MONEY Markets

The Dow Moved Triple Digits Yesterday. Here’s What You Should Do.

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Gregor Schuster—Getty Images

Nothing. You should do absolutely nothing. Here's why.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has long been held up as the stock market index to follow. Now that the Dow Jones is at such a high level, even moves that are small on a percentage basis allow for attention-grabbing headlines like “Dow Jones Today Skyrockets Over 200 points!” or “Dow Jones Plummets 150 points!”

While these headlines lure in readers, they do nothing to make us better investors. Read on to see why the best investors ignore the daily movements of the DJIA.

Dow Jones today

Do you remember when the Dow jumped 220 points after tensions with Ukraine moderated? How about the 200-point drop after Chinese industrial production slowed, or the 180-point jump following the release of minutes from the secret early-March meeting of the Federal Reserve?

I doubt it.

And don’t get me started on early October. The Dow Jones Industrial average dropped 272 points on a Tuesday — its biggest drop of the year to that point. The next day, the Dow jumped 274 points — the Dow’s biggest gain of the year. Then, on Thursday, the Dow fell 334 points.

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The headlines would have you think the world is ending or that you won’t be able to retire because of these market dips. The stock market is one of the few places where, whenever things go on sale, no one wants to buy.

However, these moves only amounted to a 2% drop from the end of the previous week. To put that in an even bigger-picture perspective, the Dow is basically flat year to date.

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What you should do now?

Nothing. You don’t have to do anything. If your investment strategy changes based on one day’s market movements, you’re doing it wrong. Your focus should be to stick to your plan, constantly educate yourself, and invest for the long term. And if you don’t have a clear strategy, this is your wake-up call.

Research has shown that process is one of the biggest determinants of success in the market over the long term. While your process can yield good or bad results in the short term, those with a proven process do better than the average investor over the long term.

For total beginners, I would first suggest learning about how the market works and how you can do at least as well as the market through index investing. I highly recommend The Little Book of Common Sense Investing by John Bogle as a great place to start.

If you understand the basics of the market as well as index investing, check out The Motley Fool’s 13 Steps to Investing Foolishly, which will teach you the process The Motley Fool has used to consistently beat the markets over the long term.

Everyone can learn from this

For every investor, focusing too much on daily market movements is a mistake. Things happen for no discernible reason. Rather than wasting time wondering why the market is up or down by a percent or two, we should focus on business fundamentals and continue to search for quality stocks trading at bargain prices.

We also must keep calm and not make rash decisions based on short-term market moves. Research has shown that it is far better to focus on minimizing mistakes, rather than overreaching for greatness. As economist Eric Falkenstein wrote: “In expert tennis, 80% of the points are won, while in amateur tennis, 80% are lost. The same is true for wrestling, chess, and investing: Beginners should focus on avoiding mistakes, experts on making great moves.”

And as Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner Charlie Munger said: “We try to profit more from always remembering the obvious than grasping the esoteric. It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

My Dow Jones Industrial Average prediction for today

The Dow Jones Industrial Average will continue to fluctuate. That’s a given, and we have no control over it. What you can control is your reactions to those fluctuations — and the best reaction is usually no reaction.

Dan Dzombak can be found on Twitter @DanDzombak, on his Facebook page DanDzombak, or on his blog where he writes about investing, happiness, life, and success in life. He has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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MONEY Markets

Four Reasons Not to Worry About the Stock Market

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Roine Magnusson—Getty Images

Take a deep breath and consider some historical context.

The funniest thing about markets is that all past crashes are viewed as an opportunity, but all current and future crashes are viewed as a risk.

For months, investors have been saying a pullback is inevitable, healthy, and should be welcomed. Now, it’s here, with the S&P 500 down about 10% from last month’s highs.

Enter the maniacs.

“Carnage.”

“Slaughter.”

“Chaos.”

Those are words I read in finance blogs this morning.

By my count, this is the 90th 10% correction the market has experienced since 1928. That’s about once every 11 months, on average. It’s been three years since the last 10% correction, but you would think something so normal wouldn’t be so shocking.

But losing money hurts more than it should, and more than you think it will. In his book Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?, Fred Schwed wrote:

There are certain things that cannot be adequately explained to a virgin either by words or pictures. Not can any description I might offer here ever approximate what it feels like to lose a chunk of money that you used to own.

That’s fair. One lesson I learned after 2008 is that it’s much easier to say you’ll be greedy when others are fearful than it is to actually do it.

Regardless, this is a critical time to pay attention as an investor. One of my favorite quotes is Napoleon’s definition of a military genius: “The man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.” It’s the same in investing. You don’t have to be a genius to do well in investing. You just have to not go crazy when everyone else is, like they are now.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you along.

Unless you’re impatient, innumerate, or an idiot, lower prices are your friend

You’re supposed to like market plunges because you can buy good companies at lower prices. Before long, those prices rise and you’ll be rewarded.

