The Independent Investor: The Opioid Effect
Opioids are killing us. Both literally, as well as from an economic point of view. The economy has already suffered over $1 trillion in lost potential and those losses appear to be growing by the hour.
Last year, 62,000 Americans fatally overdosed on some form of opioid. It is getting to the point that almost every one of us knows someone who is either addicted or died from these drugs. However, while death is a tragedy, we tend to ignore how much this problem is costing our society.
"You can't put a price tag on the death of a loved one," we say, but actually we can. It's called the "value of a Statistical Life," or VSL. Federal agencies routinely use VSL measures in estimating the expected fatality risk-reduction benefits of a proposed safety regulation. It is based on studies that track how individuals trade off wealth for reduced mortality risks.
For the most part, the riskier the job, the more income a worker will demand to do it.
Recently, the President's Council of Economic Advisors incorporated this concept in assessing the economic costs of the opioid crisis. They found that for years, we have been underestimating the price tag of this crisis by not including VSL. To put this in perspective, in the next two years alone, by applying the concept of VSL the opioid crisis will cost the United States over $500 billion.
Let me explain why: As more and more young people succumb to this scourge, the economic costs begin to accelerate year after year. Statistically, the average age of overdose victims is about 41 years old. Think of all the lost wages and productivity that could have been, but will now never occur, times the number of years of one's expected life. Currently, that is estimated to be around $800,000 per person's death, according to a consulting institute, Altarium, which is measuring this trend.
However, that doesn't include other costs such as lost tax revenues, additional spending on health care, education, social services and the criminal justice system. If one just analyzes the health care cost alone from 2001 to 2017, the opioid health care price tag was over $217 billion.
Unfortunately, those health care costs seem ready to explode in the months and years to come. President Trump, who has rightfully recognized the gravity of the situation, has proposed that $17 billion in extra spending be directed to combating the crisis. Of that amount, $13 billion would be ear-marked for expanding access to prevention, treatment and recovery support services.
The consequences of this problem continue to show up in ways that few of us would expect. For example, two-thirds of America's youth don't qualify for military service today. Besides behavioral, educational and physical failings, a goodly number of those kids have addiction issues. How many? One out of every six young adults (between the ages of 18 and 25) battle a substance use disorder.
On the other end of the scale, an estimated 15 percent of elderly individuals suffer with substance abuse and addiction. It is something that I personally must watch for among retirees.
As we get older, we need more medical treatments, many of which involve surgery. Take me for example, I had both knees replaced over the last three years, plus prostate surgery.
Let me tell you, the pain meds flowed like manna from heaven. All the most notorious prescription opiates were at my beck and call. Fortunately, I was also trying to run a business, deal with the markets, and talk to clients. I was just too darn busy for pain meds. But I am an exception.
Consider the typical 60-70- 80 something, patient who is retired that has little to occupy his or her waking day, where the temptation to abuse these prescription meds is enormous. It has escalated to the level where Investment advisors like me are now being trained to identify the symptoms of opiate addiction or abuse among our clients.
No question about it, this opioid crisis is hamstringing the nation where it hurts the most, its people. Anything we can do, public or private, to stem the spread of this pandemic should be one of our highest priorities. Fortunately, our president feels the same
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@theMarket: Earnings Up; Stocks, Not So Much
Earnings season kicked off last Friday with the bank results. The numbers were stellar, but the stock prices of those companies fell hard. Since then, the same thing has occurred to any number of companies. What is going on?
At first, you might think it's classic "sell on the news" behavior where traders bid stock prices up prior to the earnings announcement and then take profits immediately after. However, a closer look reveals something different going on.
For months, investors were expecting a boost to corporate profits from the tax cuts passed by Trump and the GOP last year. Boy oh boy, we said, just wait and see how great earnings will be in the first quarter. Wall Street analysts came to a consensus that corporate profits could be up by 20 percent or more year-on-year. The stock markets roared to life in January, discounting much of these expectations.
Since then, stocks have dropped and only recovered about half of those losses year to date. But there's more. Investors are also discounting these 20 percent earnings pops because the earnings gains from tax cuts are of a much lower quality than the day-to-day profit gains generated from their business.
Traders and investors alike are ignoring the headline numbers and delving deep into the results. If earnings beats are simply a function of tax savings, down goes the stock price. So, this time around, first-quarter earnings are not what they seem.
And what the government giveth, so the government can taketh away. In my previous column "Why tax cuts are unpopular with Americans," I worry about the durability of these partisan tax cuts. Like the passage of Obama Care by a Democrat-controlled Congress, the tax bill was also a partisan action. If Democrats regain control of either house of Congress, we can expect an effort to roll back these tax cuts.
Until we see the lay of the land in November, why should investors assume the tax benefits for corporations are here to stay? Company managers are acutely aware of these risks as well. It might explain why, rather than commit to a multiyear investment plan in their core business or the hiring of extra labor, they would rather buy back stock and increase their dividends to shareholders with the money.
