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The Financial Cliff


The pressure is on in Washington. With President Obama returning to office and signs that some Republicans understand that the party’s ultra-conservative mindset does not resonate with the majority of Americans, it would seem the stage is set for meaningful solutions about the country’s bludgeoning debt. Congress will either follow the Obama lead or the country will fall off the fiscal cliff on December 31. 2012.

Given the erratic record of the Republican House, Americans are edgy about the possibility of a solution to a dilemma that could sink the economy. There is no historical support to think that Congress can coordinate a long-term solution to this pressing problem and place the country’s best interests ahead of their personal own politics.

The House of Representatives will once again attempt to hold Americans hostage, but this time they are negotiating with a President who will not be running for another term and who is committed to represent the middle class, or what is left of it. Analysts have suggested that a temporary debt reduction plan might be implemented but this would be the ultimate kick the can strategy. Americans expect meaningful action.

Three Wings of Fiscal Cliff

The fiscal cliff includes three main components. The temporary payroll tax reduction, the expiration of the Bush Tax cuts and $600 billion in spending cuts are in place to activate on the last day of the year. If negotiations about a remedy are not successful, every American taxpayer will have a heavier burden next year. This will dramatically cut back on consumer spending and severely hurt the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The payroll tax reduction has helped many Americans survive the recession and timid recovery. This reduction will most definitely expire.

The $600 billion cuts will cause loss of jobs and send shock waves through the economy. If a debt reduction plan is not in place by December 31, the defense department will suffer the biggest cutbacks.

Bigger Package Needed

As important as avoiding the fiscal cliff is, the country needs a substantial debt reduction plan. The most viable framework for a meaningful debt reduction initiative is the Simpson-Bowles, $4.6 trillion plan. While Simpson-Bowles is an aggressive approach to reduce the deficit, the country needs an even deeper plan.

Americans are exhausted with the dysfunction that has come to symbolize Washington. At a time when the US needs a balanced approach to reduce the debt, the Republican based Grover Norquist Pledge which opposes all legislation with a tax increase, could be the biggest fly in the ointment.

Two other flies in the ointment are Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, whose fiscal approach probably cost Mitt Romney the Presidency and Republican leader of the House, Eric Cantor. Cantor and Ryan have signed the pledge and cannot be relied upon to have any meaningful input in the negotiations. Frankly, the country would be better off if these two thugs were not re-elected.

The only hope to get a substantial deficit reduction plan in place lies with moderate Republicans, a dying breed in Washington. There are signs that the Senate is agreeable to a plan that crosses the aisle. The Congressional Budget Office reports that if a remedy for the fiscal cliff is not resolved, the economy will shrink by 0.5 percent during 2013. More importantly it is very possible that 5 million or more jobs will be lost in 2013, an outcome that apparently is acceptable to Cantor and Ryan. The country will find itself in a deeper recession than the previous recession.

David Cote, CEO of Honeywell explained the intense need for cooperation and action. “If the last debt ceiling discussion was playing with fire, this time they’re playing with nitroglycerin. If they go off the cliff, I think it would spark a recession that’s a lot bigger than economists think. Some think it would just be a small fire. I think it could turn into a conflagration.”

On Wednesday, President Obama met with a number of CEOs. Many of these CEOs are unsympathetic to the gridlock in Congress. Several major corporations have said they are hoarding cash and unwilling to invest in the US in the current political and economic climate. That possibility is another consequence of the fiscal cliff. Some of the country’s biggest corporations will invest in enterprises in other countries.

When the Bush Tax Cuts were introduced as a temporary tax reduction plan. They have been renewed every year since. The President ran on a platform of increasing the tax rate for workers who earn $250,000 or more. Ryan and Cantor are vehemently opposed to this approach despite the fact that many of the country’s wealthiest individuals have said they were amenable to the proposal.

Republicans favor changing the deductions, such as the interest paid on mortgages and other changes to add revenue. At a time when the country desperately needs positive news on the housing crisis, eliminating the deduction for interest would cripple the housing market further.