But you’ve heard that a thousand times.

There’s a more compelling reason to like market plunges even if stocks never recover.

The psuedoanonymous blogger Jesse Livermore asked a smart question this year: Would you rather stocks soared 200%, or fell 66% and stayed there forever? Literally, never recovering.

If you’re a long-term investor, the second option is actually more lucrative.

That’s because so much of the market’s long-term returns come from reinvesting dividends. When share prices fall, dividend yields rise, and the compounding effect of reinvesting dividends becomes more powerful. After 30 years, the plunge-and-no-recovery scenario beats out boom-and-normal-growth market by a quarter of a percentage point per year.

On that note, the S&P 500’s dividend yield rose from 1.71% in September to 1.82% this week. Whohoo!

Plunges are why stocks return more than other assets

Imagine if stocks weren’t volatile. Imagine they went up 8% a year, every year, with no volatility. Nice and stable.

What would happen in this world?

Nobody would own bonds or cash, which return about zero percent. Why would you if you could earn a steady, stable 8% return in stocks?

In this world, stock prices would surge until they offered a return closer to bonds and cash. If stocks really had no volatility, prices would rise until they yielded the same amount as FDIC-insured savings accounts.

But then — priced for perfection with no room for error — the first whiff of real-world realities like disappointing earnings, rising interest rates, recessions, terrorism, ebola, and political theater sends them plunging.

So, if stocks never crashed, prices would rise so high that a new crash was pretty much guaranteed. That’s why the whole history of the stock market is boom to bust, rinse, repeat. Volatility is the price you have to be willing to pay to earn higher returns than other assets.

They’re not indicative of the crowd

It’s easy to watch the market fall 500 points and think, “Wow, everyone is panicking. Everyone is selling. They know something I don’t.”

That’s not true at all.

Market prices reflect the last trade made. It shows the views of marginal buyers and marginal sellers — whoever was willing to buy at highest price and sell at the lowest price. The most recent price can represent one share traded, or 100,000 shares traded. Whatever it is, it doesn’t reflect the views of the vast majority of shareholders, who just sit there doing nothing.

Consider: The S&P fell almost 20% in the summer of 2011. That’s a big fall. But at Vanguard — one of the largest money managers, with more than $3 trillion — 98% of investors didn’t make a single change to their portfolios. “Ninety-eight percent took the long-term view,” wrote Vanguard’s Steve Utkus. “Those trading are a very small subset of investors.”

A lot of what moves day-to-day prices are computers playing pat-a-cake with themselves. You shouldn’t read into it for meaning.

They don’t tell you anything about the economy

It’s easy to look at plunging markets and think it’s foretelling something bad in the economy, like a recession.

But that’s not always the case.

As my friend Ben Carlson showed yesterday, there have been 13 corrections of 10% or more since World War II that were not followed by a recession. Stocks fell 35% in 1987 with no subsequent recession.

There is a huge disconnect between stocks and the economy. The correlation between GDP growth and subsequent five-year market returns is -0.06 — as in no correlation whatsoever, basically.

Vanguard once showed that rainfall — yes, rainfall — is a better predictor of future market returns than trend GDP growth, earnings growth, interest rates, or analyst forecasts. They all tell you effectively nothing about what stocks might do next.

So, breathe. Go to the beach. Hang out with your friends. Stop checking your portfolio. Life will go on.

For more on this topic:

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel’s columns. Contact Morgan Housel at mhousel@fool.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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MONEY The Economy

Why the Fed Should Stop Talking About Raising Interest Rates

Some central bankers have called for raising rates sooner rather than later. Recent economic data — and the huge stock market sell-off — should dampen those calls.

There have been two presidential inaugurations and six Super Bowl champions since interest rates were effectively lowered to 0%. Recently, some Federal Reserve officials have said they expect to raise rates by the middle of next year thanks to a decently expanding economy and stronger job growth.

Some central bankers, though, think the middle of 2015 is too late and have been pushing to increase borrowing costs sooner. Esther George, President of the Kansas City Fed, said as much in a speech earlier this month, and two members of the Federal Open Market Committee voted bristled against easy monetary policy in their most recent meeting.

But with developed economies around the world showing dismal growth and less-than-stellar economic metrics here at home — punctuated by a rapidly declining stock prices (the stock market is, after all, a reflection of the market’s forecast for the economy six to nine months down the road) — it might be time for these inflation hawks to quiet down.

“Until we see wages expanding faster than the rate of inflation, and significantly so, we won’t see much in the way of inflation pressure,” says Mike Schenk, Vice President of Economics & Statistics for the Credit Union National Association. “Why raise rates if you don’t have inflation?”

Inflation Hawks

Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher voted against the most recent monetary action policy, according to minutes of the meeting, due to, among other factors, the “continued strength of the real economy” and “the improved outlook for labor utilization.”

