Thursday, January 28, 2010

Anyone Else Think This Toyota Thing is Creepy?

I don't mean to sound like a paranoid conspiracy guy, but does anyone else think this Toyota thing is creepy? Think about the timeline: 

  1. Non-Union Toyota of Japan  passes Union GM of the US as the world’s largest auto maker.
  2. Union support of Barack Obama helps him win the Presidency of the US.
  3. GM goes bankrupt and gets bailed out by the US government which hands a huge chunk of the company to the UAW UNION.    
  4. Toyota is accused of  unanticipated acceleration, a dangerous problem that is very hard to prove.  Toyota cites floor mats and issues warning.
  5. Complaints persist and the US government insists on a recall.   
  6. Toyota is forced by the US government to cease selling those models, an unprecedented move in automotive history.  
  7. Non-Union Toyota sales and stock crash.
  8. Union and US owned GM sales rise nicely.  

If you were around when Audi was practically forced out of the US based on a similar charge, you know that there may or may not be a real mechanical reason for un-anticipated acceleration. In the Audi case, the whole thing turned out to be bogus at best, and at worst, a coordinated attempt to take-down Audi, complete with a scary "60 Minutes" segment!  Now, I know the Toyota case involves fatalities and therefore requires serious treatment, and I also hear that there is a suspect part, but until the problem is scientifically solved, I remain suspicious of this weird coincidence of Government Motor's biggest competitor being smeared by such a ubiquitous claim as unanticipated acceleration...

UPDATE:  Oh, and I forgot that $1,000 "incentive" GM is now offering Toyota owners to switch brands.  Where does a bankrupt car company, owned by the US government, get $1,000 checks???
UPDATE II:  Oh, and did you know that Toyota closed its only UNIONIZED plant in 2009???

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Anatomy of a Myth III – Markets are Partisan!

On October 14th 2008, three weeks before the presidential election, The New York Times published the eye-catching chart below: (follow link for full size version)
Full sized NYT Chart
The chart graphically shows how since 1929, Democrats in the White House were far better at producing positive stock market returns than their Republican counterparts, and clearly the message was that a vote for Obama was a vote for galloping prosperity while a vote for McCain was a recipe for financial disaster.  Oh my God, run for the hills!

They say that if you torture data enough you can eventually get a confession, and this chart proves it - Khalid Sheikh Mohammad got better treatment! And yet there is not a single number I dispute on the chart. No, the problem is not one of accuracy, but rather of timing and the very premises on which the chart is based. The fact is, by appropriately correcting just the timing problems I was able to reverse the conclusion of The Times, but unlike the Grey Lady I would not suggest that you invest a single dime based on these more relevant results.

First to the premises: In order for there to be some relevance to this chart, one would have to assume a minimum of five dubious premises:

   1. Party affiliation is the determining factor in a President’s economic policies.
   2. Presidential economic policies are isolated from congressional policies.
   3. Political parties have had consistent economic policies throughout history.
   4. Markets live in the moment and are not in the habit of discounting the future.
   5. Markets were either irrelevant or not measured before 1929.

Not a single one of these premises is strong enough to hang your hat on, let alone bet $10,000!

To wit:  Were JFK’s economic policies anything like Barack Obama’s? Were Nixon’s anything like Reagan’s? How about the idea that Presidential policies are isolated from congressional policies? Was Bill Clinton the same President before ’94 as he was after? And how about parties being consistent over time.  Is that valid?  Hoover, a Republican, was a protectionist and Clinton, a Democrat, was a free-trader; what about Reagan vs. Obama on the same issue?

As for the 4th and 5th premises, they are just laughable but correctable, and to that end I reworked the chart. To account for the fact that markets are forward-looking I used equity values from 6 months prior to Presidential elections when markets are poised to react to the political calendar and when Presidents are referred to as “lame-ducks”. The Times chart uses values from the exact date of inauguration which assumes that the market has made no adjustment for an incoming President's expected policies. Anyone who follows the market knows that it is concerned with little else but the future!  Finally, to account for the fact that there is nothing magic about only going back to 1929, I went back to 1900 which coincides with the dawn of statistical movements in the Standard and Poors Index for which there is data back to 1871.

Here’s what I found:

                                                     S&P Data Source: Yale Professor, Robert J Shiller

1. From 1900 to today, Republican Presidents yielded average annual returns of 4.66% and Democrats 4.05%, and that includes Hoover!

2. Even since 1929, excluding Hoover, Republicans beat Democrats by 7.13% to 5.03%!

3. The only way to get Democrats to beat Republicans is to start with Hoover (as the Times did) and then it’s Democrats, 5.03%, to 3.51% for the Republicans. Whew!

4. Many like to use the post-war period as an investment benchmark: Since WWII Republicans have whomped Democrats by 7.13% to 3.66%!