Just as Republicans did during the election, they continue to step on themselves. MSNBC reported that 60 percent of persons interviewed in exit polls favored tax increases for the nation’s wealthy. It is time for Congress to put their differences aside and negotiate in good faith for a long-term solution.

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Politics and Money Dominate Historic Week


US Politics, The Fiscal Cliff and Euro Debt

In a week that will not be soon forgotten, the United States will elect its President for the next four years. Voters will also fill Senate seats for the next six years and fill House seats for the next two years. The 2012 elections will not only shape the US but also shape  the globe. Regardless who the next President of the US is, the need for a functional Congress may be off greater import.

Last year, Congress achieved the dubious distinction of officially achieving a 10 percent job satisfaction report from US citizens. Even more than the Presidential race, it is the composition and mindset of Congress that will determine how the US and the global economy trends in the next two years. After the past two years, most Americans would just as soon throw out the entire Congress and start anew. If the same gridlock exists after the election, the US and the world could soon be in an insurmountable fiscal position.

Speculation is that there is not the political will in Washington to seriously address the impending Fiscal Cliff, that convergence of events on December 31st that will see the Bush Tax Cuts expire, the payroll tax reduction expire and a series of heavy budget cuts paralyze the US and the globe biggest consumer. If no action is taken, the US will lose about 6,000,000 jobs early next year.

Of equal importance is that the US credit rating will be lowered and the nation’s debt will not adequately be addressed. The country’s top CEOs have united in a call for a significant and far-reaching deficit reduction initiative along the lines of the $4.6 trillion Simpson Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan. If the Democrats do not give on reforms to social programs and the Republicans do not get away from the Norquist Pledge, which Romney signed and which his Vice Presidential running mate endorses wholeheartedly, the best outcome will be a short-term fix to the Fiscal Cliff.

Whether Americans realize it or not, such an outcome is not acceptable. The deficit and budget need to be addressed with serious people with serious, non-partisan solutions. The country must be prepared to pay the price for two unfunded wars, a crisis on Wall Street, two poorly administered governments and the worst Congress in US history.

Americans have been swamped with more than $2 billion of marketing spent by just the Presidential candidates, not to speak of untold billions spent on local and Congressional races. The US is sick and the doctor is out to lunch.

The Presidential election is billed as a battle between a financial wizard (Romney) and the champion of the middle class (Obama). Romney has changed positions so many times during the course of the campaign that nobody really knows his intentions, except that he has signed the Norquist Pledge which he will need to disavow if the country is to move forward. Obama has been battered for four years of a struggling economy that has been further hampered by Congressional Republicans that cast the interests of constituents aside in favor of opposing the President at every turn.

The campaign has been exhausting for candidates and the American public. A lackluster turnout at the polls will favor Romney. In all likelihood, Republicans will remain the majority in the House and Democrats will hold a narrow edge in the Senate. Unfortunately, the US may have reached a point where one party must control the three wings of government to get anything done. Half the country will be disappointed by the outcome of the Presidential election.

The G20

This has been a contentious and frustrated G20 summit this weekend in Mexico City. The world is losing patience with both the euro zone debt crisis and the US Fiscal Cliff. If there is one thing that all G20 nations agree with, it is that the time for action has come and gone. Both the euro zone and the US have acted irresponsibly in addressing their debt. The December 31st cliff is the immediate concern but new requests by Greece and a fragile Spanish economy and others could lead to the dissolution of the euro zone.

The US Congress will soon have to add more debt. Euro zone finance ministers are in gridlock, much like the US with Germany steering the region its way while weaker economies resist. The gridlock in the US and in Europe have unmistakable similarities; the chief one being that politics prevent progress. This is a critical week across the globe. The results of this election will either take the US consumer out of the game or add hope to a world that needs a strong US economy.

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The US Fiscal Cliff – Part I


The US Fiscal Cliff – Part I

American CEO’s are taking aim at the December 31st deadline for the launch of the “US Fiscal Cliff,” the most critical national and global economic issue. Regardless of what side of the rigid political fence Americans are on, the Fiscal Cliff represents a threat to every American consumer, every American worker, every American citizen and every economy in the world.

