The Progressive Ensign

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1100 Economists Predict Trade War Disaster

 

Image: knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu

The economist group letter to President Trump quotes passages from a 1930 letter that was ignored by government leaders at the time leading to a trade war and the Great Depression, many economists believe.

“Much has changed since 1930 — for example, trade is now significantly more important to our economy — but the fundamental economic principles as explained at the time have not”, the economists declared including last year’s Nobel winner Richard Thaler and former George H.W. Bush economic advisor Gregory Mankiw.   Economists in 1930 advised against the Smoot – Hawley act at the time causing a trade war and a disastrous economic downturn for all Americans.

The trade war with China has already begun as we noted in our April 23rd blog the Chinese have not stood back waiting, they placed at 179 % tariff on sorghum shipped from the US causing China bound ships to reverse course.  Soybean orders have been cut way back by the Chinese as well:

Sources: Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 5/7/18

Corn contracts are in jeopardy as well in the Midwest as the Chinese threaten tariffs on those crops as well.  Corn farmers are already facing increased competition from Brazil and other countries undercutting their prices.

The reality is the Trump Trade War is on!  Companies and nations are already acting on the threats and in some cases the implemented tariffs that the present Administration has in a misguided manner put in place.

We do not understand why the White House is ignoring the lessons of history, their own constituents in the Farm Belt and 1100 economists in implementing a catastrophic policy that will hurt every American’s pocketbook and many of our foreign allies.

Next Steps:

Our blog on April 2nd outlined two distinct factors that the Administration policy makers need to take into consideration:

First, we need to understand how corporations, suppliers and customers respond to political uncertainty.  Corporations either buyer or seller are seeking certainty around first of all selling their products and second at the highest price.  Second, when our government starts picking winners and losers in the US economy and linking unconnected segments like sacrificing US agriculture for intellectual property theft by China from US high technology companies – then any economic shot is fair game.  Just the threat of tariffs on certain goods is enough to cause customers, in this case Chinese buyers of US agriculture goods to find other lower cost suppliers.  Once these buyers discover new suppliers with lower prices and similar quality they are likely not to switch back to US suppliers.  Sales for US agriculture companies are likely to drop as a result.”

The solution is in working within the international frameworks of the WTO and our agreements with other nations to peacefully solve these economic issues. Sound economic policy is based on win-win agreements that put in place long term relationships that both sides can build their economic futures on. Plus, these are complex integrated trade issues and cannot be settled by blunt, prejudiced based ideas that history has proven are false.

What Happened to Our Common Good?

 

Image: Your Little Planet

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote a series articles in 1787 called the Federalist Papers defending the newly written Constitution. In Federalist Paper No. 57, Madison proposed to ‘first obtain for rulers men who possess the wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good’. They were quite concerned that an overbearing majority would run over the needs of the public good or a minority group.  Or that a ruling class of the privileged and wealthy would use the tools of government to continue to gain more wealth at the expense of the common people.

Today a sense of the common good is almost non-existent in our political discourse as our federal government has become so partisan as to be completely inept at coping with the common problems facing Americans.  There is intense conflict between factions about our public interest in clean air, water and land, safe communities, equal economic opportunities, an open education system for all, justice for immigrants seeking to contribute to our country and being a leading light of democracy around the world.  On many issues, corporations, public interest groups and other nations are ahead of us by 10 – 20 years in solving many foundational issues of our time.

What happened to our shared sense of the Common Good?  One way to understand the loss of our common shared interest is in the lack of trust Americans feel in their democratic institutions that have the responsibility to protect and sustain our common interests and public good.

Source: Pew Research Center – 12/14/2017

There has been a slow and continuous decline in public trust since President Eisenhower until the ultimate low today during President Trump’s administration.

We see two major factors for the lack of trust.  One, is that economic inequality has been increasing over the last 60 years to the point where it is at the worst it has ever been since 1929.  Americans expect their government to be the rule keeper of a fair shot at economic opportunity not a bastion for the rich and powerful.  As the wealthy donors have taken over control of both major parties, the influence of the average citizen has been reduced to nearly nothing except at the ballot box – but not in legislative policy.  A study by Professors Martin Gilens of Northwestern, and Benjamin Page of Princeton found that the opinion of the bottom 90 % made no difference in laws passed by Congress over a 20-year period. For example, the present GOP Administration is out of step with most Americans that want a clean environment even if there is an economic cost based on a Gallup poll. Americans know that the system is rigged as both candidates on the far left and far right, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gained great support by proclaiming that the economy and government was rigged against them.

