New BLS Hits

Some of those on Social Security may have been pleased by government analysis and forecasts which the Feds said indicate that there is no inflation, at least until the Feds concluded that primarily senior citizens didn’t “need” a raise in the Cost of Living Allowance this year. (Not being all-wise, like our overseers, I have no idea whether anyone considered if those who receive SS for odd reasons that do not include having paid into the system for many years “need” a raise or not. I also doubt that government employees didn’t get theirs.)

No inflation now or in sight?! Wahoo, let’s stop living on hamburger chubs and picking over the marked down meat, happy days are here again.

As though the official forecast for 2010–as shown by denying a raise in COLA for SS, a very unusual act–weren’t enough, whaddya think, but the Fed’s seers concluded from the data on hand that there isn’t going to be any inflation for the next two years as well! They’re so sure that they have already said “No COLA in 2011 and 2012, either.” Mah goodness, the green shoots are real, peace and stability are here, all hail Obama and Congress for their wisdom and flooding the world with pretty green pieces of paper. Americans will go along with any promise that an Andrew Jackson will buy in 2013 what it buys today. Historically…well, what an Andrew Jackson bought twenty years ago now costs a Bernanke, aka Benjamin Franklin, and my guess is that it will take a Jackson to buy what a fiver will now within three years. If we’re lucky.

Now that all of us who haven’t had prefrontal lobotomies have had a good laugh, let’s take a look at what the Bureau of Labor Statistics, abbreviated BLS appropriately, has to say about the merry month of March, 2010. Plug in UE if you see what I see, which is blue, not green. I’ll lead you into it as gently as I can by noting that for fourteen months in a row the number drawing food stamps has increased. This has more significance than just that unemployment is high (which we all knew) and that a benevolent government is buying groceries for very close to forty million “Americans” (39.4 million, to be precise.) I can’t see any difference between Bernanke and Geithner’s counterfeit and food stamps except that I’m not getting any of either, can you? Both purport to be “money” (although there are purely theoretical restrictions on what the stamps can be swapped for), both create “value” out of thin air, and while food stamps may be destroyed after one use they still inflate the money supply. This is exactly like cashing a check at your bank or “pulsing” out of an ATM, a beautifully apt comparison since using your debit card can result in charges. In both instances your bank account is depleted.

The number of those collecting food stamps is up 22.4% over March, 2009. Supposing amnesty for what some have estimated as at least twenty million “illegals,” while others put the figure at near thirty million, is pushed through–can there be any doubt?–it seems at least probable that food stamp allocations within a few months will rise by a minimum of fifty per cent. That sanguine figure I pulled out of my left ear, since it supposes that “only” twenty million will be added to the public trough but not the tax rolls. Not that that will be the end of the depredations, since “qualifying” for food stamps opens the door to many other calls on the public purse.

By the most stringent restrictions I could devise inflation could not have been set at any less than 3% honestly for at least the last three years, and the way I came up with that would have the Obama government leaping to hire me for demonstrating such imaginative accounting techniques. The BLS’ Producer Price Index (PPI) my be considered a diagnostic tool to anticipate increases in prices which will hit the consumer in the not too distant future. The U-6 unemployment rate is “the broadest measure of unemployment,” otherwise known as traditional accounting methods and how sensible people would tabulate the jobless population. You will be pleased to know that U6 = U5 + PHds asking if you would like to supersize the fries, or close enough.

The government prefers to use “U-3,” which cuts the figures as calculated by honest folk almost exactly in half, and it is only coincidental that half of six is three. Jeff Harding of The Daily Capitalist notes that U-6 increased from 16.8% to 16.9%, which may not sound like much of an increase unless you are one of the fifteen million people out of work or part of the enormous number of households who still own stocks, over 50% a couple of years ago. When we get to discussing actual increases in the cost of food in the last year you’ll feel as though this is the economic version of a crush film. The only green shoots I see are the government fog of green spray paint covering the facts. Timmy said recently, “We’ve made a lot of progress, we’ve got some work to do still and it’s going to take some time to heal the damage.” Given Geithner’s net worth and work history perhaps Mrs. Timmy (if there is one) doesn’t have to worry her pretty little head about the food budget. Most of the rest of us do–including the Entitled who are eating our lunch and more.

Again, I’ll ease you into the bad news gently. According to the BLS computational artists “food prices for the month (March, 2010), rose by 2.4%.” That’s very bad. The sentence continues “its sixth consecutive monthly increase and the largest jump in over 26 years.” which is much worse. Inflation is cumulative, you see, although the government doesn’t. We can’t just say that “inflation was 2.4% last month,” because inflation was the total increases of October, November, December, January, February, and March. On top of whatever it was in September. Much more of this and we’ll be having all the fun India is undergoing in rapid inflation in food prices.

