The Retired Investor: Food Scarcity in a Nation of Obesity
Thirty-three percent of adults are obese, while ten percent of households with children are facing a food crisis. This is happening together, at the same time, in the same place — America. How can this be?
During the height of the pandemic, if you recall, the media featured long lines of hungry Americans queuing up at food banks and other community centers for food to feed their families. That was a shocking sight to me. In the supposed wealthiest country in the world, where Americans usually throw away more food than they eat, there are people going hungry? I thought it must be caused by supply chain problems, not the scarcity of food.
Digging deeper, I discovered that millions of Americans have been facing food insecurity well before the coronavirus. The pandemic simply made a bad situation worse and food scarcity strikes hardest at the most vulnerable populations. Black families, for example, are twice as likely as white to have inadequate access to healthy food.
But first, we need to understand the definition of food scarcity or food insecurity, since both terms are being used to define the same thing. The term refers to the lack of access to enough good, healthy, and culturally appropriate food. From an economic perspective, it is defined as the inability to afford that same healthy food for all family members.
Let me be clear, however, food insecurity and hunger are not the same concept, even though they may be somewhat related. Food insecurity is socio-economic, which means its roots are both financial and cultural. Hunger is physiological, meaning physical. It is a physical sensation that might be a consequence of food scarcity or insecurity, but not always. We usually measure food scarcity at the household level and hunger at the individual level.
Back in the day, my family was considered "poor" (lower income would be the politically correct handle in today's world), but we were never hungry. Although, I suspect that there may have been times that my mother went without to feed us kids, but I couldn't prove it. Thank God, however, for the little backyard summer garden we had (although eating tomato sandwiches for lunch several times a week was a bit much).
Today's food security (or insecurity) is our society's attempt to move the discussion of food policy beyond simple hunger. It is an effort to capture the reality of individuals and families who struggle to get enough good quality food on the table. Food scarcity and obesity, believe it or not, have much in common.
Obesity is defined as having excess body fat. Adults 35 years of age and older with a Body Mass Index (BMI) greater than 30 are considered obese. Former President Donald Trump, for example, falls onto that category. Where food scarcity and the problem of obesity meet most often is around the meaning of "good and healthy" foods.
The lifestyle of the obese and the poor coincide in a number of areas. Poorer working families (especially single parent households), for example, have neither the money, nor the time to plan meals and supervise their family's food intake. Skipping breakfast, eating out at cheap, fast food joints, consuming highly processed and calorie-rich foods, snacking in front of the television, and drinking sugar-sweetened beverages are regular occurrences for families working to put food on the table. Those same eating habits are also commonly found among obese families and individuals.
Given that background, it should not surprise us that one out of every six American children are at risk of food scarcity and suffer from obesity as well. Food insecurity is influenced by any number of factors including income, employment, race/ethnicity and disability. It can be long-term or temporary.
For years, I have written about the growing income inequality in this country. Unfortunately, both the private and public sectors have ignored that issue. The onset of the pandemic only made a bad situation much worse. The huge rise in unemployment, the long-term trend of sinking real wages in the service industries, coupled with the shrinking safety net of both private health care and social programs have resulted in problems only one of which is food scarcity.
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@theMarket: Tech Stocks Rise From the Dead
The large cap technology sector bounced back this week as bond yields fell. It is a see-saw market filled with several cross-currents. But if you want to know where stocks are going, keep your eyes focused on the U.S. Ten-Year Bond yield.
In my last column, I explained how rising bond yields are like kryptonite to the continued performance of what I call "super tech stocks." Over the last two weeks, the NASDAQ 100, for example, experienced a 10 percent-plus down draft, as bond yields rose to 1.60 percent from 1.25 percent. Investors sold FANG stocks, and technology shares in new-era sectors, like solar and electric vehicles, and bought old economy stocks, like in energy, financials, and cyclicals.
This week, that trade reversed somewhat as bond yields stopped rising, drifted lower, and seem to be stabilizing around 1.50 percent -- until Friday. While the S&P and Dow Indexes pulled back a little in response, NASDAQ dropped 1.5 percent. The question is whether the rate rise in yields is coming to an end, or will we see yet another backup in yields as investors become even more concerned over future inflation.
There is no reason why the yield on the "Ten Year" couldn't rise further, in my opinion, maybe as high as 1.80 percent to even 2 percent later in the year. After all, that was where yields were on the Ten Year just before the pandemic. What could drive yields higher? Inflation concerns.
I believe the Federal Reserve Bank Committee is expecting the inflation rate to hit their long-term target of 2 percent in the next few months. Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, has already said they would be willing (and happy) to see that happen. That would be a textbook and natural occurrence in any recovering economy. But what the Fed expects, and what the markets are prepared for, may be two different things.
"As long as yields rise gradually, and not all at once," say the experts, then investors can and will adjust accordingly. That remains to be seen. In this world of instant price reactions and compressed time periods, I am not so sure "gradual" is in the dictionary of today's traders. To them, a 25-30 basis point rise in yields could mean the end of the world. I fear a mad exit for the door could occur all at once at some point. It is a possibility, so be on guard.
