Tag Archives: American middle class

Stagnation Nation: American Middle Class Wealth Is Locked Up in Housing and Retirement Funds

The majority of middle class wealth is locked up in unproductive assets or assets that only become available upon retirement or death.

One of Charles Hugh Smith’s points in Why Governments Will Not Ban Bitcoin was to highlight how few families had the financial wherewithal to invest in bitcoin or an alternative hedge such as precious metals.

The limitation on middle class wealth isn’t just the total net worth of each family; it’s also how their wealth is allocated: the vast majority of most middle class family wealth is locked up in the family home or retirement funds.

This chart provides key insights into the differences between middle class and upper-class wealth. The majority of the wealth held by the bottom 90% of households is in the family home, i.e. the principal residence. Other major assets held include life insurance policies, pension accounts and deposits (savings).

What characterizes the family home, insurance policies and pension/retirement accounts? The wealth is largely locked up in these asset classes.

Yes, the family can borrow against these assets, but then interest accrues and the wealth is siphoned off by the loans. Early withdrawals from retirement funds trigger punishing penalties.

In effect, this wealth is in a lock box and unavailable for deployment in other assets.

IRAs and 401K retirement accounts can be invested, but company plans come with limitations on where and how the funds can be invested, and the gains (if any) can’t be accessed until retirement.

Compare these lock boxes and limitations with the top 1%, which owns the bulk of business equity assets. Business equity means ownership of businesses; ownership of shares in corporations (stocks) is classified as ownership of financial securities.

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These two charts add context to the ownership of business equity. Note that despite the recent bounce off a trough, the percentage of families with business equity has declined for the past 25 years. The chart is one of lower highs and lower lows, the classic definition of a downtrend.
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The mean value of business equity is concentrated in the top 10% of families.While the value of the top 10%’s biz-equity dropped sharply in the global financial crisis of 2008-09, it has since recovered and reached new heights, while the value of the biz equity held by the bottom 90% has flat lined.
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Assets either produce income (i.e. they are productive assets) or they don’t (i.e. they are unproductive assets). Businesses either produce net income or they become insolvent and close down. Family homes typically don’t produce any income (unless the owners rent out rooms), and whatever income life insurance and retirement funds produce is unavailable.

This is the key difference between financial-elite wealth and middle class wealth: the majority of middle class wealth is locked up in unproductive assets or assets that only become available upon retirement or death.

The income flowing to family-owned businesses can be spent, of course, but it can also be reinvested, piling up additional income streams that then generate even more income to reinvest.

No wonder wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the top 5%: those who own productive assets have the means to acquire more productive assets because they own income streams they can direct and use in the here and now without all the limitations imposed on the primary assets held by the middle class.

By Charles Hugh Smith | Of Two Minds

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The Next Housing Crisis May Be Sooner Than You Think

How we could fall into another housing crisis before we’ve fully pulled out of the 2008 one.

https://i0.wp.com/cdn.citylab.com/media/img/citylab/2014/11/RTR2LDPC/lead_large.jpgby Richard Florida

When it comes to housing, sometimes it seems we never learn. Just when America appeared to be recovering from the last housing crisis—the trigger, in many ways, for 2008’s grand financial meltdown and the beginning of a three-year recession—another one may be looming on the horizon.

There are at several big red flags.

For one, the housing market never truly recovered from the recession. Trulia Chief Economist Jed Kolko points out that, while the third quarter of 2014 saw improvement in a number of housing key barometers, none have returned to normal, pre-recession levels. Existing home sales are now 80 percent of the way back to normal, while home prices are stuck at 75 percent back, remaining undervalued by 3.4 percent. More troubling, new construction is less than halfway (49 percent) back to normal. Kolko also notes that the fundamental building blocks of the economy, including employment levels, income and household formation, have also been slow to improve. “In this recovery, jobs and housing can’t get what they need from each other,” he writes.

Americans are spending more than 33 percent of their income on housing.

