Business Former Reagan Budget Director Despairs: ‘I Wouldn’t Touch the Stock Market With a 100-Foot Pole’
NEW YORK (AP/The Blaze) — He was an architect of one of the biggest tax cuts in U.S. history. He spent much of his career after politics using borrowed money to take over companies. He targeted the riskiest ones that most investors shunned — car-parts makers, textile mills.
That is one image of David Stockman, the former White House budget director who, after resigning in protest over deficit spending, made a fortune in corporate buyouts.
President Ronald Reagan with David Stockman
But spend time with him and you discover this former wunderkind of the Reagan revolution is something else — a scared investor who doesn’t own a single stock for fear of another financial crisis.
Stockman suggests you’d be crazy to hold anything but cash now, and maybe a few bars of gold. He thinks the Federal Reserve’s efforts to ease the pain from the collapse of our “national leveraged buyout” — his term for decades of reckless, debt-fueled spending by government, citizens, and companies — is pumping stock and bond markets to dangerous heights.
(Related: A Closer Look at the Jan. Jobless Numbers: Are They ‘Being Made Up?’)
Stockman may seem as exciting as an insurance actuary, but he knows how to tell a good story. And the punch line to this one is gripping. He says the numbers for the U.S. don’t add up to anything but a painful, slow-growing future.
Now 65 and gray, but still wearing his trademark owlish glasses, Stockman took time from writing his book about the financial collapse, “The Triumph of Crony Capitalism,” to talk to The Associated Press at his home in Greenwich, CT.
Here are excerpts from the AP interview [emphases added]:
Q: Why are you so down on the U.S. economy?
A: It’s become super-saturated with debt.
Typically, the private and public sectors would borrow $1.50 or $1.60 each year for every $1 of GDP growth. That was the golden constant. It had been at that ratio for 100 years save for some minor squiggles during the bottom of the Depression. By the time we got to the mid-’90s, we were borrowing $3 for every $1 of GDP growth. And by the time we got to the peak in 2006 or 2007, we were actually taking on $6 of new debt to grind out $1 of new GDP.People were taking $25,000, $50,000 out of their home for the fourth refinancing. That’s what was keeping the economy going, creating jobs in restaurants, creating jobs in retail, creating jobs as gardeners, creating jobs as Pilates instructors that were not supportable with organic earnings and income.
It wasn’t sustainable. It wasn’t real consumption or real income. It was bubble economics. So even the 1.6 percent (annual GDP growth in the past decade) is overstating what’s really going on in our economy.
Q: How fast can the U.S. economy grow?
A: People would say the standard is 3, 3.5 percent. I don’t even know if we could grow at 1 or 2 percent. When you have to stop borrowing at these tremendous rates, the rate of GDP expansion stops as well.
Q: But the unemployment rate is falling and companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 are making more money than ever.
A: That’s very short-term. Look at the data that really counts. The 131.7 million (jobs in November) was first achieved in February 2000. That number has gone nowhere for 12 years.
Another measure is the rate of investment in new plant and equipment. There is no sustained net investment in our economy. The rate of growth since 2000 (in what the Commerce Department calls non-residential fixed investment) has been 0.8 percent — hardly measurable.
(Non-residential fixed investment is the money put into office buildings, factories, software and other equipment.)
We’re stalled, stuck.
Q: What will 10-year Treasurys yield in a year or five years?
A: I have no guess, but I do know where it is now (a yield of about 2 percent) is totally artificial. It’s the result of massive purchases by not only the Fed but all of the other central banks of the world.
Q: What’s wrong with that?
A: It doesn’t come out of savings. It’s made up money. It’s printing press money. When the Fed buys $5 billion worth of bonds this morning, which it’s doing periodically, it simply deposits $5 billion in the bank accounts of the eight dealers they buy the bonds from.
David Stockman, Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, and Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors Murray Weidenbaum testify before the House Budget Committee in February 1982.
Q: And what are the consequences of that?
A: The consequences are horrendous. If you could make the world rich by having all the central banks print unlimited money, then we have been making a mistake for the last several thousand years of human history.
Q: How does it end?
A: At some point confidence is lost, and people don’t want to own the (Treasury) paper. I mean why in the world, when the inflation rate has been 2.5 percent for the last 15 years, would you want to own a five-year note today at 80 basis points (0.8 percent)?
If the central banks ever stop buying, or actually begin to reduce their totally bloated, abnormal, freakishly large balance sheets, all of these speculators are going to sell their bonds in a heartbeat.
That’s what happened in Greece.
