The Economy Smells Like Roses

If you believe the government or the popular press, the economy is out of recession and everything is business as usual again. Last month there was an increase in jobs by 162,000, home sales jumped 8.2%, the Dow is now almost at 11,000 and interest rates are inching upwards  in recognition of the economic recovery. It’s all peaches and cream isn’t it!

Unfortunately, I don’t believe the government or the popular press. I like to look at the facts and draw my own conclusions. First of all, the 162,000 new jobs includes 48,000 temporary census jobs. What happens when these jobs go away? And compared to the millions of jobs lost, 162,000 jobs doesn’t feel like anything to celebrate in the first place.

According the Associated press, in February the pending home sales number jumped 8.2%. This is not year-over-year but rather from January to February. Don’t know if anyone remembers but it was awfully cold in January. Historically home sales slow down during winter, especially when you have pretty bad snowstorms. An 8% increase doesn’t sound like newsworthy at all.  Additionally, the government has been offering a ton of incentives to home buyers, which is probably just cannibalization of future home buying. From the California Association of Realtors:

Californians have a brief window of opportunity to receive up to $18,000 in combined federal and state home buyer tax credits.  To take advantage of both tax credits, a first-time home buyer must enter into a purchase contract for a principal residence before May 1, 2010, and close escrow between May 1, 2010 and June 30, 2010, inclusive.  Buyers who are not first-time home buyers may use the same time frames to receive up to $16,500 in combined tax credits if they are long-time residents of their existing homes as permitted under federal law, and they purchase properties that have never been previously occupied as provided under California law.

And why is the DOW on the verge of breaking 11,000? Is it the fact that the government spent around a trillion dollars propping up the economy or could it be that consumer spending is back? May be its consumer spending. After all, the malls seem full around here. But did you hear that 25% of homes in the US are underwater on the mortgage on 14% of all houses are in some state of default? Being in default means that the monthly mortgage payments are not being made. Doing some back of the envelope calculations, TraderMark was able to put a figure on these numbers. By not paying their mortgage, Americans have an extra $160 billion per year to spend on clothes, cars, vacations and other random stuff.  To see the numbers, check out this post on the hidden stimulus package. No wonder the retailers have been doing well!

And are the interest rates trending higher because the market expects a recovery? Or is it because it expects inflation? If you look at the number of people clamoring for TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities), the number is trending higher as well. Seems like people aren’t big believers of the US Government’s ability to curb long term inflation.

So what is it – peaches and cream or doom and gloom? The truth is somewhere in the middle. With the government willing to spend money (it doesn’t have) to keep stimulating the economy, it looks like the economy is recovering pretty well. But it cannot come without consequence. At some point someone will have to pay the price of all these bailouts and packages. It might be us, our children or foreign bond holders, but that day will come. Just make sure you invest accordingly.

Interesting Libertarian Rant Of The Week

This is an interesting rant on the equality of paying taxes by newsletter editor Porter Stansberry:

According to the federales themselves, the top 1% of wage earners in the United States earned more than $388,806 in 2006.

There were 1.65 million citizens in this category. As a group, they paid $488 billion in income taxes. That was 40% of all income taxes. But they only earned 22% of all wages. In short, the marginal tax rates on America’s top earners were almost 100% more than average. OBAMA! will increase the top rate these people pay – because paying 100% more than average just isn’t quite “fair” enough.

We might argue about whether or not we ought to charge some citizens different rates of income tax. But if you’ll take the time to read the U.S. Constitution, it’s clear that progressive taxation is unconstitutional. Just read the 14th Amendment. It says the government “may not deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” That means the law can’t treat one citizen differently from another – white or black, rich or poor.

If our Constitution weren’t merely a dead letter, the equal protection clause – which was designed to prevent black people from being discriminated against by southern states following the Civil War – would now effectively prevent a black president from “spreading the wealth around” as much as he sees fit. History is nothing if not ironic.

