Thursday, April 30, 2015

Big Tex

Everything is big in Texas.

Credit: Dallas Morning News

The geography of the state.

The economy.

The number of people.

The attitude of the people.

The size of the interstate interchanges.

I-10/Beltway 8 interchange

I have been in Texas this week with limited time to write but I had to pass on some interesting stats that I came across in a suburban Houston newspaper which support those statements.

There were only two metro areas in the entire United States in the 2013-2014 time period that added more than 100,000 in population.

They were Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth.

The Lone Star State also had four metro areas among the nation's 20 fastest growing in population by the rate of population change---Austin (3rd), Odessa (4th), Midland (9th) and Houston (11th).

Of course, that population growth has been driven by the economy. People have been moving to Texas for jobs.

Texas added 458,000 jobs during 2014 according to this report by Pew. That was a 4% increase in jobs in percentage terms. Only North Dakota had higher percentage job growth at 5.42%.

Of course, no other state matched Texas in the absolute number of jobs created. By comparison, the percentage leader North Dakota, only added 25,000 jobs for its 5.42% job growth.

Population and job growth also drive further economic growth.  An estimated 3.71 million square feet of new retail shopping center space will be built and opened in Greater Houston this year.
That is a 57% increase from 2014 retail shopping growth.

What does that mean in terms that are easier to understand?

32 new grocery stores. HEB will add seven. Kroger will open four. Wal Mart will open another four.

Wal Mart will also open a new 180,000sf SuperStore.

Five new movie theaters.

Three new Academy sporting goods stores.

And the list goes on.

Of course, population, job and economic growth also spurs additional traffic.

I-10 West of Houston near Gessner Road and Beltway 8 now spans 26 lanes across---the widest highway in Texas (and the world according to this story).

327,000 vehicles traverse that stretch of highway every day.

A little west of that area, in the so-called Energy Corridor, cranes fill the sky as additional office space continues to go up and a substantial number of luxury apartments are being built.

A large part of all this growth can be traced back to the energy sector. Now that oil prices have fallen, will the Houston (and Texas) economy falter as well?

I was in Austin this week as well and you see much of the same building boom in that city which is not known for its same close connection to the energy economy.  State government, education and technology are big factors in that economy.

This was the view from my 21st floor hotel room in Austin. It is amazing the amount of construction that has taken place in downtown Austin the last few years. A lot of has been high residential and big hotels.

I stayed in the JW Marriott that just opened two months ago. It has 1,012 rooms making it one of the larger hotels in the country. The building in the center of the picture is the Austonian which is a 56 story condo---the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi. The 360 Condominiums is in the background to the right of the Austonian. It has 44 floors.

All seven of the tallest buildings in Austin (all at least 30 stories tall) have been built since 2004.

Big oil has had a lot to do with the growth of the Texas economy. However, you cannot discount the effect that the tax structure (no personal income tax), a favorable business climate (fewer regulations) and sensible state spending (48th out of 50 states in per capita state spending) have had in promoting the economic growth that Texas has experienced in recent years.

It will be interesting to see how well the Texas economy can withstand lower oil prices. My guess is that they will feel some pain but it is much better positioned to deal with the effects of a slowdown in the oil patch than it was in the 1980's.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Most human beings are conformists and are heavily influenced by others in their peer group. Whether its teen-age girls wearing the same hairstyle, college students wearing North Face jackets, or senior citizens playing Bingo on Friday night, it just seems to be in our genes.

There are sound anthropological reasons to conform. Primitive man survived by living and hunting together. Those that didn’t cooperate got kicked out of the group and had to fend for themselves. Most of these non-conformists did not survive. The conformists survived and propagated the species. So it remains that most of us are strongly influenced by what others do.

Why does this matter?  Because when you combine the rule of supply and demand with the tendency of humans to run with the crowd, you have the basic elements that move markets. Add our inherent greed and fear and you have “the madness of crowds,” the term coined by author Charles Mackay in his book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Mackay’s book is one of the best at explaining the psychological aspects surrounding money and the pursuit of wealth.  What makes it so interesting is that the lessons are so enduring. Just reading the first three chapters will prove the point. Of course, those 100 pages may be a bit hard to digest because of Mackay’s writing style. He wrote Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds in 1842!

Writing style notwithstanding, what you quickly realize is that even as the world changes constantly, human beings have changed very little in how we act or react to money.

Mackay wrote in the preface to the book’s second edition published in 1852,

“Money, again, has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes.  Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper. To trace the history of the most prominent of these delusions is the object of the present pages. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”  (emphasis added in bold)

This being April our attention naturally turns to tulips. There is nothing more beautiful on an early Spring day as this photo I took in downtown Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago will attest.

Seeing tulips every Spring reminds me of the Tulipmania craze that MacKay wrote about in his book.

The Tulipmania craze that overtook Holland in the 1600s provides the best understanding of how masses of people can so easily get caught up in a market driven by greed and the "madness of crowds" without any consideration of logic and common sense.