The second major factor was the evolution of media and the Internet.  In the 1950s and 1960s families gathered around the television set to watch Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley bring them the news for the day.  These new anchors had teams of trained journalists in how to gather news, provide airing of opposing views and investigation to reveal the facts of the story. As cable news programs became popular people drifted away from central network journalist supported news programs toward popular ‘viewpoint news’ programs like Fox News or CNN.  Then, from 1995 until today, the Internet was a catalyst for the growth of blogging, and ‘friend news’ which had virtually no formally trained journalists and limited understanding of the difference between facts and opinions.  Opinions spread virally through the Internet often with no foundation in formal fact gathering or fact finding investigation techniques. Today, we even have presidential spokespersons talking about ‘alternative facts’ to justify their policies or opinions.

We have come a long way from a shared common understanding of the facts to base opinions and policy ideas about. Unfortunately, the factional conflict is tearing at the foundations of our democratic institutions that keep our country free and protect the rights of all.

Next week, we will examine deeper how Madison and the founding leaders viewed factions and how to deal with them to keep new ideas coming yet keep the Union together.  They had ideas that are insightful for our situation today as they placed their trust in the people to make the right decisions when provided with good information and facts.

Gillibrand – Khanna Postal Bank Bill Helps The Underserved

Image: Campaign For Postal Banking

As payday lenders make low cost loans to minorities and the poor at exorbitant interest rates a possible solution is at hand.  Senator Karen Gillibrand – D- NY and Congressman Ro Khanna – D- CA 17 and others have introduced a bill to provide checking accounts, savings accounts and low cost loans to underserved neighborhoods in cities across the US.   Many community banks and large city banks left these neighborhoods in the 1990s when banking deregulation occurred for more profitable locations.  We have seen the present GOP Administration pander to payday lenders by relaxing consumer protection regulations that cap loan rates and require full disclosure for loans with interest rates of 400 % to 1200 %.  Fourteen states of have outlawed payday lenders entirely. There are 37 million the adults that do not have a bank account:

Source: Pew Charitable Trust – 2016

The Postal Banking Bill would offer loans up to $500 at T-bill rates of 1.65 % clearly targeting the payday lender market. The Postal General in a report on the bill viewed that rate as too low and will probably need to be raised to 25 % to handle possible defaults. According to the United Nations Postal Union 87 nations provide checking and savings accounts to over 1 billion customers, though not that many offer low cost loans.

We need to serve those that have been left out of the economic mainstream by offering reasonable low cost financial services with inexpensive loans – not making our low income population a target of loan sharks.

California Attacks Middle Income Housing Crisis

 

Photo: St. Vincents Housing

The California legislature has introduced a bill to make low income housing tax credits available to housing agencies for middle income housing. Assemblyman David Chu, D -San Francisco, said “During the housing crisis middle income Californians are in a very tough spot, “he noted that “They don’t qualify for low income affordable housing, but also can’t afford market rates”. It is good to see the California legislature taking action on this core issue for the middle class.

With stagnant wage increases, lack of affordable housing and rising interest rates middle income families are forced to rent instead of buying a starter home. Overall nationally the number of first time buyers in the market has dropped by two percentage points to 30 % from 32 % last month which indicates how they are getting squeezed out of the market in our recent blog of 2-20-18. The housing affordability index is at a 9 year low as well.

Add to these factors driving the lack of affordability is the inventory of starter houses is continuing to shrink as builders go for higher margin larger homes with higher prices – the average price of a home has increased year over year by 6.8 % way above the average salary increase barely reaching 2.5 %.

The following chart shows how home ownership rose during the period prior to the Great Recession but has fallen since to 1990s levels.

Source: Department of Commerce – 4/26/18

We need to have housing ownership levels back to 2003 levels before all the sub-prime mortgage programs spiked the home owner binge.

As we have observed in the past home ownership is a foundational goal for many people. Homeowners invest time and energy in a commitment to the long term improvement of our communities. Household creation boosts our economy when new home owners buy appliances, furniture, carpeting and improvement services.

We applaud the California bill but it does not go far enough. We need renewed housing funding via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, incentives for builders to build low cost starter homes, cities to set aside more land for housing and an end to Administration protectionist tariffs against Canada driving up the piece of lumber.

