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Why The Measure Of “Savings” Is Entirely Wrong

In our recent series on capitalism (Read Here), we were discussing how the implementation of socialism, by its very nature, requires an ability to run unlimited deficits. In that discussion was the following quote:

Deficits are self-financing, deficits push rates down, deficits raise private savings.” – Stephanie Kelton

On the surface, there does seem to be a correlation between surging deficits and increases in private savings, as long as you ignore the long-term trend, or the reality of 80% of Americans in the U.S. today that live paycheck-to-paycheck.

The reality is the measure of “personal savings,” as calculated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, is grossly inaccurate. However, to know why such is the case, we need to understand how the savings rate is calculated. The website HowMuch.com recently provided that calculation of us. 

As you can see, after the estimated taxes and estimated expenses are paid, there is $6,017 dollars left over for “savings,” or, as the Government figures suggest, an 8%+ savings rate. 

The are multiple problems with the calculation.

  1. It assumes that everyone in the U.S. lives on the budget outlined above
  2. It also assumes the cost of housing, healthcare, food, utilities, etc. is standardized across the country. 
  3. That everyone spends the same percentage and buys the same items as everyone else. 

The cost of living between California and Texas is quite substantial. While the median family income of $78,635 may raise a family of four in Houston, it is probably going to be quite tough in San Francisco.

While those flaws are apparent, the biggest issue is the saving rate is heavily skewed by the top 20% of income earners. This is the same problem that also plagues disposable personal income and debt ratios, as previously discussed  in “America’s Debt Burden Will Fuel The Next Crisis.” To wit:

“The calculation of disposable personal income (which is income less taxes) is largely a guess, and very inaccurate, due to the variability of income taxes paid by households. More importantly, the measure is heavily skewed by the top 20% of income earners, and even more so by the top 5%. As shown in the chart below, those in the top 20% have seen substantially larger median wage growth versus the bottom 80%. (Note: all data used below is from the Census Bureau and the IRS.)”

The interactive graphic below from MagnifyMoney shows the disparity of income versus savings even more clearly.

When you look at the data in this fashion, you can certainly begin to understand the calls for “socialism” by political candidates. The reality is the majority of Americans are struggling just to make ends meet, which has been shown in a multitude of studies. 

“The [2019] survey found that 58 percent of respondents had less than $1,000 saved.” – Gobankingrates.com

Or, as noted by the WSJ:

“The American middle class is falling deeper into debt to maintain a middle-class lifestyle.

Cars, college, houses, and medical care have become steadily more costly, but incomes have been largely stagnant for two decades, despite a recent uptick. Filling the gap between earning and spending is an explosion of finance into nearly every corner of the consumer economy.

Consumer debt, not counting mortgages, has climbed to $4 trillion—higher than it has ever been even after adjusting for inflation.”

When looking at the data, it is hard to suggest that Americans are saving 8% or more of their income.

The differential between incomes and the actual “cost of living” is quite substantial. As Researchers at Purdue University found in their study of data culled from across the globe, in the U.S., $132,000 was found to be the optimal income for “feeling” happy for raising a family of four. (I can attest to this personally as a father of a family of six)

A Gallup survey found it required $58,000 to support a family of four in the U.S. (Forget about being happy, we are talking about “just getting by.”) 

So, while the Government numbers suggest the average American is saving 8% of their income annually, the majority of “savings” is coming from the differential in incomes between the top 20% and the bottom 80%.

In other words, if you are in the “Top 20%” of income earners, congratulations, you are probably saving a chunk of money.

If not, it is likely a very different story.

The “gap” between the “standard of living” and real disposable incomes is shown below. Beginning in 1990, incomes alone were no longer able to meet the standard of living so consumers turned to debt to fill the “gap.” However, following the “financial crisis,” even the combined levels of income and debt no longer fill the gap. Currently, there is almost a $2654 annual deficit that cannot be filled.

That gap explains why consumer debt is at historic highs and growing each year. If individuals were saving 8% of their money every year, debt balances would at least be flat, if not declining, as they are paid off. 

We can see the inconsistency between the “saving rate” and the requirement to sustain the “cost of living” by comparing the two. Beginning in 2009, it required the entire income of wage earners plus debt just to maintain the standard of living. The gap between the reported savings rate, and reality, is quite telling.

While Stephanie Kelton suggests that running massive deficits increases saving rates, and pose not economic threat as long as their is no inflation, the data clearly suggests this isn’t the case.

Savings rates didn’t fall in the ’80s and ’90s because consumers decided to just spend more. If that was the case, then economic growth rates would have been rising on a year-over-year basis. The reality, is that beginning in the 1980’s, as the economy shifted from a manufacturing to service-based economy, productivity surged which put downward pressure on wage and economic growth rates. Consumers were forced to lever up their household balance sheet to support their standard of living. In turn, higher levels of debt-service ate into their savings rate.