Even if you think progressive taxation is a good idea and redistributing income ought to be the government’s prerogative, I can tell you judging from history and the recent experiences of several different countries, when society expects 40% of the tax burden to be carried by only 1% of the population, bad things happen. The masses always demand too many services from the government – because they’re not paying for them. And, eventually, the 1% that’s paying leaves, quits working, or hides their income.

The result is always catastrophic, not only for the state but for the culture. Once people get used to living off the bounty of their neighbors, they’re reluctant to go back to work. And they’re angry about it. There’s not much more dangerous to society than lots of poor, angry, and desperate people who have become addicted to entitlements. Think unionized employees at Chrysler and GM. Welcome to Amerika.

At the present time, America’s income taxes are the most progressive of any major industrialized nation. That’s not a contest we should seek to win.

A lot of so called tax-reforms are anything but. Consider the introduction of the refundable tax credits, which looks like it will push America to follow Europe down the road of socialism!

The sad fact is that America is broke and the money required to pay interest on the money we’ve borrowed has to come from somewhere? Should we continue to “soak the rich”, or should everyone buckle-up and contribute their fair share? Or maybe we should just continue with business as usual and let our kids and grandkids deal with the consequences?

Interview With Warren Buffett

Addison Wiggin at Agora Financial sat down with Warren Buffett for an interview. He published that interview in his brand new book, I.O.U.S.A – One Nation. Under Stress. In Debt. On the whole, Buffett seems pretty optimistic. Here’s an excerpt:

On our national debt problems…

We’re transferring small bits of the country – ownership of the country, or IOUs – to the rest of the world. But our national pie is still growing.

We’re like a very, very, very, rich family that owns a farm the size of Texas, and we have all this output coming from the farm. Now, because we consume a little more than we produce, we’re selling bits of that farm daily, a couple billion worth. Or we’re giving a small mortgage on it which we don’t even notice, but it builds up over time.

So even though we own a little less of the farm, or we create these IOUs against it, our equity in the farm actually increases somewhat. That’s why people will benefit over time. But they won’t benefit as much as if they hadn’t given the IOUs or sold off little pieces of the farm.

On gold…

Over time, people have dug up gold from the ground in far remote areas and then they’ve shipped it thousands and thousands of miles. And they’ve put it in the ground over here and hired guards to stand over it. So the real utility of gold is not that high. It’s been something that people turn to, but it has not been a very good investment.

On China and globalization…

In 1790, there were about 4 million people in the U.S. and about 290 million in China. They were just as smart as we were. They had a climate that was about the same as ours. And yet we did enormously well over the next 217 years… as compared to China.

Now, why did we do that? Well, we had a market system, a rule of law, and equality of opportunity… and that system unleashed the potential of citizens in the United States to an extent far greater than in many countries including, up until recently, China.

About the risk of default of U.S. government bonds…

The U.S. government bond is absolutely certain to be paid. It’s just total nonsense when people talk about the U.S. going bankrupt. I mean, the U.S. government will always pay its debts. The purchasing power of the dollar you receive is likely to be less than the dollar you invested, so you have purchasing power risk… But you should not be afraid of government bonds in terms of being paid.

The unique situation in the U.S. now…

Many years ago, when we lent a lot of money to various emerging countries and were having trouble getting paid back, somebody said that they found it very hard to imagine some Philippine or Thailand worker spending a couple of extra hours every week in the hot sun merely so Citicorp could increase its dividend twice a year. At a point, people say, “To hell with it.”

It’s much easier just to inflate your way out of it. If you’re a South American or Asian country that owes money in dollars, it gets very binding to pay back in dollars. But if you owe it in your own currency, you just print more currency. And we have the ability to print currency. We can denominate debt in our own currency, whereas many countries can’t because people don’t trust them.

