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January 14, 2013

DOOM: I just can't quit you, baby

DOOOOM

It's the triumphant return of DOOM, my groovy babies! Feel the burn! The rumors that the band broke up are a tissue of lies. This won't be a daily gig any more, but I'll try to deliver a dose of gloom, pessimism, and snide commentary once or twice a week.

Dear Grandkids: you are screwed, and it's largely our fault. Sorry about that. We'd send money, but we're vacationing in Cabo and need the cash for the condo and resort fees, and Gramp's new hip didn't come cheap. Love and kisses! Sincerely, Grammy and Grampy.

Fiscal prudence at last!

Snot, phlegm, and night-sweats are going to cost the US economy around $10 billion this year.

I just wouldn't be me if I didn't take the opportunity to give Social Security a kick in the nuts, so here's a high-stepping boot to the nads from the guys at ZeroHedge. With lots of ginchy chart-fu.

Michael Barone adds his voice to the chorus: the era of entitlements is almost over. (And not just in the U.S., but in other nations as well.) Barone, one of the sharpest political observers and historians of his generation, notes that history tends to move in epicycles, and this particular epicycle is about to end. We don't know what will come next, but the road between here and there is going to be rough.

Greece: the agony goes on. Apparently the Greeks didn't get the news that the Eurozone problem was solved. Maybe it's because they're preoccupied with trying to find a way to heat their homes.

You load sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. A product or service is only worth what people are willing to pay. Your labor is a product you sell to your employer, and it's as prone to market pressures as any other good.

His Majesty the King may believe that we do not have a spending problem, but America's public spending -- from the municipal level all the way up to the federal -- simply cannot be sustained.

Will we see annualized investment-return rates in the 10% range again, on a sustained basis? The demographics argue against it. From the article:

Noting the financial pressures on programs like Social Security and Medicare, the authors conclude that the need to forecast government policies may be one of the most difficult challenges facing retirement-age households.
I'll give you some free advice: don't listen to the Feds shining you on about the health of Medicare or Social Security. Save your own money, spend wisely, keep yourself physically and mentally fit, and plan to live prudently (and perhaps a bit austerely) in your old age.

Retiring Boomers are going to be selling into the markets, not buying, and younger adults aren't going to have as much investment capital to throw around. Investment returns are likely to suck for a long, long time to come...and that has some grim implications not just for individual investors, but for public entities that incur pension obligations and the like. Most state and municipal pension actuaries still estimate an aggregate yearly return in the 7-8% percent range, while reality suggests that the real number might be more in the 4-5% range. That translates into tens of billions of dollars -- maybe hundreds of billions -- in unfunded pension and other benefit obligations over the next couple of decades.

By the way, China is not going to bail us out. They've got even an even bigger retirement problem than we do.

Generalized S&P 500 returns for the last decade? Between zero and two percent or so, if you adjust for inflation and depending on how you calculate. If you invested money into the market in 1999, chances are that money returned between jack and squat between 1999 and 2011. It's likely to be even worse in the next decade or two. And the sad part? Stocks are still the smart play if you're an investor, because bonds are even worse. The take-away from this is that there's no substitute for saving your own money: you can't count on investment returns to make up any shortfall in saving. (But I guess you can take the optimist's position that in the long run we're all dead, so the best course of action is to live for the moment.)

For all the (fully justified) angst about federal spending, some of the worst public-finance disasters are at the state and municipal level. California is, as I have noted on many occasions, boned. Very, very boned. Illinois, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey are likewise very boned. This is the real calamity: federal debt, serious as it is, is rather attenuated in terms of how it affects your daily life. But when your city or state goes broke, you feel it very directly. Streets go unrepaired, streetlights burn out and remain dark, trash doesn't get picked up, crime spirals out of control. Just see how things are playing out in San Bernardino or Detroit these days.

And to those states who think they can tax themselves out of the hole they've dug for themselves: people won't just stand around like sheep waiting to be sheared. In fact, what happens is that the very people an economy needs the most (young, dynamic, industrious) leave while the most expensive and unproductive (the old, the poor, and the sick) stay.

Somebody alert Teh Krugman! Regarding the national debt, the notion that "we owe the money to ourselves" is bullshit. Furthermore, it has been known to be bullshit for a good long while. Yet somehow the canard never dies. Remember, kids: "money" and "wealth" are not the same thing.

James Buchanan on Keynes and the end of the Victorian economic sensibility.

[...]Keynes totally failed to recognize that the long-standing rules for fiscal-monetary prudence were required to hold the tribal instincts in check, and that, once the Victorian precepts were eroded, the tribal instincts would emerge with force sufficient to overwhelm all rationally derived argument.

It's hard out there for a chimp.



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posted by Monty at 08:32 AM

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