Government Math Doesn't Add Up

Roger Schlesinger

6/10/2009 11:42:25 AM

 

Since the President announced his health plan where we add half the free world to our list of those who will have health coverage, and announced that we will save money doing it, I know something is "rotten in Denmark". Under the most liberal of all translations, I had trouble with this claim. Most of my compatriots simply say who cares about what is being said, "If it is being said by a politician then it isn't true." I care because the investment community actually uses these data points to make decisions.

Right now, the figures being used are not helping us and in fact are hurting our chances to come out of the recession in a short period. It's bad enough that as a nation we are borrowing more money than we have since the day this nation was formed. We are arranging the figures to overstate the recovery, which is tentative at best, resulting in pushing the interest rates higher. Why does this happen? It happens because we interpret, adjust and revise these figures produced in our economy, believing that the machinations we go through will eventually lead us to the right answer. Unfortunately, we react to the first look at the figures and by the time all the analysis is done, it is too late to stem the tide. The bond market has made a move, changing a trend and the revisions have much less impact than the original report, even though they are the correct numbers.

It gets crazier when you realize that a number of economists projected their anticipated result and the actual figures are compared to those estimates. The set trend is not from actual raw data, but rather from the difference between the estimates and actual data.

Let me give you an example of a typical monthly employment report. First, the economists decide that the loss of payroll jobs for the month in question is going to be 550,000 jobs. The actual figures come in at 435,000 jobs lost and the bond market interprets this to mean the economy is doing better than we thought, sells off and rates go higher. The reason for the sell off is with a better economy, we not only do not need low interest rates, but in fact may have to raise interest rates to stop what is considered the inevitable return of inflation. The die is cast and interest rates start to increase.

In following months, we have downward revisions at the time each month's employment reports are released. By the time we finish with seasonal adjustments and revisions, we might have a loss of 695,000 jobs for the month that had been reported at a loss of 435,000. We finally know the right figure but interest rates have moved up ¾ percent to 1 percent higher. This probably means a slow down in the recovery of housing, car business and all other business hurt by higher interest rates. Again, I ask why do we have this type of craziness occurring in our financial markets?

The answer, whether you like it or not, is.... that's the way the game is played. Who started this "game", who made up the rules and who ratified the entire exercise, nobody knows for sure. Like so many of life's mysteries, they become "sacred cows", and if you have ever read, "Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburgers", you will understand the concept. Everyone is afraid to change something within an organization, even though it doesn't really make sense, because the origin is unknown and everyone is worried about whose ox will be gored.

Therefore we have to live with the notion that if the President says he is saving 600,000 jobs, so be it. If he says the deficit will be cut in half by 2017, we just accept that it could possibly happen and move on. After all, in the short run it either will or will not come true and in the long run we will all be gone. The only problem is what if we are not all gone, then what?

Perhaps we should protest as if our very existence depends upon accurate figures, real estimates and a concern that every day counts. Maybe we can change some of the sacred cows and look to the day that a politician has his hand in his own pocket. It is time to stand up and fight back.

Let's start by showing our appreciation for the courageous Indiana pensioners who actually expected everyone would play by the rules and took issue with those who felt they were above them. They weren't the evil doers in corporate America, just every day pensioners who felt they had a right to their own money. What a concept!