That, of course, creates a vicious circle. The Democrats (and some Republicans from income tax states) will use this to argue that the tax cut was never intended to grow the economy, but rather reward Republican donors and Trump's political base. Budget hawks will point to the exploding deficit as another reason to raise taxes. If that tactic works, it will convince companies to delay any tax-fueled investment plans even further.
The moral of this tale is that partisan politics doesn't work. It didn't work under Obama and it won't work under Trump. Unfortunately, most Americans fail to understand this today.
The era of compromise in this country is long gone. Instead, we choose chaos and crisis. Last week, I warned that we were not quite through this period of volatility. We had three up days this week, and two down days. That should continue, but with an upward bias.
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The Independent Investor: Why the Tax Cuts Are Unpopular Among Americans
Despite spending big money and all the marketing they can muster, the Republicans are still not able to convince most Americans that the tax cut benefits anyone but the rich and the corporations they own. Maybe, we are not as dumb as they think we are.
An April poll by Gallup indicated that 51 percent of Americans disapproved of the tax cut, versus 39 percent who approved of the cut. Another poll, conducted by NBC News/Wall Street Journal, found that 36 percent of the people they polled thought the tax cut was a bad idea, while only 27 percent believed it was a good idea.
Normally, you would think that a tax cut that benefits "all Americans" and "especially the middle-class working man," according to president Trump and his party, would be greeted with great enthusiasm. Even more confusing are polls that indicate that more of us (by a slim majority) believe that middle-class taxes are fair.
I believe there are a couple of conflicting cross-currents that are shaping our view of taxes. For one thing, the tax bill was cobbled together quickly and passed unilaterally to give the president legislative victory before the end of his first year. As a result, few really know what's in it, or how all the changes will impact the individual taxpayer.
We've been given, for example, a new set of tax brackets for individuals, but, at the same time, most of the itemized deductions have been removed. There are also more questions than answers regarding who can file and benefit for the new 20 percent pass-through tax rate. Most accountants I have talked to still have no idea how to plan for their client's taxes this year and don't know when they will.
Given that the federal tax code has experienced its most significant changes in decades, it will take time to analyze its ramifications. As such, the majority of individual taxpayers are still uncertain if the new law will help or hurt them over the long run.
The controversial limit of how much state taxes can be deducted from your federal bill (capped at $10,000 from all sources) will most likely mean that in states with income taxes many taxpayers will either experience a minimal benefit from the tax bill, or in some cases, be paying more taxes. Given that large segments of the country's population live in these states, their disenchantment with the tax bill is understandable.
Democrats (all of whom voted "no" for the bill) have been quick to point out that the tax bill was nothing more than a vast re-distribution of wealth from the middle class and low-income Americans to the wealthy, rich CEOs and big corporations. What's more, whatever benefit the average Joe might receive now will expire by 2025. At that point, not only will your tax rate go back up, but there will be no itemized deductions to ease the blow!
These accusations just fuel the anger of 6 out of 10 Americans, who feel upper-income people pay too little in taxes as it is. In addition, prior to the tax cut, a large majority of Americans had already believed that corporations pay too little in taxes. Now they pay even less. It also doesn't help much that our congressmen and senators stand to make a huge windfall personally from the tax cut, as does the president and his family.
As we head into the mid-term elections, there is a growing expectation that the Democrats will retake the House, if not the Senate. If so, many of these tax cuts could be reversed. You can bet those lawmakers from income tax states will certainly be pushing for major revisions.
In the meantime, Corporate America isn't helping the GOP cause. Instead of using their windfall tax profits to invest in America and hire more workers, they are using the money to reward their shareholders by raising their dividend payouts to historical levels. In the first three months of 2018, dividends have increased by $18.8 billion — that's a 13.9 percent increase over last year. At that rate, dividend payout increases could total more than $56 billion this year.
In addition, corporations have also announced $159 billion in share buybacks. Analysts expect that figure to rise to $800 billion by the end of the year. That would be a 10 percent increase over last year.
Between buyback and dividend increases, roughly 23 percent of the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts have already been spoken for. Remember too, that these dividends and buybacks go directly into the pockets of the wealthy, who are already enjoying outsized benefits from the tax cuts.
It just proves a point, that we Americans are not as dumb as we look. We know a bad deal when we see one and for most of us, this dog won't run.
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The Independent Investor: The Facebook Fallacy
After a grueling two-day inquisition before both houses of Congress, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has left the building. The question is how much did anyone really learn about the privacy issues of this social media behemoth?
As most readers are aware, the present controversy erupted when it was revealed that a Trump-campaign related firm, Cambridge Analytica, harvested personal data from millions of Facebook users. It spawned a huge controversy over privacy, cybersecurity and Big Data companies in general.
I watched as much of the hearings as I could stomach. What was clear to me was most of our so-called legislators had no idea how Facebook works. While some were obviously coached by their aides, even the answers to their questions drew blank or embarrassed stares. How they expect to regulate something they don't understand is beyond me, but then again, I guess it happens all the time.
It could be any one of us up there grappling to understand an entity that has become so entangled in our everyday lives. The truth is only a handful of Americans truly "get" what Facebook is even though they have been upfront with us since the get-go.
