrafactual case. To wit, as we demonstrated in an earlier post on this topic the CPI would have declined by 1-2% per year under a sound money regime after the early 1990’s when China’s export machine took off.

That means that even under a scenario of 3% labor productivity growth and constant household leverage ratios (i.e. debt-to income), total household debt would have grown by perhaps 2% per annum.

So by 2008 outstanding household debt would have been in the range of $4 trillion, not $14 trillion.

That’s right. Thanks to the utterly wrong-head monetary policies of Greenspan and his successors, US households ended up with $10 trillion of extra debt to lug around. And in the bargain, they got bloated nominal wage rates, which resulted in the massive off-shoring of their jobs, and shrinking purchasing power, which lowered the living standard of the less educated flyover zone work force by 17% just since the turn of the century.

The extent of this destructive household sector LBO is hinted at in the graph below. Historically, the ratio of household debt—-mortgages, credit cards, car loans and the rest—–was under 80% of wage and salary income.

After Nixon pulled the props out from the last vestiges of sound money at Camp David in August 1971 and turned the Fed loose to print at will, however, the ratio began to creep steadily higher.

Yet it was only after the arrival of Greenspan in the Eccles Building that the household leverage ratio went virtually parabolic, climbing from about 100% of wages and salaries to nearly 225% by the early 2008 peak.

We have called this a one-time parlor trick of monetary policy because while the leverage ratio was rising, it did permit households to supplement spending from their current wages and salaries with the proceeds of incremental borrowings. Undoubtedly, this artificial goosing of living standards by the central bank money printers did help insulate flyover America from feeling the full brunt of its shrinking job opportunities and  the deflating purchasing power of its pay checks.

No more. The household LBO is over and done, but the slightly declining leverage ratio shown in the chart is not a measure of progress; it’s an indicator of the distress being felt by households that have been forced to cut their consumption expenditures to the level of current earnings, which, in turn, are not rising nearly as fast as the 3.1% inflation rate afflicting flyover America.

Household Leverage Ratio

There is no secret or mystery as to how America’s working households were led into this appalling debt trap. The fact is, the befuddled Greenspan actually bragged about it when he celebrated the higher consumption levels that were being funded by MEW or mortgage equity withdrawal.

That was just Fedspeak for the fact that under its interest rate repression policies, American families were being massively incentivized and encouraged day and night by cash-out mortgage financing ads ( e.g “Lost another one to Ditech!”) to hock their homes to the mortgage man and splurge on the proceeds. This reached nearly a $1 trillion annual rate and 9% of disposable personal income at the peak just before 2008.

That Greenspan took great pains to track the data and publish the above chart is a measure of how far the Fed had descended into “something for nothing” economics.

Did they think that the leverage ratchet would never stop rising? Did they not recognize the fundamental economic fact of the present era? Namely, that there is a massive 80-million strong baby-boom generation heading for retirement and that for better or worse, home equity accumulation owing to the deductibility of interest has been its primary vehicle of savings?

Well, apparently not in the slightest. Here is what was happening behind the screen during Greenspan’s spurious MEW campaign. American households were strip-mining the equity from their homes and burying themselves in mortgage debt.

Total mortgage debt outstanding soared from $1.8 trillion to $10.7 trillion or by nearly 6X during this 21 year period. And even though housing prices more than doubled, the ratio of equity to owner-occupied housing asset value plunged from 67% to 37% over the period.

Here’s the thing. The MEW party ended nine years ago, but virtually all of Greenspan’s MEW is still there. Flyover America may not know exactly how it got buried in such massive debts, but it knows that the current Washington/Wall Street Bubble Finance regime has left it high and dry. It now suffers a relentless shrinkage of living standards even as these contractual debt obligations chase the huge cohort of baby-boomers right into their retirement golden years.

The only thing worse than the MEW legacy plaguing seniors is what’s happening on the other end of the demographic curve. Among student age Americans, the degree of debt enslavement has become even more draconian.

In the last decade alone, total student loans outstanding have nearly tripled, rising from $500 billion in 2006 to $1.34 trillion at present. And for reasons laid out below, a disproportionate brunt of this massive student loan burden is being shouldered by flyover America.

That’s mainly because the preponderant share of the nation’s 25 million higher education students comes from the flyover zones. Those precincts still had a semblance of a birth rate 25 years ago, unlike the culturally advanced households of the bicoastal meccas.