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser said that he’s “not too concerned” about inflation growth below the Fed’s 2% target and joined Fisher in voting against the Fed policy because he disagreed with the guidance that said rates will stay at zero for “a considerable time after” the Fed ends its unconventional bond-buying program later this month.

George, meanwhile in a speech earlier this month, said Fed officials should begin talking seriously about raising rates since “starting this process sooner rather than later is important. If we continue to wait — if we continue to wait to see full employment, to see inflation running beyond the 2% target — then we risk having to move faster and steeper with interest rates in a way that is destabilizing to the economy in the long term,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Jobs

The jobs environment has been improving in recent months. The economy added almost 250,000 jobs in September and the unemployment number fell to a post-recession low of 5.9%. But the unemployment number doesn’t tell the whole story.

If you look at another metric that takes into account workers who only recently gave up looking for a job and part-time employees who want to work 40 hours a week, the situation is much worse. Before the recession, this broader unemployment rate sat at around 8%. It’s now at almost 12%. There are still about three million workers who’ve been unemployed for longer than 27 weeks, up from around 1.3 million at the end of 2007.

Inflation

Right now, and for some time, there has been very little inflation. Prices grew 1.7% over the past year in August, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Consumer Price Index. Even the Fed’s preferred inflation tracker, the PCE deflator, showed prices gain 1.5% compared to 12 months ago.

Wage growth is likewise stalled. Taking into account wages and benefits, workers have only seen a 1.8% raise. It’s just difficult to have inflation in a low interest rate environment without wage growth.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard recently said that the Fed should consider postponing the end of its bond-buying program. “Inflation expectations are declining in the U.S.,” he said in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg News. “That’s an important consideration for a central bank. And for that reason I think that a logical policy response at this juncture may be to delay the end of the QE.”

Europe

European economic woes aren’t helping. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, recently cut it’s growth forecast, now only expects to grow by 1.2% in 2014 and 2015. Sweden and Spain saw prices actually decline in August, and now there’s fear that the euro zone will endure a so-called triple-dip recession. The relative prowess of the American economy compared to Europe’s has strengthened the U.S. dollar, thus making our exports less competitive.

Look, the U.S. economy isn’t about to go off a cliff. Not only did we see growth of 4.6% last quarter, but employers are adding jobs at a decent clip and the number of workers filing first-time jobless claims fell to the lowest level since 2000, per the Labor Department.

But with low inflation and European struggles to achieve anything close to robust growth, raising interest rates anytime soon doesn’t appear likely.

MONEY Jobs

Why Low Job and Wage Growth is Worse Than Rising Inflation

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Jon Larson—Getty Images

As the economy picks up steam, and employers add more workers, investors say that inflation is their biggest impediment to saving. Here’s why they’re wrong.

As the economy added another 248,000 jobs in September, pushing the unemployment rate to a post-recession low of 5.9%, investors are feeling more confident.

In fact, investors are more optimistic than they’ve been since the recession, per a recent Wells Fargo/Gallup survey which measured the mood of those with more than $10,000 in investable assets. Of course the so-called Investor and Retirement Optimism Index is still only at around half the levels of the 12-year average before the 2008 recession. Investors may be more sanguine than three months ago, but that doesn’t mean they think the economy is going gangbusters.

Nevertheless, there was one particularly interesting data point in the survey: “Half of investors (51%) think the pressure on American families’ ability to save is due to rising prices caused by inflation.” Meanwhile only 37% said the pressure was inflicted by stagnant wage growth.

Which is strange.

What inflation?

If you look at the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of core inflation (which strips out volatile energy and food prices), prices have risen around or below the Fed’s stated 2%-target since the recession.

The Consumer Price Index, a gauge of inflation released by the Labor Department, actually fell on a monthly basis in August for the first time in more than a year, and only grew at an annual rate of 1.7% since this time last year.

Proclamations of rising inflation ever since the Federal Reserve started buying bonds and lowering interest rates in response to the recession have yet to materialize. And those advanced economies that did raise interest rates a few years ago (like Sweden), have come close to deflation.

Meanwhile wages aren’t growing at all. Average hourly earnings in August rose 2.1% versus the same period last year, and the growth rate has been stuck at around 2% since the recovery. The same is true for the employment cost index, which measures fringe benefits in addition to salaries. Ten years ago the index increased by 3.8%.

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St. Louis Federal Reserve

 

While the unemployment rate has fallen considerably this year, other gauges of jobs are still troubling. Long-term unemployment has tumbled since its post-recession peak in 2010, but there are still almost 3 million people who’ve been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. If you include workers who’ve recently stopped looking for a job and those working part-time when they’d rather be full time, the unemployment rate is 12%, more than four percentage points above the pre-recession level.

