Tag Archives: Boomergeddon

Don’t Let “Scarring” Hinder Economic Recovery

by James A. Bacon

Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, is optimistic overall about the nation’s economic recovery. The housing market is strong. Job creation has resumed. Disposable incomes are up. And families are saving more and paying down their credit cards. 

But he worries about “scarring” — a term that economists use to describe longer-term negative impacts that can hinder economic recovery. “Severe downturns can leave scars that, while not always permanent, take a long time to heal,” he said in a March 21st speech at the virtual Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference.

COVID-19 lockdowns hit hit primary caregivers particularly hard by closing schools and child care facilities, putting pressure on at least one parent to stay home. Labor force participation for parents, said Barkin, is about 6 percentage points below where it was prior to the pandemic. “If parents who left the workforce don’t return, that would have long-term negative implications for our growth potential.” Continue reading

Signs of the Bubble Economy…

From Virginia Business magazine: Charlottesville-based Blue Ridge Bank has made it possible for customers to purchase and redeem bitcoin at its ATMs — the first commercial bank in the country to do so. Blue Ridge Bank cardholders can purchase and redeem the virtual currency at 19 locations across the state. A year ago, bitcoins were worth $6,000 each. Today, they’re worth approximately $45,000.

By all means, let’s make it easier for small, unsophisticated investors to speculate in highly inflated and volatile cryptocurrencies!

Last August Michael Saylor of Tysons-based Microstrategy invested a quarter billion dollars in bitcoin on the premise that massive fiscal and monetary stimulus in the U.S. and other central banks around the world would be highly inflationary. His bet is looking brilliant at this moment in time. More recently, Elon Musk of Tesla fame — Tesla shares ballooned 7.4 times in 2020 on rampant speculation — has endorsed bitcoin. Don’t get me talking about the GameStop frenzy or the IPO boom for companies that have yet to make a profit. The scary thing is, we haven’t reached peak crazy yet. Continue reading

Welcome to the New Year, Same as the Old Year

2021 New Year baby?

by James A. Bacon

Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, my wife and friends and I tossed confetti, tooted our noisemakers and welcomed in a new year. Twenty twenty, we all agreed, couldn’t possibly be worse than 2019.

It didn’t take long to disabuse us of that notion. First came the coronavirus. Then the George Floyd protests and riots. And then the presidential election. We won’t be celebrating New Year’s Eve with anyone this year — we’ll be hunkering down in social isolation — but we’re thinking that, short of an outbreak of nuclear war, 2021 has got to be better than our current annus horribilis.

But it could be a close call.

On the positive side, we should be on the downward slope of the COVID-19 epidemic as vaccines are administered and herd immunity sets in. Life for most will return to normal. We’ll be able to socialize and travel once more. But 2021 will be no epidemiological nirvana. The virus will do plenty of harm on its way out. Millions more Americans will be infected and tens of thousands likely will die. Many people will suffer lingering medical after-effects from the virus. And the nation will be dealing with the economic, mental-health and fiscal fallout for years to come. Continue reading

Bad Student Loan Debt: $435 Billion and Counting

by James A. Bacon

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money,” Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen said many years ago. With the passage of time and inflation, we might need to update the quote to “a hundred billion here, a hundred billion there…” But even by the debased standards of 2020, the $435 billion that the federal government likely will have to write off as bad student loan debt amounts to real  money.

The losses projected by the most authoritative study yet, reports the Wall Street Journal, are far steeper than prior government forecasts. Last year the Congressional Budget Office that the government would have to write off only $31.5 billion.

The problem has long been evident. “We make no attempt to evaluate the quality of the borrower, the ability to repay, the effectiveness of the loans,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former CBO head who now heads the American Action Forum. Not surprisingly, borrowers with subprime credit scores are among the most likely to default. As with all government excesses, taxpayers will be stuck with the tab — unless the government just monetizes the bad debt and accelerates the nation’s headlong rush to Boomergeddon, the society-crushing collapse of federal finances when lenders finally conclude they will never be repaid.

Sooner or later there will be a reckoning for America’s — and Virginia’s — system of higher education. Even a nation as profligate as the United States — estimated 2020 budget deficit this year, $3.7 trillion, national debt $27 trillion — has to staunch the losses. The nation cannot afford to continue shoveling money into the abyss. Any meaningful reform, however, would be traumatic for the many higher-ed institutions whose business models are predicated on indiscriminate lending to students. Continue reading

