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 online shopping

Why Amazon Is Hiring 80,000 New Workers

To prepare for the holiday shopping surge, the online retailer is adding a record number of seasonal employees. Other big names are gearing up for the crush too.

MONEY Autos

Traffic Jams Cost Americans $124 Billion in 2013

Traffic congestion cost the average American household dozens of hours and thousands of dollars last year, according to a new study.

A new study from the London-based Centre for Economics and Business Research aims to put a price on traffic—now, and in the near future. After crunching the numbers and factoring in projected population growth and rising living standards, as well as costs associated with road congestion such as wasted fuel, decreased productivity, and higher prices for goods as a result of higher transportation costs, the researchers estimate that the combined annual price of traffic in the U.S. and Europe will soar to $293 billion by 2030, a rise of nearly 50% from 2013.

For what it’s worth, drivers in the U.S. get off easy compared with motorists in Europe. By 2030, the average American household is expected to incur traffic-related costs of $2,301 per year. That’s a 33% increase compared with 2013, but it’s still much lower than annual congestion costs for drivers in Germany ($2,927), France ($3,163), and the U.K. ($3,217).

At the same time, however, the U.S. has bragging rights for being home to the city where the costs of traffic are highest. No surprise which city has that dubious distinction: It’s Los Angeles, which of all the cities in the study has the most autos (4.5 million) and the highest percentage of workers who commute by car (67%), and where the annual costs of road congestion per household are projected to reach $8,555 by 2030, a 49% increase from 2013. (London is a distant #2 in the category, with traffic costs per household forecast to be $6,259 by 2030.)

A separate line of research estimates how much traffic costs not merely individual households, but the nation as a whole. The U.K. is facing the sharpest spike, with a 66% increase by 2030, but even then the total would come to only $33 billion, a pittance compared with the much larger, more car-crazed U.S. In this category, the USA is #1, with the economic impact of road congestion forecast to reach $186 billion for the nation as a whole by 2030, a 50% increase over 2013.

What can we do about any of this information—besides saying, “That sucks,” and perhaps moving out of L.A. as soon as possible? Among other things, researchers call for improved public transportation options and more of them, to help ease traffic by getting more drivers off the roads.

MONEY The Economy

Warren Buffett Owns More of Your Favorite Companies Than You Realize

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett announced plans to license his company's brand to real estate agencies in Europe and Asia, adding yet another way in which Berkshire Hathaway interacts with everyday consumers.

MONEY Jobs

Unemployment Rate Falls to 5.9% on Strong Job Growth

The unemployment rate is the lowest since 2008.

The economy added 248,000 jobs in September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, beating analyst expectations and improving significantly over August’s disappointing numbers. The bureau’s last monthly release showed the U.S. only adding 142,000 jobs, the fewest in eight months. Friday’s data could help quell any fears of a worsening employment climate.

Today’s nonfarm payroll report also showed the unemployment rate falling to 5.9%, down from 6.1% in August and the lowest since July of 2008. The labor force participation rate — the percentage of the workforce that is either employed or actively looking for work — remained mostly static at 62.7% as older Americans continue to drop out of the work force. The unemployment rate has dropped by 0.7% in 2014, but still remains about 1.5 percentage points higher than its pre-crisis lows.

 

Despite an increase in hiring, average hourly earnings did not budge. Wages growth was static in September, and hourly wages have increased just 2% over the year.

Economists and investors have been closely watching monthly jobs numbers, partly to glean insight into when the Federal Reserve will begin to raise interest rates. Fed chair Janet Yellen has made employment growth a key factor in determining monetary policy, and repeatedly cited labor market slack as a reason for keeping rates at historic lows. However, as MONEY’s Taylor Tepper notes, Yellen is unlikely to raise interest rates in the near future due to inconsistent employment numbers and concerns over a shaky global economy, particularly in Europe.

MONEY’s Pat Regnier points out that while consumer spending has largely recovered since the housing crash, construction and government spending has not. Until public spending begins to return to pre-recession levels, job growth may continue to be especially sluggish. September showed little increase in government spending.