The good news is that the $1.9 trillion American Relief Bill passed in what amounted to a one-party rescue of the American people. Not one Republican voted for the rescue plan, despite the fact that between 65-80 percent of Americans approved of the plan. The ink was barely dry on President Biden's signature, however, before investor attention turned to the passing of a future infrastructure package.
Unlike the relief package, which was passed through the budget reconciliation process, an infrastructure bill of real substance would require bi-partisan support. If that turns out to be a non-starter, President Biden could still provide some money ($300 billion or so), but nothing like the $2 trillion that would be needed to really address the nation's decrepit highways, bridges, seaports, and airports.
An infrastructure bill would actually provide a needed stimulus to grow the economy, while providing a real need that is long overdue. But it would also take longer to thread its way throughout the economy and would require a year or two before we would really see the impact in the data.
In any case, the prospect of such a bill will be enough to occupy investors' attention over the next few months. I suspect "infrastructure plays" will be bid up in anticipation of this potential government spending program. This happened four years ago, you may recall, when the Trump Administration announced their intentions to pass similar legislation. We all know that effort hit a brick wall, despite a Republican-held Congress and White House.
Today, with countries like China breathing down our necks, the U.S. is falling further and further behind in so many areas. We fiddle in bitter partisan politics, while the rest of the world plows ahead. A substantial infrastructure program would be a first step in stemming our economic slide.
In any case, we have two weeks left of volatility, so use the time to employ any excess cash you may have on down days. I expect stocks to regain their luster in April, so hang in there.
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The Retired Investor: The Coming Economic Boom
The nation should have a lot to celebrate in the coming months. Most economists are busily raising their forecasts for growth for the remainder of the year. If their forecasts are accurate, Americans can expect a booming economy this year and into 2022.
The arguments for growth are straightforward. The number of Americans that are being vaccinated is now higher than the number of new coronavirus cases. By the end of May 2021, if government forecasts are correct, almost everyone in the U.S. that wants a vaccination should have one. As a result, we can expect to see a re-opening of most businesses no later than the second half of the year. That, in turn, should lead to a rapid hike in economic activity.
But what will really spark the coming boom for the nation's economy is the $1.9 trillion American Relief Plan. The bill has just passed Congress and, according to the Biden Administration, money will start flowing into the pockets of those Americans who have suffered the most in the past year.
As a result, economic growth is expected to be the strongest since 1984. The latest consensus numbers of 76 economists are looking for Gross Domestic Product to rise by an annualized 5.6 percent in the second quarter, followed by 6.2 percent in the third quarter. Some see the economy jumping by as much as 10 percent between April and June.
The engines of growth are expected to be a combination of business investment and consumer spending on everything from airlines to restaurants. Throughout the last year, Americans that could, have saved as much as 20 percent of their total income. That brings the total savings amount for the month of January to $4 trillion. Some of that savings is expected to find its way into the economy as pent-up demand comes to the forefront. If you combine that with additional fiscal spending, we have what could be a perfect storm of demand for goods and services.
Recent manufacturing data from the Institute for Supply Management revealed that the sector had logged its highest growth level since August 2018. Personal income surged 10 percent in January, while household wealth increased nearly $2 trillion for that month.
Recently, many market participants have jumped on the inflation bandwagon figuring that all this demand coupled with the central banks loose monetary policies will trigger a higher rate of inflation. The Federal Reserve Bank has already said that they would be willing to allow inflation to rise to something above their long-stated ceiling of 2 percent. I expect that 2 percent rate should be achieved sometime in the next few months if economic growth is close to the forecast. Unfortunately, it will take job growth much longer to recover. Full employment could take years to accomplish.
None of these economic forecasts consider the possibility of an infrastructure program later on this year. The numbers talked about today are about equal to the amount of the $1.9 trillion relief package. Estimates that, at the minimum, such a program could mean another $2 trillion or more would surely boost the economy further into next year.
But, unlike the Democrat-sponsored and passed American Relief Bill, a meaningful infrastructure effort would require a bi-partisan effort. Politics has been the death knell in just about every past attempt at fixing the nation's roads, bridges and airports. Given the present state of uncertainty and division within and between both parties, the chances of that happening are neutral at best. But for the nation's sake, we can always hope.
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@theMarket: The Ides of March and the Market
It was a rough week in the markets. Investors were whipsawed throughout the week and finished down once again. I expect more of the same for investors this month.
However, I don't expect stocks to go straight down, find a bottom and then rebound. This downdraft is occurring at about the same time that markets sold off last year, but I do not expect the kind of severe correction we suffered through then. Overall, I am anticipating a 10-15 percent decline as I mentioned last week. Actually, as of Friday (March 5, 2021) morning we have suffered a 6.3 percent decline from the top on the S&P 500 Index futures contract. The pullback, by the way, is long overdue. I am hoping it will flush out some of the speculation and froth that were rising to dangerous levels among certain stocks.