The Fed has implemented an easy monetary policy in order to attack this problem. “The Fed is keeping interest rates low as long as they can and maintaining very loose policy in support of jobs,” says USAA Investments’s chief investment officer Bernie Williams. “They will only tighten up with great reluctance.”

Pick your poison: stronger wages or rising inflation?

In a battle between pushing wages higher and the risk of inflation, the Fed is willing to err on the side of rising wages, says Williams.

BMO senior investment strategist Brent Schutte agrees. “As a society, you decide what is good. Economics is a choice between two things. We’ve clearly decided that higher inflation and rising wages is a good thing.”

Despite years of effort, though, the Fed hasn’t been able to bring back rising wages.

If you’re still unconvinced that a lack of salary increase and slack in the labor market should be more of a concern to your finances than the threat of inflation, check out new research by former Bank of England member David Blanchflower.

Along with three other co-writers, Blanchflower recently published a study titled, “The Happiness Trade-Off between Unemployment and Inflation.”

The researchers found that unemployment actually has a more pernicious effect on happiness than inflation. “Our estimates with European data imply that a 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate lowers well-being by more than five times as much as a 1 percentage point increase in the inflation rate.”

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Blanchflower said, “Unemployment hurts more than inflation does.”

As the economy gently improves, and people start going back to work, the hope is that wages will start to rise. Inflation might then rise above the Fed’s 2% target, and Yellen and Co. may raise rates in effort to cool off the economy. But we’re not there yet. And investors, for the sake of their wallets and psychology, would do well to remember that.

MONEY The Economy

China is Slowing. What If Its Housing Bubble Bursts?

Even if the real estate market in the world's second-biggest economy were to collapse, the repercussions may not be bad as you think.

While global investors covet China’s growth — as evidenced by the buzz surrounding Alibaba’s IPO — the Chinese economy is actually slowing down.

In 2013, the world’s second largest economy grew at an annual rate of 7.7%. By 2015, according to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, that will drop to 7.3%. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy’s growth rate is projected to increase by almost one percentage point.

What’s going on? Well, China’s industrial production gains in August slowed to their lowest level since 2008 and retail sales growth declined by a few percentage points year-over-year.

Perhaps most important, the nation’s newly built home prices only grew by 2.5% in July, after surging by 10% at the beginning of the year.

The notion of a housing crisis in an economy more than three times the size of France brings back flashbacks of 2008 and probably a few chills down every investor’s spine.

“A property price crash in the world’s second largest economy would have global implications,” says Wells Fargo Securities economist Jay Bryson.

But those global implications wouldn’t be as worrisome as the U.S. housing collapse six years ago, per Bryson. Here’s why.

The Worst Case

To play out this thought experiment you have to assume that at some point in the near future China’s home prices will experience a decline on the order of what the U.S. experienced over the past decade. (Bryson played out this scenario in a recent report.)

Currently, residential investment makes up a pretty decent portion of the Chinese economy – about 10% of nominal GDP. To put that in context, that ratio was closer to 6% for the U.S. in 2006.

So housing is a big deal in China. If they experienced a value decline like we did, Bryson estimates that would lop off about one percentage point of growth. But the pain wouldn’t stop there.

A collapse in housing prices would result in fewer construction jobs – estimated at around 60 million people in urban China. Jobless workers would spend less, which means that those goods and services the now-unemployed construction workers would normally purchase would not get bought.

If out-of-work construction workers reduce their spending on food and entertainment, the businesses that produce that food and entertainment will make less money and then some of their workers may face unemployment too. Since my spending is your income, lower spending means people have less money in their paychecks, and the nation’s GDP suffers.

Moreover, if housing goes in the tank, banks will see losses, which means they’ll tighten credit, resulting in fewer loans for people to start businesses.

Let’s not forget the actual homeowners. If home prices fall, homeowners’ equity declines as well. (See: Sell, Short). And when people’s chief asset is suddenly worth a lot less, they’re not going to spend as much on other, discretionary items. “Although the lack of data makes it impossible to quantify the wealth effect in China, researchers have found that there is a statistically significant direct relationship in the United States between changes in wealth and changes in consumer spending,” per Bryson’s report.

Lower demand from China means that countries which sell goods to China (think Chile and Australia) will sell less stuff. As corporate profits are squeezed, a global bear market may result.

“Although China may not be as important to global economic growth as the United States, the global economy clearly would not be immune to a major property market downturn in China,” says Bryson.

The Not-So-Bad Case

Freaked out? Breathe deep and take solace in the fact that despite this potentially harrowing dénouement, the world probably wouldn’t endure another global financial crisis. And that’s thanks to responsible Chinese borrowers.