MONEY The Economy

8 Ways the American Consumer May Have Already Peaked

disposable diapers
Statistics suggest that American consumers may have hit "peak diaper"—for babies anyway. Joseph Pollard—Getty Images

The U.S. economy relies on robust consumer spending. But it's starting to look like Americans have had enough of some products.

Have you heard of “Peak Car”? That’s the idea that there’s a point at which total car ownership and miles driven will start declining. Given the questions about whether or not millennials want cars, as well as data showing that Americans have been driving less for a wide variety of reasons, some analysts believe that we’ve already hit Peak Car in the U.S.

And cars may not be the only thing that’s peaked. Here’s a look at a several seemingly disparate areas where U.S. consumers may be topping out.

Peak Car
The case for this one is controversial. Auto sales have been on the rebound since the Great Recession, sometimes growing by more than one million sales from year to year. After a hot summer for sales, 2014 is on pace for perhaps 16.5 to 17 million new vehicle purchases in the U.S. Then again, after months of heavy promotions and discounting, some experts believe the market is bound to slump toward the end of 2014, and few think that the tally will match the all-time high of 17.4 million sales in 2000.

Globally, some analysts predict that car ownership and usage will peak sometime in the next decade, while the Economist has theorized that Peak Car “still seems quite a long way off” because demand for cars in developing countries is expected to be strong for decades, and also because self-driving features will become mainstream. That means driving will be safer and insurance will cost less, drawing more people onto the roads.

Peak Casino
For years, there’s been talk about reaching a saturation point for casinos, in which gambling expands so widely that too many casinos are chasing the business of the same pool of customers willing to roll the dice and pull the arms of slot machines. The effects of such a situation are on display in Atlantic City, N.J., where one-quarter of the casinos opened at the beginning of 2014 are now closed. Two more casinos in Mississippi closed this year, and analysts are questioning whether markets such as the Baltimore area—which now hosts two casinos, and which has been blamed as a contributor to the falloff in gambling in Atlantic City—are big enough to keep local gaming interests afloat.

New casinos are still planned for Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, yet based on the number of casino closings and data indicating that overall slot revenues in North America are on pace to be down nearly 30% this year, it looks like there are already too many casinos in the marketplace battling to survive. “In many jurisdictions, gaming supply has increased while demand for the product has not, resulting in a state of market disequilibrium,” a post at the asset-based lending site ABL Advisor explained. “There is no simpler way for me to make this point.”

Peak Golf
Between 1986 and 2005, more than 4,500 new golf courses were opened in the U.S., including as many as 400 in a single year. Over the next six years, however, there was a net reduction of 500 courses, with 155 courses closing in 2012. Golf participation and golf sales are likewise plummeting for a variety of reasons: Ppeople are too busy, the sport just might be too hard, too expensive, or too uncool. And projections call for roughly 150 course closings and no more than 20 course openings in the years ahead. In other words, golf most likely peaked in the U.S. in 2005.

Peak Fast Food
The American appetite for pizza appears to have reached an all-time high around 2012, when one survey found that 40% of consumers noshed on pizza at least once a week. The food and beverage consultant firm Technomic noted in early 2014 that pizza consumption has “decreased just slightly over the past two years, likely peaking post-recession due to pizza’s ability to satisfy cravings and meet needs for value.” Foot traffic at Pizza Hut and other quick-serve pizza chains has been on the decline. For that matter, Businessweek recently made the case that the U.S. may also be reaching “Peak Burger.” The growth of franchises for fast food giants such as Burger King and McDonald’s has slowed significantly in recent years, with net openings close to zero.

Data from a new report from the NPD Group indicates that visits to low-cost quick-service restaurants, where the average customer bill is about $5, has been flat over the past year, and for the most part, income inequality and stagnant wages among the middle classes are to blame. “Low-income consumers, who are heavier users of quick service restaurants, were most adversely affected by the Great Recession and have less discretionary income to spend on dining out,” the study explains.

Peak Soda
Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group may have together just pledged to reduce calories by 20% in sugary beverages, but the effort appears unlikely to bring American soda consumption back to the heights of a decade or so ago. Per-capita consumption of soda fell 16% between 1998 and 2011, and in 2013, total volume sales of soda was measured at 8.9 billion cases, the lowest total since 1995. Part of the long-term decline has been attributed to Americans wanting to cut calories and have more nutritious diets, but diet soda sales have been tanking lately too.

