Wages and Sins

Recently I was in Vancouver, BC for the Agora Financial Symposium, which carried the tagline "A View from the Peak". There were many peaks discussed and analyzed: oil, food, water and debt, to name a few. The price of gold and silver got a lot of discussion, and forecasts abounded. Discussions and opinions were not limited to the speakers, of course – the hallways, restaurants and sidewalks were filled with animated discourse, colorful scenarios and useful information. As you can guess, I loved every minute of it!

Even though I missed only a few of the general sessions, I can't wait to get my hands on the recordings to go through them again for profitable ideas, and to clarify in my own mind the arguments, pro and con, on issues that will be key to my investment decisions in the coming months.

One of those "out in the hallway" discussions got me to thinking about wages, valued in gold… and I put together a chart of wages (average hourly earnings of US production workers, as tabulated by the BLS in series CES0500000008, to be precise) to see what they've been doing.

I was shocked to see that since January 1964, a total of 534 months, there have been only 36 months in which wages were lower than they are today – mainly in the period from 1979-1981. The most recent period when they were this low was early in 1988, 20 years ago. Since then they have seen a high of 1.75 grams/hour in April of 2001, before falling back to their current level of 0.6 grams/hour in July of 2008.

I thought it would be fun to take a look at how things have changed over that 20 year period in terms of gold prices, many of which can be found in the charts section of this web site. Here is a summary:

1) Although wages are about the same, per capita disposable income is up 9%. I suspect this is due to many factors, including lower tax rates, changes in government "benefits", more dual earner households and smaller families. It could also be influenced by the proportion of "production" jobs in the economy. In any event, this is a modest increase for 20 years!

2) First class postage is down 6%, one of the few things I could find that was down!

3) Stocks were a mixed bag. The Dow Jones Industrials are around 400 now, up from about 125 in 1988 – a rise of 220%, even after their spectacular fall from the 1999 high of 1,400. What a roller-coaster ride! On the other hand, Japanese stocks as measured by the Nikkei 225 Index were much stronger in 1988, and have fallen from 12 to 4.5 – a drop of 63%. I plan to do a more detailed comparison of these markets in a future post.

4) Home prices, as measured by the Case-Shiller CSXR Index, are up about 33%, even after falling more than 50% over the last three years.

5) Commodities are up strongly: silver up 29%, gasoline up 89%, copper up 98%, crude oil up 275%, and wheat up a whopping 347%.

1988 vs 2008

Item Units 1988 2008 Change
Wages mg/hour 600 600  
Disp. Income g/year 1,100 1,200 Up 9%
Nikkei 225 g 12 4.5 Down 63%
Postage mg 16 15 Down 6%
Silver mg/oz 465 600 Up 29%
CSXR index, Jan/2000=100 45 60 Up 33%
Gasoline mg/gal 75 142 Up 89%
Copper mg/lb 65 129 Up 98%
DJIA g 125 400 Up 220%
Crude Oil g/bbl 1,200 4,500 Up 275%
Wheat mg/bushel 170 760 Up 347%
US Govt Debt Billions of USD 2,600 9,400 Up 262%
  tonnes of gold 204,000 308,376 Up 51%
Debt/GDP   41% 66% Up 61%

Income and wages were much higher, compared to costs, 5 to 10 years ago. I suspect this encouraged people to take on a lot of debt in the form of mortgages, auto leases and loans, and consumer and credit card debt. Now that income is imploding and costs are rising, this debt is unsustainable, and we are seeing the effects of this in the current "credit crisis". Of course, fractional reserve banking, derivatives of all kinds, and a Fed that is willing to bail out insolvent banks and GSEs have further magnified the problem, and are continuing to defer its ultimate solution.

The US government's own debt is also a huge and growing problem. While in 1988 it was a "mere" 2.6 trillion USD, today it is over 9.4 trillion USD, up 262%. If this debt had to be settled in gold, that would require 308,376 tonnes of gold today, up from 204,000 back in 1988. It's a good thing that this debt is denominated in US Dollars that can be created out of nothing with the press of a few computer keys! There are only 8,133 tonnes of gold in the US reserves (even this figure is disputed, as it has not been physically audited for decades.) And to put the size of this debt in perspective, all the gold ever mined, since the beginning of time, is estimated at about 150,000 tonnes – that's less than half of the current US Federal debt.

But these figures, as grotesque and gargantuan as they are, are just the officially acknowledged tip of the iceberg. They don't include off-budget borrowing, consumer borrowing, or the real elephants in the room, the ones no one in polite society wants to talk about – the "unfunded liabilities" and future entitlements of social security, medicare, and related programs. While current taxes are generating enough cash to cover these at the moment, due to changing demographics they are growing at a rate that cannot be met simply by new tax increases. Unless changes are made, their costs will overwhelm even the ability of our printing presses to pay for them!

How did we get to this point? What can we do about it?

At the Vancouver Symposium there was a showing of a new documentary film called I.O.U.S.A. that addresses many of these points via fascinating interviews with Pete Peterson, Warren Buffett, former Comptroller General of the United States David Walker, and other luminaries. It's a wonderful film, well made, very thought-provoking, and highly recommended.

Most people have little grasp of what is happening with their money. Most have no idea what is heading down the tracks toward them financially. If you have family and friends in this situation, I urge you to take them to see this movie. It is fun, fast paced and informative. They may be shocked, but they won't be bored!

There will be a special "one day only" premier showing of the film all over the USA on Thursday, August 21st. I'm going, along with many of my friends who weren't able to see it in Vancouver. You can get details, watch a trailer and check out the special offer Agora Financial is making to those who pre-purchase tickets, as well.

I hope you will join me!