Consumer Protection Head Mulvaney Panders to PayDay Lenders

 

Photo: wikipedia.org

Mick Mulvaney, the interim head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)  told a group of banking executives yesterday that it was their job to persuade Congressman on policy decisions and when he was a Congressman he only talked to lobbyists who contributed to his campaign. At least he is honest about how corrupt his motivations are; he operates on ‘pay to play’ basis.  He does say that constituents are top on his list when they sit out in front of his office. But, who does he listen to and represent? His first priority should be consumer protection.

Since coming to the CFPB he has called off investigations into payday lenders, limited or cancelled investigations of banks and other lenders, reduced public access to information about financial services practices and now wants to end its independent funding from the Federal Reserve (to keep Congress from meddling in it investigations).

Based on his actions, not words we know now he works for the payday lenders not consumers. He received almost $63,000 for his campaign in 2017 from the Pay Day Lender lobbying association.  The Pay Day Lender group spent $4.175 million in 2014 on lobbying activity to keep its predatory practices going with limited restraints. Fourteen states have outlawed pay day lending completely while 36 states and the District of Columbia allow payday lending with some limiting the percentages charged.

Source: opensecrets.org

Payday lending markets to low income borrowers who can’t otherwise get access to a small loan, many do not have bank accounts and some are immigrants.  Most do not have good credit or limited credit records so they are willing to pay 400 % or 1209 % with fees for some loans. This practice is usury at its worst. The CFPB found that 4 of 5 loans were rolling debt into larger and larger loans forcing borrowers into a position of not being able to pay back the loan.  The agency fined ACE Cash Express $10 million for bullying practices forcing consumers into cycles of debt.  Major banks participate in this market too as Wells Fargo offers a ‘Direct Deposit Advance’ service for 120 %.

Next steps:

  1. Phase Out the Industry – just because these companies can do it does not mean we should make loan sharking legal. There are other answers, already 14 states figured this moral issue out.
  2. Micro Loan Model – the micro loans offered in emerging countries like India have been quite successful, charging fair interest fees using the Internet and cell phones to keep costs low, and credit counselors to teach borrowers good credit management practices. We need to help low income people learn about responsible credit management not make them prey for companies.
  3. Limit Lobbying Funding – Pay Day Lenders and other companies should be limited in the campaign funds they give to candidates to what citizens are limited to $2400. After all, based on the Citizens United decision if corporations are people then we should treat them like citizens not special entities.
  4. Directors and Government Leaders Recusal – Any government official with a financial interest from the last 5 years needs to recuse himself or herself from any decision making on the matter affecting the industry.
  5. Ethics Violation for Corruptions – any pay for play scheme even without a direct quid pro quo time frame is unethical, immoral and unjust. Any official changing government policy for an entity that they received funding from in the last 5 year should be found in violation of government ethics law, fined, released from his/her position and for severe offenses jailed.
  6. End Lobbyist Revolving Door – 75 % of lobbyists for Pay Day Lenders end up in government jobs, this practice needs to stop, with no lobbyist working in government for 10 years.  We noted how harmful this practice was in our blog on December 14th archive on the new FCC Chairman being a former cable industry lobbyist.

EU Defends Social Media User Privacy – We Should Follow

 

Image: fbi.gov

The EU has been working with social media companies to comply with new regulations protecting consumer privacy on social media called the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR.  It will begin enforcement of the act in May, the commissioner leading the privacy protection effort, Vera Jourva found that both Google and Facebook were implementing software features to support the new regulation. The GDPR regulations seek to limit the actions of huge social media companies to take control of customer data in exchange for services.  The regulations require that an affirmative consent be obtained before all social media companies can give access to users to their advertising clients.

Google has told website owners and app publishers they must explicitly obtain user’s consent for targeted ads or they will be cut off from the Google ad network.  Facebook has placed pop pages on it European sites to invite users to affirm their receptivity to targeted ads.   Their marketing clout has put small ad tech companies that work directly with site providers in bind as advertisers don’t want users hit with many consent pop ads from multiple sites.  Google and Facebook make it easy and simple for digital advertisers to reach their audiences with targeted ads with one permission screen.  The two social media behemoths are forcing many ad tech companies into a difficult position with their clients, and some may go out of business

Source: The Wall Street Journal – 4/23/18

Google and Facebook track the majority of web page loads for surveillance of users and targeting ads. This means they have unchecked marketing power with advertisers and users to promote their digital channels to the exclusion of other players.