Here’s the heart of the matter. The Fed is a patsy. It is a pathetic dependent of the big Wall Street banks, traders and hedge funds. Everything (it does) is designed to keep this rickety structure from unwinding. If you had a (former Fed Chairman) Paul Volcker running the Fed today 7/8— utterly fearless and independent and willing to scare the hell out of the market any day of the week — you wouldn’t have half, you wouldn’t have 95 percent, of the speculative positions today.
Q: You sound as if we’re facing a financial crisis like the one that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
A: Oh, far worse than Lehman. When the real margin call in the great beyond arrives, the carnage will be unimaginable.
Q: How do investors protect themselves? What about the stock market?
A: I wouldn’t touch the stock market with a 100-foot pole. It’s a dangerous place. It’s not safe for men, women or children.
Q: Do you own any shares?
Q: But the stock market is trading cheap by some measures. It’s valued at 12.5 times expected earnings this year. The typical multiple is 15 times.
A: The typical multiple is based on a historic period when the economy could grow at a standard rate. The idea that you can capitalize this market at a rate that was safe to capitalize it in 1990 or 1970 or 1955 is a large mistake. It’s a Wall Street sales pitch.
Q: Are you in short-term Treasurys?
A: I’m just in short-term, yeah. Call it cash. I have some gold. I’m not going to take any risk.
Q: Municipal bonds?
Q: No munis, no stocks. Wow. You’re not making any money.
A: Capital preservation is what your first, second and third priority ought to be in a system that is so jerry-built, so fragile, so exposed to major breakdown that it’s not worth what you think you might be able to earn over six months or two years or three years if they can keep the bailing wire and bubble gum holding the system together, OK? It’s not worth it.
Q: Give me your prescription to fix the economy.
A: We have to eat our broccoli for a good period of time. And that means our taxes are going to go up on everybody, not just the rich. It means that we have to stop subsidizing debt by getting a sane set of people back in charge of the Fed, getting interest rates back to some kind of level that reflects the risk of holding debt over time. I think the federal funds rate ought to be 3 percent or 4 percent. (It is zero to 0.25 percent.) I mean, that’s normal in an economy with inflation at 2 percent or 3 percent.
Q: Social Security?
A: It has to be means-tested. And Medicare needs to be means-tested. If you’re a more affluent retiree, you should have your benefits cut back, pay a higher premium for Medicare.
A: Let the Bush tax cuts expire. Let the capital gains go back to the same rate as ordinary income. (Capital gains are taxed at 15 percent, while ordinary income is taxed at marginal rates up to 35 percent.)
A: Why not? I mean, is return on capital any more virtuous than some guy who’s driving a bus all day and working hard and trying to support his family? You know, with capital gains, they give you this mythology. You’re going to encourage a bunch of more jobs to appear. No, most of capital gains goes to speculators in real estate and other assets who basically lever up companies, lever up buildings, use the current income to pay the interest and after a holding period then sell the residual, the equity, and get it taxed at 15 percent. What’s so brilliant about that?
Q: You worked for Blackstone, a financial services firm that focuses on leveraged buyouts and whose gains are taxed at 15 percent, then started your own buyout fund. Now you‘re saying there’s too much debt. You were part of that debt explosion, weren’t you?
A: Well, yeah, and maybe you can learn something from what happens over time. I was against the debt explosion in the Reagan era. I tried to fight the deficit, but I couldn’t. When I was in the private sector, I was in the leveraged buyout business. I finally learned a heck of a lot about the dangers of debt.
I’m a libertarian. If someone wants to do leveraged buyouts, more power to them. If they want to have a brothel, let them run a brothel. But it doesn’t mean that public policy ought to be biased dramatically to encourage one kind of business arrangement over another. And right now public policy and taxes and free money from the Fed are encouraging way too much debt, way too much speculation and not enough productive real investment and growth.
Q: Why are you writing a book?
A: I got so outraged by the bailouts of Wall Street in September 2008. I believed that Bush and (former Treasury Secretary Hank) Paulson were totally trashing the Reagan legacy, whatever was left, which did at least begin to resuscitate the idea of free markets and a free economy. And these characters came in and panicked and basically gave capitalism a smelly name and they made it impossible to have fiscal discipline going forward. If you’re going to bail out Wall Street, what aren’t you going to bail out? So that started my re-engagement, let’s say, in the policy debate.
Q: Are you hopeful?
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
A Closer Look at the Jan. Jobless Numbers: Are They ‘Being Made Up?’
February 7, 2012 by Becket Adams
You may recall that major media outlets rejoiced and the markets jumped last Friday when the January jobs report was released.
