After one of the longest, weirdest, and most exhausting election seasons in our history, we are only six days away from (finally) choosing a new president. As importantly, 34 Senate seats and all 435 House seats are up for grabs.
Investors are justifiably nervous about the outcome. Yesterday’s selloff was probably a symptom of that unease. Betting markets currently predict Hillary Clinton has a 70-75 percent chance of winning. I suspect her odds are much better. Four years ago Obama’s five million vote victory was fueled by a 56 to 44 percent majority of female voters and an even greater 74 to 26 percent majority of Hispanic voters. I am 99 percent certain Trump will do worse with both groups. Ever since he announced his candidacy Republican leaders (and media talking heads) have known that women and Hispanics would be his Achilles heel and yet, shockingly, he has made no effort to improve his appeal to these voters. Either he is delusional about his chances or simply refuses to learn the daunting math required for a Republican to win the general election.
The Donald’s only hope is the fact middle-of-the-road voters seem to dislike Hillary almost as much as they dislike him.
On Monday night, more than eighty million Americans watched our two candidates for president argue more about missing tax returns, deleted emails, and a former beauty queen than the issue that matters most to our country’s health and prosperity: economic growth.
When our economy grows rapidly, as it did during the Reagan and (Bill) Clinton administrations, good things happen. Home ownership increases, budget deficits shrink (Mr. Clinton produced a surplus his last four years), crime drops, and America’s influence increases worldwide. Unfortunately, our gross domestic product hasn’t grown more than four percent a year since the end of the last century, and I don’t see it topping that critical figure again anytime soon.
I have to admit, I’m looking forward to the Republican debate on Wednesday. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump’s candor is entertaining. It’s somewhat fun to watch him dismiss his political opponents (including the sitting president) as “losers” and “lightweights,” and his critiques of my industry—which he refers to as “those hedge fund guys”—are mostly spot on. Too many big fund managers really are little more than under-taxed, economically destructive financial engineers. Trump’s strident anti-immigrant rhetoric is far more troubling, but it’s not hard to see why it appeals to voters who feel left behind by globalization and the increasingly polyglot composition of America’s electorate.
Most economic studies show that immigration, legal and illegal, is a net contributor, not a cost, to economic growth. Three decades ago, the legendary University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman noted that the majority of illegal immigrants work, pay income and payroll taxes, but rarely receive government benefits like Social Security and Medicare. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has frequently been on the receiving end of government largesse. Despite his professed belief in free markets, he is the prototypical crony capitalist. Without all sorts of tax breaks, debt forgiveness, and giveaways, he would be far less rich.
Another week has brought yet another much-publicized call for the Federal Reserve to delay raising interest rates. Yesterday, the International Monetary Fund opined that the Fed should hold off on a rate hike until 2016.
Something extraordinary happened last week: a politician went against the dogma of his own party and proposed something that might actually boost our economy and improve our country’s long-term fiscal health.
Of course, the plan has no chance of getting a vote, let alone passing congress. And even if it did manage to pass, President Obama would veto it before his first morning cigarette. But just because Representative Dave Camp’s tax reform bill is a lost cause doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy one.
Recently, I was subjected to the unpleasant experience of watching the press fawn over a bunch of self-satisfied celebrities who contribute little or nothing to society. No, I’m not talking about the interminable Oscars coverage this past week. I’m talking about the reaction to the Federal Reserve meeting minutes from the 2008 financial crisis, which were released two weeks ago.
In the popular press–even at the reliably liberal New York Times–it has become conventional wisdom that the biggest mistake of that era wasn’t bailing out the most corrupt and incompetent firms on Wall Street with billions of dollars in taxpayer money. The biggest mistake was not making the bailouts big enough.
When I’m scouting dead-companies-walking, I look for a number of factors. Businesses fail for all sorts of reasons, after all. But there are almost always two main symptoms of a company in terminal condition: falling revenues and mounting debt. These twin problems feed one another and create a kind of corporate death spiral. As revenues drop, debts rise. Making matters worse, creditors begin to demand higher and higher interest rates to service that debt, which means that repaying it eats up more and more of a company’s shrinking revenues. Pretty soon, that company can’t meet its obligations and its only option is to declare bankruptcy.
I usually find comparisons between government and business strained. But with a government shutdown looming by midnight tonight and the very real possibility that the U.S. Treasury will renege on its credit obligations becoming more likely every day, Washington D.C. is starting to look like the dysfunctional boardroom of a business fast on its way to insolvency.
I’d like to expand on something I wrote near the end of my last post on the current boom in Texas. As I said, buying into or shorting secular trends is a key investment strategy for me, and Texas’ explosive growth is a major opportunity. But I don’t think most people understand why the state is doing so well. It’s not just because of its low taxes and hands-off regulatory regime. If that were the case, low-tax backwaters like Alabama and Mississippi would be thriving, too. What sets Texas apart is education, especially the public UT system, which possesses the third largest endowment in the country behind only Harvard and Yale.
Dynamic, innovative economic regions–with the highest per capita incomes–always benefit from quality educational systems. Silicon Valley and the Northeast are the most obvious examples. But other places like North Carolina’s research triangle have also been fueled by great schools. The reason for this isn’t rocket science. You simply can’t have sustained economic growth without a steady supply of smart, highly educated people.
The problem is that schools cost a lot of money. And most states these days–especially the state where I live, California–spend far more on prisoners, public employees, and old people than education. It’s a disturbing secular trend, so disturbing that if California were a stock, I’d short it.
It’s fashionable these days, especially in my industry, to style oneself as “socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” I might be one of the only hedge fund managers out there who claims the opposite. I tend to be to the right socially, but downright Krugman-esque when it comes to many fiscal issues. I’m passionately pro-immigration. I believe we should have government-funded healthcare. And I want more public spending on infrastructure and education.
I’ll also readily admit that wealthy individualslike me are under-taxed in this country. Businesses are another matter, though. Corporations are not people, and we shouldn’t be taxing them like they are.
An unsurprising bit of news broke this past week–some highly respected experts screwed up.
A few years back economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart claimed that countries with high debt loads suffered slow growth rates. Their research was used to justify draconian spending cuts in Europe. But it turns out Rogoff and Reinhart flubbed their numbers in a big way, and Keynesians like Paul Krugman have been having a grand old time gloating over it. But just because Roghoff and Reinhart were wrong doesn’t mean Krugman is right.
Every year, we spend more than a trillion dollars more than we take in. That’s a dire situation. But how we’re spending that borrowed money is the real crime. In short, old people are killing us. That’s right, I said it: if we don’t do something soon, grandma and grandpa are going to bleed us dry.