Tulipmania?  Ordinary tulips?  Why would anyone go mad about a tulip bulb?  That’s why the Tulipmania story is such an eye-opening lesson.

Tulips were introduced into Western Europe around 1560. They originated near Constantinople where it is said the tulip got its name from the Turkish word for turban. Tulips soon were prized possessions of the wealthy and quickly became a status symbol in their gardens, especially in Germany and Holland. The status of the tulip kept growing in the early 1600s until it reached a point where a man of means had to collect tulips or be considered totally devoid of good taste.  Rare species of the tulip were in high demand as the rich sought to impress their friends.

Shortly, the status that accompanied owning tulip bulbs caught the attention of the middle class. Even those of modest means wanted to own tulip collections. Status symbols were just as important in the 17th century as they are today. Of course, as demand grew with each new purchaser, the price of the available tulip bulbs rose higher and higher. This further reinforced the exulted status of owning tulips as well as further escalating prices as more buyers vied for the limited supply.  This, in turn, attracted more people to the market, drawn by the enormous profits being made by their friends and neighbors.

By 1634 Tulipmania had such a grip on Holland that practically everyone in the country was involved in some way with the tulip trade.  Ordinary business and trade became secondary. It was not uncommon for many to invest a fortune of 100,000 florins to buy 40 tulip bulb roots (i.e. 2,500 florins per bulb).

How much was a florin worth?  The following example from Mackay’s book, in which a rare Viceroy tulip bulb was bought for 2,500 florins, shows the number and type of products that could have been purchased for the same amount of money.

Credit: Captum Capital Ltd.

Foolish? We would absolutely say it was.

However, it did not seem foolish to the many who were trading in tulips at the time.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is this one.

"There is nothing more dangerous to your wealth than watching your neighbor getting rich."

This is how Warren Buffett explains it.
“People don’t get smarter about things that get as basic as greed,”  “You can’t stand to see your neighbor getting rich. You know you’re smarter than he is, but he’s doing all these [crazy] things, and he’s getting rich…so pretty soon you start doing it.”
Of course, eventually everyone that wanted a tulip bulb (or 40), had them. At that point logic started to interfere. Those that had purchased tulip bulbs started to wonder what the bulb would do for them? It was nice that they would bloom once a year but what else could it do to put money in their pocket?

Suddenly it became difficult to find a buyer if you wanted to sell your tulip bulb. Everyone that wanted one had one. Prices starting dropping as more and more people wanted to sell. Panic set in and prices plummeted. The same factors that drove prices up now drove them down.  “The Madness of Crowds” works both ways. People came to their senses "slowly one by one" as Mackay observed.

This is how the chart of the up and down of Gouda tulip bulbs eventually turned out.

Credit: Elliott Wave International

Note that Elliott Wave International put this chart together in 1999, undoubtedly as a cautionary tale for investors who were riding the internet stock bubble that later crashed in 2000.

Those investors also saw their neighbors get rich and and thought they could ride the internet wave to their own riches. Many drowned and were washed away when the bubble burst and the wave crashed.

Internet Stock Index $IIX (1998-2003)

Unfortunately, the bloom can quickly come off of the rose, tulips and other things.

This is a picture of the same tulip bed, in the same park, only seven days after the image above was taken earlier this month.

Remember tulips and the madness of crowds and you will have a much better chance of holding on to your money.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Does The Constitution Mean Anything Anymore?

There was a time when the Constitution meant something.  It was respected for what it was.  So were the limitations that were carefully crafted into the document by the Framers.  Even when there was pretty compelling language in the Constitution to bend it to the "current times" it was ruled out of bounds.  Has something been lost?

Most definitely if you see what the Courts have done in recent years.  In particular, on the issue of gay marriage where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that restricting the U.S. federal interpretation of "marriage" and "spouse" to apply only to heterosexual unions, by Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), was unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Bear in mind that the DOMA had passed Congress 342-67 in the House and 82-14 in the Senate in addition to be signed into law by Democrat President Bill Clinton in September, 1996. This was not even a close call considering that the legislation merely codified established culture, custom and what was considered a constitutional norm from the beginning of the Republic for some 200 years.

It is mind boggling to think that our Judiciary would believe that it is within their power to effectively legislate from the bench on such an important issue thereby ignoring both the legislative and constitutional process and do it all within a 17 year period.  This is a mere speck of time in historical terms and is with almost no precedent in constitutional terms.

This is particularly true when it is observed what various federal courts have done with regard to the issue at the state level.

In 26 states, gay marriage is only legal because of court decision.  In many of these states the Courts overturned a valid constitutional provision of the state voted on by the people of the state.