Stated differently, these staggering debt obligations were not incurred by Wellesley College art history majors or even needs-based diversity students at Harvard Law School. They are owed by the inhabitants of mom and pop’s basements scattered over the less advantaged expanse of the land.

After all, the Ivy league schools including all of their graduate departments account for only 140,000 students or 0.5% of the nation’s total. Even if you add in the likes of MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Northwestern, Duke, Vanderbilt and the rest of the top 20 universities you get less than 250,000 or 1% of the student population.

The other 24 million are victims of the feckless Washington/Wall Street ideology of debt and finance. To wit, tuition, fees, room and board and other living expanses have erupted skyward over the last two decades because Washington has poured in loans and grants with reckless abandon and Wall Street has fueled the madcap expansion of for-profit tuition mills.

Even setting aside the minimum $50,000 annual price tag at private institutions, the tab has soared to $20,000 annually at public 4-year schools and nearly $30,000 per year at the tuition mills.

These figures represent semi-criminal rip-offs. They were enabled by the preternaturally bloated levels of debt and finance showered upon the student population by the denizens of the Acela Corridor.

So the former now tread water in an economic doom loop. Average earnings for 35 year-olds with a bachelors degree or higher are $50,000 annually, compared to $30,000 for high school graduates and $24,000 for dropouts.

Thus, the sons and daughters of the flyover zones feel compelled to strap-on a heavy vest of debt in order to finance the insanely bloated costs of higher education. But once so “educated”, the overwhelming majority end up with $30,000 to $100,000 or debt or more.

In this regard, the so-called for-profit colleges like Phoenix University, Strayer Education and dozens of imitators deserve a special place in the halls of higher education infamy. At their peak a few years ago, enrollments at these schools totaled 3.5 million.

But overwhelmingly, these “students” were recruited by tuition harvesting machines that make the all-volunteer US Army look like a piker in comparison. To wit, typically 90% of the revenues of these colleges were derived from student grants and especially loans——-hundreds of billions of them—-but less than one-third of that money went to the cost of education, including teachers, classrooms, books and other instructional costs.

At the same time, well more 33% went to SG&A and the overwhelming share of that was in the “S” part. That is, prodigious expenditures for salesmen, recruiters, commissions and giant bonuses and other incentives and perks.

Needless to say, this made for good growth and margin metrics that could be hyped in the stock market.  In fact, after the cost of education and all of the massive selling expense to turbocharge enrollment growth was absorbed, there was still upwards of 35-40% of revenue left for operating profits.

That’s right. For a decade until the Obama Administration finally lowered the boom after 2011, the fastest growing and most profitable companies in America were the for-profit colleges.

In short order they became a hedge fund hotel, meaning that the fast money piled into the for-profit college space like there was no tomorrow. So doing, they often drove PE ratios to 60X or higher, bringing instant riches to start-up entrepreneurs and top company executives, who, in turn, were motivated to drive their growth and profit “metrics” even harder.

At length, they became tuition mills and Wall Street speculations that were incidentally in the higher education business, or not. The combined market cap of the six largest public companies went from less than $2 billion to upwards of $30 billion in a decade.

The poster boy for this scam is surely Strayer Education. Between 2002 and the 2011 peak, its sales and net income grew at 25% per year and operating profit margins clocked in at nearly 40%.

Not surprisingly, Strayer was peddled as the second coming of “growth” among the hedge funds. The momo chasers thus pushed its PE ratio into the 60-70X range in its initial growth phase, and it remained in the 30-40X range thereafter.

Accordingly, its market cap soared by 7X from $500 million to $3.5 billion at the peak. The hedge funds made a killing.
STRA Market Cap Chart

STRA Market Cap data by YCharts

Then the Federal regulators threw on the brakes, and it was all over except the shouting. Total market cap of more than $27 billion disappeared from the segment within three years after 2011 and the hedge fund hotel experienced a mass stampede for the exits.

What was left were millions of flyover zone thirty-something’s stuck with crushing unpaid loans, educations of dubious value and a lot more years in mom and pop’s basement.

Should any of these tuition mills have even existed, let alone been valued at 60X earnings——-earnings that did not derive from real economic value added and which were totally at the whims of the US department of education?

Of course not.

But then again, after 20 years of radical financial repression the Wall Street has been turned into a casino that scalps the flyover zone whenever it gets half the chance.

 

[by David Stockman, writing for DAVID STOCKMAN’S CONTRA CORNER]

 

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As always, posted for your edification and enlightenment by

NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis
normal@usa1usa.com
612.239.0970

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Oil industry services company now planning its second bankruptcy filing in nine months

Oil industry still struggling

Things are so bad in the oil industry that one drilling services company is planning its second bankruptcy filing in nine months.