Second, Americans continue to overspend on housing. Even as the economy drags itself out of its recession, a spate of reports show that families are having a harder and harder time paying for housing. Part of the problem is that Americans continue to want more space in bigger homes, and not just in the suburbs but in urban areas, as well. Americans more than 33 percent of their income on housing in 2013, up nearly 13 percent from two decades ago, according to newly released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The graph below plots the trend by age.

Over-spending on housing is far worse in some places than others; the housing market and its recovery remain highly uneven. Another BLS report released last month showed that households in Washington, D.C., spent nearly twice as much on housing ($17,603) as those in Cleveland, Ohio ($9,061). The chart below, from the BLS report, shows average annual expenses on housing related items:

(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The result, of course, is that more and more American households, especially middle- and working-class people, are having a harder time affording housing. This is particularly the case in reviving urban centers, as more affluent, highly educated and creative-class workers snap up the best spaces, particularly those along convenient transit, pushing the service and working class further out.

Last but certainly not least, the rate of home ownership continues to fall, and dramatically. Home ownership has reached its lowest level in two decades—64.4 percent (as of the third quarter of 2014). Here’s the data, from the U.S. Census Bureau:

(Data from U.S. Census Bureau)

Home ownership currently hovers from the mid-50 to low-60 percent range in some of the most highly productive and innovative metros in this country—places like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. This range seems “to provide the flexibility of rental and ownership options required for a fast-paced, rapidly changing knowledge economy. Widespread home ownership is no longer the key to a thriving economy,” I’ve written.

What we are going through is much more than a generational shift or simple lifestyle change. It’s a deep economic shift—I’ve called it the Great Reset. It entails a shift away from the economic system, population patterns and geographic layout of the old suburban growth model, which was deeply connected to old industrial economy, toward a new kind of denser, more urban growth more in line with today’s knowledge economy. We remain in the early stages of this reset. If history is any guide, the complete shift will take a generation or so.

It’s time to impose stricter underwriting standards and encourage the dense, mixed-use, more flexible housing options that the knowledge economy requires.

The upshot, as the Nobel Prize winner Edmund Phelps has written, is that it is time for Americans to get over their house passion. The new knowledge economy requires we spend less on housing and cars, and more on education, human capital and innovation—exactly those inputs that fuel the new economic and social system.

But we’re not moving in that direction; in fact, we appear to be going the other way. This past weekend, Peter J. Wallison pointed out in a New York Times op-ed that federal regulators moved back off tougher mortgage-underwriting standards brought on by 2010’s Dodd-Frank Act and instead relaxed them. Regulators are hoping to encourage more home ownership, but they’re essentially recreating the conditions that led to 2008’s crash.

Wallison notes that this amounts to “underwriting the next housing crisis.” He’s right: It’s time to impose stricter underwriting standards and encourage the dense, mixed-use, more flexible housing options that the knowledge economy requires.

During the depression and after World War II, this country’s leaders pioneered a series of purposeful and ultimately game-changing polices that set in motion the old suburban growth model, helping propel the industrial economy and creating a middle class of workers and owners. Now that our economy has changed again, we need to do the same for the denser urban growth model, creating more flexible housing system that can help bolster today’s economy.

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Dream housing for new economy workers
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Energy Workforce Projected To Grow 39% Through 2022

The dramatic resurgence of the oil industry over the past few years has been a notable factor in the national economic recovery. Production levels have reached totals not seen since the late 1980s and continue to increase, and rig counts are in the 1,900 range. While prices have dipped recently, it will take more than that to markedly slow the level of activity. Cycles are inevitable, but activity is forecast to remain at relatively high levels.  

An outgrowth of oil and gas activity strength is a need for additional workers. At the same time, the industry workforce is aging, and shortages are likely to emerge in key fields ranging from petroleum engineers to experienced drilling crews. I was recently asked to comment on the topic at a gathering of energy workforce professionals. Because the industry is so important to many parts of Texas, it’s an issue with relevance to future prosperity.  

 

Although direct employment in the energy industry is a small percentage of total jobs in the state, the work is often well paying. Moreover, the ripple effects through the economy of this high value-added industry are large, especially in areas which have a substantial concentration of support services.  