Alabama* (Feb. 9, 2015), Alaska (Oct. 17, 2014), Arizona (Oct. 17, 2014), California (June 28, 2013), Colorado (Oct. 7, 2014), Connecticut (Nov. 12, 2008), Florida (Jan. 6, 2015), Idaho (Oct. 13, 2014), Indiana (Oct. 6, 2014), Iowa (Apr. 24, 2009), Kansas (Nov. 12, 2014), Massachusetts (May 17, 2004), Montana (Nov. 19, 2014), Nevada (Oct. 9, 2014), New Jersey (Oct. 21, 2013), New Mexico (Dec. 19, 2013), North Carolina (Oct. 10, 2014), Oklahoma (Oct. 6, 2014), Oregon (May 19, 2014), Pennsylvania (May 20, 2014), South Carolina (Nov. 20, 2014), Utah (Oct. 6, 2014), Virginia (Oct. 6, 2014), West Virginia (Oct. 9, 2014), Wisconsin (Oct. 6, 2014), Wyoming (Oct. 21, 2014)

Only 8 states have had gay marriage legalized by their state legislature.

Delaware (July 1, 2013), Hawaii (Dec. 2, 2013), Illinois (June 1, 2014), Minnesota (Aug. 1, 2013), New Hampshire (Jan. 1, 2010), New York (July 24, 2011), Rhode Island (Aug. 1, 2013), Vermont (Sep. 1, 2009)

Only 2 states (and the District of Columbia) have approved gay marriage by popular vote of the people.

Maine (Dec. 29, 2012), Maryland (Jan. 1, 2013), Washington (Dec. 9, 2012)


Therefore, in only 10 out of 50 state has same sex marriage been approved by anything close to constitutional standards.

Compare that to other significant constitutional issues in our history.

For example,

Abolition of Slavery
President Lincoln had effectively abolished slavery through his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 but he still believed in the necessity of following Constitutional standards and proposing the 13th Amendment which reads "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Lincoln's effort in this regard is the subject of the 2012 movie "Lincoln".  Why did he see the need to go though all of that effort when it could have been done by the Courts or by letting his Emancipation Proclamation do the job? He did it because he wanted the legitimacy of the process. 

Income Tax
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution provides that Congress has the power to lay and collect taxes. Nevertheless, the income tax law of 1892 was ruled unconstitutional because it was considered outside the power of Congress.  The 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913 to allow the establishment of an income tax.

Women's Right to Vote
There was nothing in the Constitution signed by the framers that precluded women from voting.  All references in the document were to people, not men.  However, the culture and custom was generally for only males to vote.  Nevertheless, it took the 19th Amendment in 1920 before it became the law of the land.  

Interestingly, 15 states (beginning with Wyoming in 1870) granted women the right to vote before adoption of the 19th Amendment.  Since voter eligibility was an issue left to the states (in that it was not specifically enumerated in the Constitution by the Framers) women in these states voted in both state and federal elections before 1920.

Equal Rights Amendment
Similarly, a substantial effort was made in the 1970's to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to state that "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."  Why go through the effort if a court could just make a ruling? The amendment ultimately failed as only 35 of the 38 states needed to ratify the amendment signed on. 

Was the U.S.Constitution designed to change with time? Of course. That is what the amendment process is for (Article V).  The Framers in their wisdom also considered this carefully.  They did not want it amended for some passing fancy.

Nor did they want a small majority to change the key foundations of the governing document to the detriment of a significant minority.  Therefore, 2/3 of both the House and Senate can come together and propose any amendment.  They do not even need the President to concur.  Alternatively, 2/3 of the states can come together and call a convention to propose their own amendments and bypass Congress completely.  If the amendment is ratified by 3/4 of the states it is adopted as part of the Constitution.

If the American people want a federal government with expansive power they can have it. They can allow gay marriage. Or ban it in all 50 states. They can require everyone to buy health insurance or anything else.  They can ban assault weapons or ban abortions from coast to coast.  There is a way to do it.

It just does not seem that these types of powers exist with the President or Congress with any reasonable reading of the Constitution.  At least, this has been the interpretation for most of our history. Nor does it seem to be within the power of a handful of judges to suddenly discover fundamental rights that have somehow been hidden in the Constitution for over 200 years and start applying them to over 300 million citizens by fiat.

That is why there is an amendment process to the Constitution.  It is hard and it was meant to be hard.

Next week the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether state bans to same sex marriage violate the U.S. Constitution.

It should not even be a close case if the Justices look to the plain reading of the Constitution, the clear intent of the Founders and the historical perspective I have provided above.

For example, this is what James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 45 regarding the power of the Federal government.
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.

With this background, how could the federal government believe it could dictate to a state's citizens its view on gay marriage? How is gay marriage any different than the right of women to vote?

It should also be remembered that Alexander Hamilton was a vocal critic of enacting the Bill of Rights because he believed that articulating specific restrictions on federal power was opening the door for mischief. He felt it was clear that the default position of the federal government was an absence of power, and any specific power existed only by grant from the Constitution. In effect, the Bill of Rights would work against the people, not for them.

Thus, he wrote in Federalist Paper No. 84 as follows,

[A Bill of Rights] would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?

