Saturday, August 31, 2013

College Grads and Jobs

There is a growing discussion about whether or not college graduates are generally prepared for the workforce.  This is a very interesting (and revealing) discussion.

This is not so much about GPA as it is about more fundamental problems -- attitude tops the list.  Far too many college graduates think that they have 'paid their dues' by attending college and collecting a degree.  Many seem to think that joining the work force is akin to joining a fraternity or sorority.  They seem disappointed that employers' have high work expectations and are in no hurry to provide massive benefits and a club-med work environment to a rookie employee.

What every employer wants is someone committed to work hard, to learn new skills, and to already possess basic writing and mathematics skills.  The vast majority of college graduates, measured against these expectations of business do not measure up. 

That's the sad truth about higher education.  We don't insist that our graduates have adequate writing and math skills to perform at a high level in the work force.  Those graduates who do have these skills, likely had them before they entered college.  They certainly don't gain or nurture these skills in college.

As for attitude, there is no more-forgiving environment than the modern university.  Students can argue a C grade into an A grade, if they understand how things work.  It is a simple task to manage one's GPA to end up with a 4.0 without serious study.  Meanwhile, skipping classes, scrimping on assignments, cheating, massive drug and alcohol abuse are all tolerated with little or no punishment.  Moving from the university environment to a work environment is a real culture shock for most college graduates in the modern era.

More and more the modern college and university is a great four year social experience that probably makes it more, not less, difficult to adjust to the realities of a market-based economy.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Nasdaq Flap

The Nasdaq halted trading today and was down for a couple of hours.  Listening to the financial media (CNBC, Larry Kudlow, etc.), you would have thought a great crime had occurred.  99 percent of the investing public had no idea and could care less, me included.

What serious investor could possibly be harmed by a two hour shutdown of the Nasdaq?  Are these pundits serious?  If there was ever an 'inside baseball' issue, this is it.  Only manic traders and hedge funds could possibly care one way or another about the Nasdaq shutdown.

No portfolio of any serious investor could possibly be damaged by a temporary shutdown of a stock exchange.  This is a ridiculous tempest in a teapot.

Obama and Higher Education

Just what we need, the Obama tenacles reaching into higher education.  In typical style, Obama points to a problem -- the high cost of higher education -- and proposes a solution that has nothing to do with the problem and actually will likely make the problem far, far worse than it is now.  This has been the pattern with the economic rescue plan, with the 'affordable' health care act, with wind and solar initiatives, and on and on.  Every problem that Obama has inherited has become a much bigger problem under his leadership.

What is wrong with higher education?  Mainly the government, as in most other things.  Federal funding for research grants and student loans has made higher ed less interested in scholarly pursuits and more interested in the pursuit of federal largesse.  Students are borrowing huge amounts of money to maintain a college lifestyle that for prior generations was simply unavailable.  Who could spend that kind of money on beer and fitness centers in the good old days?

Education itself doesn't cost much to provide; less today than a generation ago thanks to the advent of the digital age.  But 'higher education' is no longer in reach for middle income Americans unless they are willing to bankrupt themselves and their children to enrich university bureacrats and aging academics (and they are aging thanks to tenure).  There is a growing gap between 'education' and 'higher education.'  More and more these two concepts are separate and distinct -- perhaps, incompatible.

Obama is going to measure the inputs to higher education to figure out what the outputs are -- a completely absurd approach to measuring the effectiveness of an education program.  Why not measure the difference between a student's life chances when entering the institution with the life chances when leaving the institution.  The 'elite' colleges would not fair very well using a measure like that.  But, if only inputs are measured -- the Obama plan -- then the elite colleges will do very well indeed (that's why they are called 'elite'), but the community colleges, who fare much better using my measure will not do well under the Obama plan.

Once more, under Obama, the rich get richer and the poor and middle class will be left holding the bag.

Media Misleads Once Again

Reuters has a story today about the jobless claims number that is completely absurd.  According to Reuters, "...then new claims... rose...but...gave a positive signal for hiring during the month."  This conclusion is based upon absolutely nothing. 

What the data, in fact, shows is that jobless claims rose last week and rose more than the market expected -- not good news at all.  Worse, the numbers are barely (five percent on average) lower than the numbers in the early part of the year.  Given that revisions are typically well above five percent, a drop of five percent is statistically irrelevant.

The real truth is that the economy is not producing enough jobs and the few that are produced are mostly part-time, low wage jobs.  Not surprising, given the Obama economic program, which guarantees economic stagnation as far as the eye can see.

