[Paleopsych] Meme 040: Everything I Learned in Graduate Economics Was Wrong
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Sat May 7 00:00:46 UTC 2005
Meme 040: Everything I Learned in Graduate Economics Was Wrong
I mean that the assumption that investors were both knowledgeable and rational,
that the less knowledgeable and rational investors got driven out, is wrong.
I'd have thought, along with Gary North (below), that investors would peer
behind accounting rules and see the real figures. And I'd have thought that
they would have seen that health care has been rising faster than GDP for quite
a long time now and would have factored this in when estimating the true wealth
of General Motors. In other words, like conspiracy theorists, I want to believe
that somewhere, somehow there are competent people. There are, of course, but
their competence is more sharply limited than I had hitherto thought.
And now I have an explanation why businesses clamor for cheap labor through
immigration, while they surely ought to know that cheap labor for one business
means cheap labor for all competing businesses, with the result that there is
no increase in profits in any economy with a reasonably healthy amount of
competition, which is the case for the United States. The explanation is that
they are bad economists, as North shows in the case of investors. And so are
politicians and liberals who clamor for an increase in the minimum wage.
Gary North's REALITY CHECK
Issue 444, 5.5.6
GENERAL MOTORS RUNS OVER THE EXPERTS
DETROIT (AP) -- Standard & Poor's Ratings
Services cut its corporate credit ratings to junk
status for both General Motors Corp. and Ford
Motor Co., a significant blow that will increase
borrowing costs and limit fund-raising options
for the nation's two biggest automakers.
Shares of both companies fell 5 percent or more
after Thursday's downgrades, and the news sent
the overall market lower.
"New York Times"
(May 5, 2005)
All of a sudden, without warning, the investment world
is talking about the looming crisis at General Motors. Its
pension fund obligations and health care obligations now
appear to threaten the future of the company.
The decline of its stock price from $55 in January,
2004, to today's $30 range has revealed a loss of
confidence in the company by investors. To see this
decline in action, click here:
I have no objection to the experts' pessimism
regarding the future of General Motors. I happen to share
it, and have for years, precisely because of the pension
issue. What astounds me is that investors and financial
columnists have only just begun to regard the company's
pension obligations as a significant factor in the future
profitability of the firm. Why now? Why not in 2003 or
ten years ago?
The United Auto Workers' officers and GM's senior
managers decided decades ago to agree to high pension and
health benefits in exchange for reduced increases in wages.
Health care benefits are tax-free income for workers. Even
retired workers are covered. It seemed like a low-risk
deal for GM. Nobody thought about the price effects on
health care of Medicare.
The health care market, like all markets, is a giant
auction. If bidders get their hands on more money, they
will bid up prices. All over America, workers are bidding
health care prices. So are retirees.
A DISASTER CALLED OPEB
Alan Sloan, a financial columnist for "Newsweek," has
painted a stark picture. He begins with a description of
how GM got into this pickle.
Lower salaries meant that GM reported higher
profits, which translated into higher stock
prices -- and higher bonuses for executives.
Commitments for pensions and "other
post-employment benefits" -- known as OPEB in the
accounting biz -- had little initial impact on
GM's profit statement and didn't count as
obligations on its balance sheet. So why not keep
employees happy with generous benefits? It was a
free lunch. Besides, GM's only major competitors
at the time, Ford and Chrysler, were making
This is the free lunch mentality: something for
nothing. As with all free lunches, people eat more than
they normally would. The price is right!
Now, as we all can see, pension and health care
obligations are eating GM alive. The bill for the
"free" lunch has come in -- and GM is having
trouble paying the tab. In the past two years, GM
has put almost $30 billion into its pension funds
and a trust to cover its OPEB obligations. Yet
these accounts are still a combined $54 billion
Note the phrase, "as we all can see." But nobody saw
it until about February, 2004. Sloan says the problem by
then had been building for over half a century.
GM began its slide down the slippery slope in
1950, when it began picking up costs for medical
insurance, pensions and retiree benefits. There
was huge risk to GM in taking on these
obligations -- but that didn't show up as a cost
or balance-sheet liability. By 1973, the UAW
says, GM was paying the entire health insurance
bill for its employees, survivors and retirees,
and had agreed to "30 and out" early retirement
that granted workers full pensions after 30 years
on the job, regardless of age.
These problems began to surface about 15 years
ago because regulators changed the accounting
rules. In 1992, GM says, it took a $20 billion
non-cash charge to recognize pension obligations.
