Tag Archives: consumption

Dimon’s View Of Economic Reality Is Still Delusional

“This is the most prosperous economy the world has ever seen and it’s going to be a very prosperous economy for the next 100 years.” – Jamie Dimon

That’s what the head of JP Morgan Chase told viewers in a recent “60-Minutes” interview.

“The consumer, which is 70% of the U.S. economy, is quite strong. Confidence is very high. Their balance sheets are in great shape. And you see that the strength of the American consumer is driving the American economy and the global economy. And while business slowed down, my current view is that, no, it just was a slowdown, not a petering out.” – Jamie Dimon

If you’re in the top 1-2% of income earners, like Jamie, I am sure it feels that way.

For everyone else, not so much.

This isn’t the first time that I have discussed Dimon’s distorted views, and just as we discussed then, even just marginally scratching the surface on the economy and the “household balance sheet,” reveals an uglier truth.

The Most Prosperous Economy

Let’s start with the “most prosperous economy in the world” claim.

As we recently discussed in “Socialism Rises,” 

“How did a country which was once the shining beacon of ‘capitalism’ become a country on the brink of ‘socialism?’

Changes like these don’t happen in a vacuum. It is the result of years of a burgeoning divide between the wealthy and everyone else. It is also a function of a 40-year process of capitalism morphing an entire population into ‘debt slaves’ to sustain economic prosperity. 

It is a myth that the economy has grown by roughly 5% since 1980. In reality, economic growth rates have been on a steady decline over the past 40 years, which has been supported by a massive push into deficit spending by consumers.”

With the slowest average annual growth rate in history, it is hard to suggest the economy has been the best it has ever been.

However, if an economy is truly prosperous it should benefit the majority of economic participants, which brings us to claim about “household balance sheet” health.

For Billionaires, The Grass Is Always Green

If you are in the upper 20% of income earners, not to mention the top .01% like Mr. Dimon, I am quite sure the “economic grass is very green.”  If you are in the bottom 80%, the “view” is more akin to a “dirt lot.” Since 1980, as noted by a recent study from Chicago Booth Review, the wealth gap has progressively gotten worse.

“The data set reveals since 1980 a ‘sharp divergence in the growth experienced by the bottom 50 percent versus the rest of the economy,’ the researchers write. The average pretax income of the bottom 50 percent of US adults has stagnated since 1980, while the share of income of US adults in the bottom half of the distribution collapsed from 20 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2014. In a mirror-image move, the top 1 percent commanded 12 percent of income in 1980 but 20 percent in 2014. The top 1 percent of US adults now earns on average 81 times more than the bottom 50 percent of adults; in 1981, they earned 27 times what the lower half earned.

The issue is the other 80% are just struggling to get by as recently discussed in the Wall Street Journal:

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. Mortgage debt slid after the financial crisis a decade ago but is rebounding.”WSJ

The ability to simply “maintain a certain standard of living” has become problematic for many, which forces them further into debt.

“The debt surge is partly by design, a byproduct of low borrowing costs the Federal Reserve engineered after the financial crisis to get the economy moving. It has reshaped both borrowers and lenders. Consumers increasingly need it, companies increasingly can’t sell their goods without it, and the economy, which counts on consumer spending for more than two-thirds of GDP, would struggle without a plentiful supply of credit.” – WSJ

I show the “gap” between the “standard of living” and real disposable incomes 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 $2600 annual deficit that cannot be filled. (Note: this deficit accrues every year which is why consumer credit keeps hitting new records.)

But this is where it gets interesting.

Mr. Dimon claims the “household balance sheet” is in great shape. However, this suggestion, which has been repeated by much of the mainstream media, is based on the following chart.

The problem with the chart is that it is an illusion created by the skew in disposable incomes by the top 20% of income earners, needless to say, the top 5%. The Wall Street Journal exposed this issue in their recent analysis.

“Median household income in the U.S. was $61,372 at the end of 2017, according to the Census Bureau. When inflation is taken into account, that is just above the 1999 level. Without adjusting for inflation, over the three decades through 2017, incomes are up 135%.” – WSJ

“The median net worth of households in the middle 20% of income rose 4% in inflation-adjusted terms to $81,900 between 1989 and 2016, the latest available data. For households in the top 20%, median net worth more than doubled to $811,860. And for the top 1%, the increase was 178% to $11,206,000.

Put differently, the value of assets for all U.S. households increased from 1989 through 2016 by an inflation-adjusted $58 trillion. A third of the gain—$19 trillion—went to the wealthiest 1%, according to a Journal analysis of Fed data.

‘On the surface things look pretty good, but if you dig a little deeper you see different subpopulations are not performing as well,’ said Cris deRitis, deputy chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.” – WSJ


With this understanding, we need to recalibrate the “debt to income” chart above to adjust for the bottom 80% of income earnings versus those in the top 20%. Clearly, the “household balance sheet” is not nearly as healthy as Mr. Dimon suggests.