The US has 67 days before the Bush Tax cuts expire and the short-term payroll tax reduction will expire and before a series of devastating budget cuts will go into effect. This combination of events has been designated the Fiscal Cliff for good reason. Each of these events will have serious repercussions for the biggest contributor of to the national GDP, the American consumer.

CEO’s of American companies have unified in a collective, aggressive call for swift and dramatic progress on the construction of a serious plan to significantly reduce the national debt and implement a budget and tax policy that is far-reaching and stabilizing. This pressure from CEO’s seems a call to action for the creation of a functioning environment for the good of the nation, an environment serving the benefit of the electorate not the political agenda of political parties. Congress must turn from self-serving policies to a cooperative, collaborative effort and do the right thing, regardless of political consequences.

CEOs have clout. When financial leaders like Warren Buffet, Jeff Immelt and Lloyd Blankfein call for political action, politicians must respond. These are some of the tangible repercussions if the Fiscal Cliff occurs:

  • JP Morgan reports that the expiration of the 2 percent temporary payroll tax reduction will result in trimming household spending capabilities by $125 billion in 2013 alone.  This will decrease an already fragile GDP growth by 0.6 percent next year.

 

  • The expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts will drain another $600 billion in 2013.

 

  • At a time when food prices are destined to increase due to disappointing crop production and the Department of Agriculture projects food price increases of 3.5 to 4.0 percent, a formula for crisis. These food increases will hit home in early 2013, the worst possible time.

 

  • Add projected increases of health insurance and the math is devastating. In 2012, increased premiums costs increased an average of $2,200 per employee. In 2013, projections indicate a further increase of 6.6 percent. In the past 5 years, health insurance premiums have risen 50 percent.

 

  • The most serious repercussion of the Fiscal Cliff is the automatic, across the board budget cuts that were passed into legislation as a contingency of the political differences surrounding the debt limit increase. These automatic cuts are called sequestration. If the cuts are imposed, $1.2 trillion over nine years. Half these cuts would come from defense but sectors like education and employment would be ravaged. The country would five into recession.

On the national election scene, sequestration has only been discussed in general terms. Politicians have been working behind the scenes to arrive at a sincere, structured plan for reducing the debt.

The consensus is that the Fiscal Cliff will be avoided in the short-term with a longer-term solution in six months. The immediate damage would be averted with the promise of a bi-partisan agreement along the lines of the $4.6 trillion debt reduction similar to the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction plan that failed to reach Congress because of Republican pledges not to accept any legislation with tax increases.

American business CEOs have heard enough. The Fiscal Cliff will cause an immediate loss of millions of jobs.

The expectation is that a short-term compromise consisting of a down payment and a basic structure would be submitted during the lame duck session of Congress after the election and prior to December 31. Permanent and sweeping cuts would be put into legislation in the following 4 or 5 months.

CNBC reported that legislation along the lines of Simpson Bowles would create 2 million new jobs, solidify the USD and boost investor confidence. This is what will inspire US businesses to bring stored capital reserves into play. A Simpson Bowles type plan will without doubt cause pain throughout the middle and low income earners and some discomfort to high income earners.

The US must pay its debt and no amount of spin can change that reality or the pain that must ensue. Even with Simpson Bowles, there will be more work to do in the future.

If the Bush tax cuts expire and necessary austerity cuts to social programs are implemented, there appears an imbalance in pain distribution. Cuts to Medicaid, education and education grants, social security, Medicare and other social programs tend to hurt low income and middle income persons and families much more than high income individuals.

What the US cannot compromise upon is creating an environment where businesses and entrepreneurs understand tax policy and administrative costs. You can debate tax increase for the rich and elimination or reduction of tax deductions until the sky falls, but the reality is the solution will be painful and how the pain will be distributed is a critical concern. The strategy has to be to improve the environment for economic growth and, at the end of the day, the American consumer is the best vehicle to grow the economy. Whatever reduces the debt significantly and does not kick the can down the road more than in the short-term and adds new jobs, thus broadening the power of the consumer, is the correct ticket.