“Labor Department today lowered the U.S. unemployment rate by two-tenths of a point to 8.3 percent, the lowest it’s been since February 2009,” Emily Knapp of Wall St. Cheat reported, “January data showed nonfarm payrolls to have risen a whopping 243,000, wildly exceeding even the most optimistic of economists’ projections.”
However, although the markets did indeed react positively to the good news, many analysts were skeptical of the data in the report.
“A month ago, we joked when we said that for Obama to get the unemployment rate to negative by election time, all he has to do is to crush the labor force participation rate to about 55 [percent],” editors at Zero Hedge wrote.
“Looks like the good folks at the BLS heard us: it appears that the people not in the labor force exploded by an unprecedented record 1.2 million. No, that’s not a typo: 1.2 million people dropped out of the labor force in one month!”
What does this mean?
Zero Hedge explains:
So as the labor force increased from 153.9 million to 154.4 million, the non institutional population increased by 242.3 million meaning, those not in the labor force surged from 86.7 million to 87.9 million. Which means that the civilian labor force tumbled to a fresh 30 year low of 63.7% as the BLS is seriously planning on eliminating nearly half of the available labor pool from the unemployment calculation.
Even conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the report, claiming that the data was “corrupt as it can be” because the Labor Force Participation Rate has been repeatedly adjusted.
Is Limbaugh out of line on this?
“After countless attempts to discredit or defend Friday’s jobs report, we can all agree on one thing: The data is complicated,” Gus Lubin of Business Insider writes. “So complicated that the BLS could make the economy look better than it was and no one would be sure.”
That’s more or less what David Stockman, former budget director for President Ronald Reagan, wrote in an email to former hedge fund manager Bruce Krasting.
On his blog “My Take on Financial Events,” Krasting wrote, “Is the current [Labor Force Participation Rate] a temporary phenomenon, or is this the ‘New Normal?’”
Krasting believes that if the current Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) is the “new normal,” it could have severe – even dangerous – effects on the economy.
“Virtually all of the economic models used by CBO, OMB, SSA and private economists are assuming that the long-term LFPR will be in the mid-to upper 60s. The consensus is 2-3 [percent] higher than where it is today,” Krasting writes.
“If you plug in a rate of 63 [percent] versus 67 [percent] over the next ten-years, it makes a huge difference on the size of the deficit and the public debt. It would cause the deficits at Social Security and Medicare to explode. The percentage of GDP attributable to the government would inevitably rise. The economy, and society in general, would be socialized [emphasis added],” Krasting writes.
In response to Krasting’s criticism of the jobs report, Stockman writes: “…if you spend a little time with these numbers you will know that they are being made up.”
Here’s the email (via Wall Street Examiner):
…I’m wondering if this goes much deeper. I don’t particularly believe in tin foil hats, but all of these mainstream economists treat the BLS and BEA data like it’s holy writ—when it’s evident that the reports are so massaged, estimated, deemed, revised, re-bench marked and seasonally adjusted that any month-to-month change has a decent chance of being noise. What deep secret might they be hiding?
So on the labor force participation rate they say, “No it didn’t go down in January because the 2012 numbers are re-bench marked for the 2010 census,” but for some reason the BLS didn’t bother to update the 2011 civilian population numbers, including December. Thus, the BLS published apples-to-oranges numbers on this particular variable and the footnote says the December participation rate would have been the same as January, if they had revised it!
Yet on another variable— the establishment survey jobs count—they were also busy re-benchmarking–but here they did update the originally reported numbers for every month of 2011. Even then, it is hard to say what got updated because the originally reported numbers each month are then revised during the next two reporting months—with any excess or shortfall reallocated to earlier months outside the three month window, which are not published on a revised basis, even though they have been revised! This reflects a wacko thing called the concurrent seasonal adjustment method.
… your point is that the longer-term trend of the labor force participation rate is really bad, and this truth is absolutely validated by the January report. Except it would have been equally bad in December had it been reported with the new census data…
But the mainstream narrative never gets to the trend. In this case, the plain fact is that we are warehousing a larger and larger population of adults who are one way or another living off transfer payments, relatives, sub-prime credit, and the black market. My suspicion is that this negative trend and many others like it get buried by the monthly change chatter from mainstream economists and on bubble vision, and that these monthly deltas are so heavily manipulated as to be almost a made-up reality. Call it the economists’ Truman Show.
In short, if you spend a little time with these numbers you will know that they are being made up. Funny thing that I remember during the depths of the 1982 recession Reagan read in Human Events one night that the seasonally adjusted numbers were being manipulated and one should look at the unadjusted numbers, instead. The next morning during an economic update briefing Reagan said, he wanted to talk about the “unadjusted” unemployment rate. Marty Feldstein turned white as a ghost, and then talked him out of it. Hmmm!