Evolving rules then put OPEB on the balance
sheet. Now, these obligations -- call it a
combined $170 billion for U.S. operations -- are
fully visible. And out-of-pocket costs for health
care are eating GM alive.
I report this because of the delay factor. This was
all built in, Sloan says. He is correct. It is why I
counselled small businessmen in the late 1970s not to set
up health plans and pension plans for their employees. The
legal liability was too great, I warned them. But I was
almost alone in this view. Not now.
"DON'T ARGUE WITH THE MARKET!"
We are told that the stock market discounts the future
rationally. This means that the best and the brightest
investors use their best estimates to buy and sell.
Today's prices therefore include all of the relevant
information, as judged by experts who bought or sold. Any
unexpected price changes must come from new information or
new perceptions that had not operated before.
With respect to GM, it's "new information, no; new
perception, yes." The information was there for many
years. All of a sudden, investors' perception changed.
Down went GM shares. Yet the basics had not changed.
By tying stock pricing theory to information, and by
relegating changed perceptions to the footnotes, economic
commentators can then tell us that good times are coming,
that bad news will be more than offset by good news. After
all, isn't the stock market rising? Anyway, it's not
falling. "Don't argue against the stock market!"
Here is the reality of stock market pricing: seriously
bad news is not discounted until it threatens the survival
of the company. Optimism usually prevails among investors.
Only toward the end of a bear market does investor
With respect to pensions and health care, optimism is
government policy. The government has assured us, year
after year, that "pay as you go" works just fine for Social
Security and Medicare, smart people believed the spiel.
They carried the same attitude with them when they looked
at GM's pension/health obligations. They refused to factor
in the estimated numbers.
At the end of last year, GM says, its U.S.
pension funds showed a $3 billion surplus. GM's
pension accounting, which assumes that the funds
will earn an average of 9 percent a year on their
assets, is highly optimistic. But things are
under control -- as long as GM stays solvent.
By contrast, OPEB is out of control. At year-end,
OPEB was $57 billion in the hole, even though GM
threw $9 billion into an OPEB trust in 2004.
Consider these numbers in relation to GM's market
capitalization of about $17 billion. The company is deeply
in debt: around $300 billion. (http://shurl.org/gmdebt) It
had to sell $17.6 billion in bonds in 2003 to meet its
pension obligations. Yet in January, 2004, its share value
peaked. Optimism still reigned supreme.
The best and the brightest missed what should have
been obvious. It could happen again. Next time, it could
happen to a lot more companies. The worse the news out of
Medicare, the less optimistic the outlook of investors.
A MINI-WELFARE STATE?
Political columnist George Will has described the
plight of GM as the common plight of the welfare state, in
an article, "The Latest welfare state? It's General
Who knew? Speculation about which welfare state
will be the first to buckle under the strain of
the pension and medical costs of aging
populations usually focuses on European nations
with declining birth rates and aging populations.
Who knew the first to buckle would be General
Motors, with Ford not far behind?
GM is a car and truck company -- for the 74th
consecutive year, the world's largest -- and has
revenues greater than Arizona's gross state
product. But GM's stock price is down 45 percent
since a year ago; its market capitalization is
smaller than Harley Davidson's. This is partly
because GM is a welfare state.
Will's angle is a nice touch. A journalist looks for
a hook to snag readers, and the current discussions about
the demographic train crash of the Western world's
retirement and medical programs serve as a convenient hook.
Statistically, it's the same problem: the bills are coming
due, and there is no money set aside to pay them.
But GM is not a state. It is run by profit-seeking
managers on behalf of profit-seeking investors by means of
serving consumers who have a choice to buy or not to buy.
Why should GM's managers and investors make the same
mistake as politicians?
For politicians, it never was a mistake. It was a way
to get each era's voters to hand more money over to the
politicians, whose careers would end long before the
demographic day of reckoning arrived. It involved
hoodwinking the voters by promising them future goodies.
The voters who saw through the sham could not sell their
shares. There are no shares to sell. The system is
compulsory. GM's shareholders can sell, and have.
The problem is, the managers at GM seem to have acted
in the same short-sighted, self-interested way. So did a
generation of investors in GM stock. Yet we free market
advocates like to believe that things are different in free
markets than in political affairs. Are we wrong? No. But
we have to understand how the system works.