The media has made a habit of consistently distorting the truth about the American economy in their cheerleading effort to defend failed policy.

Read David Stockman

A new book by David Stockman, "The Great Deformation," challenges the current orthodoxy of financial market regulation.

This book is a great read.  Don't expect a calm and collected analysis.  This book is definitely not calm and collected.  Stockman takes on all comers and his style is blatantly polemical.  He aims his brickbats at the right and the left as he excoriates the rise of indebtedness, public and private, since the 1960s.

Don't think conservatives get a free ride in this book.  They don't.  Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman are targets of Stockman.  Indeed, Stockman sees Reagan and Friedman as major culprits in the incredible growth of America's financial liabilities.  Some of this is, no doubt, sour grapes for his well-publicized split with the Reagan Administration in the 1980s when Stockman was Director of the Bureau of the Budget.  He resigned that post in a feud with the Reagan folks over their unwillingness to support spending reductions to accompany the famous Reagan tax cuts.

But, the heart and soul of Stockman's book is his interpretation of the 2008 financial crisis.  Here, Stockman makes a real contribution to what has been an embarassingly simple-minded consensus view of government policy.   Stockman argues that the federal government, including the Fed, should not have intervened to save AIG, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.  According to Stockman, saving these firms was the main purpose of the hastily-assembled $ 780 billion bailout backage, known as TARP.

Stockman argues that the financial system and the American economy was not threatened by the collapse of AIG, MS, and GS, as was argued at the time.  He shows, by analyzing the balance sheets of these firms, that the American economy could have easily survived the collapse of these firms.  Few, today, agree with that, but Stockman makes his case convincingly.

In essence, Stockman is challenging the "too big to fail" crowd that dominates government policy today and that dominated government policy in the Bush Administration in 2008.  By challenging a hackneyed consensus devoid of analytical underpinning, Stockman has done a great service, writing this book.  He's right.  Read his book.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Time to Buy Emerging Markets?

Emerging market stocks have been hammered this year as the US and Europe have enjoyed one of the best stock markets in history.  Why?  What happened to the argument that slow (GDP) growth in the developed world and much higher (GDP) growth in the emerging economies argued in favor of a heavy commitment of investment funds to emerging market?

As it turns out, emerging market economic growth has, indeed, been much, much higher than economic growth in the Western nations.  So, why did their stock markets put in such a pitiful performance thus far this year?  A similar pattern occurred in US history when foreign investors, mostly British and Russian investors, lost bucketloads of money betting on growth in the US economy in the 19th century.  This is not the first time that dramatic GDP growth failed to help investors in public stocks.

Many of the most vibrant companies in the countries that fall into the 'emerging market' category are not public companies.  They are privately owned companies that aren't included in any of the emerging market portfolios that you and I can own.  Instead, roughly 40 percent of the capitalization of 'emerging market' ETFs are typically government-owned or heavily regulated companies, such as the local telephone company or local utility company.  Are these good investment bets in a third world political environment?

If emerging markets boom, you are much more likely to make money owning Coca Cola stock than the stock in the local telephone company in Egypt or Venezuela.  The inherent logic behind huge investments in emerging markets never made any sense in the first place.

That said, it may now be time to buy the emerging markets, since everyone seems to be abandoning them in a rush.  India's stock market lost four percent of its value in a single day at the end of last week. 

It may be time to take another look at emerging markets, now that their staunchest supporters seem to be running for the exits.  But, one should be cautious.  Emerging markets involve stocks that have fundamentally different characteristics and corporate governance rules than Western investors may be accustomed to.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

European Recovery -- Seriously?

The news services are abuzz this morning with the "news" that Europe has finally turned the corner with an economic rebound in the 2nd quarter of this year.  Underneath the headline is the dismal number of an annualized 0.3 percent estimated growth rate for the 2nd quarter.  Whoop-to-doo!  This is a recovery.  This number is not significantly different from a negative number, given the pattern of revisions.  Meanwhile, unemployment in Europe remains above 12 percent and sovereign debt is soaring on to new highs.

There are further stories that Greece is on the road to recovery.  What are their current statistics?  GDP only dropped an annualized four percent in the first half of this year.  Wow!  That's really something to write home about.  Combined with almost 28 percent unemployment overall and nearly 70 percent unemployment among youth, it sure sounds like Greece is just humming along.