So, what does this prove? Absolutely nothing - except that you really shouldn’t pay too much attention to The New York Times for investment advice! For one, the correlation between parties and markets is too weak. Second, there is too much “noise” for a reliable correlation. And third, there is still the problem of the first three premises!

In short, vote for the guy or gal you prefer, and base your investments on other factors.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Contrarian on Bernanke

Listen to any Ben Bernanke detractor and they’ll sing basically the same tune, which goes something like this: “Ben Bernanke is a an excellent academic economist and an honorable guy who performed well this past year as Fed Chairman, but he was right there at Alan Greenspan’s side in the early 2000’s when interest rates were kept too low for too long. Those low rates helped cause the housing bubble which eventually burst and collapsed the global financial system in 2008.  That kind of negligence should not be rewarded with a second term.”

I have trouble disagreeing with much of that, except that there is a far better and more compelling reason to lay some blame for the financial collapse with Fed Chairman Bernanke. I haven’t heard the following argument from anyone in the economic press, so that could either mean I’m out of my mind, or everyone else is missing something. Read on, and judge for yourself.

First a little history: Below is the Fed Target Rates for the last 10 years. The period most Bernanke detractors are focusing on is the period of low rates from roughly 2002 through 2004 when he was Alan Greenspan’s right-hand man.

Ben Bernanke became Fed Chairman February 1, 2006 when the Fed Target rate had already been raised by Greenspan to 4.25%. The day Bernanke became Chairman, he raised the Target Rate to 4.5%, but he didn’t stop there. He kept raising until July 1, 2006 when the Fed Funds Target hit 5.25%. So from July 1, 2004 to July 1, 2006 the Fed raised it’s Target Rate from 1.00% to 5.25%, an increase of 425% in 24 months.

What effect did all those rate increases have on the yield curve and why would that matter? Well, as most economists will tell you, nothing screams recession quite like an inverted yield curve (when long term rates are lower than short term rates) and forcing one is economic poison.

In January, just before Bernanke became Chairman, the yield curve was essentially flat with a slightly positive bias, but that quickly changed. Bernanke’s first raise to 4.5%, resulted in a slightly negative yield curve and again, he kept raising the Fed Target all the way to 5.25% by July 1, 2006. By November 2006, there was a clear downward trend in yields. (see chart below).

Why did Ben Bernanke keep raising interest rates in the midst of a housing bubble, with an election coming up in November 2006, and a yield curve already threatening negative by late 2005? Why did he persist and force the yield curve decidedly negative by mid 2006 which threw us into recession and crashed the housing market? No one but Ben Bernanke knows for sure, but in my humble opinion, if there is a smoking gun against him, it is this and not the period from 2002 to 2004, before he was even Chairman!

In Hebrew, Shalom, which is Bernanke’s middle name, can mean Hello, Goodbye, or Peace. I say Goodbye, and leave us in Peace, but I don’t see that actually happening. In a political and economic climate where a tax cheat can get Senate approval to be Treasury Secretary, a reckless but honorable Fed Chairman is virtually a shoo-in.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Magic Bullets Part VII – The Tax Ammendment

If you could wave a magic wand and make one amendment to the Constitution all by yourself, what would it be? Would you impose term limits? Would you rename the country after yourself? Would you make “Pants on the Ground” the national anthem? I know what I’d do: I’d end hidden taxes and get every person to participate.

My theory is that just about everything that is systemically wrong with our country stems from the fact that we don’t really know what it all costs and we don’t all share in those costs. This is of course, no accident. Politicians have been expert at two things, hiding the costs of their duplicity and getting re-elected. If we were to eliminate stealth taxes and get everyone to share the costs, profligate politicians would have their plans blow-up in their faces and the only ones re-elected would be those lowering costs and improving the efficiency of their enterprise.

Here’s how I would end stealth taxes and give everyone “skin-in-the-game” with one amendment to the constitution: The amendment would read as follows – “All federal domestic revenues shall be collected directly from the people and all taxpayers will pay the same rate and receive an identical pre-bate.”

The first question you may have is; (*feel free to use Larry The Cable Guy accent here) “What’s a pre-bate?” A pre-bate is a nifty way to not impact the poor while at the same time giving everyone skin-in-the-game. The way it would work is this: At the start of every tax period, an amount equal to the taxes paid at the poverty level would be sent to every taxpayer. This would in effect establish a zero bracket for the poor and a graduated net tax rate for those earning more than the poverty level. After that, every dime would come directly out of the pockets of the people. And there would be a single rate for every person with no deductions, period.

Here is an example of the tax system that would result. Incidentally, this could work for a system based on Income Taxes, Sales Taxes, or any combination of the two. The rates are for illustration purposes:

Tax rate = 40 % (This could be split roughly between 20% income and 20% national sales tax, for example.  Yeah it’s high, but it has to be to pay for what we’re now spending!)