Carolyn Cui, writing for The Wall Street Journal, comments, “From its February lows to the present, the CRB Index of commodity prices is up 8%. The CRB’s advance is not just an ‘oil thing.’ Most commodities are advancing, including the long-slumbering agriculture complex. Several price indices are validating these recent inflationary signals coming from the commodity markets. The Producer Price Index is up 6% year over year; import prices are up 11.4%, and the ISM’s Prices Paid Index has more than doubled during the last 12 months.” (Lawdy, don’t she talk fine, and ain’t that jest dandy news?)

Producers and retailers cannot delay price increases forever; eventually they have no choice other than passing them along to consumers, and savvy ones should be punching their prices up discretely already. The value of anything is what it costs to replace it, which applies to the flour a baker has in inventory, how many tires a B. F. Goodrich dealer has in stock, and the food in your pantry or my feed room in the barn. All of us will lose money if we do not take into account replacement costs, although this must be balanced against losing trade now by adjusting prices to more realistic levels by retailers. Perhaps three years ago the price of charcoal skyrocketed and meat was high. Not as many Americans were grilling out, and those who did were buying house brand briquettes because Kingsford raised their price to a dollar a pound. Sure, Kingsford makes excellent charcoal, but not at over twice the price of Walmart’s Chinese version. It didn’t take long to decide they would rather keep selling charcoal at little or no profit and retain customer loyalty than to cede the market to WalMart and grocers, and Kingsford’s price dropped sharply.

Call whoever does the grocery shopping if you aren’t the one and see if anyone remembers what eggs cost a year ago. Or don’t bother. I’ll tell you: the price is up 33.6% in the last twelve months.

How about fresh and dry vegetables? If you haven’t noticed, those are up 56.1%, in part due to bad weather on both coasts and in South America and artificially-induced droughts in California. The same factors influenced the rise of fruit and melons, now up 28.8%, and almost all of the citrus fruit, in particular, is so tainted that even peeling it won’t remove the deleterious pesticides. Turns out those bagged salads have more possibilities of fecal contamination than most of us want to risk.

The “other white meat?” Up 19.1%, although bargains are still to be found in loss leaders. I have been quipping for years that when the rebellion begins it will start in front of the bacon display, when we shoppers decide that we simply will not pay what was asked for a “pound” of bacon which now weighs twelve ounces. I cannot advise taking a flyer in pork bellies even at current prices. One has to sympathize with hog breeders; their costs for feed, taxes, labor, energy, fuel, and regulatory compliance continue to climb rapidly. They deserve our sympathy anyway; hogs are large, bad-tempered, aggressive animals who squash their babies and smell worse than most anything else in the world. All the time. Forget about buying bacon and put your pork money in sirloin chops which you can find frequently for about $3/pound with almost no loss due to high fat content.

Beef and veal are now up 10.7% while dairy products, after a drop last year, have risen 9.7%. You will forgive me for saying, “I told you so.” I pointed out that beef and dairy cattle were being slaughtered because it cost too much to feed them, and that the average loss per head run through the Fort Worth Stock Yards last fall was $150. We had to feed hay last summer, and that condition continued throughout all of the hard winter and into a late spring. You would be horrified to know how quickly a hundred head of cattle can go through over $5,000 worth of hay. (Well, it may not be “worth” that, but that’s what it costs. Plus, of course, delivery fees and labor to put it in the barn and dispense it daily, which involves machinery you really don’t want to know the many costs of.) Just like the futility of eating your seed corn or turning 30% of the yearly corn crop into ethanol (which costs more than the energy it delivers), you can’t slaughter the mothers of future meat animals and expect prices not to rise. Being on this side of the expensive fence we’re repairing or replacing this week, I can attest that selling a head of beef at the local auction house for the current price of just under a dollar a pound isn’t going to finance a trip around the world on the “profits.” I’m not selling. It’s spring, the grass is lusher than in many a year, and th’ critters can wander around gaining a pound a day. If I don’t like the prices in the fall I’ll winter them over.

Very frequently I get into micro-economics, instead of my real brief, which is macro-economics. My reasoning is very practical: W&G is devoted to helping you make the most of your assets, and every tip I can give you to take advantage of trends frees up that much more capital. A side of beef six months ago would have been an excellent investment and kept you out of grocery stores. (It is a truism that even if you went to the store for nothing more than a loaf of bread your bill will be about eighty dollars.) Now is the right time to fill your propane tanks, since gas prices are increasing and it is a virtually invariable rule that it will cost more to do so in the fall no matter what energy costs are in any given spring.

Traditionally grocers attempt to make a massive 4% profit. The increases aren’t because farmers, ranchers, fruit growers, and your local Albertson’s have run amok (although it should be noted that everywhere I have ever been Albertson’s is more expensive, and so are Fred Meyer and Apple Tree, formerly Safeway.) Taxes, regulations, energy costs, labor costs, and the effects to come of Obamacare and other ultra-liberal legislation we expect to see rammed through Congress while the Demmies still have a lock cannot fail to increase the prices of all goods and services in coming years…and years…and years. Increases in the prices of food and gasoline were responsible for nearly 60% of the overall 3.85% rise in the cost of living since this time last year–which Carolyn Cui puts at six per cent.