Wonder what the statistics would show if Europe was doing poorly?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Some Good News for the US

Steve Moore's column today in the Wall Street Journal is worth a read.  The sequester, according to Moore, has worked.  Total federal spending has been slowed, even reversed, in the past two years, according to Moore.  This is, indeed, good news.  Let's hope it continues.

Moore notes that all it takes to continue to hold federal spending in line is to not undo the budget deal that led to the sequester in the first place.  It will be interesting to see if politicians can stick with the plan by doing nothing.

Update on Greece

Now, after five years of European Union policies, how do things look in Greece.  The headline today on Yahoo looks encouraging: "Greece Beats January-July Budget Target."  In fact, Greece did not do any such thing.  More bailout funds from the EU, though, made it look that way. 

Here is what the EU has done for Greece:  GDP today is 20 percent lower than it was in 2008, when the EU bailouts began.  Unemployment is at a record pace, pushing toward 30 percent.  These numbers are not very different from where the US was in 1933 at the lowest point of the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, civil order is breaking down in Greece.  Crime is rife and the only things growing are the nation's indebtedness and the black market.   Political discourse is moving to the extremes as the center breaks down.

Finally the debt to GDP ratio is rapidly climbing to 200 percent.  The EU has made a small problem into a large problem and has obligated the entire European continent to back a bailout that has absolutely no hope of success.  Politicians hard at work again!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Changing Face of the American Workplace

The US economy was once the envy of the world.  From 1865 to 1965, the US economy grew faster than any large economy in the world.  The great American middle class came into prominence during this period and American income and wealth had no rivals anywhere in the world.  For most of these years, there was no Federal Reserve or central bank in the United States, though central banks had a long history in every other large country in the world.  For most of these years, there was little business regulation and no income tax.  The Federal Reserve and the Federal income tax came into existence in 1913, coming on the heels of the best 60 years of economic growth in the history of the US.

Not that everything was rosy.  Financial panics and the great depression occurred during this 100 year span.  Unemployment rose and fell.  Markets rose and fell.  The dynamics of American growth were chaotic, though powerful.  But, with all of the chaos and panic, the American pie grew at an unprecedented rate, matched, in world history, only by modern China.  The standard of living of the average American grew at the fastest pace ever.  Unemployment levels above 6 percent were considered a sign of a 'recession.'  The current 7.6 percent unemployment rate would have been seen as an extreme economic slowdown  (not an economic recovery).

Since 1965, the American economy has grown at a dramatically slower pace.  The American middle class has consistently struggled, except for the 20 year period that followed the inauguration of Ronald Reagan.   The financial position of the average American is today untenable, if proper account is taken of the federal, state and local government debt.  America is headed for financial disaster and the American middle class is sitting in the passenger seat.

In the driver's seat is the new political class.  The fastest growing demographic in America is the American government or quasi-government employee.  On the defensive is the American private economy.  Besieged by so much regulation that most companies are not even aware of most of the regulatory burden that they face, small business is no longer the engine of American economic progress -- government is where the real growth is taking place.  Government employment has been the largest source of employment growth in the US economy since 1965.

Unfortunately, government doesn't produce anything but problems for the private sector.  Most government employees (including public school teachers, university professors, and bureaucrats of all stripes) view the private sector with suspicion.  They see private businesses as quasi-criminal enterprises bent on polluting the environment and exploiting their employees.  This culture dominates the media characterizations, not only in the daily news, but in television series and movies.

So what does all of this mean for the workplace in modern America?  Private businesses realize that they are the target of the political classes and they make adjustments.  They know that if they hire full time employees, their regulatory burden goes up.  They know if they hire 50 employees or more, they fall into certain categories that must face significantly higher costs of complying with the modern legal environment that has been imposed upon them.

So, what happens?  Small business reacts by hiring as few full time employees as possible.  Part time workers are easier to fire and are not subject to Obamacare and other regulatory burdens.  Many companies keep their companies deliberately smaller to avoid certain employment trigger levels that put companies under a much more severe regulatory regime.  Employees that are 'protected' under current laws -- minorities, women, persons over the age of 55 -- involve far greater expense to a private business than other employees.  So, fewer of them are hired.  Protecting an employee with legislation simply means making that employee more expensive to the employer.   Employers aren't stupid (a common assumption of the political class that supports these 'protections).'

So, today, the workplace is a very rigid bureaucratic environment.  The blizzard of paperwork that employees face is nothing compared to the blizzard of paperwork that companies face.  There is more concern with what might be said at the water cooler than what the work output might be.  Private email communications are now perused for politically incorrect comments.  Free speech doesn't apply to the workplace.  In financial service companies, mistakes or errors are seen as criminal (the 'whale' episode at JP Morgan is a modern instance).  Gone are the old processes of free people making free decisions in free markets.  Now you have to worry about whether Barney Frank or Elizabeth Warren is looking over your shoulder.

