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Weekend Reading: Ignorance Is No Excuse

Written by Lance Roberts | Dec, 15, 2017

The “tax bill cometh.” According to the press, this is going to be the single biggest factor to jump-starting economic growth since the invention of the wheel.

Interestingly, even the Fed’s economic projections are suggesting that economic growth will pick up over the next two years from the impact of tax cuts. (Chart is the average of the range of the Fed’s estimates.)

Of course, you should note the Federal Reserve has NEVER accurately forecasted future economic growth. In fact, it has become an annual tradition of over-estimating growth and then slowly ratcheting down estimates as reality failed to achieve overly optimistic assumptions.

However, despite the Administrations hopes of long-term economic growth rates of 3% or more, in order to pay for the deficits created by cutting revenue, even the Fed has maintained their long-run outlook of less that 2% annualized growth. (Down from 2.7% in 2011) Hardly the supportive stamp of endorsement for the “greatest tax cut” of all-time.

But for economic growth to blossom, the consumer will have to pull their weight given consumption makes up roughly 70% of GDP. The problem, as witnessed by the latest retail sales report, is that consumptive spending is far weaker than headlines suggest.

On Thursday, the retail sales report for November clicked up 0.8%. Good news, right?

Not so fast.

First, sales of gasoline, which directly impacts consumers ability to spend money on other stuff, rose sharply due to higher oil prices and comprised 1/3rd of the increase. Secondly, building products also rose sharply from the ongoing impact of rebuilding from recent hurricanes and fires. Again, this isn’t healthy longer-term either as replacing lost possessions drags forward future consumptive capacity.

But what the headlines miss is the growth in the population. The chart below shows retails sales divided by those actually counted as part of the labor force. (You’ve got to have a job to buy stuff, right?) 

As you can see, retail sales per labor force participant was on a 5% annualized growth trend beginning in 1992. However, after the financial crisis, the gap below that long-term trend has yet to be filled as there is a 22.7% deficit from the long-term trend. (If we included the entirety of the population, given the number of people outside of the labor force that are still consuming, the trajectory would be worse.)

But wait, retail sales were really strong in November?

Again, not so fast.

The chart below shows the annual % change of retail sales per labor force participant. The trend has been weakening since the beginning of 2017 and shows little sign of increasing currently.

While tax cuts may provide a temporary boost to after-tax incomes, that income will simply be absorbed by higher energy, gasoline, health care and borrowing costs. This is why, 80% of Americans continue to live paycheck-to-paycheck and have little saved in the bank. It is also why, as wages have continued to stagnate, that the cost of living now exceeds what incomes and debt increases can sustain.

Yes, corporations will do well under the “tax reform” plan, and while the average American may well see an increase in take-home pay, it will unlikely change their financial situation much. As a result, economic growth will likely remain weak as the deficit expands to $1 Trillion over the next couple of years and Federal debt marches toward $32 trillion. As noted by the CFRB

“Fiscal conservatives on the right have lost a massive amount of credibility based on the GOP budget they passed this year. After many years of calling for a budget that cut spending, reformed entitlements, controlled the debt and balanced the budget, they failed to enact even one of those goals when they finally had a chance.

Out of a possible $47 trillion in spending over 10 years, the budget called for cutting an utterly pathetic $1 billion. Their fiscal credibility died with a whimper. I doubt that credibility can be regained, but it seems quite likely that some of the more conservative GOP members will call for letting the sequester hit.”

So, when someone acts astonished that things didn’t work out as planned…just remind them that “ignorance is no excuse.” 

Just something to think about as you catch up on your weekend reading list.


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Lance Roberts is a Chief Portfolio Strategist/Economist for Clarity Financial. He is also the host of “The Lance Roberts Show” and Chief Editor of the “Real Investment Advice” website and author of “Real Investment Daily” blog and “Real Investment Report“. Follow Lance on Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In

2017/12/15
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