Poverty rate = $15,000 income per year for this example.

Pre-bate = $6,000 per year or, $1,500 per quarter.

Using this example, everyone of age, who is legal, from Bill Gates to a homeless person, would get a $6,000 annual pre-bate.

A poor person would be able to earn and spend up to $15,000 and effectively pay zero taxes due to the pre-bate. Bill Gates, on the other hand, would burn through the $6,000 in a blink and end up paying an effective rate of 40% with no deductions. A person making $30,000 and spending it all would pay $12,000 in taxes, minus the pre-bate, resulting in $6,000 total taxes for an effective net rate of 20%.

So that’s how the pre-bate would work to graduate net tax rates despite there being only one rate and everyone participating. You may be asking; “Doesn’t everyone participate now?” To that, I’d have to answer yes and no. The fact is, some 50% of Americans are getting an illusory free-ride. The reason I say “illusory” is because many people incorrectly believe they pay no taxes. After all, many get a big rebate check in April and the politicians are always telling them they are going to tax only “the rich”. Eventually, people start to believe it. This is borne out in election after election when people are told that someone else will pay for their big entitlements like free healthcare, subsidized housing loans, extended unemployment benefits, and so forth. But there’s a problem: economies have a way of leveling these costs and spreading them around to the point that the cost becomes built into everything we buy and everything we earn. The notion that costs for huge new entitlements will be borne by someone else is like trying to pump water from only the deep end of the pool; if your pump is fast enough, there may actually be a moment when it will appear like the shallow end is unaffected, but trust me, that will not last!

Back to the wording of the amendment: “All federal domestic revenues shall be collected directly from the people…” By directly taxing only the people, there would be no more indirect taxes like payroll taxes and business taxes of any kind. Now, you may be thinking; “What, no business taxes? That’s crazy! Why give Corporations a free ride?” My answer: because businesses already pay no taxes. Sure, businesses do remit taxes, but only after collecting the exact amount from their customers and employees. In other words, all corporate payroll taxes, income taxes, fees, etc. are actually just hidden taxes on individuals. These hidden taxes distort voter behavior and obscure the necessary transparency of our exploding public sector.

Put another way, a business is just a bunch of individuals, formed into a team and working toward a common goal. The team itself gets no vote and does not exist except as a legal entity. Taxing a business violates the very rule on which this country was founded: Taxation without Representation. Of course businesses do get represented, but only through money and lobbying. If we eliminate all business taxes and collect everything directly from the people, we are properly aligning taxation and representation. Of course, business lobbying will still go on to fight for regulatory and trade consideration, but the power will shift measurably towards the people.

So would this be simple to implement? All I can say is, it’s hard to conceive of a tax regime as complicated as what we’ve got. So yes, this would be simpler, better, and more efficient. Of course we’d still have to have some agency like the IRS that would administer collections, pre-bates, compliance, business rebates, and the like. That’s one dragon we can’t slay with this magic bullet.

What we would gain though is a population directly aligned with their government and a likely return to our founding principles of Constitutional Democracy. We’d once again have what Lincoln referred to as a: “Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kennedy’s Second Victim

We all know Edward Kennedy’s first victim, Mary Jo Kopechne, who tragically got in the car with a reckless and drunk senator from MA and paid for her mistake with her life. Today, after the special election in MA, we will likely meet the second victim, the Obama/Pelosi/Reid Democrat Party. Just like the first, they too hitched-up with the late Senator from MA who drove them off a bridge and now they too may pay the ultimate price.

The irony of the dream of socialized medicine dying along with one of its biggest sponsors is almost too rich to fathom. You’d think that by now everyone would have understood the dangers of being seduced by Uncle Teddy.  As the old saying goes: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

Interestingly, the first sound blaring out of the PA on the west lawn of the Capital when they held the big healthcare rally this fall was The Who, and everyone at that rally sang along and pumped their fists; “We won’t get fooled again!” At least the descendants of another Massachusetts legacy, The Boston Tea Party, refuse to be victims.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Kid's Better Than Your Kid!

If he wasn't the stronger of the two candidates, I'd have to support Scott Brown anyway based on this: Ayla Brown Sings The National Anthem.  As far as I know, Martha Coakley has no kids, which is probably a good thing for her as it avoids comparison...

Monday, January 4, 2010

When Do We Stop Laughing???

When do we stop laughing???

John Brennan, the top counterterrorism official in the Obama administration actually said this weekend that there was "no smoking gun" in the Christmas Day panty-bomber incident! Huh? Is there a better description than "smoking gun" to describe a male terrorist who attempts to commit mass murder by barbecuing his genitals? I wish I could say the rest of Brennan's statements were less ridiculous. Sadly, they were not.