American CEO’s are taking aim at the December 31st deadline for the launch of the “US Fiscal Cliff,” the most critical national and global economic issue. Regardless of what side of the rigid political fence Americans are on, the Fiscal Cliff represents a threat to every American consumer, every American worker, every American citizen and every economy in the world.

The US has 67 days before the Bush Tax cuts expire and the short-term payroll tax reduction will expire and before a series of devastating budget cuts will go into effect. This combination of events has been designated the Fiscal Cliff for good reason. Each of these events will have serious repercussions for the biggest contributor of to the national GDP, the American consumer.

CEO’s of American companies have unified in a collective, aggressive call for swift and dramatic progress on the construction of a serious plan to significantly reduce the national debt and implement a budget and tax policy that is far-reaching and stabilizing. This pressure from CEO’s seems a call to action for the creation of a functioning environment for the good of the nation, an environment serving the benefit of the electorate not the political agenda of political parties. Congress must turn from self-serving policies to a cooperative, collaborative effort and do the right thing, regardless of political consequences.

CEOs have clout. When financial leaders like Warren Buffet, Jeff Immelt and Lloyd Blankfein call for political action, politicians must respond. These are some of the tangible repercussions if the Fiscal Cliff occurs:

  • JP Morgan reports that the expiration of the 2 percent temporary payroll tax reduction will result in trimming household spending capabilities by $125 billion in 2013 alone.  This will decrease an already fragile GDP growth by 0.6 percent next year.

 

  • The expiration of the Bush Tax Cuts will drain another $600 billion in 2013.

 

  • At a time when food prices are destined to increase due to disappointing crop production and the Department of Agriculture projects food price increases of 3.5 to 4.0 percent, a formula for crisis. These food increases will hit home in early 2013, the worst possible time.

 

  • Add projected increases of health insurance and the math is devastating. In 2012, increased premiums costs increased an average of $2,200 per employee. In 2013, projections indicate a further increase of 6.6 percent. In the past 5 years, health insurance premiums have risen 50 percent.

 

  • The most serious repercussion of the Fiscal Cliff is the automatic, across the board budget cuts that were passed into legislation as a contingency of the political differences surrounding the debt limit increase. These automatic cuts are called sequestration. If the cuts are imposed, $1.2 trillion over nine years. Half these cuts would come from defense but sectors like education and employment would be ravaged. The country would five into recession.

On the national election scene, sequestration has only been discussed in general terms. Politicians have been working behind the scenes to arrive at a sincere, structured plan for reducing the debt.

The consensus is that the Fiscal Cliff will be avoided in the short-term with a longer-term solution in six months. The immediate damage would be averted with the promise of a bi-partisan agreement along the lines of the $4.6 trillion debt reduction similar to the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction plan that failed to reach Congress because of Republican pledges not to accept any legislation with tax increases.

American business CEOs have heard enough. The Fiscal Cliff will cause an immediate loss of millions of jobs.

The expectation is that a short-term compromise consisting of a down payment and a basic structure would be submitted during the lame duck session of Congress after the election and prior to December 31. Permanent and sweeping cuts would be put into legislation in the following 4 or 5 months.

CNBC reported that legislation along the lines of Simpson Bowles would create 2 million new jobs, solidify the USD and boost investor confidence. This is what will inspire US businesses to bring stored capital reserves into play. A Simpson Bowles type plan will without doubt cause pain throughout the middle and low income earners and some discomfort to high income earners.

The US must pay its debt and no amount of spin can change that reality or the pain that must ensue. Even with Simpson Bowles, there will be more work to do in the future.

If the Bush tax cuts expire and necessary austerity cuts to social programs are implemented, there appears an imbalance in pain distribution. Cuts to Medicaid, education and education grants, social security, Medicare and other social programs tend to hurt low income and middle income persons and families much more than high income individuals.