I remain uncertain and unconvinced about the benefits to society of same sex marriage. That case has yet to be made in my opinion but I am open to facts supporting its value as might be revealed over time. However, I am certain about the wisdom of our Forefathers.

What I know for sure is the rush to sanctify same sex marriage was exactly the type of thing that the Founders did not want to do in haste. They certainly did not want the federal government overturning 220 years of history and precedent counter to the views and values of the various states.

The right answer is for the Supreme Court to let the individual states determine the legality of gay marriage within their borders and determine its effects, pro or con.

When and if it has true national support, begin the constitutional amendment process.

This is not an issue that should be decided by 9 (or 5) Justices.

This is the Constitution we are talking about.

Does it mean anything anymore?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Million A Minute

The federal government is projected to collect $3.3 trillion in tax and other receipts this year.

Of course, that is not enough to balance the budget.

Spending is projected to be $3.9 trillion. That leaves a deficit of around $600 billion.

We are often told that we simply are not taxing people enough (especially "the rich").

However, federal tax receipts in 2015 are over 40% higher than they were 10 years ago in constant dollars (adjusted for inflation).  In other words, taxes have kept up with inflation and risen by another 40% on top of that since 2005.

Total U.S. government debt was $7.9 trillion in 2005.

We were adding  $1 million of additional debt per minute in 2005.

Total U.S. government debt is projected to be $18.7 trillion by the end of the 2015 fiscal year.

We have added almost $11 trillion in federal debt in 10 years!

Gross interest on Treasury debt securities on that debt will total an estimated $455 billion for the year.

We are very close to now paying $1 million of interest per minute on our federal debt in 2015. (actually $866,000 per minute, but close enough).

That's right, 10 years ago we were accruing $1 million of additional debt per minute.

Today we are accruing $1 million of additional interest expense per minute.

What is most troubling is that we have reached that level of interest costs despite the fact that the federal government is paying an average interest rate on its borrowings that is currently below 2.4%.

It has never been lower in the history of the republic.

What happens if interest rates rise to a range of 4%-5%, which would still be low based on historical averages?

Interest costs would double and gross interest costs on the debt would begin to approach $1 trillion per year.

What if interest rates on public debt increased to something closer to the long-term average of 6.8%?

That would add $800 billion of annual interest costs to the federal budget and require $1.25 trillion in federal receipts to just pay the interest expense on the debt.

Let's put that it in context.

Total projected individual income tax receipts for 2014 were $1.4 trillion. That means that individual income taxes would have to be increased by over 50% to just pay for interest on the federal debt. Of course, taxpayers would receive absolutely nothing in return. The interest would merely be paying for past spending with no current benefits.

If you don't like the idea of raising taxes to cover the added interest cost, how about cutting something in the budget to pay for it?

The Defense budget this year is $631 billion. You could cut the entire amount and still not have enough to pay the increased interest bill.

You don't want to do that?  How about Medicare? $532 billion. Still not enough by itself.

The fact is that you could cut out the largest single item in the federal budget (Social Security Old-Age and Survivor Benefits) at $748 billion and still not be able to cover this increase in interest costs.

A million a minute in interest costs?

It will not take long for it to be $2 million a minute. Then $4 million. $8 million. $16 million.

This is a chart prepared by Daniel Amerman where he modeled US debt outstanding if the annual deficit stays flat at $342 billion per year and compares the effect of different interest rates--the current average rate of 2.4% compared to the 7.4% average rates that we had from the mid-1970's to 1999.

Credit: Daniel Amerman, CFA

Compound interest pounds you if you are on the wrong side of the interest curve.

I hope we can all take a punch.

Note: All the data above (except for average interest rates on U.S. Treasury Debt is from Fiscal 2015 Historical Tables of the Budget of the U.S. Government published by the Office of Management and Budget.

Monday, April 13, 2015

What Is A Fair Tax?

April 15 means one is tax time.

I recently came across a paper on "Fairness and Tax Policy" that was prepared by the staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation that provides data on the current and historical distribution of income and taxes in the United States.

Fairness is an elusive concept that means different things to different people. One's view of fairness has a lot to do with an individual's perspective. 

If you have something that I don't have, I see that as unfair.

However, if I worked hard for something and you did nothing, it seems imminently fair to me to not share anything with you.

Then again, if you were unable to contribute because of an infirmity or disability, I might consider it fair to share some of my hard work and good fortune with you.

When it comes to taxation, two broad principles of fairness have generally been recognized over time by economists and political philosophers.

The Benefit Principle-taxes are levied in relationship to the benefits received by government. The gasoline tax is an example of this. The more you drive, the more you use in gasoline, the more you pay in taxes to assist in supporting highway construction and maintenance.

The Ability to Pay Principle-taxes are levied on those with the greatest ability to pay. The income tax is the most obvious example. However, sales taxes are also based on this principle with the ability to pay being based on a measure of spending rather than income.