Of course, the only saving grace for many American households is that artificially low interest rates have reduced the average debt service levels. Unfortunately, those in the bottom 80% are still having a large chunk of their median disposable income eaten up by debt payments. This reduces discretionary spending capacity even further.

The problem is quite clear. With interest rates already at historic lows, the consumer already heavily leveraged, and wage growth stagnant, the capability to increase consumption to foster higher rates of economic growth is limited.

With respect to those who say “the debt doesn’t matter,” I respectfully argue that you looking at a very skewed view of the world driven by those at the top.

Mr. Dimon’s Last Call

What Mr. Dimon tends to forget is that it was the U.S. taxpayer who bailed out the financial system, him included, following the financial crisis. Despite massive fraud in the major banks related to the mortgage crisis, only small penalties were paid for their criminal acts, and no one went to jail. The top 5-banks which were 40% of the banking system prior to the financial crisis, became 60% afterwards. Through it all, Mr. Dimon became substantially wealthier, while the American population suffered the consequences.

Yes, “this is the greatest economy ever” if you are at the top of heap.

With household debt, corporate debt, and government debt now at records, the next crisis will once again require taxpayers to bail it out. Since it was Mr. Dimon’s bank that lent the money to zombie companies, households again which can’t afford it, and took on excessive risks in financial assets, he will gladly accept the next bailout while taxpayers suffer the fallout. 

For the top 20% of the population that have money actually invested, or directly benefit from surging asset prices, like Mr. Dimon, life is great. However, for the vast majority of American’s, the job competition is high, wages growth is stagnant, and making “ends meet” is a daily challenge.

While Mr. Dimon’s view of America is certainly uplifting, it is delusional. But of course, give any person a billion dollars and they will likely become just as detached from economic realities.

Does America have “greatest hand ever dealt.”

The data certainly doesn’t suggest such. However, that can change.

We just have to stop hoping that we can magically cure a debt problem by adding more debt, and then shuffling it between Central Banks. 

But then again, such a statement is also delusional.

Pulling Forward versus Paying Forward

Debt allows a consumer (household, business, or government) to pull consumption forward or acquire something today for which they otherwise would have to wait. When the primary objective of fiscal and monetary policy becomes myopically focused on incentivizing consumers to borrow, spend, and pull consumption forward, there will eventually be a painful resolution of the imbalances that such policy creates. The front-loaded benefits of these tactics are radically outweighed by the long-term damage they ultimately cause.

Due to the overwhelming importance that the durability of economic growth has on future asset returns, we take a new approach in this article to drive home a message from our prior article The Death of the Virtuous Cycle. In this article, we use two simple examples to demonstrate how the Virtuous Cycle (VC) and Un-Virtuous Cycle (U-VC) have benefits and costs to society that play out over time.

The Minsky Moment

Before walking you through the examples contrasting the two economic cycles, it is important to put debt into its proper context. Debt can be used productively to benefit the economy in the long term, or it can be used to fulfill materialistic needs and to temporarily stimulate economic growth in the short term. While both uses of debt look the same on a balance sheet, the effect that each has on the borrower and the economy over time is remarkably different.

In the course of his life’s work as an economist, Hyman Minsky focused on the factors that cause financial market fragility and how extreme circumstances eventually resolve themselves. Minsky, who died in 1996, only recently became “famous” as a result of the sub-prime mortgage debacle and ensuing financial crisis in 2008. 

Minsky elaborated on his “stability breeds instability” theory by identifying three types of borrowers and how they evolve to contribute to the accumulation of insolvent debt and inherent instability.

  • Hedge borrowers can make interest and principal payments on debt from current cash flows generated from existing investments.
  • Speculative borrowers can cover the interest on the debt from the investment cash flows but must regularly refinance, or “roll-over,” the debt as they cannot pay off the principal.
  • Ponzi borrowers cannot cover the interest payments or the principal on debt from the investment cash flows, but believe that the appreciation of the investments will be sufficient to refinance outstanding debt obligations when the investment is sold.

Over the past 20 years, investors have been witness to a remarkable sequence of bubbles. The first culminated when an abundance of Ponzi borrowers concentrated their investments in the equity markets and technology stocks in particular. Technology companies, frequently with operating losses, raised capital through stock and debt offerings from investors who believed excessive valuations could expand indefinitely.

The second bubble emerged in housing. Many home buyers acquired houses via mortgages payments they could in no way afford, but believed house prices would rise indefinitely allowing them to service their mortgage obligations via the extraction of equity.

Today, we are witnessing a broader asset price inflation driven by a belief that central banks will engage in extraordinary monetary policy indefinitely to prop up valuations in the hope for the always “just around the corner” wealth effect. Equity markets are near all-time highs and at extreme valuations despite weak economic growth and limited earnings growth. Bond yields are near the lowest levels (highest prices) human civilization has ever seen. Commercial real estate is back at 2007 bubble valuations and real assets such as art, wine, and jewelry are enjoying record-setting bidding at auction houses.