Chinese households usually have to put a lot more money down – 30% on their first home, up to 60% for an individual’s second – than Americans. So if prices were to decline substantially, Chinese homeowners would be in a much better position than Americans back in 2007 to deal with the crisis. For example, household debt-to-disposable income has grown substantially in China since 2007, but it’s still about one-third the size of U.S. households back in 2007.

The world will also feel less of a pinch. When mortgages started going bad in the U.S., foreign financial institutions lost close to $750 billion of the more than $2 trillion in write-downs resulting from the crash. That was because foreign banks owned a lot of U.S. mortgage-backed securities. Not so here. “Chinese mortgages are generally held by Chinese financial institutions in the form of whole mortgages.” So if prices were to drop, Chinese banks would suffer while U.S. one’s most likely wouldn’t.

Lastly, the Chinese government wouldn’t sit on its hands while its economy came crashing down. Beijing’s debt-to-GDP ratio is around 15%, so it has a lot of room to recapitalize its banks if needed.

So what’s an investor to do?

“I don’t lose sleep at night worrying about China, nor should other people,” says Bryson. “But they may want to keep an eye on it.”

MONEY Jobs report

How the Fed Will React to Today’s Surprising Jobs News

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altrendo images—Getty Images

The fact that employers created fewer jobs than expected in August only emboldens the Federal Reserve to keep rates low for the time being.

The Fed is unlikely to raise interest rates this year — and not just because of Friday’s disappointing jobs report.

Though the economy fell short of adding 200,000 jobs in August — as it had in the six prior months — the unemployment rate remains at a better-than-expected 6.1%. Consumer confidence, meanwhile, rose in August and the economy grew by a robust 4.2% last quarter.

Many have long-waited for the time when the economy picks up and the Federal Reserve raises interest rates along with it. Even the presidents of the St. Louis and Philadelphia Federal Banks recently said the nation’s central bank should raise interest rates sooner than expected thanks to job gains and slightly rising inflation.

But given muted inflation and the growing concerns in Europe — where the economy threatens to slip back into recession and central bankers are still slashing rates in a desperate attempt to jumpstart business activity in the region — Fed chair Janet Yellen was unlikely to act soon. And today’s Labor Department report, showing that only a modest 142,000 jobs were created in August, only reinforces this.

Jobs

The unemployment rate has already dropped more than half a percentage point this year.

US Unemployment Rate Chart

US Unemployment Rate data by YCharts

But that’s just one way to look at the labor market. Another is the labor force participation rate. Since younger Americans tend to go school, and Baby Boomers are beginning to retire en masse, you can look at the participation rate for workers between the ages of 25 to 54. Before the recession almost 80% of those Americans were working or looking for a job. Now, 77% are. To put that into perspective, 81% of prime aged workers in France participate in the labor force.

Another, more inclusive, employment metric is the so-called U-6 rate of unemployment — which includes unemployed workers, Americans who want to work but have stopped looking for a job, and part-time workers who’d rather put in full-time hours. The U-6 rate has dropped from about 17% after the recession to 12% now, but that’s still close to four percentage points higher than before 2008.

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Here’s Yellen from her Jackson Hole speech a couple of weeks ago:

At nearly 5% of the labor force, the number of such workers is notably larger, relative to the unemployment rate, than has been typical historically, providing another reason why the current level of the unemployment rate may understate the amount of remaining slack in the labor market.

Inflation

Despite predictions of increased inflation thanks to unorthodox monetary policy, deflation has been a bigger concern since the recession than inflation. Nevertheless, some central bank officials are still worried about an unexpected rise in prices thanks to an improving jobs situation and want to head off that potential rise with higher interest rates.

As Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser said on a Bloomberg Radio interview, “I would rather us get started raising rates sooner and raise them more gradually than put them off and have to raise them very quickly.”

The Congressional Budget Office disagrees. The non-partisan agency predicted that over the next 10 years inflation will only rise around 2% a year, in a recent report. “CBO anticipates that prices will rise at a modest pace over the next several years reflecting slack in the economy and widely held expectations for low and stable inflation.”

Right now core inflation, according to the Federal Reserve’s preferred measurement, grew by 1.5% in July over the previous 12 months. That’s well below the Fed’s target rate of 2%.

Europe

Depressed Americans need only look across the pond to see how badly our recovery could be going. The Euro zone area experienced no growth in the second three months of 2014. Combine that with ultra-low inflation and you have the recipe for economic stagnation. Even the vaunted German economy stalled.

This three-year experience of little economic traction follows the European Central Bank’s decision to raise interest rates in 2011 during the sovereign debt crisis in order to fight inflation. Quash it they did. Prices recently rose by an annual rate of only 0.3% in August in the 18-country Euro zone, prompting ECB President Mario Draghi (who wasn’t in charge back then) to drop interest rates to an all-time low of 0.05%.

Eventually American consumers will see raises and go off and spend that extra cash. Demand will not stay depressed forever, and the Fed will one day raise interest rates. That decision, though, is more likely to be later than sooner.