Let's look at "Ability to Pay" under the federal income tax system based on the distribution or income and taxes (and average tax rates) for the 2015 tax year as estimated by the Staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation.

A few observations about the data.

  • Those making $50,000 or less earn amounts equal to 16.2% of all the income generated in the United States but their share of the income tax burden is -5.7%. Through refundable tax credits they not only pay no income tax but are actually receiving additional income through the income tax! 

  • The net income tax burden for those making less than $50,000 is actually a negative $76.5 billion. Of course, that money has to come from other taxpayers.

  • To put that in perspective, that is over half of all the income tax paid by those making between $50,000 and $100,000. Those middle class taxpayers probably think that their taxes are going to pay for federal government. The reality is that more than half of what is withheld from their paycheck could be viewed as a direct payment to another individual. That is what I mean when I write about "The Redistribution of America".

  • 26.7% of all income comes from those making $100,000 to $200,000. These taxpayers are also roughly paying the same share of all income taxes (23.1%). When the general public is polled on this subject, this is what most people consider as "fair". Your income taxes should roughly equal your ability to pay. No more or no less.

  • At levels above $200,000 in income that tax burden becomes very progressive and, some might argue, punitive. Tax burdens are much, much higher than income shares beginning at this level of income and higher under our income tax system.

  • 574,000 Americans file tax returns showing more than $1 million in income. This is 13.7% of all income earned but millionaire earners pay 37.1% of all of the income tax. Thank goodness for them!

Another interesting fact from the report is that the top quintile of taxpayers in 2011 was paying an incredible 88% of all federal income tax liabilities. In 1980, the top 20% was paying just 65% of total federal income taxes collected.

What is fair?

All I know is that you probably think you paid too much or your refund was not big enough this year.

Your view is influenced first and foremost by you.

If you are one of the 20% of all taxpayers who are paying 88% of the total income tax burden, I feel your pain.

If you are one of the 80% who is carrying the other 12% of the total tax burden, you might want to consider the facts above. And say thanks to someone who makes a little more hay.

Especially on tax day.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Nowhere To Hide

I came across this interesting perspective on the camera industry last week.

This is a chart showing the number of cameras produced worldwide between 1947 and 2014. The data was put together by Heino Hilbig of Mayflower Concepts who for many years headed up marketing for camera giants Canon and Olympus.

In 1,000 of Units
Credit: Mayflower Concepts

Note that in 1975 camera production was approximately 5 million units. These would have been traditional cameras that required film (and developing).

By 1998, traditional camera production was approaching 40 million units. By 2005, cameras that required film were completely gone

Digital cameras were introduced to consumers in 1999 and this new technology led to millions of new cameras in the market. By 2010 there were 120 million digital cameras being produced.

This change in technology and the effects it had on the film market were devastating to Kodak. It was even more painful when it is considered that Eastman Kodak had invented the first digital camera in 1975.

However, the company shelved the idea because of concerns that it would hurt their lucrative film business.

That decision did not work out very well for Kodak's shareholders or employees.

This graph shows the growth in Eastman Kodak's stock price from 1962 until it peaked in 1997. And its precipitous fall with the introduction of digital cameras leading to its bankruptcy in 2012.

The $28 billion in stockholder value and the 140,000 jobs that Kodak had at its peak were completely wiped out.

However, the digital camera wave that surged so quickly has also fallen just as fast.

Production of digital cameras dropped from 120 million units to 40 million in just four years with the introduction of smartphones that came with a built-in camera (not to mention a digital video camera as well).

If you take the prior chart on cameras and merge it with the number of smartphones that have been produced with a camera, the graph now looks like this thanks to the efforts of Sven Skafisk.

Credit: Sven Skafisk and

That's 40 million cameras and about 1.25 billion smartphones (with a camera) that were produced just in 2014.

There is nowhere to hide.

From advances in technology. As Kodak found out

Or to escape the lens of camera that is out there looking for you.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Appomattox + 150

150 years ago today General Ulysses Grant of the Union Army accepted the surrender of the Confederate Army by General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

I visited Appomattox a few years ago and toured the grounds and the house where the formal surrender document was signed. What struck me was how small the parlor was where Grant met Lee.

Here is the McLean farmhouse as it looked in April, 1865.


This is what it looks like today.

Most students learn how important Washington and Lincoln were to American history. However, Grant's contributions are not as well known. They should be.

That day 150 years ago in Appomattox revealed a lot about the man Grant was in the dignity and respect in which he dealt with General Lee and the Confederate Army.

It is worth revisiting this blog post I wrote from a couple of years ago to get to know Grant better.

Where are the leaders like Grant today?

They are no where near Washington, D.C. that I can see.

Where is our U.S. Grant? (originally published 12/26/2012)

I just finished reading Jean Edward Smith's biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  He was a remarkable man. There is little doubt that if it were not for Grant and Lincoln we most likely would not have saved the Union. Grant was also a very underrated President.