All of this means that America is in a period of relative economic decline.  The middle class will remain an endangered species as the political class bent on the destruction of the middle class continues to claim that all they care about is the middle class.  Gradually, less and less of America is based upon free market economics and more and more is driven by un-elected elites, who have spent most of their lives either in politics or academia.  The workplace is now a bureaucratic environment with rigid rules and little or no room for initiative and energy.  The dull and the routine is more and more a description of the modern American workplace.

The workplace is also becoming more and more a land of part-timers.  Businesses in America, like their European counterparts, are increasingly reluctant to hire people that, by law, they cannot fire.  Workers now have protections and guarantees that mean, even if workers received no wages at all, they are still very, very costly to business.  Increasingly, wages are a smaller and smaller fraction of the costs to an employer of hiring an employee.  The result is a much reduced take home pay and more and more of worker income is siphoned off to worthy causes, favored by elite bureacrats in the Elizabeth Warren mold -- bureacrats with virtually no life experiences similar to that of ordinary American workers.

A hundred years ago, a young employee could take a job at a reduced wage or no wage at all as a way of entering the work force and learning a trade.  Minimum wage laws, promoted by big unions, are designed to block such work force entrants and preserve a monopoly for existing workers.  These laws are effective and help destroy a large part of the Horatio Alger culture that once was.  The elite that make these rules don't face such problems since they, by and large, go to elite colleges and universities and find that entry into the work force doesn't involve wage and salaries anywhere near the minimum wage.

It is no accident that college students are in the forefront of the call for a "living wage."  A living wage virtually guarantees that the college students will not face future competition from folks whose start in life is not as pampered as their own.  The poor simply can't get through the front door, since their skill set rarely justifies a "living wage."  Meanwhile, those who support the "living wage' think of themselves as bastions of morality, while crushing the hopes of folks who would simply like to have an opportunity to move up in the world through their own work efforts.

Great wealth creates idle time for the wealthy.  It is no accident that the wealthiest US politicians are also those who most vociferously support the agenda of ever bigger government.  Why not?  It will never effect them.  As fewer and fewer Americans derive their living from the free market, the free market has fewer and fewer defenders.  The wealthy and the new bureacrats are the power brokers in modern America.  Their contempt for the American middle class and for free enterprise is on display every day in our media and in their political program.  It has changed the face of America and the American workplace.  Meanwhile, folks like Obama ponder why part-time workers are replacing full time workers in America.  He blames that on greedy businesses.  But, the reality is that Obama policies are one of the key reasons that full time workers are becoming an endangered species.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Another "European" Jobs Number

162,000 new jobs in July.  Not only is that an absurdly low number for an economy as large as the US, the job numbers for both May and June were revised downward as well.  No one is much interested in hiring anyone.  That's the main message of this report.

A subtext is reflected in the unemployment rate, which fell to 7.4 %.  How, if a pitifully low number of jobs are created each month, is the unemployment rate falling?  When people give up looking, they aren't counted anymore and more than 6 million have given up looking. Unemployment could get down to 1 percent if almost everyone just gave up and went on public assistance.  Is this the Obama plan?

The White House is succeeding in getting the economy that they have wanted -- the European economy -- no growth, no opportunity for the young and ever rising debt levels that have no conceivable way of being repaid.  This is the liberal dream.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Big Companies More Valuable Than Small Companies

So what explains the surging stock market, when the fundaments of the economy remain weak?  Again, micro-factors favor large companies with access to government.  This is true for banks as well as for non-financials.  Smaller companies are getting hammered by higher tax rates, more mandates, and looming ObamaCare.  Large businesses, with some exceptions like coal, can deal with all the bureaucratic regulatory stuff because they have so much scale.  Not true for smaller businesses.

So what you're seeing is a change in the playing field.  The big guys are doing relatively well and small business is in the doldrums.  That is keeping with the Obama playbook of the grand corporate-government teamwork.  Obama can relate to big giant companies, because they are so much like the government and, in some ways, indistinguishable.  But small business is an annoyance in the Obama scheme.

The problem is: small business produces the new jobs for the economy; big business is a stagnant employer in the aggregate.  So folks looking for a job are out of luck.  The Obama economy is great if you're big and rich, but not so great if you're an out of work American or a small business enterprise.