Boomergeddon vs Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

by DJ Rippert

Saving America’s bacon. In 2010 Jim Bacon, blogrunner of this site, wrote a book titled Boomergeddon. The sub-title of the book is, “How Runaway Deficits and the Age Wave Will Bankrupt the Federal Government and Devastate Retirement for Baby Boomers Unless We Act Now.” The book is well written and contains considerable supporting detail but that sub-title pretty much sums things up. At the time of publication Bacon’s book amplified the conventional wisdom of the day — deficits are bad and, as our president might say, big deficits are bad bigly. That traditional belief has come under scrutiny lately. One leading critic of the theories espoused by Boomergeddon is Stephanie Kelton, an economics professor at Stony Brook University and former advisor to the Sanders campaign. Her new book, published in 2020, is titled, The Deficit Myth.  One paragraph from the description of Kellon’s book on Amazon.Com sums up her thesis vis-a-vis Boomergeddon. “Kelton busts through the myths that prevent us from taking action: that the federal government should budget like a household, that deficits will harm the next generation, crowd out private investment, and undermine long-term growth, and that entitlements are propelling us toward a grave fiscal crisis.” Kelton believes the United States has considerably more room to incur debt without causing economic harm and we should get about the business of incurring more debt. Paying homage to her Democratic-Socialist roots, Kellon sub-titled her book, “Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy.”

Continue reading

(Almost) Free Money

By James C. Sherlock

Steve Haner’s superb column on the state budget turned attention to federal aid to state and local governments. It is worthwhile to review where the feds get that money.

James T. Agresti, CEO of Just Facts (chart above), has written recently hat U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is four times the historical average and climbing:

“The US national debt has just reached 120.5 percent of the nation’s annual economic output, breaking a record set in 1946 for the highest debt level in the history of the United States. The previous extreme of 118.4 percent stemmed from World War II, the deadliest and most widespread conflict in world history.”

The Federal Reserve

The Fed’s dual mandate from Congress is to maximize employment and stabilize prices. The Fed floods the economy with money in times like this and is supposed to sop it up with higher rates when the economy appears to overheat and prices rise too fast. Continue reading

Boomergeddon Update: Back on Track to Self-Destruction!

by James A. Bacon

It’s been ten years since I published my book, “Boomergeddon,” in which I advanced the argument that the fiscal/monetary system of the United States would collapse into chaos by the late 2020s or so. The nation has continued down the path to perdition, but not at the rate I had expected. I did not anticipate private-sector innovations like fracking, which put an end to fears of “peak oil,” nor did I foresee policy innovations such as Quantitative Easing, which repressed interest rates and bilked lenders and investors (retirees, pension funds) but eased the burden of paying interest on the national debt. And I never imagined that the nation could last a decade without a recession.

Our national leaders did a brilliant job of fighting the last financially-led recession through regulations that strengthened the finances of our biggest banks. But a true “black swan” — a rare and unanticipated event, the COVID-19 epidemic — and the governmental response of shutting down large swaths of the economy are plunging us into a severe downturn that no one saw coming. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Gross Domestic Product for the 2nd Quarter of 2020 will “decline by at least 7 percent or at least 28 percent at the annualized rate.” Unemployment is spiking, and will likely linger. The CBO expects joblessness to linger around 9 percent through the end of 2021.

Needless to say, a recession of this severity will have devastating impact on federal, state, and local finances. The federal government was already running a $1 trillion-a-year deficit. To that, we can add another $1 trillion or so (the CBO offers no official forecasts) from lost tax revenue, and another $2.3 trillion from the congressional rescue package, and that doesn’t include a second-round package. This year alone, the U.S. will likely add $4 trillion or more to the national debt, which is already approaching $24 trillion. That compares to a $21.4 trillion GDP. By the end of this year, the debt as a ratio of GDP could well stand at 140% — totally uncharted waters. Continue reading

Layne Cautions Again about Excess Debt and Risk

The good news in Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne’s presentation to the House Appropriations Committee this morning is that General Fund revenues, after a below-forecast start to the fiscal year, surged 27.4% in April. On a year-to-date basis, total revenues are 6.2% ahead of last year, beating the 5.9% forecast for Fiscal 2019.

The bad news is that U.S. economic prosperity is built on a mountain of consumer, corporate, and government debt. The national debt stands at $22 trillion, and the Congressional Budget Office says that debt as a percentage of GDP could increase from 78% this year to 96% by 2028. Plus, student debt exceeds $1.5 trillion, and credit card debt has surpassed $1 trillion, both record highs. And corporations are carrying a $9 trillion debt load, almost double the level of the Great Recession. At 46% of GDP, corporate debt is the highest on record.

Layne, a traditional fiscal conservative, is not predicting an imminent recession. Rather, he is saying that the U.S. economy and, by extension, the Virginia economy and state budget, are highly vulnerable to a downturn, should one occur. Continue reading

Spending Increases, Road Quality Decreases

Source: “Repair Priorities 2019

A new study by Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense documents the magnitude of the “Growth Ponzi scheme” in the U.S. road transportation system. Between 2009 and 2017, the 50 states collectively added more than 223,000 lane miles to their road networks. At an average cost of $24,000 per lane mile to keep roads in a state of good repair, that means states and localities have pumped up their maintenance liabilities by $5 billion a year.