The problem today is not that people are not “saving more money,” they are just spending less as weak wage growth, an inability to access additional leverage, and a need to maintain debt service restricts spending.

That is unless you are in the top 20% of income earners. 

Peak Buybacks? Has Corporate Indulgence Hit Its Limits

Since the passage of “tax cuts,” in late 2017, the surge in corporate share buybacks has become a point of much debate. As I previously wrote, stock buybacks are once again on pace to set a new record in 2019. To wit:

“A recent report from Axios noted that for 2019, IT companies are again on pace to spend the most on stock buybacks this year, as the total looks set to pass 2018’s $1.085 trillion record total.”

The reason companies spend billions on buybacks is to increase bottom-line earnings per share which provides the “illusion” of increasing profitability to support higher share prices. Since revenue growth has remained extremely weak since the financial crisis, companies have become dependent on inflating earnings on a “per share” basis by reducing the denominator. 

“As the chart below shows, while earnings per share have risen by over 360% since the beginning of 2009; revenue growth has barely eclipsed 50%.”

As shown by BofA, in 2019, cumulative buybacks are up +20% on an annualized basis, with the 4-week average reaching some of the highest levels on record. This is occurring at a time when earnings continue to come under pressure due to tariffs, slower consumption, and weaker economic growth.

While share repurchases are not necessarily a bad thing, it is just the “least best” use of companies liquid cash. Instead of using cash to expand production, increase sales, acquire competitors, make capital expenditures, or buy into new products or services which could provide a long-term benefit; the cash is used for a one-time boost to earnings on a per-share basis.

Yes, share purchases can be good for current shareholders if the stock price rises, but the real beneficiaries of share purchases are insiders where changes in compensation structures have become heavily dependent on stock-based compensation. Insiders regularly liquidate shares which were “given” to them as part of their overall compensation structure to convert them into actual wealth. As the Financial Times recently penned:

Corporate executives give several reasons for stock buybacks but none of them has close to the explanatory power of this simple truth: Stock-based instruments make up the majority of their pay and in the short-term buybacks drive up stock prices.

That statement was further supported by a study from the Securities & Exchange Commission which found the same issues:

  • SEC research found that many corporate executives sell significant amounts of their own shares after their companies announce stock buybacks, Yahoo Finance reports.

Not surprisingly, as corporate share buybacks are hitting record highs; so is corporate insider selling.

What is clear, is that the misuse, and abuse, of share buybacks to manipulate earnings and reward insiders has become problematic. As John Authers recently pointed out:

“For much of the last decade, companies buying their own shares have accounted for all net purchases. The total amount of stock bought back by companies since the 2008 crisis even exceeds the Federal Reserve’s spending on buying bonds over the same period as part of quantitative easing. Both pushed up asset prices.”

In other words, between the Federal Reserve injecting a massive amount of liquidity into the financial markets, and corporations buying back their own shares, there have been effectively no other real buyers in the market. 

Less Bang For The Buck

While investors have chased asset prices higher over the last couple of years on hopes of a “trade deal,” more accommodation from Central Banks, or hope the “bull market will never end,” the impact of share buybacks on asset prices is fading.

The chart below is the S&P 500 Buyback Index versus the Total Return index. Following the financial crisis, when companies changed from “splitting shares” to “reducing shares,” there has been a marked outperformance by those companies.

However, while corporate buybacks have accounted for the majority of net purchases of equities in the market, the benefit of pushing asset prices higher is waning. Outside of the brief moment in 2018 when tax cuts were implemented, which allowed companies to repatriate overseas cash, the buyback index has underperformed.

Without that $4 trillion in stock buybacks, not to mention the $4 trillion in liquidity from the Federal Reserve, the stock market would not have been able to rise as much as it has. Given high valuations, weakening earnings, and sluggish economic growth, without continued injections of liquidity going forward, the risk of a substantial repricing of assets has risen.

A more opaque problem is that share repurchases have increasingly been done with the use of leverage. The ongoing suppression of interest rates by the Federal Reserve led to an explosion of debt issued by corporations. Much of the debt was not used for mergers, acquisitions or capital expenditures but for the funding of share repurchases and dividend issuance.

The explosion of corporate debt in recent years will become problematic during the next bear market. As the deterioration in asset prices increases, many companies will be unable to refinance their debt, or worse, forced to liquidate. With the current debt-to-GDP ratio at historic highs, it is unlikely this will end mildly.

This is something Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan warned about:

U.S. nonfinancial corporate debt consists mostly of bonds and loans. This category of debt, as a percentage of gross domestic product, is now higher than in the prior peak reached at the end of 2008.

