Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The end of strong U.S. GDP growth?

Americans, especially those Boomers, are spending less. That's bad news for an economy that is over two thirds driven by consumer spending.

When 79 million people—nearly a third of Americans—start spending less and saving more, you know it won't be pretty. According to consulting firm McKinsey, boomers' conversion to thrift could stifle the economy's hoped-for rebound and knock U.S. growth down from the 3.2% it has averaged since 1965 to 2.4% over the next 30 years. "We would have gotten here in 5 or 10 years as boomers retire, but we pushed it up," says Michael Sinoway, managing director of consulting firm AlixPartners.
3.2% growth down to 2.4% growth is a decline of .8 percentage points. Multiply that by the U.S.'s 2008 GDP of $14.3 trillion. That's over $114 billion less in GDP per year, which will compound over the 30 year projection. We'll need to find other ways to grow our economy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Startup Investing

It's not easy to invest in startups, at least not the ones that you would like to invest in (i.e., non-shady ones with a chance of generating big returns). Startup investing is for the stouthearted. But even if an individual has the stomach, she might find her money not wanted due to competition from larger investors. BusinessWeek offered some tips to get in on early stage companies, if you're so inclined.

1. Do you qualify as an "accredited investor" under the current SEC definition?

2. Do you have reliable information about the company's finances?

3. Can you gain entrée through personal connections to the company, its existing investors, or its board? Do you work in the same field as the company, which could make you a more attractive investor?

4. Have current shareholders listed to sell on one of the secondary market platforms?

One of the hurdles for a mass affluent investor to overcome is the requirement to be an accredited investor.
a natural person who has individual net worth, or joint net worth with the person’s spouse, that exceeds $1 million at the time of the purchase;

a natural person with income exceeding $200,000 in each of the two most recent years or joint income with a spouse exceeding $300,000 for those years and a reasonable expectation of the same income level in the current year;
The accredited investor rule comes straight from the Securities Act of 1933. From what I can tell, the dollar amounts haven't been adjusted since 1982.

One of the illiquid securities exchanges mentioned in the article, SharesPost, promotes having access to sellers of Facebook shares. You don't necessarily have to be a Russian billionaire to buy into the Facebook party.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Prepare for a major tax increase

(Welcome to those visiting from the Carnival of Personal Finance #213. Subscribe to this site.)

Your taxes are going to go up. Not just taxes on the rich, or the mass affluent, or the solidly middle class. Taxes for everyone will increase, since we're going down the road of needing a value added tax (VAT) in the form of a national sales tax to get us out of this massive national debt hole that we've dug ourselves into.

The bill is far too big for only the rich to pick up. There aren't enough of them. America will have to lean on citizens far below the $250,000 income threshold: nurses, electricians, secretaries, and factory workers. Within a decade the average household that pays income tax will owe the equivalent of $155,000 in federal debt, about $90,000 more than last year. What the Obama administration isn't telling Americans is that the only practical solution is a giant tax increase aimed squarely at the middle class. The alternative, big cuts in spending, aren't part of the President's agenda. To keep the debt from wrecking the economy, the U.S. would need to raise annual federal income taxes an average of $11,000 in 2019 for all families that pay them, an increase of about 55%. "The revenues needed are far too big to raise from high earners," says Alan Auerbach, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. "The government will have to go where the money is, to the middle class." The most likely levy: a European-style value-added tax (VAT) that would substantially raise the price of everything from autos to restaurant meals.
(Added emphasis is mine.)