Hercules Offshore (HERO) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last August as the crash in oil prices began to send financial stress rippling through the oil and gas world.

 The oil services company emerged from bankruptcy seemingly a healthier entity in November after shedding $1.2 billion of debt. But then a second wave of turmoil hit the oil industry as crude plunged to 13-year lows in February.

That’s why Hercules Offshore announced on Friday it plans to once again file for Chapter 11 in an effort to sell off assets. Shares of the Houston company plunged 39% on the news.

Hercules said it will file motions with the court to allow the company to continue paying suppliers and maintain employee wages and benefits.

Once it becomes official, Hercules would be the first oil company during the current downturn to become a so-called “Chapter 22” by going bankrupt twice, bankruptcy lawyers said.

“I imagine as oil prices remain low, this is probably the beginning of a wave,” said Ted Gavin, founding partner of Gavin/Solmonese.

Hercules said that since it emerged from bankruptcy in November, the renewed decline in oil prices and consolidation of its U.S. customers hurt demand for the company’s services, which include operating boats and rigs to help oil and gas companies.

“You can strip off debt, but that doesn’t suddenly make you cash flow positive — particularly when oil prices are low,” Gavin said.

It’s a sign of the financial chaos rocking the oil industry these days, even as oil prices have rebounded off their February low of $26 a barrel to $50 this week.

Over 60 North American oilfield services companies including Hercules have gone bankrupt since the start of 2015, according to law firm Haynes and Boone. That’s on top of more than 77 oil and gas producers that have also gone bust.

This time, instead of simply restructuring debt, Hercules is planning to use the bankruptcy process to sell off assets. The company’s international assets aren’t going to be part of the bankruptcy filing, but will be included in the sale.

Hercules has already reached a $196 million deal to sell a jack-up rig that operates in harsh environments to Maersk Highlander.

 

[by Matt Egan, writing for CNN MONEY]

 

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As always, posted for your edification and enlightenment by

NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis
normal@usa1usa.com
612.239.0970

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Wal-Mart’s first-ever sales drop marks the end of an era…

Crowded Wal-Mart store

Not every milestone is worth celebrating.

For the first time ever — or at least since the company went public some 45 years ago — Wal-Mart’s revenues shrank from the year before, according to its annual financial filing released Wednesday.

Wal-Mart is clearly having trouble adapting its gigantic stores to the Internet age. To be sure, it is a retail juggernaut that brings in half a trillion dollars (yes, that’s right, trillion) in sales every year. And with more than 11,500 stores in 28 countries, there’s no way it will disappear anytime soon.

Still, Wal-Mart might have just hit its growth limit.

And the sales dip comes despite the fact that Wal-Mart spent $11.5 billion (roughly matching what J.C. Penney made in sales last year) to build more than 400 new stores, remodel old locations, and revamp its website and other technology to better serve its customers.

Though Wal-Mart shares were a safe haven in the rocky start of 2016, investors are pricing in more weakness. The stock has fallen behind retail competitors and the broader market.

In February, Wal-Mart lowered its annual net sales growth forecast to “relatively flat,” from earlier guidance that called for an increase of as much as 4 percent (the company has pointed out that previous guidance didn’t account for currency changes, which have stung the global retailer).

Wednesday’s filing attributes part of the 2015 sales drop to currency impacts and a decrease in fuel sales due to lower gas prices. Sales have also suffered from ongoing store closures, including the shuttering of its entire fleet of smaller, “Express” stores.

But Wal-Mart also acknowledged it has shifted the way it runs the company, dropping a long-time focus on growing net sales and cutting operating expenses as a percentage of sales. Its aim now is on making “strategic investments” to support the “long-term health of the company.” While that’s happening, Wal-Mart warned, it may not be able to deliver the kind of steady net sales and profit growth investors have grown accustomed to seeing. (Though it notes it will continue to build new stores and e-commerce capabilities and grow sales at established stores.)

While jarring, these changes aren’t necessarily bad. Wal-Mart remains a massive retail force, and investors shouldn’t discount the muscle behind any decision it makes. This can already be seen in its fast-growing mobile app and its rapidly expanding and seemingly successful grocery pick-up program, which lets shoppers order groceries online and then swing through a Wal-Mart drive-through to pick them up.