The small backup in interest rates we have been experiencing in the last three weeks has been an excuse for a sell-off, in my opinion, but not a reason to fear the future. My evidence: we are on the cusp of an additional $1.9 trillion in fiscal stimulus, which may be passed by the Senate as early as this weekend. An even larger government spending program in infrastructure may also be in the offing in the coming months.
Of course, as I have been saying for a year, the key element to the future health and well-being of the economy, and the stock market, will be the country's battle to vanquish the coronavirus. Right now, thanks to the vaccination, and rapid distribution of the drugs by the present administration, that battle looks winnable in the months ahead.
But investors have not been waiting around for that to occur. A re-opening trade has been ongoing since the beginning of the year. Airlines, cruise lines, hotels, and casino stocks, among others, have all been gaining. That is an area where I would add some money in this pull back.
All my recommended natural resource plays have also been booming, led by energy. The bull market in commodities has a number of tailwinds that I believe will propel that sector even higher this year, but runaway inflation is not one of them. The present belief by a growing group of Wall Street analysts, namely that "inflation is here to stay so buy commodities" is too simple.
There is a big difference between expecting reflation (my opinion) and inflation, (or worse, hyperinflation). As global economies re-open, the demand for materials and other commodities should rise. If you throw in some supply chain issues and other pandemic-related conditions, sure, prices are going to rise, some substantially, but that is simply textbook economics. That doesn't automatically translate into an inflationary problem as so many are predicting.
It has been so long since we have had any real inflation, that there are investors out there that have never seen inflation in their professional careers. If you throw in the two-thirds of professional investors and traders who have also never experienced a rising interest rate environment, you have the makings of a perfect storm of inexperience, ineptitude, and chaos. I believe that is what we are witnessing in today's financial markets.
The Ides of March is actually on the 15th of this month and I expect to see a continuation of this chop fest at least until then, if not longer. The best declines are those that are sharp, short, straight down, and over before you know it. Unfortunately, I expect this correction to be different. There will be relief rallies like the pre-market 1 percent gains in the markets on Friday mornings followed by sharper down days. This kind of action should keep us all biting our nails, and if you attempt to trade it, emotionally exhausted and stressed out. The time to take profits is in the past. Hopefully, you followed my advice last month and did just that, but it is still too early to employ those funds.
The good news is that once this month comes to a close, I expect stocks and the economy to explode in the third and fourth quarters. All we need do is get through this month.
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The Retired Investor: Supply Chain Chaos
Americans are used to purchasing products, either on credit or cash, and having them delivered within a week, at the latest. Repairing those products such as a household appliances may take a little longer, but not by much. The pandemic has changed all that.
Now, I am not talking about toilet paper. That was last year's problem. No, it's about some large appliances and the accessories and parts that are crucial to their inner workings. Take my 9-year-old refrigerator for example. The water dispenser on the outside door doesn't work. It's a problem that has been going on for a year now, and the part needed to fix it is "on back order.”
Then there are my broken gas fireplace fans. The fans gave up the ghost just in time for the winter season. Ordering the parts was easy, but here it is the beginning of March and maybe, just maybe, the fans will be delivered and installed just in time for summer.
And then there is the mystifying disappearance of one of my cooking staples of convenience, minced garlic. For years, it was a ubiquitous purchase that I rarely thought about, until suddenly it was no longer in its usual place above the potatoes and loose onions counter. The guy in the vegetable department said they were out of stock and were uncertain when or if they would be getting any more of it. I finally found a few small jars hidden away in a corner of another supermarket.
Those are just a few personal examples. I came to realize that the coronavirus has upended the world's supply chains in ways that we rarely think about. The pandemic forced certain changes in our habits. Many of us stayed at home. Few outlets existed to spend money, so we stayed at home and spent money on our home goods. Instead of restaurants, we had to learn to cook. That meant stocking up on food and the freezers and refrigerators in which to hold it. We didn't need dry cleaners because we are all wearing sweats and working from home. But we do need washers and dryers.
At the same time that demand for these appliances exploded, the factories in countries that produced them were forced to scale back or shut down production entirely as the coronavirus decimated their workforce. This has created shortages. Exactly what appliances and other products depends on the supply chain of the individual good. It becomes a question of who makes the individual parts that together comprise so many appliances.
The facts are that certain important parts, items such as magnetron tubes for microwaves, compressors for refrigerators and freezers, for example, are made by a mere handful of overseas manufacturers. Most of these companies are in Asia.
Some of the product categories that have been really hurt by supply chain disruption might surprise you. The FDA is monitoring certain medicines and prescription drugs, especially some generic brands, since certain ingredients are manufactured in China and India. A number of consumer electronic products, solar panels, auto parts, air conditioners, toys and games, vaping devices, and even T-shirts and socks are included.
As for my beloved minced garlic, 70 percent of the garlic consumed in the United States is imported from China. Prices have risen by more than 30 percent since the pandemic began, so I'm guessing that minced garlic is getting too valuable to simply mince and stuff into a jar. To tell the truth, I'm finding that while convenient, the canned flavor lacks the pungency of mincing garlic myself. I guess that might qualify as a silver lining in the present supply chain chaos.
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