MONEY The Consumer Economy

The Real Reason You’re Not Shopping at Walmart

Female shopper in Wal-Mart store aisle
Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Despite the improving job market, workers still don’t have that much walking around cash, which means they have less to spend at retailers.

The summer has not been kind to some of America’s largest retailers.

Traffic at Wal-Mart’s U.S. locations, for instance, was down, while sales at stores that had been open for at least a year failed to grow. Macy’s lowered its full-year sales growth projection, and sales at Kohl’s dropped 1.3% in the last three months. Nordstrom’s earnings per share were basically flat.

If you’re noticing a trend, that’s because there is one: Merchants are struggling.

The Commerce Department recently announced that retail sales decelerated in July for the fourth consecutive month, despite the fact that more workers are finding jobs, and the unemployment rate is hovering around 6%. So what’s going on?

Well, one potential answer is that you, the consumer, just don’t have that money to spend. Yes, employers have added more than 200,000 workers a month to their payrolls since February. And yes, the unemployment rate has dropped to 6.2%—about the same as in September 2008. But workers really haven’t seen the benefits of job growth in their bottom lines.

For instance, take a look at real disposable income for U.S. workers. The year-over-year change in disposable income is only 3.9%, below pre-recession levels. “While stronger job growth has played a role in sustaining consumer spending, the slower income growth has served to keep a lid on real spending activity over the past several quarters,” per a recent Wells Fargo Securities economic report.

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Another way to gauge the plight of workers is a metric called the Employment Cost Index (ECI), which is published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The ECI measures what it costs businesses to actually employ their workers—so, wages, salaries and fringe benefits like medical care. Before the Great Recession struck in 2007, the ECI gained nearly 3.5% over the prior 12 months. Since the economic recovery, however, employee costs have not risen above 2%.

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BLS

Rising wages are a lagging indicator; people only see raises after the jobs picture improves. Which is happening now. Fewer people are filing unemployment claims, and the number of job openings continues to nudge higher. (And traditionally, job openings have an inverse relationship with wage gains.)

So, hopefully, sometime soon demand will pick up, businesses will start giving their workers substantial raises, and those workers will go out and spend their newfound dollars. (After all, my spending is your income.)

What’s good for the economy is sometimes what’s good for Wal-Mart.

MONEY Jobs

What’s the Deal with America’s Declining Workforce?

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The dwindling percentage of Americans who are employed or looking for work is partly due to the economy—but mostly not. Here's what that means for the recovery and you.

If you feel like the economy has finally started to gain steam, you’re not alone. U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 4% last quarter, and today the Labor Department announced that employers added 209,000 jobs in July, after posting 298,000 in June and 229,000 in May.

One theme, though, that has persisted throughout the slow recovery: The share of Americans working or looking for a job is dropping, despite the improving employment picture.

LFPR

While this trend has been used to illustrate how sluggish the rebound has been, it actually predates the Great Recession. Today 62.9% of Americans participate in the labor force, compared to 66.1% six years ago and more than 67% in 2000.

So, what exactly is going on?

The White House’s Council of Economic Advisers set out to answer that very question.

Last month, it issued a report dryly titled: “The Labor Force Participation Rate Since 2007: Causes and Policy Implications” in which economists cite three key developments:

#1) America is just getting older

About half of the decline in worker participation over the last seven years is due to demographics — the workforce is simply aging. About one-sixth of the population was at or above retirement age in 2009, according to the report. By 2029, that number will increase to 25%, per the Social Security Administration.

Older workers generally work less than their younger counterparts.

But, interestingly, this group is working more than it used to. From 2007 to 2014 the only age group that saw labor-force participation rates rise was the 55-and-older crowd.

Old lfp

Why? One reason is this generation of older workers is better educated than its predecessors. In fact, “between 1876 and 1950, the average years of schooling for each birth year cohort increased steadily every year,” per the CEA. More education means higher wages and less physically demanding jobs.

#2) Normal post-recession issues

When the economy is going well, labor participation rates tends to increase. Faster growth means businesses are more apt to hire, which means individuals without jobs feel more confident in their chances of finding work — and hence send out more applications.

When the economy shrinks, this virtuous cycle turns vicious.

“Economic contractions historically result in both greater unemployment and lower labor force participation, as nonparticipants become less likely to enter the labor force and the unemployed (who always exhibit a higher tendency to exit the labor force) become more numerous relative to the unemployed,” per the report.

The CEA estimates that about 16% of the drop in labor force participation rates can be attributed to the fact that fewer people work and look for jobs when the economy is shaky.

#3) Other Stuff

The last third of the decline is traced to two elements — one of which predates the recession, while the other may be a result of it.

The bit related to the Great Recession is long-term unemployment. Right now, more than 3 million workers have been without a job for 27 weeks or longer. While that’s down from almost 7 million in 2010, it’s still 2 million more than before the downturn.