Peak Fashion
In 1991, the average American purchased 40 garments of clothing annually, according to data cited by the Wall Street Journal. Clothing consumption took off from there, reaching an average of 69 articles bought in 2005, which appears to have been the peak. In 2013, American consumers had gotten their clothing purchases down to an average of 63.7 garments per year.

Peak Diapers (for Babies)
The U.S. birth rate declined 8% during the recession-era years 2007 to 2010, and just kept on falling thereafter, reaching a record low (thus far) in 2013. Considering that U.S. births peaked in 2007, it shouldn’t be a surprise that diaper sales in the U.S. have retreated since then as well.

What’s especially interesting is that as baby diaper sales have declined, industry giants like Procter & Gamble have stepped up efforts to sell adult diapers and other incontinence products to make up for the decline at the other end of the market.

Peak Median Income
Lots of these peaks are just challenges for specific industries. But here’s one that might worry any consumer-based business: People can’t spend more if they aren’t earning more.

In 1999, median household income in the U.S. was $56,895 in today’s dollars (after adjusting for inflation), according to census data cited by New York magazine. That was the highest it’s ever been. Lately, the middle-of-the-road household income in America has been $51,939. Given increased automation of the workforce and the rise of income inequality across the board, it may very well be that the median household will never be able to party like it’s 1999.

MONEY The Economy

Alaska Gives Every Resident $1,900 Cash… Just for Being an Alaskan

One big, literal payoff of living in Alaska is the annual Permanent Fund Dividend given to each qualifying Alaskan. This year's check will be one of the largest ever.

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 financial crisis

6 Years Later, 7 Lessons from Lehman’s Collapse

Lehman Brothers world headquarters is shown Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 in New York.
Lehman Brothers world headquarters is shown Monday, Sept. 15, 2008 in New York. Lehman Brothers, burdened by $60 billion in soured real-estate holdings, filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in U.S. Bankruptcy Court after attempts to rescue the 158-year-old firm failed. Mark Lennihan—Reuters

The venerable investment bank Lehman Brothers went under six years ago today. While Wall Street has recovered from the financial crisis that resulted, lessons endure for Main Street investors.

Exactly six years ago today, Wall Street came closer to imploding than at any other time since the Great Depression.

That was when the venerable investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008, amid the global mortgage meltdown, triggering a cascade effect across Wall Street. Within days, the insurer AIG had to be bailed out by the federal government while other investment banks, including Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, were pushed to the brink. Merrill, in fact, was eventually sold amid panic to Bank of America.

Six years later, the nation’s financial system seems to have largely healed. Banks are back to posting record profits. Over the past several years, financial stocks have been among the hottest areas of the market.

^DWCB Chart

^DWCB data by YCharts

And with the housing market recovering, even the dreaded mortgage-backed security — the type of bond that triggered the financial panic in the first place starting in 2007 — are back in fashion.

But even if it seems like it’s business as usual on Wall Street, for Main Street investors key lessons endure. Here are 7 of them.

Lesson #1: The price you pay for stocks matters. Really.

The media’s narrative is that the stock market plummeted into an historic bear market because of the global financial panic. That may be true, but equities may not have fallen that far — and for that long — if the circumstances weren’t ripe for a correction.

Remember that in October 2007, the price/earnings ratio for the stock market — based on 10 years of average profits — rose above 25, marking one of only a handful of times that market valuations rose so high. Not surprisingly, the stock market went on to lose 57% of its value from October 9, 2007, through March 9, 2009. (As an aside, the stock market’s so-called normalized P/E ratio is back above 25 again today.)

By March 2009, the P/E ratio for the S&P 500 had sunk to an historically low 13 (the historic average is closer to 16), which has been a signal of buying opportunities. Had you invested at that moment — listening to the Warren Buffett rule that says “be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy” — you would have enjoyed total returns of 230% ever since.

Lesson #2: Don’t bank on any one group of stocks — even financials.