Next Steps:

Frankly, the EU regulations don’t go far enough, the law should establish that users own their content and they license its use to the social media corporations for certain limited business purposes. Besides explicit consent for allowing tracking, users should be able to opt out of tracking if they want and still be able to use the service – leaving advertisers to reach users when they are only on their site.  We don’t allow cable broadcasters to track their viewers (even though digitally they know who is watching) and place ads based on what channel they are watching.  Targeted advertising is a form of spying on the users, and needs to stop. Google and Facebook should make their consent information available to websites that use their services to make a level playing field on ad networks as well. We need to carefully examine the business processes of these new giant companies to ensure that market rules are setup for a level playing field for all participants and further review breaking up services where undue market clout is being exercised.  For example, Google has over 7 different services which 1 billion people use at least once per month. A detailed investigation should be conducted by the DOJ to evaluate the anti-trust and public good issues inherent in such market power. We note in our blog on Identity Theft that corporations need to be held accountable for securing our content and they have a fiduciary responsibility to us to safeguard our content for us as  content owners.

Trade War Heats Up – China Slaps 179 % Tariff on US Sorghum

 

Image: asissentinel.com

Two grain ships filled with sorghum grain reversed course or headed to new destinations as China announced last week that they would require a 179 % deposit on the commodity.

Image: The Ship RB Eden Turning – Bloomberg – 4/20/18

US farmers shipped about $1 billion per year over the past two years of sorghum to China according to the Wall Street Journal. China is specifically targeting Trump states to make the point that a tit for tat trade war will end badly for US producers.

As other countries mount their own tariffs to US goods, and the US slaps tariffs on imported goods prices will go up.  When prices go up, inflation increases causing interest rates to rise, which means that interest rates rise on credit cards to mortgages.  Every consumer has some debt and the inflation wave will crash through the US financial system, ending the 2nd longest economic growth period since WWII – though the economy has helped the top 20 % the most versus the 80 % in the working class.

Next steps:

As we have noted previously, business leaders are already making decisions and calculations like turning ships around.  The Administration’s announcement and follow through on steel aluminum and lumber have distorted markets artificially causing increased prices and supply disruptions. Our leaders need to stop this bullying approach toward our trade partners, use international forums and work within our trade alliances to settle trade issues. Starting a trade war will cause everyone to lose money, jobs and trigger an economic downturn. The working class will be hurt the most, as they have the least amount of money saved and are usually the first to be fired in any falling economy.

At Last Some Relief On Student Debt

 

image: seiu668.org

Student loan debt continues to mount as the Federal Reserve reported a major increase to $1.49 trillion in February of this year. But, a partial solution is coming.

Image: The Federal Reserve Bank,  St. Louis – 2/8/18

As part of the spending bill that Congress passed last month, $350 million was allocated for a fix it forgiveness program for some types of student loans.  Senator Elizabeth Warren has been surveying the issue and individuals trying to take advantage of the provisions where she found that it was quite complex, answers were in complete from the Department of Education and work still needed to be done to setup the process. She found many firefighters and teachers having a difficult time getting into the program.  Prior to passage of the spending bill Senators Whitehouse and Kaine wrote a bill to setup a student debt forgiveness program and get it funded, their bill set the stage for Democrats to push for provisions of the bill to be included in the omnibus spending bill.

This solution is still not enough compared to the huge issue of $1.49 trillion outstanding placing an anchor of debt on our young people when they need to be investing in starting their families and careers and buying homes. In blog of February 16th in our archives, we review an idea to cancel all student debt.  We like the idea moving forward, yet recommend that forgiveness be done in stages, by reducing interest rates, offering Heartland Service,  providing a universal national service option and corporate sponsorship of an internship by the student.

Corporations Are Making Decisions Now in Midst of Trade Uncertainty

 

Image: mikaeldacosta.com

Our President just threw the trade dialog for a loop this afternoon requesting his trade team come up with another $100 billion in tariffs against China on top of the already $50 billion he has announced.  He thinks that by starting a verbal trade war with a protracted ‘up to 6 months’ negotiation with China and other countries that the US economy will come out the winner.  The winning outcome will likely never happen! Why?  Because corporate leaders are already factoring in an incredibly slow negotiation.  Corporations abhor uncertainty, the policy uncertainty index with this President is off the charts.  Executives are making decisions on investments for the next 3 – 5 sometimes 10 years out into the future.