A number of studies have concluded this level of credit could ‘potentially amplify the severity of a recession,’

The lowest level of investment-grade debt, BBB bonds, has grown from $800 million to $2.7 trillion by year-end 2018. High-yield debt has grown from $700 million to $1.1 trillion over the same period. This trend has been accompanied by more relaxed bond and loan covenants, he added.

It’s only a problem if a recession occurs.

According to CNN, 53 percent of chief financial officers expect the United States to enter a recession prior to the 2020 presidential election. That information was sourced from the Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook survey released on Wednesday. And two-thirds predict a downturn by the end of next year. While a slight downturn may not amount to a recession, it certainly means CFOs are taking the initiative to prepare for the worst.”

This is a very important point.

CEO’s make decisions on how they use their cash. If concerns of a recession persist, it is likely to push companies to become more conservative on the use of their cash, rather than continuing to repurchase shares. If that source of market liquidity fades, the market will have a much tougher time maintaining current levels, or going higher.

Summary

While share repurchases by themselves may indeed be somewhat harmless, it is when they are coupled with accounting gimmicks and massive levels of debt to fund them in which they become problematic.

The biggest issue was noted by Michael Lebowitz:

“While the financial media cheers buybacks and the SEC, the enabler of such abuse idly watches, we continue to harp on the topic. It is vital, not only for investors but the public-at-large, to understand the tremendous harm already caused by buybacks and the potential for further harm down the road.”

Money that could have been spent spurring future growth for the benefit of investors was instead wasted only benefiting senior executives paid on the basis of fallacious earnings-per-share.

As stock prices fall, companies that performed un-economic buybacks are now finding themselves with financial losses on their hands, more debt on their balance sheets, and fewer opportunities to grow in the future. Equally disturbing, the many CEO’s who sanctioned buybacks, are much wealthier and unaccountable for their actions.

For investors betting on higher stock prices, the question is whether we have now seen “peak buybacks?”

The Disconnect Between The Markets & Economy Has Grown

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article discussing the disconnect between the markets and the economy. At that time, the Fed was early into their rate hiking campaign. Talks of tax cuts from a newly elected President filled headlines, corporate earnings were growing, and there was a slew of fiscal stimulus from the Government to deal with the effects of 3-major hurricanes and 2-devastating wildfires. Now, the Fed is cutting rates, so it is time to revisit that analysis.

Previously, the consensus for the rise in capital markets was the tax cuts, and low levels of interest rates made stocks the only investment worth having. 

Today, rates have risen, economic growth both domestically and globally has weakened, and corporate profitability has come under pressure. However, since the Fed is cutting rates, hinting at expanding their balance sheet, and a “trade deal” is at hand, stocks are the only investment worth having.

In other words, regardless of the economic or fundamental backdrop, “stocks are the only investment worth having.” 

I am not so sure that is the case.

Let’s begin by putting the markets into perspective.

Yes, the markets are flirting with “all-time highs.” While this certainly sounds impressive, for many investors, they have just started making money on their investments from the turn of the century. As we noted in “The Moment You Know You Know, You Know,” what is often forgotten is the massive amount of “time” lost in growing capital to meet retirement goals.

This is crucially important to understand as was something I addressed in “Stocks – The Great Wealth Equalizer:”

“By the time that most individuals achieve a point in life where incomes and savings rates are great enough to invest excess cash flows, they generally do not have 30 years left to reach their goal. This is why losing 5-7 years of time getting back to “even” is not a viable investment strategy.

The chart below is the inflation-return of $1000 invested in 1995 with $100 added monthly. The blue line represents the impact of the investment using simple dollar-cost averaging. The red line represents a “lump sum” approach. The lump-sum approach utilizes a simple weekly moving average crossover as a signal to either dollar cost average into a portfolio OR moves to cash. The impact of NOT DESTROYING investment capital by buying into a declining market is significant.”

“Importantly, I am not advocating “market timing” by any means. What I am suggesting is that if you are going to invest into the financial markets, arguably the single most complicated game on the planet, then you need to have some measure to protect your investment capital from significant losses.

While the detrimental effect of a bear market can be eventually recovered, the time lost during that process can not. This is a point consistently missed by the ever bullish media parade chastising individuals for not having their money invested in the financial markets.”

However, let’s set aside that point for the moment, and discuss the validity of the argument of the rise of asset prices is simply a reflection of economic strength.

Assuming that individuals are “investing” in companies, versus speculating on price movement, then the investment process is a “bet” on future profitability of the company. Since, companies derive their revenue from consumption of their goods, products, and services; it is only logical that stock price appreciation, over the long-term, has roughly equated to economic growth. However, during shorter time-frames, asset prices are affected by investor psychology which leads to “boom and bust” cycles. This is the situation currently, which can be seen by the large disconnect between current economic growth and asset prices.