On government economic policies and crises…

We came fairly close to the whole system imploding in the 1930s because of economic conditions. People became very responsive to communism… When people are scared about economics, they’ll listen to whoever is the most persuasive… One thing I don’t like about the consequences of sustained large trade deficits is I think it makes the potential for demagoguery and really foolish policies more likely over time.

When you think about the history of this country, our economic policies have been pretty darn good. I mean, any country that delivers a seven-for-one increase in per capita living in a century has done an awful lot of things right. It’s never happened before in the history of mankind.

What the right policies are…

You want a system where Mike Tyson is fighting for the heavyweight championship and Jack Welch is running General Electric. But you don’t want Mike Tyson to be running General Electric and Jack Welch in the heavyweight championship. Government allocation of resources has tended, too often, to misallocate, and I think a market system does a pretty good job of allocating.

Wrapping up…

It’s been a marvelous time to be alive. It wasn’t really a whole lot better to live in the fourth century BC than the fourth century AD. But it’s been a lot better to live in the year 2007 than it was in the year 1807.

…Even those on the low end are doing far better than people on the high end were doing 100 years ago. There’re many, many things that a person earning a normal wage in this country can do and enjoy that John D. Rockefeller couldn’t do and enjoy. So a rising tide has lifted all the boats… The average American is going to live better 10 years from now, 20 years from now, and 50 years from now.

Manipulation In the Financial Markets

In July and August, the USD has actually become stronger against most other currencies, on apparently no news. Gold had also dropped as low as $790/oz from a high of $1030/oz this year, even though there is a shortage of physical gold in the US and the US mint had stopped selling gold coins like the American Gold Eagles. I was wondering if there was some manipulation going on in these markets.

Hedge fund manager John Lee thinks that gold prices are being manipulated in an effort to keep up the dollar afloat.

According to an article on Forbes, the central banks of the US, Europe and Japan planned in mid-March to prop up the US Dollar if it continued to slide.

Officials from the U.S. Treasury Department, Japan’s Finance Ministry and the European Central Bank reportedly drew up a currency contingency plan over the weekend of March 15-16.

The officials did not specify an exchange rate for initiating the dollar rescue plan, but in the event of a free-fall they agreed to aggressively buy the greenback and sell yen and euros.

Japan was to supply yen necessary for the underlying currency swaps. The plan also called for using a previously established swap mechanism between the United States and Europe.

Analysts said even though a rescue never took place, the fact that global monetary officials had agreed on action would be important in the future if the dollar were to tumble again or other exchange rates move very sharply.

Hmmm…who are these analysts and why should we trust what they say?

The Government and Wall Street has been less than forthright in the past. The CEO’s of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac said a few months ago that they’re in no danger, but Buffett just declared game over for those two.

I’m getting tired of the bankers and government interfering in the natural course of things. They’re bailing out some market participants to the detriment of the taxpayer. People aren’t facing any adverse effects for taking on insane amounts of risks. If it pans out, they give themselves a bonus. If not the US taxpayer bails them out! Effectively, they’re socializing losses while privatizing profits.

Fannie Mae’s CEO claims that they make housing affordable for millions of Americans. However, if they went bankrupt, there would not be money available for huge home loans and home prices would fall. THAT would make home prices more affordable. Yes, it would be difficult for people to get a mortgage to buy a home, but it would encourage regular saving and it would take longer for people to buy their first home. But in the long run, housing would be a lot cheaper with lower payments towards mortgage interest and thus lower effective home costs.

The fact that the two CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac took home $32 million last year while saddling the US Taxpayers with $500 Billion in losses means they can’t be trusted. If this isn’t outright theft, then at least it’s either gross misrepresentation, negligence or stupidity and they ought to refund their salaries, if not do serious jail time.

And talking about government manipulation, the Pakistani Government just introduced price controls on the most popular Karachi Stock Exchange Index. They got tired of watching the stock market drift lower every day, so until the officials decide otherwise, the KSE-100 cannot go below yesterday’s two-year low of 9,144!