If you haven’t filled your tank recently, gasoline is nudging three dollars a gallon, and so is diesel. America relies primarily on diesel fuel to get goods to market. Perhaps I should have mentioned in my recent article on how well Texas is weathering the current Depression how many of the railways are still in use, here. Tiny Hearne, twenty miles away, is known as “the crossroads of Texas” because major rail lines crossed and many of the most important railroad people lived there. You can still see many elegant old houses.

Figures and logic can seem dull until one grasps the joy of manipulating them and using them as a lie detector test. When we see the world in terms–at least occasionally–of “If A, then not B,” or “If A, then B but not C,” personal investment decisions become easier. What I’m most interested in at present (other than the steaks I can smell; one of the perquisities of being the, uh, sorta, very minor toast of four continents is that I don’t cook–something I love–any more, chained as I am to my computer about sixty hours a week rummaging through world happenings. My dear crew indulges me lavishly. Of course, I don’t ask them to write, which few relish as I do!)

To continue, what I am most interested in is what happens to the next $94 billion offering in treasures. It could be that the world is agog for the treat and will snap those babies up. Far more likely is that the result of this was covered in my archived article, the name of which no one should expect me to remember since I write at least two hundred of the things a year. If foreigners don’t step up to the plate, our biggest banks have to eat what’s left. Whaddawedo when the “too big to fails” can’t come up with the cash and/or Timmy and Benny can’t slip them any more under the table?

What if, some day–perhaps this week–the mega giants who are obliged to buy anything BRIC et alia don’t buy have to exclaim “Urk! We can’t cover that?!” One failed auction, and, as we say in Texas, it’s “Katie, bar the door!”

Matters are no better on a variety of other fronts: consumer credit has contracted 4% in the last year; household expenditures in terms of debt service have fallen from almost 14% to roughly 12.6%, but this almost certainly reflects those who have simply stopped paying their mortgages and credit card bills, not any real increse in income. News on the real estate front is not at all sanguine. According to RealityTrac YoY houses reposessed by mortgage holders rose 35% and auctions are up 21%, while filing foreclosure papers was up 16% in the first quarter compared to 2009. Their estimate calls for four million forclosure filings and a million seizures this year.

Wages continue to decline slightly while hours worked went up a similar tenth of a per cent, with a total for the last couple of months being .3% in each area over the last two months. BLS includes this tidbit: “In March, average hourly earnings of all employees on private nonfarm payrolls fell by 2 cents, or 0.1 percent, to $22.47, following a 4-cent gain in February. (Emphasis theirs. LBT) Over the past 12 months, average hourly earnings have risen by 1.8 percent. In March, average hourly earnings of private production and nonsupervisory employees fell by 2 cents, or 0.1 percent, to $18.90.” Laughter…I suspect the reason farm payrolls aren’t included is that we work longer hours for far less money. A cow hand makes all of five bucks an hour, with no benefits, eight if he’s stringing barbed wire fences.

You all know I’m staunchly in the Doom & Gloom contingent, and my basic “gut check” continues to insist that we should have as little fiat currency as possible when the Chinese turn the butterflies loose (very much to their advantage) or the Obama crowd can see no alternative to crashing the dollar deliberately. I am far more interested in not losing any value which can be stored than I am in making a “profit.” My brother points out that he found a few stocks paying spectacular dividends, but he spends most of his time in Latin America.

Today’s stats elicited a feeling that it is time to take even more serious precautions. My “instinct” (my term for an analysis I haven’t made on paper) is to get out of anything denominated in dollars (not that I like Euros, either) and buy anything of intrinsic value, preferable non-taxable and suitable for consumption or bartering…and don’t worry if you are down to salary or pensions we can’t expect to be worth much in times to come. I don’t have to live in Zimbabwe to know I wouldn’t like their method much. Very short term we might regret getting out of cash, bonds, tax-deferred pension plans, and most stocks, but let’s see how things look six months or a year hence. Sure, interest rates are low, but banks are in trouble and tend to hold on to their cash–and get more from the Fed for almost nothing and put it government paper at five times what it costs them. The joke is that the Feds are underwater far worse than mortgages are. Some consumerism is driven by current and foreseen tax situations, while some is spurred by those who have defaulted on mortgages and credit cards. Desperate merchants have reduced prices.

The only sector doing well is government. Sabers are rattled, but no jobs have really been shed, the “work” pays an average of 50% more than similar private sector jobs, raises continue, particularly at the higher levels, and the benefits are far more splendid. It’s the same old problem: out here we see rising prices, lower incomes, lost jobs, lost “equity” in our homes, and the difficulty individuals and small businesses have getting loans. The Statists persist in pretending Keynes was right, but the hog they’re riding high on is getting mighty skinny.

Here in the “No COLA because there is no inflation” group the old rules for how to build and manage capital are DEAD. The future belongs to those who plan now with that fact in mind.

Linda Brady Traynham
Whiskey & Gunpowder

May 10, 2010

The Daily Reckoning