These financial bubbles could not occur in an environment of weak domestic and global economic growth without the migration of debt borrowers from hedge to speculative to Ponzi status.

Compare and Contrast

The tables below summarize two extreme economic models to exhibit how an economy dependent upon “Ponzi” financing compares to one in which savings are prioritized. In both cases, we show how the respective financial decisions influence consumption, profits, and wages.

Table 1, below, is based on the assumption that consumers spend 100% of their wages and borrow an additional amount equivalent to 10% of their income annually for ten years straight. The debt amortizes annually and is therefore retired in full in 20 years.  

Assumptions: Debt is borrowed each year for the first ten years at a 5% interest rate and ten year term, corporate profits and employee wages are 7% and 3% of consumption respectively, annual income is constant at $100,000 per year. 

Table 2, below, assumes consumers spend 90% of wages, save and invest 10% a year, and do not borrow any money. The table is based on the work of Henry Hazlitt from his book Economics in One Lesson.  

Assumptions: Productivity growth is 2.5% per year, corporate profits and employee wages are 7% and 3% of consumption respectively.

Table 1 is the U-VC and Table 2 is the VC. The tables illustrate that there are immediate economic benefits of borrowing and economic costs of saving. For example, in year one, consumption in Table 1 rises as a result of the new debt ($100,000 to $108,705) and wages and corporate profits follow proportionately. Conversely, table 2 exhibits an initial $10,000 decline in consumption to $90,000, and a similar decline in wages and corporate profits as a result of deferring consumption on 10% of the income that was designated for saving and investing.

After year one, however, the trends begin to reverse. In the U-VC example (Table 1), when new debt is added, debt servicing costs rise, and the marginal benefits of additional debt decline. By year eight, debt service costs ($10,360) are larger than the additional new debt ($10,000). At that point, without lower interest rates or larger borrowings, consumption will fall below the income level.

Conversely, in the VC example (Table 2), savings and investments engender productivity growth, which drives wages, profits, and consumption higher.

The graphs below highlight the consumption and wage trends from both tables.

As illustrated in both graphs, the short term justification for promoting the U-VC is prompt economic growth. Equally important, the reason that savings and investments in the VC are admonished is that they require discipline and a period of lesser growth, profits, and wages.

Debt-fueled consumption is an expedient measure to take when economic growth stalls and immediate economic recovery is demanded. While the marginal benefits of such action fade quickly, a longer-term policy that consistently encourages greater levels of debt and lower debt servicing costs can extend the beneficial economic effects for years, fooling many consumers, economists and business leaders into believing these activities are sustainable.

In the tables above, it takes almost seven years before consumption in the VC (Table 2) is greater than in U-VC (Table 1).  However, after that breakeven point, the benefits of a VC become evident as economic growth compounds at an increasing rate, quickly surpassing the stagnating trends occurring under the U-VC.

In the real world, VC or U-VC economies do not exist. Economies tend to exhibit characteristics of both cycles. In the United States, for example, some consumers and corporations are saving, investing, and generating productive economic gains. Productivity gains from years past are still providing benefits as well.  However, over the past 30 years, consumers have increasingly opted to borrow and consume in a Ponzi-like manner and neglect savings. In other words, the U.S. economy has increasingly favored “Ponzi” debt-fueled consumption and denied the benefits of savings and the VC. Then again, U.S. leadership has only encouraged these behavioral patterns through imprudent fiscal and monetary policies.

The U.S. and many other countries are once again approaching what has been deemed the Minsky Moment.  Similar to 2008, this is the point when debt becomes unserviceable and a sharp increase in defaults is unavoidable. Will the Federal Reserve be able to once again reignite “Ponzi” borrowing to suspend that outcome?

Summary

The U.S. and many other countries are forced to deal with the consequences of economic policy actions, borrowing, and consumption behaviors from years past. While the present economic situation is troubling, leadership is obligated to reflect on past choices and move forward with changes that are in the best interest of the country and its entire population. As our title suggests, we can continue to try to pull consumption forward and further harm future growth, or we can save and reward future generations with productivity gains resulting in greater economic growth and prosperity. 

Shifting direction, and “paying forward,” via more savings and investments and the deferral of some consumption, comes with immediate negative consequences to wages, profits, and economic growth. Nothing worth having is easy, as the saying goes. However, over time, the discipline is rewarded, and the economy can be on a more sustainable, prosperous path.

These economic concepts, tables, and graphs extend an accurate diagnosis of the “Death of the Virtuous Cycle.” They are intended to help investment managers better understand the costs and benefits of saving versus borrowing from a macroeconomic perspective. If successful in that endeavor, the substance of this article will afford managers better ideas about how to navigate a very uncertain investment landscape. The implications for the sustainability of economic growth and therefore long term asset returns are profound and the bedrock of all investment decisions.