Petroleum Engineer

Employment in oil and gas extraction has expanded rapidly, up from 119,800 in January 2004 to 213,500 in September 2014. Strong demand for key occupations is evidenced by the high salaries; for example, median pay was $130,280 for petroleum engineers in 2012 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  

Due to expansion in the industry alone, the BLS estimates employment growth of 39 percent through 2022 for petroleum engineers, which comprised 11 percent of total employment in oil and gas extraction in 2012. Other key categories (such as geoscientists, wellhead pumpers, and roustabouts) are also expected to see employment gains exceeding 15 percent. In high-activity regions, shortages are emerging in secondary fields such as welders, electricians, and truck drivers.  

The fact that the industry workforce is aging is widely recognized. The cyclical nature of the energy industry contributes to uneven entry into fields such as petroleum engineering and others which support oil and gas activity. For example, the current surge has pushed up wages, and enrollment in related fields has increased sharply. Past downturns, however, led to relatively low enrollments, and therefore relatively lower numbers of workers in some age cohorts. The loss of the large baby boom generation of experienced workers to retirement will affect all industries. This problem is compounded in the energy sector because of the long stagnation of the industry in the 1980s and 1990s resulting in a generation of workers with little incentive to enter the industry. As a result, the projected need for workers due to replacement is particularly high for key fields.

The BLS estimates that 9,800 petroleum engineers (25.5 percent of the total) working in 2012 will need to be replaced by 2022 because they retire or permanently leave the field. Replacement rates are also projected to be high for other crucial occupations including petroleum pump system operators, refinery operators, and gaugers (37.1 percent); derrick, rotary drill, and service unit operators, oil, gas, and mining (40.4 percent).  

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Putting together the needs from industry expansion and replacement, most critical occupations will require new workers equal to 40 percent or more of the current employment levels. The total need for petroleum engineers is estimated to equal approximately 64.5 percent of the current workforce. Clearly, it will be a major challenge to deal with this rapid turnover.

Potential solutions which have been attempted or discussed present problems, and it will require cooperative efforts between the industry and higher education and training institutions to adequately deal with future workforce shortages. Universities have had problems filling open teaching positions, because private-sector jobs are more lucrative for qualified candidates. Given budget constraints and other considerations, it is not feasible for universities to compete on the basis of salary. Without additional teaching and research staff, it will be difficult to continue to expand enrollment while maintaining education quality. At the same time, high-paying jobs are enticing students into the workforce, and fewer are entering doctoral programs.  

Another option which has been suggested is for engineers who are experienced in the workplace to spend some of their time teaching. However, busy companies are naturally resistant to allowing employees to take time away from their regular duties. Innovative training and associate degree and certification programs blending classroom and hands-on experience show promise for helping deal with current and potential shortages in support occupations. Such programs can prepare students for well-paying technical jobs in the industry. Encouraging experienced professionals to work past retirement, using flexible hours and locations to appeal to Millennials, and other innovative approaches must be part of the mix, as well as encouraging the entry of females into the field (only 20 percent of the current workforce is female, but over 40 percent of the new entries).

Industry observers have long been aware of the coming “changing of the guard” in the oil and gas business. We are now approaching the crucial time period for ensuring the availability of the workers needed to fill future jobs. Cooperative efforts between the industry and higher education/training institutions will likely be required, and it’s time to act.

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Today’s Hottest Trend In Residential Real Estate

The practice of multigenerational housing has been on the rise the past few years, and now experts are saying that it is adding value to properties.
by Lauren Mennenas

The practice of multigenerational housing has been on the rise the past few years, and now experts are saying that it is adding value to properties.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, several couples across the country are quoted saying that instead of downsizing to a new home, they are choosing to live with their adult children.

This is what many families across the country are doing for both a “peace of mind” and for “higher property values.”

“For both domestic and foreign buyers, the hottest amenity in real estate these days is an in-law unit, an apartment carved out of an existing home or a stand-alone dwelling built on the homeowners’ property,” writes Katy McLaughlin of the WSJ. “While the adult children get the peace of mind of having mom and dad nearby, real-estate agents say the in-law accommodations are adding value to their homes.”