It’s also pretty amazing that executives are finally willing to take poor results on the chin and veer away from precedent in order to morph the company from a mostly brick-and-mortar operation into one that serves customers the way they want to shop — whether in stores, the web, on mobile, or a mix of all three. And if these investments work, they could position the company for another half-century of retail dominance.

But what Wal-Mart doesn’t have is an unlimited amount of time. Reporting declining sales might be okay for a year or two, but at some point a turnaround plan could become a failed strategy. Its first revenue decline should serve as a wake-up call.

 

[This article appeared in The Chicago Tribune]

 

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As always, posted for your edification and enlightenment by

NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis
normal@usa1usa.com
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The pillars of our economic recovery are crumbling…

When historians sort out this era of once-a-decade financial bubbles, they’ll marvel at how dissimilar the drivers of each boom were. The junk bonds of the 1980s were essentially leveraged tools for extracting wealth from companies. The dot-coms of the 1990s were vehicles for exotic new technologies and untested business models. The sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps of the 2000s were semi-fraudulent fee-generation schemes.

All, in retrospect, were strange, unsteady foundations on which to build a global economy. But they look positively sane compared to the pillars of the current expansion: China and fracking.

As the true extent of China’s debt binge becomes apparent, the only reasonable reaction is awe. To cook the story down to its essence, the world’s biggest developing country decided to become developed in the space of a few years, borrowing nearly as much money as the entire rest of the world and using the proceeds to buy up every conceivable kind of industrial commodity. The result was a natural resources boom that, for a little while, floated the global economy on a rising tide of leverage. For much more detail, see this long Zero Hedge analysis.

Then, as all debt binges eventually do, this one ended in a tangle of malinvestment and evaporating cash flows. China’s excess capacity in basic industries like steel and cement is now epic. Mass layoffs are being announced daily. Its velocity of money — a measure of the tempo of economic activity — is the lowest in the world. And external trade is collapsing, with February imports and exports falling 13.8% and 25.4%, respectively.

Now in damage control mode, China is spending its foreign exchange reserves in a probably-futile attempt to keep its currency from plunging, while capital is pouring out of the country in search of safe havens and hedge funds are placing billion-dollar bets on a big yuan devaluation.

China forex reserves March 16

China, in short, has become a drag on the global economy rather than its savior. And much, much worse is coming.

Now on to fracking, which involves pumping toxic industrial chemicals into the ground to free up hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves. For a while, this was the Internet of the energy business, captivating bankers and entrepreneurs and igniting a scramble for prime drilling rights.

Between 2006 and 2014, US natural gas production rose from 64 billion cubic feet a day to 90 billion while oil production rose from 5 million barrels a day 9 million. Along the way, fracking produced millions of well-paying jobs, lifting whole US regions from bust to boom and generating massive tax windfalls for favored states.

But this too was a leveraged mirage. The surge in supply swamped a global market that was already slowing due to China’s bursting credit bubble. The result was a crash in oil and gas prices and a bloodbath in the US oil patch.

Rig count March 16

All those now-idle rigs cost someone a lot of money, much of it borrowed from banks and junk bond investors. So unless oil and gas return to 2012 levels in short order, the year ahead will see a rolling wave of bankruptcies and huge write-offs for lenders, pension funds and yield-seeking retirees. All of which, like China, constitute a drag on growth.

In a system that seems incapable of functioning in the absence of bubbles, the question now becomes: What can the monetary authorities convert into the next bubble? And the answer is not at all clear. A case can be made that the rush into negative-coupon German and Japanese bonds is bubble-like. But this doesn’t seem to be generating jobs or income for anyone — just the opposite. Buying a negative interest rate bond is a bet on shrinking capital.

In the US, cars were hot for a while but subprime auto lending is already hitting a wall and will likely go the way of China and fracking in the year ahead. Solar power? Maybe, but growth there comes at the expense of coal and natural gas, so it’s a wash in the short run. Finance? Forget it. Negative interest rates are an existential threat to traditional lending, and the big banks are all retrenching. Government funded infrastructure? That’s a liberal politician’s dream, but it sounds a lot like what China just did, and bubbles tend not to repeat in this way.

The terrifying conclusion is that other than a major war, there’s nothing out there capable of generating another global bubble. And absent another bubble, there’s nothing between us and the abyss.

 

(by John Rubino, writing for DOLLARCOLLAPSE.COM)

 

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As always, posted for your edification and enlightenment by

NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis
normal@usa1usa.com
612.239.0970

 

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