The turmoil after Lehman’s collapse was different and more frightening than the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000. Why? This time the stocks that took the biggest hits weren’t shares of profitless startups that no one had ever heard of. In this crisis, the biggest losers were financial titans — some more than a century old — that produced a third of the market’s profits and dividends. No wonder these blue chips were fixtures in many retirement portfolios.

The love affair is clearly over … or is it? Financials have been among the market’s best performers since September 2011, having doubled in value in three short years. As a result, bank stocks, which made up less than 9% of the S&P 500 in 2009, based on total stock market value, now represent more than 16% of the broad market. That means they’re probably among the biggest holdings in your stock mutual funds and ETFs.

Lesson #3: Buy and hold works — eventually.

When the Dow fell to 6547 on March 9, 2009, stocks had already lost more than half their value. And equities wouldn’t fully recover until 2013. So it may seem that investors who pulled $25 billion out of stock funds in March and $240 billion over the next three years — plowing that money into bonds — were on the right track.

They weren’t. March 2009 marked the start of a bull market that saw stocks return 230% so far. Had you simply hung on to a basic 70% equity/30% bond strategy from Sept. 1, 2008, when things started to get scary, you’d have earned nearly the 9% historical annual return for this mix over five-year stretches since 1926. Of course, you’d have earned that only by staying the course.

Lesson #4: There is no such thing as a “conservative” or stable stock.

In past crashes, pundits always pointed out that the “safe” place to be is among giant, blue chip stocks that pay dividends and that are industry leaders. Well, Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and AIG all fell under those descriptions. Yet all of those stocks plunged more than the broad market.

This taught investors a huge lesson: Treat all stocks as the volatile, unpredictable creatures that they are. Even dividends, which are synonymous with financially stable, conservatively run companies, can’t be trusted, because during the crisis, the financial sector began slashing dividend payments to safeguard their finances.

Lesson #5: Reaching for yield can lead to a fall.

When stocks fall, the stability of cash can cushion the blow. Yet things don’t necessarily work out that way.

Just ask shareholders of Schwab YieldPlus. This so-called ultrashort bond fund — which was marketed as a cash alternative, though it really wasn’t one — fell 35% in 2008 when the mortgage securities that provided the “plus” in the fund’s name turned out to be riskier than thought. (In January 2011 Schwab settled the charges that it misled investors but did not admit wrongdoing.)

Before that, there was the Reserve Fund, the first money fund in 14 years to lose value in part because it tried to boost payouts by holding some Lehman debt.

It makes no sense to take risks with your rainy-day savings, a lesson that’s worth remembering today. Since early 2009, investors have poured billions of dollars into floating-rate bond funds, which buy short bank loans that offer higher payouts than basic cash, as well as ultrashort bond funds.

Lesson #6: Diversification works — but in diverse ways.

In 2008, only one type of diversification seemed to pan out: your basic mix of stocks and bonds. Among equities, everything pretty much fell in lockstep.

Fast-forward more than three years, when the financial crisis unfolded in a different guise — this time with the debt crisis in Europe. Fear of government defaults peaked in early 2012, with rates on Greek debt reaching 29%. Diversification worked here, too, but also in a different guise.

While conventional wisdom said investors should flee the continent, European shares wound up beating the world in 2012, returning 20.3%. The year before that, it was U.S. stocks that performed the best (despite Uncle Sam’s fiscal woes). And in 2013, Japan led the way, despite having experienced another recession.

Spreading your bets globally eventually pays off, especially given how mercurial equities can be. For investors who are hearing that the U.S. looks like the only promising market these days, this is a clear lesson to heed.

Lesson #7: Stocks always recover; people don’t.

The Dow closes at an all-time high, but that’s cold comfort to those who retired in the past five years. Big upfront losses can crack a nest egg, even if the market later improves. That’s because your portfolio has the most potential earning power in the first few years after you get the gold watch.

Historically, investors have been able to tap anywhere from 4% all the way up to 10% of their savings annually based on how markets fared in this all-important first decade of retirement.

Over the next 10 years, return expectations are extremely modest, so even a 4% withdrawal rate may seem optimistic. For boomers nearing retirement, the trick is not to make matters worse, as two out of five older workers did in 2008 by keeping 70% or more of their 401(k)s in equities.

It’s time to dial down the risks in your portfolio — before the next downturn.

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