But the states aren’t keeping up with those costs, contends “Repair Priorities 2019.” Nationally, the percentage of roads in poor condition increased from 15% in 2008 to 20% in 2017.

The problem isn’t a lack of money, argues Beth Osborne, director of Transportation of America. “We’re finding the money for expansion. There’s too little money to do everything, but we’re insisting that we do everything.” Continue reading

Virginia, Antifragility, and the Next Recession

Dust Bowl refugees in the 1930s. Will Virginia be on the delivering end or receiving end of the next recession-induced migration?

In the previous post I argued that there are large pockets of hidden risk in the U.S. and global economies that could trigger a devastating economic downturn. I’m not predicting that a recession is imminent — I do not profess to see the future — but I would suggest that only fools would pretend that these risks do not exist and fail to protect themselves from them.

As I have detailed in previous posts, Virginia is highly vulnerable to an economic downturn. The consolation is that we’ll have plenty of company. The Old Dominion is hardly the only state in the union that has failed to take advantage of 10 years of economic expansion to buffer itself from the next recession, which, unless President Trump has repealed the law of business cycles, is inevitable. What we don’t know is the timing. Do we have five years to adapt, or only one? Continue reading

“A Dozen Pockets of Extreme and Growing Risk”

Source: Dollarcollapse.com

The economy is chugging along at a 3% growth rate, unemployment is hitting record lows, productivity is surging. The economy looks like it’s in fantastic shape. A friend of mine and long-time Trump hater, normally disinclined to give the president credit for anything, marveled recently that the low-inflation, low-unemployment economy “is as good as it gets.” I hope like heck it stays that way.

But I am an inveterate worry wart. I’ve lived through booms before — the 1980s savings & loan bubble, the 1990s tech bubble, the 2000s real estate bubble. I’ve heard the promises that “it’s different this time.” And I’ve seen the busts that followed. It’s a universal rule that most “experts” did not foresee the meltdowns coming. The same thing may be happening again. Very few are paying attention to the build-up of highly leveraged corporate debt, both in the U.S. and abroad.

I don’t know if the “junk bond” sector will precipitate the next recession. Perhaps the next downturn will originate overseas and spread to the U.S., and a meltdown in junk bonds will merely act as an accelerant to a broader collapse. Whatever the case, the $1 trillion market now represents a significant risk. State and local governments in Virginia need to acknowledge this and other risks lurking in the economy as they go about making spending and taxing decisions. Only a fool would assume that the decade-long expansion, one of the longest in U.S. history, will last forever. Continue reading

A Pension System At Risk

Under a “shock” scenario in which Virginia Retirement System (VRS) investment returns replicated the disastrous performance of the 2008-2009 market crash, the state portion of the retirement plan would see an increase in unfunded liability of $6.9 billion. Employer contribution rates would have to increase to 22% of covered payroll from 13.5% now in order to maintain the integrity of the system. State and local governments would have to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars more in pension payments each year even as a recession was eroding revenues.

Those numbers are found in a recently released report to the General Assembly, “VRS Stress Test and Sensitivity Analysis.” The report is not predicting that such a scenario will occur. Rather the purpose is to show how vulnerable the Commonwealth would be if it did. While investment returns have performed handsomely since the 2008 mortgage-crisis recession, shrinking Virginia’s unfunded pension liability, the global economy is slowing and the strong investment gains of recent years cannot be taken for granted.

Even investment returns on the VRS’s portfolio only modestly lower than the assumed 7% could prove devastating. “If the VRS fund only returned 5% annually each of the next five years, the State plan would see an increase in unfunded liability of approximately $2.2 billion,” the report says. Continue reading

(Fiscal) Winter Is Coming

Congressional Budget Office projections of federal government annual budget deficits.

Let me set the scene by reviewing a few numbers. The federal deficit is on course to hit $1 trillion annually by Fiscal Year 2020. With retiring Baby Boomers swelling Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security expenditures, deficits will increase inexorably for decades. The U.S. national debt stands at $21.7 trillion. As deficits pile up and interest rates rise, the national debt expressed as a percentage of the GDP, 78% today, will reach 96% by 2028. CBO projects that interest payments on that debt will increase from $263 billion in 2017 to $915 billion by 2028, putting increasing deficits on autopilot that no amount of budget cutting can offset. Continue reading

Fairfax Supervisors Face County’s Monster Pension Crunch

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova

Once upon a time, way back in the year 2000, Fairfax County’s general-employee pension plan was amply funded at 109% of projected needs. But the funding ratio dropped severely during the last recession and has been hovering around 70% in recent years. Today unfunded pension liabilities for Virginia’s largest local government are roughly comparable in size to that of the Virginia Retirement System, which which state employees and many local government employees participate.