What struck me most in reading the book were the vast differences in life experiences when comparing Barack Obama to U.S. Grant before they were elected President of the United States.  Grant was actually one year younger (age 46) than Obama when he took office.  However, Grant seemed to have had three lifetimes of experiences before he ever set foot in the White House.

Born in Point Pleasant, Ohio in 1822, from an early age Grant had an enduring affinity for horses. He had an uncanny ability to train horses and his riding skills were unsurpassed.  When he was at West Point he was considered one of the greatest riders ever at the Academy. It was about the only area in which he excelled at the U.S Military Academy.  He finished 21st among 39 who graduated in 1843.  He ranked 28th in infantry tactics.

He saw combat in the Mexican-American War in which he was away from home (and his fiance, Julia) for almost three years. He married Julia in 1848 and stayed in the Army only to be ordered to California in 1852. Julia was 8 months pregnant with their second child and could not make the long trip to San Francisco which entailed a steamship voyage from New York to Panama, an overland trek across Panama and another steamer to San Francisco.

700 soldiers and their dependents embarked on the journey but only about half made it to San Francisco two months after they left New York.  A cholera epidemic ravaged the group as it transgressed Panama. All twenty children younger than three died on the journey. While most of the orderlies refused to care for the sick because of their fear of contracting the disease themselves, it was Grant who undertook the nursing of the ill himself.

Grant spent another two years in California without his wife and family. In his spare time he dabbled in numerous side business ventures attempting to make enough money to bring his young family to live with him. The California Gold Rush was in full swing and everyone seemed to be cashing in on the action in some way. Everyone but Grant.

Grant lost money on almost every venture he attempted. His loneliness and bad luck eventually led him to rely too much on the bottle.  He resigned his officer's commission (many speculate he was forced to resign because he was drinking on duty) and headed home without enough money in his pocket to make the entire trip home to St. Louis which entailed retracing his previous path across Panama and by ship to New York.

He arrived in New York City with no money, and not even sure that his wife would want him to return to her parent's home in St. Louis.  He borrowed money from an old friend to pay his hotel bill in New York and waited to hear from Julia.  He eventually had to ask his father for the train fare home and a letter arrived from his wife welcoming him home with open arms.

Grant was 32 years of age when he left the Army. He spent the next four years working a 60 acre farm near St. Louis on land that his wife had received from her father as a wedding present. He never succeeded at farming.  Most of the money he made was selling cords of wood he would cart into St. Louis. He eventually had to look for work in St. Louis. He tried real estate and other jobs but he was not successful in any endeavor in the world of commerce.  He could not afford to have his family with him in the city and lived in a boarding house during the week. He walked twelve miles on Saturdays to see his wife and children and walked twelve miles back to St. Louis each Sunday.

In 1860, at age 38, he eventually faced the inevitable, swallowed his pride, and asked his father for a job. His father had a leather business that had prospered over the years and he operated a half dozen retail outlets in the upper Mississippi River valley.  He gave Ulysses a job as a billing clerk and collection agent in his Galena, Illinois store.  Grant moved to Galena about one year before the start of the Civil War.

With this background you begin to see how incredible the story of Ulysses S. Grant is. Within four years of his move to Galena to take a job as a billing clerk, he was General of the Union Army. Within eight years he was President of the United States.

What made Grant successful?  First, he was not afraid to engage.  Except for Grant, most of the Union's field commanders were unwilling or unable to take the fight to the enemy. Grant knew that to win you had to be on the offensive.  Second, he led from the front and was cool under fire.  He took reversals in stride and often looked to take a disadvantage and turn it into an advantage.  Third, he was unassuming, honest and considerate.  Grant always put his country and men first.  He was as honest as they come and he always treated his enemies with the utmost of respect.

It is indeed sobering to read about the life and times of Grant and compare that life and experience to Barack Obama and other political leaders of today.  Men like Grant were tested in ways and manners so far removed than what we have in our leaders today that it is no wonder we find us where we are today.  We can't maneuver around a fiscal cliff?   What is that compared to the Battle of Shiloh or Vicksburg?

I found it particularly interesting how Grant responded to the Panic of 1873 in his second term as President.  By the way, when Grant was nominated by the Republicans for President in 1868 he gave but one speech-his acceptance of the nomination-of which he principally just focused on one theme, "Let us have peace".  He conducted no campaign as such.  Similarly, in his reelection bid in 1872 he also never campaigned.  How times have changed!

The Panic of 1873 was caused by "an insatiable desire for money that spawned a speculative boom that skyrocketed out of control.  Banks had lent money recklessly and brokerage houses had marketed securities that were often worthless", according to Smith in the Grant biography.  Does that sound familiar?