Since January 1st of 2009, through the end of the second quarter of 2019, the stock market has risen by an astounding 164.90% (inflation-adjusted). However, if we measure from the March 9, 2009 lows, the percentage gain explodes to more than 200%. With such a significant gain in the financial markets, we should see a commensurate indication of economic growth.

The reality is that after 3-massive Federal Reserve driven “Quantitative Easing” programs, a maturity extension program, bailouts of TARP, TGLP, TGLF, etc., HAMP, HARP, direct bailouts of Bear Stearns, AIG, GM, bank supports, etc., all of which total more than $33 Trillion, the economy grew by just $3.87 Trillion, or a whopping 24.11% since the beginning of 2009. The ROI equates to $8.53 of interventions for every $1 of economic growth.

Not a very good bargain.

We can look at this another way.

The stock market has returned almost 103.6% since the 2007 peak, which is more than 4-times the growth in GDP and nearly 3-times the increase in corporate revenue. (I have used SALES growth in the chart below as it is what happens at the top line of income statements and is not AS subject to manipulation.)

The all-time highs in the stock market have been driven by the $4 trillion increase in the Fed’s balance sheet, hundreds of billions in stock buybacks, and valuation (PE) expansion. With Price-To-Sales ratios and median stock valuations near the highest in history, one should question the ability to continue borrowing from the future?

Speaking of rather extreme deviations, another concern for the detachment of the markets from more basic economic realities, the deviation of reported earnings from corporate profits after-tax, is at historical extremes.

These sharp deviations tend to occur in late market cycles when “excess” from speculation has reached extremes. Recessions tend to follow as a “reversion to the mean occurs.

While, earnings have surged since the end of the last recession, which has been touted as a definitive reason for higher stock prices, it is not all as it would seem.

Earnings per share are indeed an important driver of markets over time. However, the increase in profitability has not come strong increases in revenue at the top of the income statement. The chart below shows the deviation between the widely touted OPERATING EARNINGS (earnings before all the “bad” stuff) versus REPORTED EARNINGS which is what all historical valuations are based. I have also included revenue growth, as well.

This is not a new anomaly, but one which has been a consistent “meme” since the end of the financial crisis. As the chart below shows, while earnings per share have risen by over 360% since the beginning of 2009; revenue growth has barely eclipsed 50%.

While suppressed wage growth, layoffs, cost-cutting, productivity increases, accounting gimmickry, and stock buybacks have been the primary factors in surging profitability, these actions have little effect on revenue growth. The problem for investors is all of the gimmicks to win the “beat the estimate game” are finite in nature. Eventually, real rates of revenue growth will matter. However, since suppressed wages and interest rates have cannibalized consumer incomes – there is nowhere left to generate further sales gains from in excess of population growth.

Left Behind

While Wall Street has significantly benefited from the Fed’s interventions, Main Street has not. Over the past few years, as asset prices surged higher, there has been very little translation into actual economic prosperity for a large majority of Americans. This is reflective of weak wage, economic, and inflationary growth which has led to a surge in consumer debt to record levels.

Of course, weak economic growth has led to employment growth that is primarily a function of population growth. As I addressed just recently:

“Employment should increase to accommodate for the increased demand from more participants in the economy. Either that or companies resort to automation, off-shoring, etc. to increase rates of production without increases in labor costs. The chart below shows the total increase in employment versus the growth of the working-age population.”

While reported unemployment is hitting historically low levels, there is a swelling mass of uncounted individuals that have either given up looking for work or are working multiple part-time jobs. This can be seen below which shows those “not in labor force,” as a percent of the working-age population, skyrocketing.

If employment was indeed as strong as reported by government agencies, then social benefits would not be comprising a record high of 22% of real disposable incomes. 

Without government largesse, many individuals would literally be living on the street. The chart above shows all the government “welfare” programs and current levels to date. While unemployment insurance has hit record lows following the financial crisis, social security, Medicaid, Veterans’ benefits and other social benefits have continued to rise and have surged sharply over the last few months.

With 1/5 of incomes dependent on government transfers, it is not surprising that the economy continues to struggle as recycled tax dollars used for consumption purposes have virtually no impact on the overall economy.

Conclusion

While financial markets have surged to “all-time highs,” the majority of Americans who have little, or no, vested interest in the financial markets have a markedly different view. While the Fed keeps promising with each passing year the economy will come roaring back to life, the reality has been that all the stimulus and financial support hasn’t been able to put the broken financial transmission system back together again.

Amazingly, more than two-years following the initial writing of this article, the gap between the markets and the economy has grown even wider. Eventually, the current disconnect between the economy and the markets will merge.

I bet such a convergence will likely not be a pleasant one.