Taxpayer groups are sounding the alarm and, astonishingly, the Board of Supervisors is actually studying proposals to address the shortfall.

County officials have proposed a range of tweaks to the pension plans for public safety workers and general employees. (School teachers have their own plans not controlled by the county board.) Among the changes: The minimum retirement age would be bumped from 55 to 60, the retirement-eligibility formula would increase age + years served from 85 to 90, and the final salary-averaging period for calculating retirement-payments would be increased from three to five. The changes would apply only to new employees hired on or after July 1, 2019, reports Inside NoVa.

Said Board Chair Sharon Bulova (D): “The Board, all of us, have felt this is a contractual, really, issue. If you joined the county under certain expectations and you’ve based your retirement plans on what you believed would be the deal when you came to the county, we are not changing that for current employees.”

Sean Corcoran, president of the Fairfax Coalition of Police Local 5000 described the proposed pension changes as “a completely contrived crisis.” Others speaking for county employees warned that the plan would create a new class of “second-class employee” and would hurt morale and recruitment.

But taxpayer advocates said the proposed reforms were just a start.

Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, said while the county’s population increased 20 percent since 2000, inflation-adjusted salaries for county employees rose 35 percent, health-insurance payments went up 194 percent and pension costs increased 244 percent.

County real estate taxes since 2000 have increased three or four times more than the inflation rate, said Purves, who blamed compensation increases as the culprit.

The proposed pension cuts for new employees “are only a small and necessary start,” he said. “You need to look at raises.”

McLean Citizens Association president Dale Stein said county pension borrowing went up $600 million during the last three years and added officials were basing their calculations on average annual returns on investment of 7.25 percent, while returns over the past decade averaged just 5.9 percent.

“We strongly urge the Board of Supervisors to ensure a strong, competitive compensation package for all county employees,” Stein said. “In making those packages possible, the realistic question is, ‘Where in the heck is that money going to come from?'”

The Inside NoVa article did not say how much the proposed changes would reduce the unfunded liabilities.

Bacon’s bottom line: You can keeping kicking the can down the road but eventually you run out of road. The time to act is now. Relatively small changes today can fix a problem that is still a couple of decades away from a full-blown crisis. Failure to enact reforms, however, will make necessary changes all the more painful in future years.

Whispers of the “R” Word

Source: World Economic Forum

With the stock market taking a beating, all of a sudden economists are uttering the “R” word — recession. JPMorgan Chase & Co. has put the odds of a U.S. recession beginning within 12 months at one in three — up from an 8% probability a year ago, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Central Banks in Europe, Japan and the United States are walking back quantitative easing policies designed to fight the past recession, and interest rates are rising. Germany and Japan both reported negative growth in the past quarter, and the Chinese economy is slowing. The expansion of global trade has diminished to a crawl. The dollar is increasing in value, putting developing countries that went on a borrowing binge — in U.S. dollars — under heavy pressure.

The U.S. economy remains strong for the moment. But if developing nations start going Venezuela on us, it’s not entirely clear which banks, hedge funds, and other investors might go belly up, launching investors worldwide into risk-avoidance mode and sending cascades of fear ripping through the global economy in unpredictable ways — just as the subprime-mortgage fiasco did in 2007. The governing authorities did not foresee the last recession, and it’s like that the masters of the universe won’t see the next one coming until it’s upon us. One thing you can count on: With global debt as a percentage of global GDP at record highs, the unwinding of trillions of dollars of banking, corporate, government, and consumer debt will be frightful.

As I reported three weeks ago, Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne conducted a sensitivity analysis of the Virginia budget to see what would happen if a recession comparable to the last one occurred. General Fund revenues would decline from $21 billion a year by $9 billion a year over three years. Admittedly, no one is predicting such a scenario… at the moment. But we would be fools to ignore the possibility, given the fact that the Commonwealth has set aside reserves utterly inadequate to help it through a 40% downturn in General Fund revenue. The impact on state governance would be catastrophic.

Against that backdrop, Virginia is flush with revenue right now from better-than-forecast economic growth and a series of potential windfall gains resulting from federal tax cuts, a Supreme Court ruling on Internet sales taxes, proposed entry into a regional carbon cap-and-trade system, and a Medicaid tax on hospitals. The big question is, what do we do with this money? Do we crank up new spending programs? Do we give some of the money back to taxpayers? Or do we build up our financial reserves to spare Virginia some of the trauma stemming from a possible reprise of the last recession?