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Mark's Market Blog

4-30-11: Public Pensions again.

By Mark Lawrence

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Another week, another win for Bernanke and his $6B per day. There is one interesting development: right now, Sunday night, markets are open in Asia and Silver is off 15% in one day.

S&P 500 November 1 2010 to April 29 2011

Sorry, my business is doing really well and I'm now working 7 days. Sunday I spend doing a lot of sleeping, and just an hour or two of work. This last week I had put in 42 hours by Wednesday evening. My blogs are likely to be rather flakey for the next couple of months.

Silver is nose-diving. No one seems to have any guess why. Someone is selling a whole bunch of it, that much seems clear.

Feel poor? Wonder why? This time it's simple: 1) gas 2) food 3) healthcare. Hospitals, insurance companies, and drug companies are sucking the blood out of this economy. My health insurance has gone up by 25% in the last 18 months. Your raise got sucked up by Kaiser and the Arabs. It's time to find a silver bullet for this vampire.

Salaries (red) and health insurance costs (blue), 2001 to 2011.

Many public safety officers can retire at 50 with a pension equal to 3% of their final salary for each year worked - for example, 60% of salary after 20 years on the job. Many other state employees can retire at 55, with 2.5% of salary for each year worked. And tens of thousands of public workers may also purchase "air time" - credit for years they do not actually work - to boost their retirement income. In a poll this week, 70% percent of respondents said they supported a cap on pensions for current and future public employees. Nearly as many, 68%, approved of raising the amount of money government workers should be required to contribute to their retirement. Increasing the age at which government employees may collect pensions was favored by 52%. Among Democratic respondents, 71% supported increasing retirement contributions for future hires and 66% backed a pension cap for both current and future workers. However, fewer than half of the Democrats surveyed favored cutting benefits and raising the retirement age for current employees.

Wondering how your state is doing on under-funded public pension funds?

Underfunded public employee pension funds, by state.

According to the latest IMF official forecasts, China’s economy will surpass that of America in real terms in 2016, just five years from now. The IMF used purchasing power parity, not the current exchange rate. PPP compares what people earn and spend in real terms in their domestic economies. Under PPP, the Chinese economy will expand from $11.2 trillion this year to $19 trillion in 2016. Meanwhile the U.S. economy will rise from $15.2 trillion to $18.8 trillion. That would take America’s share of the world output down to 17.7%, the lowest in modern times. China’s would reach 18%, and is rising. Just 10 years ago, the U.S. economy was three times the size of China’s. China’s neighbors in Asia are looking to the U.S. in a way that it hasn't done in the past. They see American hegemony over the last half century as fairly benign. In China they see the rise of an economic power that is not benevolent, that can be predatory. The last time the world’s dominant hegemon lost its ability to run things single-handed was early in the past century. That’s when the U.S. and Germany surpassed Great Britain. It didn't turn out well.

More than half the Chinese and Indians being educated in the US now say economic possibilities are better in their home country than in the US. They cite lower labor costs, lower cost on a good standard of living, a feeling of helping their home country develop economically, and difficulty in obtaining a US visa. I think this is insane: while we're arguing about how many illegal and illiterate Latinos to allow to stay here, our screwed up visa system is causing around a million highly educated and highly motivated Asians to walk on the American dream. In my opinion we need to decouple these issues and start allowing college graduates to stay in the US in far greater numbers. Who do you suppose creates more jobs, a single guy with a PhD who wants to start a business, or an uneducated day laborer who speaks broken English and has a wife and 5 kids?

A couple weeks ago I wrote a bit on my new treadmill desk. I continue to use it a couple hours a day, sometimes as a standing desk when I have to type a lot, sometimes as a walking desk when I'm on the phone or reading. Several of my readers have responded to this. One, John, built his own. I used a large treadmill with arms, put a desk on the arms, and mounted my monitor on the wall. John used a treadmill without arms, and simply raised up his desk by a couple feet. John, as you can see, is a somewhat neater person than I.

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