L-TUnemploed
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The other rationale is a combination of long-term trends affecting different groups of workers.

For instance, younger Americans (aged 16-24) — especially those from lower- and middle-income families — have eschewed entering the work force for going to college for years now. As the value of a college education for future earnings increases, more youngsters are hitting the books.

Also, older workers who’ve been hit by the dearth of middle-skilled jobs, according research from Fed economist Christopher Smith, are now taking jobs that would have normally gone to younger workers.

After growing dramatically for the better part of 50 years, the rate of female employment has leveled off and begun to fall since the end of the 20th century, down almost three percentage points.

What’s going on? Well more women are staying home to care for their children, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2012, the percentage of stay-at-home moms increased 6 percentage points to 29% from 13 years earlier.

This is a phenomenon that’s uniquely American.

Since 1991, the participation rate of prime age working females in the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and Japan has all made significant gains, while the U.S.’s has remained flat. “Research has found that family-friendly policies are partially responsible for the rise in participation in other advanced countries, and the lack of these policies explains why the United States has lost ground,” according to the CEA.

women labor force prime

While a higher percentage of women entered the workforce after World War II (until the 2000’s), pretty much the exact opposite is true of males. In 1948 almost 97% of men aged 25-54 worked or were looking for jobs. That number has been declining for over 60 years and is now closer to 88%.

male rate

The causes of this precipitous drop are not exactly clear, although some research shows that the decline is in part due to the fewer jobs based on brawn.

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The implications

This picture of the labor market complicates recent reports showing an accelerating economy and increased employment. It also helps explain why the Federal Reserve, led by chair Janet Yellen, isn’t that eager to quickly raise interest rates despite positive economic reports and slightly higher inflation.

And while a certain percentage of the decrease in labor force participation rate can be attributed to the recession, a lot of the decline is bigger than that.

The question now is will Americans return to the labor force in greater numbers without new policies by the Congress and the White House that address long-term headwinds facing American workers?

MONEY The Economy

Think the Fed Should Raise Rates Quickly? Ask Sweden How That Worked Out

Raising interest rates brought the Swedish economy toward deflation Ewa Ahlin—Corbis

Some investors are impatient for the Fed to raise interest rates. They may want to be a little more patient after hearing what happened to Sweden.

If you’re a saver, or if bonds make up a sizable portion of your portfolio, chances are you’re not the biggest fan of the Federal Reserve these days.

That’s because ever since the financial crisis, the nation’s central bank has kept short-term interest rates at practically zero, meaning your savings accounts and bonds are yielding next to nothing. The Fed has also added trillions of dollars to its balance sheet by buying up longer-term bonds and other assets in an effort to lower long-term interest rates.

Thanks to some positive economic news — like the recent jobs report — lots of people (investors, not workers) think the Fed has done enough to get the economy on its feet and worry inflation could spike if monetary policy stays “loose,” as Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher recently put it.

If you want to know why the argument Fisher and other inflation hawks are pushing hasn’t carried the day, you may want to look to Sweden.

Like most developed nations, Sweden fell into a recession in the global financial crisis. But unlike its counterparts, it rebounded rather quickly. Or at least, that’s how it looked.

As Neil Irwin wrote in the Washington Post back in 2011, “unlike other countries, (Sweden) is bouncing back. Its 5.5 percent growth rate last year trounces the 2.8 percent expansion in the United States and was stronger than any other developed nation in Europe.”

Even though the Swedish economy showed few signs of inflation and still suffered from relatively high unemployment, central bankers in Stockholm worried that low interest rates over time would lead to a real estate bubble. So board members of the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, decided to raise interest rates (from 0.25% to eventually 2%) believing that the threat posed by asset bubbles (housing) inflated by easy money outweighed the negative side effects caused by tightening the spigot in a depressed economy.

What happened? Well…

Per Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the New York Times:

“Swedish unemployment stopped falling soon after the rate hikes began. Deflation took a little longer, but it eventually arrived. The rock star of the recovery has turned itself into Japan.”

And deflation is a particularly nasty sort of business. When deflation hits, the real amount of money that you owe increases since the value of that debt is now larger than it was when you incurred it.

It also takes time to wring deflation out of the economy. Indeed, Swedish prices have floated around 0% for a while now, despite the Riksbank’s inflation goal of 2%. Plus, as former Riksbank board member Lars E. O. Svensson notes, “Lower inflation than anticipated in wage negotiations leads to higher real wages than anticipated. This in turns leads to many people without safe jobs losing their jobs and becoming unemployed.” Svensson, it should be noted, opposed the rate hike.

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Sweden

Moreover, economic growth has stagnated. After growing so strongly in 2010, Sweden’s gross domestic product began expanding more slowly in recent years and contracted in the first quarter of 2014 by 0.1% thanks in large part to falling exports.