The problem has been building for a long time. The
tax code has treated the funding of future benefits as
deductible expenses to a company, but not taxable events
for the employees. Labor union saw the advantage. They
could claim victories in their negotiations with
management. This is true across the board, in company
What has been in it for senior management? Stock
option profits. It is legal for managers of American
companies to reward themselves by investing workers'
retirement money in corporate shares. This raises the
value of managers' stock options. This is what Enron's
senior managers did. It is a widespread practice.
Profit-seeking people respond to incentives. The tax
code has created incentives for pension fund payments. The
tax code has also provided incentives for stock options:
long-term capital gains, taxed at a lower rate than
salaries. Government-authorized accounting practices have
added to the illusion of future wealth: assumptions
regarding estimated future investment returns based on the
post-1982 stock market boom-era. GM expects to earn 9% per
annum in its pension fund. How?
The federal government has created business in its own
image with respect to pension funds. The bills are now
COST PER CAR
The cost of health care plans for GM workers is now
over $5 billion a year. This is now affecting GM's ability
to compete. Writes Will:
GM says health expenditures -- $1,525 per car
produced; there is more health care than steel in
a GM vehicle's price tag -- are one of the main
reasons it lost $1.1 billion in the first quarter
But it's not just GM.
Ford's profits fell 38 percent, and although Ford
had forecast 2005 profits of $1.4 billion to $1.7
billion, it now probably will have a year's loss
of $100 million to $200 million. All this while
Toyota's sales are up 23 percent this year, and
Americans are buying cars and light trucks at a
rate that would produce 2005 sales almost equal
to the record of 17.4 million in 2000.
Foreign auto companies are steadily eating into GM's
profits. GM's market share keeps dropping. So is the
market share of the other members of the Big Three.
In 1962 half the cars sold in America were made
by GM. Now its market share is roughly 25
percent. In 1999 the Big Three -- GM, Ford,
Chrysler -- had 71 percent market share. Their
share is now 58 percent and falling. Twenty-three
percent of those working for auto companies in
North America now work for companies other than
the Big Three, up from 14.6 percent just five
The number of Big Three employed workers has fallen by
134,000 since 2000.
Then these is the issue of who should pay for these
benefits. The free market's answer is clear: consumers.
Their money determines what should be produced. If
consumers say, "No; your price is too high," this leaves
GM's management with bills to pay and no income to pay
When the bills come due, those receiving them start
looking for other people to share the burden. The bills
are coming due for GM.
GM says its health care burdens, negotiated with
the United Auto Workers, put it at a $5 billion
disadvantage against Toyota in the United States
because Japan's government, not Japanese
employers, provides almost all health care in
Japan. This reasoning could produce a push by
much of corporate America for the federal
government to assume more health care costs. This
would be done in the name of "leveling the
playing field" to produce competitive "fairness."
In short, because taxpayers in Japan are required to
pay for health costs of Japanese auto workers, American
firms want you and me to dig a little deeper into our
wallets and our futures, in the interest of fairness.
It doesn't sound fair to me. I didn't sign those
long-term contracts with GM's workers. I didn't lower my
costs of production by making promises instead of paying
Then there are GM's retirees: "Health care for
retirees and their families -- there are 2.6 of them for
every active worker -- is 69 percent of GM's health costs."
Up, up, up go medical costs. Down, down, down go GM's
We think of GM as an auto company. But its auto
division is small potatoes. About 80% of GM's profits come
from GMAC, its in-house loan company: consumer credit and
mortgages. It profited greatly during the mortgage boom.
But this source of profits has begun to taper off.
This report is about GM, insofar as GM is
representative of a mindset. Managers have treated GM as a
career investment vehicle. Workers have treated it as a
rich uncle who will always be there with money. Investors
have treated GM as if the company were not subject to the
reality of long-term increases in medical care costs.
In retrospect, the experts say all of this was visible
years ago. But the share price of GM indicates that nobody
paid any attention until it was too late.
This is why I am not impressed by economists who
assure the public that Social Security/Medicare are not out
of control, that there is time to maneuver.
Nobody in charge ever seems to maneuver until the
investment vehicle goes into a skid on an icy road in the
mountains. Bad news is dismissed as irrelevant.
Statistical reality is deferred by investors until they
finally start unloading shares. Then there is not much
that the people in charge can do to solve the problem.
If highly sophisticated investors are this naive about
where their money is being invested, why should we expect
politicians to tell us the truth about the looming
insolvency of Social Security/Medicare?
[I am sending forth these memes, not because I agree wholeheartedly with all of
them, but to impregnate females of both sexes. Ponder them and
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