Source: Factset, Stanford, Northwestern, University of Chicago, The Wall Street Journal 4/4/18

Professors Baker of Northwestern, Bloom of Stanford, and Davis of University of Chicago developed an uncertainty index based on mentions of ‘certainty’ and ‘uncertainty’ in newspaper articles.  With a relatively quiet economy and the first 12 months of President Trump’s administration now behind us, we expect the ‘uncertainty’ mentions to soar with trade war, stock market prices falling and cross industry conflicts about which industry should be sacrificed for another one.

The major stock indexes have fallen as much as 10 % year to date and yesterday, the Dow Jones Average was on a roller coaster down as much as 510 points then closing at 210 points up at the close.  Money managers hate uncertainty too, as they need to make daily decisions in regard to investments of millions of dollars in trusted to them to grow for retirement programs, trusts, endowments and investors looking out 5 and 10 years.

The present trade war was started by our President because he said it would be ‘easy to win.’ Yet, he has little experience in complex global product and services trade.   Treaties that he is ready to tear up took years to negotiate, analyze the complex trade data and gain buy in from all parties.

Executives are looking at data, researching alternatives, hiring consulting firms and looking to figure out a long term plan now – with alternatives if the trade war is won by the US or if it is lost by the US or their industry.  They will make decisions based on the present level of ‘uncertainty’ and see alternatives now, not waiting to see the outcome.  Business leaders cannot wait, they have businesses to run today, shareholders to report to, employees to manage, and products or services to build and sell.

In the steel sector, companies in the US are already stockpiling steel before the tariffs on imports start, spiking prices then there will be a glut of product with prices falling.  Soybean farmers in the US already reeling from competition from Brazil and other countries will feel the immediate fall of sales from China, as Chinese customers seek lower cost ‘safe’ non US suppliers for products like pork.  Pork futures prices that farmers use to price their hog products have already dropped 15 % in the last month and a deep spiral down of 2.58 % today. Prices are already dropping customers and suppliers are making decisions to reduce uncertainty and these decisions will cause market chaos leading to a recession or worse.

Next Step:

We need to wind down the brinksmanship now, focus on the real issues behind trade imbalances that have been developing for decades, and confront intellectual property theft on a straight on policy basis not through tariffs. We need to use the international forums like the WTO that have been carefully built over the past 50 years to ensure prosperity across the world for all economies and at the same time protect US worker jobs, incomes and future career opportunities.  We have said in previous posts that the time is now to reverse direction before it is too late and the global economy is severely damaged.

Employers Not Passing Along Drug Cost Rebates

(Editor Note: Insight Bytes focus on key economic issues and solutions for all of us, on Fridays we spotlight in more depth solutions to issues we have identified. Please right click on images to see them larger in a separate tab.)

Image: Kaiser Health Network

Almost 70 % of all employers who are the payers for employee drug insurance programs do not pass along the rebates they receive from insurers who receive them from drug manufacturers. Employers say they use the funds to reduce costs.  Though we do see corporations passing along the costs to employees with higher deductibles according to the Kaiser Family Foundation research report discussed in our blog on Health Insurers and keeping the rebates to themselves.

Source: Pharmacy Benefit Management Institute, The Wall Street Journal – 3/6/18

What is really happening is drug insurers like United Healthcare, are offering discounts to employers who can pass them along to employees but they don’t pass the dollars along. Instead they say they put them into reducing the costs of drugs overall.  Yet, that is not happening, as a Kaiser survey found that with drug costs going up 58 % from 2006 to 2016 yet the cost of worker contributions went up 78 %.  Companies are picking up a health insurance reduction premium saving it for themselves of 20 %.

When companies reduce health costs, the result is increased profits (made from increasing costs to employees), which increase the value of company stock which is held mostly by executives and shareholders who are in the top 10 % in income.

Next Steps:

We applaud that United Healthcare is going to begin offering next year direct to consumer drug rebates for a subset of their employer based programs.  Yet, that not enough, we see a need for legislation calling for transparency in drug pricing and insurance similar to the laws in place on bank mortgages disclosing the real cost of a home loan.  Second, we recommend legislation  that requires drug insurers pass along any drug manufacturer rebates, discount or other cost savings directly to consumers to prevent the cost reductions from being syphoned off by employers.

In the end, the added layer of insurers we don’t need when we already have the Medicare program in place for 55 million Americans and 44 million of those are enrolled in Medicare Part D for drug insurance.  We have one drug formulary in Medicare, let’s use it, let the Medicare administration to directly negotiate drug prices, end stock buybacks by drug companies and direct advertising of prescriptions drugs, then we would see a significant reduction in drug costs.

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