In 1873 Wall Street financial institutions started to fall like dominoes.  Grant soon came under pressure from Washington politicians to inflate the currency.  People were hurting as bankruptcies and unemployment soon followed as businesses, farms and factories were lost.  Congress felt that pumping more paper money into the system would solve the problems.  Again, does that sound familiar?
Grant was torn.  Having suffered in the Panic of 1857-that was the Christmas the president had pawned his gold watch to buy presents for his family-he sympathized with the nation's farmers and small businessmen.  Grant knew what it meant to be poor, to try to make a crop, to have a business fail, to be out of a job, and as a last resort to peddle firewood on a St. Louis street corner.  His heart was responsive to those who wanted to pump more money into the economy, yet as president he felt his responsibility was to the nation's future.  Cheap paper money might look like a panacea, but inflation was never a friend to stable government.  The United States would be driven from the world standard, the return to specie-backed currency would be set back, property values would be unsettled, and speculation rekindled.  If Congress could simply print unredeemable paper money to appease popular demand, the nation was in peril.
Congress passed a bill to greatly increase the nation's money supply (this was before the creation of the Federal Reserve). Grant then had to decide whether to sign the bill into law or use his veto power.  He initially decided to approve the measure bending to the political pressures but as he wrote down his rationale he determined that his reasoning was fallacious.  He vetoed the bill much to the shock and anger of his Cabinet and the Congress.  His veto was upheld and the nation soon moved solidly behind Grant's call for sound money and a stable currency.  The gold standard was resumed shortly thereafter that paved the way for the enormous growth of the U.S. economy in the last quarter of the 19th Century.  By 1900, the U.S. dollar had replaced all other currencies as the international symbol of financial stability.

Where is our U.S. Grant today?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


The employment numbers for March were released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by +126,000 in March, and the unemployment
rate was unchanged at 5.5 percent according to the BLS. Employment gains were less that half of the average increase of +269,000 in net new jobs over the last year. This is troubling news for the economy if this trend continues.

The labor participation rate also set a 37-year low of 62.7%. This represents the percentage of working age Americans (those 16 years and older excluding those physically unable to work and those who are imprisoned) who are actually working. You would have to go back to February, 1978 to find a time when a smaller percentage of working age Americans were employed.

There are also a record 93.2 million people working age Americans who are not in the workforce. Ten years ago that number was 76.8 million.

I have written before that I am more focused on the labor participation rate than the unemployment rate as a gauge on our economy. The unemployment rate calculation has become too subjective. It only counts those as unemployed if they are actually looking for work. It does not count those who become discouraged and have simply quit looking. It does not count the young slacker who has dropped out of school and is living in his parent's basement playing video games. It does not count the older worker who got laid off at age 59 and "retires" because of no decent job prospects.

In the end, every American is a mouth to feed, clothe and shelter. If there are fewer people pulling the wagon and more people in the wagon, we have a fundamental problem. The money gets spread around in thinner and thinner increments. That is just basic economics.

The BLS points to the wave of Baby Boomers who are reaching their retirement years as being the most significant factor in the declining labor force participation rate.

“The baby boomers’ exit from the prime-aged workforce and their movement into older age groups will lower the overall labor force participation rate, leading to a slowdown in the growth of the labor force.” 

However, this seems to be an oversimplification of what is occurring and largely ignores the fact that Baby Boomers are working in much greater numbers at older ages than their parents did.

In addition, if a young person entering the workforce took the place of the old person leaving it, there would be no net change in the overall labor participation rate.

In 1992, only 30% of those over age 55 were working. Today it is 40%. 19% of 65+ people are working today compared to 12% in 1992.

On the other hand, 51% of age 16-19 were working in 1992 and only 34% are working now. 77% of those 20-24 were working in 1992 and only 71% are working now.

The chart below shows the decline in labor force participation in the prime age working cohort of ages 25-54 which includes well over 100 million able-bodied Americans. As you can see, the drop in the percentage of those working in this age group amounts to a reduction of 3-4 million workers over what we have traditionally expected from workers from this age cohort.

The young are not working at anywhere near the levels they have historically since women entered the workforce in significant numbers in the 1970's. However, the old are working at levels not seen in many, many, decades.

Credit: ZeroHedge

In fact, since the beginning of the "Great Recession" in December, 2007, there are over 5 million more Americans working who are age 55 or over but there is a decrease of some 2 million working between the ages of 25-54. This has to be unheard of in the annals of American history!

Credit: ZeroHedge

Does all of this look like aging Baby Boomers are the principal cause of the dropping labor participation rate as the BLS suggests?

I would hate to see what the numbers would look like if those Boomers really were retiring to the degree that the BLS narrative would lead us to believe.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tattoos Trending Down?

When I was growing up, and all the way through the 1970's and 1980's, the only tattoos I normally would see would be on a WWII or Korean War Navy or Marine Corps veteran.

I assumed most of them got their tattoos at some faraway port or after a night on the town in a seedy tattoo parlor just off the base.

This hula girl seems to have been popular with sailors passing through Pearl Harbor.

Of course, Marine Corps vets would often favor a tattoo that looked something like this.

A 30 or 40 year tattoo on a 50 or 60 year old man lounging around the pool was enough for me to decide that tattoos were not for me.

However, I have found it very interesting to see tattoos became more popular and accepted over the last 20 years or so.