And how much more are these homes worth? In an analysis by Zillow, the homes with this type of living accommodations were priced about 60 percent higher than regular single-family homes.

Local builders are noticing the trend, too. Horsham based Toll Brothers are building more communities that include both large, single-family homes and smaller homes for empty nesters, the company’s chief marketing officer, Kira Sterling, told the WSJ.

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New RICO-Fraud Class Action Against Ocwen For Abusive Fee Schemes Against Home Loans Serviced

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by
Reclaim Our Republic

This new class action against Ocwen addresses the marked-up default services fees that Ocwen is charging homeowners, particularly distressed homeowners, as part of a scheme of self-dealing with companies such as Altisource, and with the involvement of William C. Erbey, Executive Chairman, who has a leadership role on the Board of Ocwen and Altisource:

Weiner v Ocwen Financial Corporation a Florida Corporation COMPLAINT.
Weiner v. Ocwen Fin. Corp. and Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, No 2:14-cv-02597 (E.D.Cal.), filed Nov. 5, 2014.

52. Ocwen’s scheme works as follows: Ocwen directs Altisource to order and coordinate default-related services, and, in turn, Altisource places orders for such services with third-party vendors. The third-party vendors charge Altisource for the performance of the default-related services, Altisource then marks up the price of the vendors’ services, in numerous instances by 100% or more, before “charging” the services to Ocwen. In turn, Ocwen bills the marked-up fees to homeowners.

58.Thus, the mortgage contract discloses to homeowners that the servicer will pay for default-related services when reasonably necessary, and will be reimbursed or “paid back” by the homeowner for amounts “disbursed.” Nowhere is it disclosed to borrowers that the servicer may engage in self-dealing to mark up the actual cost of those services to make a profit. Nevertheless, that is exactly what Ocwen does.

[Ed.: Explanation of Modern Relationship Between Loan Servicers and Home Loan Borrowers]

America’s Lending Industry Has Divorced itself from the Borrowers it Once Served

18. Ocwen’s unlawful loan servicing practices exemplify how America’s lending industry has run off the rails.

19. Traditionally, when people wanted to borrow money, they went to a bank or a “savings and loan.” Banks loaned money and homeowners promised to repay the bank, with interest, over a specific period of time. The originating bank kept the loan on its balance sheet, and serviced the loan — processing payments, and sending out applicable notices and other information — until the loan was repaid. The originating bank had a financial interest in ensuring that the borrower was able to repay the loan.

20. Today, however, the process has changed. Mortgages are now packaged, bundled, and sold to investors on Wall Street through what is referred to in the financial industry as mortgage backed securities or MBS. This process is called securitization. Securitization of mortgage loans provides financial institutions with the benefit of immediately being able to recover the amounts loaned. It also effectively eliminates the financial institution’s risk from potential default. But, by eliminating the risk of default, mortgage backed securities have disassociated the lending community from homeowners.

21. Numerous unexpected consequences have resulted from the divide between lenders and homeowners. Among other things, securitization has led to the development of an industry of companies which make money primarily through servicing mortgages for the hedge funds and investment houses who own the loans.

22. Loan servicers do not profit directly from interest payments made by homeowners. Instead, these companies are paid a set fee for their loan administration services. Servicing fees are usually earned as a percentage of the unpaid principal balance of the mortgages that are being serviced. A typical servicing fee is approximately 0.50% per year.

23. Additionally, under pooling and servicing agreements (“PSAs”) with investors and note holders, loan servicers assess fees on borrowers’ accounts for default-related services. These fees include, inter alia, Broker’s Price Opinion (“BPO”) fees, appraisal fees, and title examination fees.