What the US cannot compromise upon is creating an environment where businesses and entrepreneurs understand tax policy and administrative costs. You can debate tax increase for the rich and elimination or reduction of tax deductions until the sky falls, but the reality is the solution will be painful and how the pain will be distributed is a critical concern. The strategy has to be to improve the environment for economic growth and, at the end of the day, the American consumer is the best vehicle to grow the economy. Whatever reduces the debt significantly and does not kick the can down the road more than in the short-term and adds new jobs, thus broadening the power of the consumer, is the correct ticket.

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Simpson-Bowles-Blankfein Over Ryan-Biden


In the US, there is a tradition of political debates. The US once had memorable debates. For the most part, the current debates are not only disappointing but reveal very little about the candidates or their solutions across a host of challenges..  The media would have us believe that everyone was waiting for another meaningless debate between VP Biden and VP candidate Ryan.

After two debates, viewers should be asking one big question, “What will change and how?” Here, we have two candidates for the Presidency of the US and not one word has been said about the fiscal cliff.

The fiscal cliff is scheduled for January 1, 2013. At that point, the payroll tax reduction will expire. The Bush tax cuts will expire and a series of budget cuts will be automatically triggered. This fiscal cliff will have serious, serious repercussions for the US and the global marketplace.

Vice President Joe Biden squared off against would-be Vice President, Paul Ryan, last night. After three minutes it was clear that this debate, like the debate between Obama and Romney, would be nothing more than name-calling, accusations and denial. Like the first Romney-Obama debate, nothing quantitative was put forth for voters to consider. It is clear that Romney is playing not to lose and that Obama is promising more for less.

The debate system is a media-driven farce. These are not debates. These are politicians doing what they do best; speaking loudly but never saying anything.

Last week, the consensus was that Romney defeated Obama in their first of three presidential debates.  There were no winners, just losers and those losers are us. If you can tell me how Romney will create tax reform, please send it in.

Obama mistakenly misunderstood his mandate during the first two years when he had the House and the Senate majority. He wasted those years. When gridlock set in, politicians put constituencies to the side while the people who pay political salaries were the losers. As both sides point fingers, there is nothing concrete and nothing responsible coming from either presidential candidate regarding the four internal fiscal crises facing the US. Those four crises are:

  • The Fiscal Cliff
  • The Bush Tax Cuts
  • The national debt
  • Unemployment

Romney says he has a plan.  If so, it must be a secret plan because he never presents facts. Romney appears to think he can win the office without revealing any specifics.

Romney makes bold promises. Lower taxes, fiscal responsibility, reducing the deficit, tighter border controls, cuts to education and increased defense spending and maybe a war or two mixed in with a less efficient healthcare system.

State or federal health insurance plans are expensive. But, it is more expensive to have the uninsured go to an emergency department and receive care. Rather than propose politically motivated solutions, let’s get to the core. If the US is to bring healthcare under control, billions of dollars could be saved every year by controlling the way healthcare providers operate and how they are compensated.

The US medical system, including Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance, is badly broken.  In this system, waste is everywhere. Insurance providers private and public, physicians, hospitals and care givers all know the system is deeply flawed. Before we change how persons will be treated, this country needs policies that dig much deeper into waste and corruption. The cost and availability of health insurance is not the major flaw in the system. The flaw is waste and corruption.

After running against national health during the Republican debates, Romney appears to have had a change of heart. Now, he favors state-sponsored health insurance programs, like he initiated in Massachusetts. Had he mentioned this at the Republican debates, he would not be a presidential candidate. Obama’s position on health insurance is clear.

Romney says he can fix the problems. Our poor educational system, which will suffer further budget hits under Romney, will come together and produce the greatest workforce on the planet. How is that possible?  We will add millions of jobs. How?  We will pay less in taxes and the government will shed jobs and everything will be fine.  How?

Meanwhile, Obama tries to smooth over the failings of the last four years. He identifies Ben Laden’s assassination and Obama-care as his two primary achievements. Granted he had a Republican Party that cared more about ousting Obama than they did their constituents, but it is his job to work on both sides of the aisle.

Romney believes in trickledown economics and Obama believes in trickle-up economics.

Romney says he will be aggressive with foreign diplomacy, especially in the Middle East. Can the US afford more loss of life and the massive, unfunded expenses of another war?