So, let's start by asking a simple question — how does Facebook make money? And yes, Joe, Facebook is a for-profit company. In one word, the answer is advertising. How much is that worth? At last count, the company is capitalized at roughly $543 billion. Clearly, Facebook is not some kumbaya, social network where everything is free no matter how touchy-feely it may look.
Helping two billion people worldwide "connect" is an admirable accomplishment from a social point of view, but it is also a darn good revenue generator. Let's be clear, Mark Zuckerberg has never said it wasn't. He has reminded everyone countless times that "building a mission and building a business go hand in hand."
Selling ads has generated over $39 billion for the company. So, what makes advertisers flock to Facebook when they could just as easily spend their money on tv or radio ads? One word: the product.
"What product?" you may ask.
That's easy. You're the product — along with all the countless billions of bytes that represent the information you have so generously spewed out over years and years of posting personal information about yourself and everyone in your universe. How much of that information you want to share with the world and advertisers is completely up to you.
Through the years, the thousands and thousands of Facebook employees have given you almost every option they could think of to "opt out" of sharing that information. Instead, if you are like me, we blithely pump out more and more personal information to the outside world without a care of how or who is using it. That is until the bad guys start to take advantage of our stupidity.
Suddenly, when that happens, we all feel betrayed by the very entity that tries to protect us when the fact is, in my opinion, that we all have been too lazy to read the material, examine and control who we are sending information to, and doing all that is required to use this social network in a rational way.
We are like the guy who uses 1-2-3-4 as his password on all his accounts. He is then hacked and subsequently sues the company for not providing enough password protection.
You may even admit to the worth of my argument but still insist that you would fulfill your obligations if the safeguards weren't so complex and difficult to use. That's like saying I would practice gun safety if I could figure out which end the bullet came out. The meaning here is you have no business using social media if you don't understand its ramifications to you, your family, and your friends.
No matter how much social media companies try to protect us, who can protect us from ourselves? If you post photos of walking your dog day in, day out at a specific, isolated location, and then someone mugs you there, can you guess why?
The point is that we are Facebook's product. It has always been the case. Yes, we are a lucrative product to them, but it is we who determine what we want to give away. So far, most users have been willing to give away the farm. Are you one of them?
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@theMarket: The Trump Trade Bluff
This week, our fearless leader upped the ante on the tariff tiff with China. It went like this: Trump announced his list. China announced theirs. And at the end of the week, the president sees them one better. Aside from the volatility, it is causing in the stock markets, not much besides headlines has been accomplished.
Are you seeing the pattern yet? Think back to Trump's schoolyard diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. First, a furious exchange of tweets and name-calling between the two. That was followed by saber-rattling on both sides. More test missiles. Naval ships steaming toward the Peninsula. The media spent days explaining the "what ifs" while stocks went up and down.
In the end, the two neighborhood bullies now appear willing to play nice and meet at the end of the month. I fully expect our president to come out of the meeting extolling "Fatty the Third" as his newest and dearest best friend.
Now compare that to the tariff turmoil. Tweets, counter tweets, threats, etc. are flying this way and that; but so far, it's all smoke and mirrors. Investors here in the U.S. are still reacting like puppets on a string, but elsewhere governments and stock markets are disengaging from these Trump tactics.
Take Thursday night's announcement. Trump ordered his trade rep, Robert Lighthizer, to "consider" an additional $100 billion in trade tariffs against China. By the time he does all that studying, a few months will have passed. In the meantime, things change and there is no guarantee that any recommendations will ever see the light of day.
However, like the puppets we have become, Thursday night's futures market for the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by over 500 points. Corresponding drops in our other indexes also occurred. But here is where foreign investors parted ways with our traders. Japan's stock market traded up slightly at first and then dropped by a small amount at the end of the day. Some markets, such as Hong Kong and India, finished higher. By the time we opened for business on Friday morning, the losses in our own averages were pared back by more than half.
Like a dog whose bark is worse than its bite, global investors and governments are beginning to realize that what comes out of the Twitter-in-Chief's mouth (or his Twitter account) is neither policy nor necessarily even the truth. As such, investors would be well advised to ignore his pronouncements. Granted, that's hard to do because the president will go to great lengths to stay in the center of the spotlight, no matter what he needs to say or do to accomplish that goal.
Nonetheless, do not act on his statements. Next week, earnings season begins, and analysts expect good things from Corporate America. Wages continue to gain (2.7 percent on an annual basis), according to the latest non-farm payroll report, although the number of jobs gained (103,000) was 90,000 short of expectations. From a macroeconomic point of view, things look good and are gaining momentum.
As for the markets, I expect volatility will continue. Right now, the S&P 500 Index is caught in a 100-point trading range and will probably not break out of it until the middle of April at the earliest. Cushioning the market somewhat, as I expected, is the tax cut. U.S. dividends increased in the first quarter to a record high. Corporate buy backs are also recording the same kind of gains, as most corporations reward their investors by passing along their tax savings, rather than investing them in jobs or capital spending (as the legislation's authors promised). That makes owning stocks a good bet for the future.
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