24. Under this arrangement, a loan servicer’s primary concern is not ensuring that homeowners stay current on their loans. Instead, they are focused on minimizing any costs that would reduce profit from the set servicing fee, and generating as much revenue as possible from fees assessed against the mortgage accounts they service. As such, their “business model . . . encourages them to cut costs wherever possible, even if [that] involves cutting corners on legal requirements, and to lard on junk fees and in-sourced expenses at inflated prices.”3

25. As one Member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System has explained:
While an investor’s financial interests are tied more or less directly to the performance of a loan, the interests of a third-party servicer are tied to it only indirectly, at best. The servicer makes money, to oversimplify it a bit, by maximizing fees earned and minimizing expenses while performing the actions spelled out in its contract with the investor. . . . The broad grant of delegated authority that servicers enjoy under pooling and servicing agreements (PSAs), combined with an effective lack of choice on the part of consumers, creates an environment ripe for abuse.4 (citing See Sarah Bloom Raskin, Member Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Remarks at the National Consumer Law Center’s Consumer Rights Litigation Conference, Boston Massachusetts, Nov. 12, 2010, available at http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/raskin20101112a.htm (last visited Jan. 23, 2012).

US Middle-Class Is Going

Ever wondered why the rest of the world envied the US middle-class? There were many reasons once, a long time ago and one of them was their affluence, their wealth, their ability to be able to afford whatever they wanted. But, that was back in the days when there was a team spirit out there in the US. People were working together not against each other. Today, nobody envies or eyes the American middle-class; it’s poverty-stricken and has turned into the poor workers (if they even have a job). Middle America is so yesteryear. Today, it seems as if it’s fashionable to be poor; at least, we’re all doing it.

The fat cats are grabbing the cream at a faster pace than most other countries in the world, but Middle Americans are doing far from well in comparison with other middle-classes around the world today. For the first time in decades, the American middle class is in decline in comparison with other countries.

It’s the first time in forty years that the Canadian middle-class equivalent family has been better off than the American middle class. That can’t be said in less stark terms. The nineteenth century was characterized by the abolition of the ruling classes to the benefit of the middle classes, growth in wealth and better sharing out of what was in the coffers of our nations. Today, the decline of the middle class in the US is on and it will be mirrored by all other nations in the world in years to come. We have returned to feudal England, the ruling few and the poverty-stricken masses.

But it’s now the Canadians that are doing better than the middle class Americans. The mere fact that it’s Canada is even harder as a blow for the middle-class Americans that laugh at the late-night TV-show jokes that use the guys just over the boarder as the butt of their every joke. It’s middle-class Americans that will have the tables turned on them now. The idea that they still have more income than others in the middle classes around the world is now a thing of the past.

How can the US maintain its position of the superlative-laden economy where things are done best? It can’t in a world in which the Chinese have understood that they need to send their kids to school; Highly-skilled people are now just about everywhere and competing with that is impossible. The US has failed to redistribute the wealth of the nation in a fairer way and it’s the top layer that gets to keep more and more. The lower echelons just slumber in growing struggles to keep their heads above the water. Who gets favored by the tax system in the US? Certainly not the middle class.

Median income in Canada was already on a par with US median wages in 2010. Over the past decade countries in Europe such as the UKSweden and the Netherlands are slowly closing the gap in median incomes with the US. Once upon a time, it was the US that was way ahead, now the gap is closing fast.

Per Capita gross Domestic Product (PPP) shows that the USA is not doing so badly. It’s the 8th country in the world today in terms of GDP per capita (PPP):

The USA has the wealth, but it’s not being distributed in a fair-deal way. For the middle class to be suffering like this it means that the money is going somewhere else than to the middle class. Americans that are in the middle class are not managing to keep up pace with their counterparts around the world.

• Median income stood at $18,700 in the US in 2010.
• That’s $75,000 for a family of four after tax.
• This means a 20%-increase in comparison with 1980.
• But, it’s not moved at all since 2000 (after adjustments for inflation).
• In the UK there was a 20%-increase between 2000 and 2010.
• Median Income in Canada rose also by 20% over the same period.

Thankfully, the US is a country of gamblers, a place where there will hopefully be a big-game hunt for the idea that will renew the challenge of the economy. In the meantime, it’s the middle-class American that looks as if it is nearing extinction.

Source: The Middle-Class Is Going