Obama prefers diplomacy and economic sanctions.  Obama’s strategy and strength is diplomacy. He regards economic sanctions as a major deterrent against terrorism.

Romney is a hawk, Obama a dove.        

Yesterday, Lloyd Blankfein, Alan Simpson and Eskine Bowles and CNBS commentator Steve Liesman had a compelling interview with CNBC. These fellows talked facts and reality.

It is clear that the financial markets believe the Simpson-Bowles budget and tax plan is the correct way to go. It is also clear that these very knowledgeable people subscribe to a balanced plan to reduce the country’s debt. Simpson-Bowles details how to handle the four major crises in a quantitative program of relief.

There will be pain and hardship but as the economy grows those difficulties will diminish. The burning question is why neither Romney nor Obama talk specifics the real issues. Obama has been battered by Republicans and can only say what he will try. Romney is afraid to alienate his fragile electorate.

The most terrifying threat to a reasonable American lifestyle does not lie in the Presidential election. Instead, the nation’s remedies rest on the composition of the Congress. Simpson and Bowles correctly identified the Norquist pledge as the major deterrent to an economic recovery. If pledge subscribers dominate the Republican Party, the next President will not have the capability to implement responsible legislation.

The time has come for the candidates to present the public with some specific changes and quantify them. The idea of voting for change verses no change is no on the table. Change is mandatory so can someone say precisely their plan to implement change across the land. Is forthrightness missing from the election experience? Our debates lack candidates that stand up and say what will do. Our debates are really about picking which untruth sounds better. How sad is that?”     

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243,000 Job Gain In January


The January job market surpassed expectations as the private sector gained a net  243,000 jobs.  Experts had projected a gain of 150,000 jobs. The unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent and was at its lowest level since February 2009.  The January results mark the 23rd consecutive month of increased private sector jobs demand.

The distribution of these jobs was spread across the country and touched every sector of the economy.  The “diffusion index” tracks job creation by sector.  The index rose to 64.1 in January from the 62.4 in December. 

The non-farm payroll data was welcome news to the Obama Administration.  Some analysts have attributed much of the gain to the aggressive payroll tax reduction, which will expire by month’s end unless Congress can find middle ground.  The positive job trend comes on the wake of a disappointing Consumer Confidence Index report earlier in the week.

In the Federal Reserve’s employment projections for 2012, the unemployment rate was to decline to 8.2 percent in December.  There is some division within the Fed as to what the role of the Federal Reserve should be.  This positive employment data indicates that the Fed should be more patient before resorting to additional quantitative easing.  With the new data, the Fed is likely to hold on any new initiatives. 

Unemployment trends by industry November 2011 – January 2012 

Industry Nov. 2011 Dec. 2011 Jan. 2012
Construction 13.1 16.0 17.7
Education & Health 5.5 5.5 5.5
Finance 6.1 5.6 4.9
Information svcs 7.4 7.7 7.9
Leisure & Hospitality 11.1 10.8 12.6
Manufacturing 7.7 7.9 8.4
Other Services 8.4 8.0 9.3
Professional Services 9.0 9.3 9.5

 The unemployment rate lowered as the Household Survey showed a new jobs gain of 631,000.  The January report also states that an additional 60,000 jobs were filled in November and December 2011 that were not included in those reports.

The weekly hours index measures the total work effort.  The index shows an encouraging gain of 0.2 percent.

The manufacturing industry has been hard hit by the recession.  In January, this sector added 50,000 new jobs.

The retail sector caught analysts by surprise and could bode well for a growth trend.  Retailers added 10,500 workers in January.  Meanwhile, the construction industry, which has been decimated by the recession, added a surprising 21,000 jobs.

After the holiday rush, only 1,500 courier or messenger jobs were trimmed.

Bolstered by this positive data, the equity markets opened on a high note.  By midday, the Dow Jones was up 141 points.  The S&P was up 16.99 points and NASDAQ climbed 41.4 points. 

This is one surprise that Wall Street likes.  In view of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernancke’s statements to Congress, the market was guarded because of a slower than expected growth in GDP.

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