Tattoos went from the subculture in my youth to popular culture today where it is now estimated that among those age 26-40, 40% have at least one tattoo and 36% of those 18-25 also have inked at least once.

I trace the beginnings of the tattoo trend among the younger generation to the increasing number of college basketball players that started sporting tattoos around 20 years ago. Instead of tattoos adorning old sailors, motorcycle gang members and ex-cons they were seen on student athletes where they were very visible while wearing their basketball uniforms.

This seemed to make the tats socially acceptable and the human condition of imitation took care of the rest.

It got to the point over the last few years that I rarely would watch any college basketball game in which a significant number of players did not have tattoos. I am not sure that I have seen any game in the last few years where both teams were tattoo-free.

Until last night.

Wisconsin did not have anyone with a tattoo from what I can see. I am talking visible tattoos among the starting five and first rotation subs.

If there were any tattoos on anyone else on the team, I could not see it.

The same for Duke.


It was even true for the two twin stars of Kentucky basketball, Aaron and Andrew Harrison.

Is all this evidence that the trend has turned?

It started on the basketball court. Was last night the beginning of the end of that trend?

It looks like that to me.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Births and Birthdays

I have an interest in demographics and have written about it from time to time in BeeLine.

It is a window to the future that is too often overlooked or ignored.  The long-term trends are often the most difficult to see in the 24 hour news cycle world we live in today.  In this day and age when there is so much focus on the trees (even the leaves at times!), demographics forces you to look at the forest.

I have been tracking U.S. birth rates for a number of years. The birth rate data for 2013 was recently released by the National Vital Statistics System section of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A few factoids from the report.

  • There were 3,932,181 reported births in the U.S. last year
    • That is 1% lower than in 2012
  • 40.6% of the births were to unmarried women
    • In 1960, only 5.3% of birth were to unwed mothers as shown in the chart below.
    • 71.5% of black babies are born to unwed mothers.

  • There are more babies born to mothers in the age 25-29 age group than any other age cohort
    • However, the birth rate per 1,000 for women 25-29 and 20-24 is the lowest it has ever been in the history of the U.S.
    • The total fertility rate for all women over their lifetimes is 1.85 children. This is below the 2.1 replacement rate necessary to maintain a stable population.
  • Teen births continue to decline.
    • Births to teens are about 1/3 of what they were in 1960.
  • Births of twins are at an all-time high---33.7 per 1,000 births 
  • Six women of age 19 had their 8th child during 2013! (Are you kidding me?)
    • Four white women, two black women
  • 677 women age 50-54 gave birth to a child during the year
    • 221 were first births (Congratulations! However, these mothers will be eligible for Social Security and Medicare when their kids are teenagers. Good luck as well!)

The chart below shows births from 1950 through 2013 in order to give you some better perspective on historical birth rates.  This is a chart that I have been tracking since the early 1990's.  I actually consider the 1965-1986 period to represent the entire "Baby Dearth" period. On either side of the "Baby Dearth" we have the "Baby Boom" (1946-1964) and the "Baby Boomlet" (1987-2010?).  

I have always looked at the birth cohort of 1965-1986 to be particularly well positioned for career prospects in that they are in a great position to be able to serve both a large group of individuals older than themselves (health care, investments, etc) as well as a large population of younger individuals behind them (education, consumer goods etc).  It is a position that is literally in the middle of two giant demographic waves unlike anything we have ever seen before.

Writing about all of this birth info reminded me of one of my favorite charts.

It is this heat map chart that shows how common certain birth dates are that Matt Stiles of The DailyViz put together based on a data on birthdays that was in The New York Times.

A few observations on birth dates based on this data.

  • September has the most birth dates.  September 16 is the most common birthday.  Look at the heavy number of births in September starting with September 8.  Of the top 16 birth dates, 14 of those dates are bunched between September 8 and September 25.
  • December 25 has the fewest births (excluding February 29).  December 24 ranks #363 and December 26 ranks #360.  January 1 is #364.
  • Looking at these numbers you might think not much is going on 9 months before December. However, December 30 is #26, December 29 is #42 and December 28 is #62.  December 31 is #220.
  • January does not have any birth date higher than #260.  In fact, between January 1 and January 11 the rankings are (in order from 1/1)---#364, #362, #356, #350, #338, #301, #324, #347, #351, #349, #341.  Not a good time to be selling birthday cakes.
  • The week around Thanksgiving also has very few birth dates.  From November 22 to November 29 the highest ranking is #340.
  • The low number of birth dates around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays suggest that something besides nature is involved.  It would be interesting to look at the C-section rates right before these holidays.  C-sections make up about a third of all births. If it is Friday it is much higher than that suggesting a high number of "elective" C-sections for convenience.  
  • The heaviest birth date months-July, August and September-are nine months after October, November and December proving that the onset of cold weather warms things up in other places.  

By the way, today (April 2) is the most popular birthday in the month of April.