Taxes Suck! (And so does Aurora Loan Services)

I hate taxes. And I hate filing them

For one I feel the government doesn’t know how to properly utilize the money it gets. Unlike Australia, where the budget is in a state of constant surplus, our illiterate politicians can’t add and are always running a deficit. And as a result, they always begging for more money.

Another issue is with the reporting of taxes due. As the owner of several rental properties, I get to claim the interest on the mortgage payments and the taxes I pay. The mortgage companies send out a 1098 form every year. Unfortunately they do 3 things that piss me off.

1. They keep selling the mortgages to other companies.
This means I not only have to keep track of the payments(which I automate through online bill pay), but now I get several 1098s for the same property.

2. They don’t print addresses on the 1098 statements.
This means I have no fricking clue which property the statement belongs to and I have to waste time matching up the statements with the properties based on 9 digit account numbers. (really irritating when you have 6 times as many statements as you do properties!)

3. They make stupid mistakes.
Occasionally, they’ll forget to include the amount of taxes paid or insurance paid. If you overlook that, you’re out that deduction. Yes, it looks like you made more money but thats a BAD thing at tax time!

If my Adjusted Gross Income[thats income after deductions) isnt’ under the federal guidelines for the poverty level, I’m pretty upset. And now the wife had to go get a job which totally pushed us out of the poverty level! I told her if our tax bracket went too high, I’d quit my job in protest! (Of course, that didn’t go down too well).

And whats up with the schedule D filling. The government wants me to file every single damn trade I placed??? Well ok, they don’t trust us to accurately report it, whcih is fine since we don’t trust the government to tell us the truth either. But why the hell can’t the brokerage firms provide a simple spreadsheet of the transactions? (without charging for it?). Its all computer-based trading and they all have the records in their databases.

I actually found out that Interactive Brokers (the company with the worst interface and lousiest customer service, but cheapest commissions) actually provides a prepared schedule D!!! Thats awfully nice of them.

Especially since Datek, Ameritrade, TDAmeritrade charges 10 times the commission and won’t provide it. Infact they got the 1099 wrong the first 3 times!

Anyway, I was up until 4:30 am doing my taxes. One of the mortgage companies fraudulently decided that my 5 year ARM was a 2 year ARM just because the date printed on the loan docs was wrong. The fact that they never offered a 2/1 ARM doesn’t matter. Aurora Loans got to screw me and the truth can be damned! Anyway, my new rate is now 10.3% on the 1st loan, and 9.5% on the 2nd loan!

Aurora also wanted nearly $10,000 to refinance a $250,000 loan! I went to Countrywide instead but they need to see my 2006 tax returns to fund the loan. Hence the rush to get the paperwork all done so my CPA can file it.

Anyway, thats it for this friday’s edition of The Weekly Rant!

Paris Hilton Gets A Nude Sculpture

Shock scupltor Daniel Edwards just released a Paris Hilton Autopsy Sculpture. She’s naked, wearing a prom-queen tiara, here legs spread open and has a cellphone in her hand. Her lovable doggie, tinkerbell is also featured. Its in pretty poor taste but he trys to put a positive spin on it by saying it’ll deter teenage drinking. (yeah, just like trailer-trash barbie deters promiscuity)
Anway, you can check out the picture and decide for yourself.

Daniel Edwards is most famous for his god-awful nude Britney Spears giving birth sculpture.

Mortgage Delinquencies

I got a Fedex today from my mortgage company. They sent me a letter stating that my mortgage was delinquent[no address, just an account number] and that they had tried calling me several times [yeah right!] and this was a final attempt to collect debt.

I called them up wondering which property this could possibly be on and after spending several minutes going through automated prompts I got a recorded message saying that my mortgage has been paid off in full.

Hmm…so yesterday I was delinquent when they overnighted it to me and today it was paid off in full? How moronic are these companies? With them selling a mortgage every 12 months its surprising they can even keep track of the payments!