As a result, Sweden reversed policy at the end of 2011 and started to pare its interest rate. The central bank recently cut the so-called “repo” rate by half a percentage point to 0.25%, more than analysts estimated. The hope is that out-and-out deflation will be avoided.

So the next time you’re inclined to ask the heavens why rates in America are still so low, remember Sweden and the scourge of deflation. Ask yourself if you want to take the risk that your debts (think mortgage) will become even more onerous.

MONEY The Economy

A Key Fed Official Says the Job Market is Just Fine. But is He Right?

Richard Fisher, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas
Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Jose Luis Magana—Reuters/Corbis

With a little help from Jonathan Swift, Shakespeare, and World War II, Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher makes the case for why interest rates need to rise soon.

In between references to Shakespeare, beer goggles and Wild Turkey, Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Richard Fisher— a member of the Federal Open Market Committee that sets the nation’s interest-rate policy— expressed concern Wednesday about the risks caused by the Fed’s ongoing stimulative policies.

Thanks to a dramatically improving jobs picture, according to Fisher, the Fed should not only cut off its bond-purchasing program (known as “QE3″) by October, but the central bank should also shrink its portfolio of assets and begin raising interest rates early next year or sooner.

Whether or not the economy can withstand monetary tightening — fewer jobs means fewer people able to buy stuff — is open for debate. The real question, though, is if the jobs picture is really that strong?

First some context.

In his colorful speech, Fisher, one of the Fed’s leading “inflation hawks,” reiterated his belief that the Fed’s rapidly escalating balance sheet (now at approximately $4.4 trillion) in combination with a near-zero federal funds rate has led to investors having “beer goggles.” (As Fisher explains it, “this phenomenon occurs when alcohol renders alluring what might otherwise appear less clever or attractive.”) This is what he says is happening with stocks and bonds, which are both relatively expensive.

To make his point Fischer quoted Shakespeare’s Portia in Merchant of Venice: “O love be moderate, allay thy ecstasy. In measure rain thy joy. Scant this excess. I feel too much thy blessing. Make it less. For fear I surfeit.”

Portia’s adjectives (joy, ecstasy and excess) describe “the current status of the credit, equity and other trading markets that have felt the blessing of near-zero cost of funds and the abundant rain of money made possible by the Fed and other central banks that have followed in our footsteps,” Fisher said.

Of course, the Federal Reserve hasn’t bought trillions of dollars of debt, and cut the main interest rate to nothing, for no reason. There was something called, you know, the Great Recession — the once-in-a-lifetime cataclysmic economic event from which the country is still recovering.

But, said Fisher, things are improving, especially in the labor market. Not only did businesses add almost 300,000 employees last month, but there are more job openings, workers are quitting more often and wages are rising. Is he right?

Let’s check out some graphs:

Job openings:

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Fisher is right that job openings “are trending sharply higher.” This time last year, there were a little less than 3.9 million job openings. Right now there are more than 4.6 million – an 18% increase.

“Quits”:

quits

The healthier an economy, the higher the number of employees who quit their job to either find another or start a new business. Therefore a higher so-called quits rate, means a healthier labor market.

Like job openings, the number of quits has been rising since bottoming out during the recession. The major difference though is that the number of job openings has almost reached pre-recession levels, while quits has not.

Wages:

wage growth
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Fisher admits that wages aren’t growing “dramatically.” Nevertheless, he cites the Current Population Survey and the most recent National Federation of Independent Business survey to show that wages are on the rise.

However, wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Americans in the private sector are earning $24.45 an hour, only up 1.9% from last year.

But these three metrics aren’t the only metrics to gauge the health of the labor market.

Long-Term Unemployed:

l-t unemployment
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Before the recession, about 1.3 million workers were without a job for longer than 27 weeks. Today, that number is slightly more than 3 million. While that’s significantly better than the post-recession high of 6.8 million in August 2010, there are still a lot of workers who’ve been without a job for a long time.

“Long-term unemployment is still a significant source of slack in the economy and is accounting for a historically large share of the total unemployment rate,” says Wells Fargo Securities economist Sarah House.

Broader unemployment:

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And while the unemployment rate may signify the economy is moving closer to full employment, the picture is less sanguine if you look at a broader unemployment rate that takes into account the underemployed (part-time workers who want to work full-time) and discouraged workers. Before the recession that number hovered a little over 8%. It’s now 12.1%. And while it’s trending down, it’s not coming down fast enough. At least according to recent testimony by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.

Conventional wisdom says inflation will come when wages really start to rise. Some, like Fisher, think we’re getting really close to that point. But if you take into account wage data from the BLS and look at the millions of Americans who aren’t working to their full capacity, it’s not hard to see how tightening monetary policy might make life harder on lots of workers.

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