Anyone who tells you that our national debt won't be a huge problem is bs'ing you. Sure, politicians love to talk about how they'll bring down the national debt by eliminating earmarks, cutting discretionary spending, blah, blah, blah. Budget cuts ain't happening, unless China stops buying all those Treasuries which would negate our ability to do deficit spending. And then there is the required spending on entitlements: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Do a search on 'generational accounting' to see what kind of financial damage entitlements are going to do to our children and grandchildren. Except we're the children and grandchildren and the problems are upon us already. Don't get me wrong, I think entitlements are a great thing and keep people out of poverty. However, we as a nation never figured out how to pay for them.
It can't go on forever, and it won't. What will shock America into action is the prospect of fiscal collapse, which will grow more vivid each year. In 2008 federal borrowing accounted for 41% of GDP, about the postwar average. By 2019 the burden will double to 82% by the CBO's reckoning, reaching $17.3 trillion, nearly triple last year's level. By that point $1 of every six the U.S. spends will go to interest, compared with one in 12 last year. The U.S. trajectory points to the area that medieval maps labeled "Here Lie Dragons." After 2019 the debt rises with no ceiling in sight, according to all major forecasts, driven by the growth of interest and entitlements. The Government Accountability Office estimates that if current policies continue, interest will absorb 30% of all revenues by 2040 and entitlements will consume the rest, leaving nothing for defense, education, or veterans' benefits.
National bankruptcies

The other option is national bankruptcy. It's not an option, obviously, and a national U.S. bankruptcy will never happen. But for kicks, I did some research on what happens when nations go bankrupt.

A couple of examples I found (thanks Wikipedia!) are defaults on debt incurred by previous national governments, such as post-Revolutionary France defaulting on the debts of Bourbon France and Soviet Russia defaulting on debts of Czarist Russia. There's also an example of a default of Danish bonds in 1850, and another Danish bankruptcy in 1813. Germany has gone bankrupt twice after the World Wars. More recent examples are Russia in 1998, Argentina in 2001-2002, and Iceland in 2008. A national bankruptcy may lead to massive inflation, as the country prints money to pay its debts. Gold could be a hedge against this situation.

Looking at the last Argentina bankruptcy:
Once the Argentine businessmen had transferred their dollars abroad, the second phase of the collapse began. The Argentine government froze all bank accounts, capping the maximum amount an accountholder could withdraw at only $250 (€198) a week. Small investors, those who had left their money in the banks, were the hardest hit. Tens of thousands of desperate citizens stormed the banks, and many spent nights sleeping in front of the automated teller machines.

The last phase of the downturn began in the Buenos Aires suburbs. After consumption had dropped by 60 percent, young men began looting supermarkets. In December 2001, 40,000 people gathered on Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace. There, they banged pots and pans together day and night, until an unnerved President Fernando de la Rúa fled by helicopter.


Nevertheless, the country recovered from the crash with astonishing speed. In recent years, the Argentine economy has grown at impressive rates of 7 to 9 percent.

Again, it's inconceivable that the U.S. will go bankrupt. That's just not going to happen. But, I do see a large tax increase and increased inflation. The hardest thing to swallow about the tax increase is that since it may be a national sales tax, there's no way to avoid the taxes later by using vehicles like a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

College endowments take a big hit

As expected, college endowments had a bad (fiscal) year (most just ended June 30). Interestingly, it was the smaller college endowments that did better (or less bad). (free WSJ Digg link) The median decline for small endowments was 16%, for medium was 20% and for large was 25-30%. The blame for the underperformance in 2008 is laid at the feet of the alternative investments that the big endowments have favored.

The so-called Yale approach espoused that endowments -- as long-term investors unconcerned about redemptions or short-term market fluctuations -- were the ideal candidates for alternatives. Yet in 2008, many of these assets became hard to sell, forcing schools to either dump their best-performing securities or funds, or borrow money, to meet their obligations.

Ivy League schools, more reliant on investment gains to fund daily operations, also suffered more from these drops. The average college relies on its endowment for 5% of its operating revenue, while at Ivy League schools the number ranges from 25% to 45%. That caused the type of asset-liability mismatch that has long bedeviled financial firms.

Yale does not plan to change its investment philosphy because of one bad year. And prior to 2008, for 20 years Yale averaged a 15.9% return on its endowment.