The Last Two Times After The Government Reported Data Like This, Stocks Crashed
Mar 31, 2017 8:09 AM
Authored by Wolf Richter via WolfStreet.com,
Wall Street claims surge in stocks is based on rising corporate earnings.
So, let’s see. The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis released its third estimate of fourth quarter 2016 GDP and corporate profits today. This second revision of its first estimate of January 27 contains more data and is considered a more accurate approximation of what happened in the vast, devilishly hard-to-quantify US economy.
In terms of GDP, the fourth quarter was revised up slightly, but there were adjustments for prior quarters, and overall GDP growth for the year 2016 remained at a miserably low 1.6%. We’ve come to call this the “stall speed.” It’s difficult for the US economy to stay aloft at this slow speed. As Q4 gutted any hopes for a strong finish, GDP growth in 2016 matched the worst year since the Great Recession.
And corporate profits, despite a stock market that has been surging for years, are even worse. A lot worse. They’ve declined for years. In fact, they declined for years during the prior two stock market bubbles, the dotcom bubble and the pre-Financial-Crisis bubble. Both ended in crashes.
However, Wall Street remains assiduously silent on this.
The BEA offers various measures of corporate profits, slicing and dicing them in different ways. One of them is its headline number: “Corporate profits with inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustments.”
It estimates “profits from current production,” based on profits before taxes, not adjusted for inflation, but with adjustments for inventory valuation (IVA) and capital consumption (CCAdj).These adjustments convert inventory withdrawals and depreciation of fixed assets (as they appear on tax returns) to the current-cost economic measures used in GDP calculations.
It’s a broad measure, taking into account profits by all corporations, not just the S&P 500 companies. This measure is reflected in the first chart below. Later, we’ll get into after-tax measures without those adjustments. They look even worse.In Q4, profits rose to $2.15 trillion seasonally adjusted annual rate. That’s what the annual profit would be after four quarters at this rate. But profits in the prior three quarters were lower. And so Q4 brought the year total to $2.085 trillion. This was down from 2015, and it was down from 2014, and it was up only 2.6% from 2013, not adjusted for inflation.
By this measure, corporate profits have been in a volatile five-year stagnation. However, during that time – since Q1 2012 – the S&P 500 index has soared 70%.
It’s hard to blame oil: The price didn’t start collapsing until the fall of 2014. Earnings didn’t get hit until 2015. By mid-2016, oil was recovering. These dynamics have influenced the V-shaped drop and rise in 2015 and 2016. But the stagnation in the two prior years occurred when WTI was trading above $100 and occasionally above $110 a barrel!
The chart also shows that there were two prior multi-year periods of profit stagnation and even decline while the stock market experienced a massive run-up: from 1996 through 2000, leading to the dotcom crash; and from 2005 through 2008, which ended in the Financial Crisis.
This peculiar phenomenon – soaring stock prices during years of flat or declining profits – is now repeating itself. The end point of the prior two episodes was a lot of bloodletting in the markets that then refocused companies – the survivors – on what they needed to do to make money. For a little while at least, it focused executives on productive activities, rather than on financial engineering, M&A, and similar lofty projects. And it showed in their profits.
But that’s not happening now. Instead, executives are chasing after deals and paying record premiums to acquire other companies. And even data-provider Dealogic blamed stock market “exuberance” for driving merger valuations and premiums that have “soared to the highest level on record.”
Here Are "The Most Profitable Corporations You've Never Heard Of"
ZeroHedge.com Mar 30, 2017 8:10 AM
Authorerd by Mike Krieger via Liberty Blitzkrieg
When I first started becoming aware of how sleazy, parasitic and corrupt the U.S. economy was, I only had expertise in one industry, financial services. Coming to grips with the blatant criminality of the TBTF Wall Street banks and their enablers at the Federal Reserve and throughout the federal government, I thought this was the main issue that needed to be confronted. What I’ve learned in the years since is pretty much every industry in America is corrupt to the core, more focused on sucking money away from helpless citizens via rent-seeking schemes versus actually producing a product and adding value. Unfortunately, the healthcare industry is no exception.
Today’s post zeros in on a particular slice of that industry. A group of companies known as Pharmacy Benefit Managers, or PBMs. Companies that seem to extract far more from the public than they give back. It’s a convoluted sector that is difficult to get your head around, which is why we should be thankful that David Dayen wrote an excellent piece on the topic recently. What follows are merely excerpts from his lengthy and highly informative piece, The Hidden Monopolies That Raise Drug Prices. I strongly suggest you read the entire thing.
Below are a few highlights from the piece published in The American Prospect:
Like any retail outlet, Frankil purchases inventory from a wholesale distributor and sells it to customers at a small markup. But unlike butchers or hardware store owners, pharmacists have no idea how much money they’ll make on a sale until the moment they sell it. That’s because the customer’s co-pay doesn’t cover the cost of the drug. Instead, a byzantine reimbursement process determines Frankil’s fee.
“I get a prescription, type in the data, click send, and I’m told I’m getting a dollar or two,” Frankil says. The system resembles the pull of a slot machine: Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. “Pharmacies sell prescriptions at significant losses,” he adds. “So what do I do? Fill the prescription and lose money, or don’t fill it and lose customers? These decisions happen every single day.”
Frankil’s troubles cannot be traced back to insurers or drug companies, the usual suspects that most people deem responsible for raising costs in the health-care system. He blames a collection of powerful corporations known as pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs. If you have drug coverage as part of your health plan, you are likely to carry a card with the name of a PBM on it. These middlemen manage prescription drug benefits for health plans, contracting with drug manufacturers and pharmacies in a multi-sided market. Over the past 30 years, PBMs have evolved from paper-pushers to significant controllers of the drug pricing system, a black box understood by almost no one. Lack of transparency, unjustifiable fees, and massive market consolidations have made PBMs among the most profitable corporations you’ve never heard about.
Americans pay the highest health-care prices in the world, including the highest for drugs, medical devices, and other health-care services and products. Our fragmented system produces many opportunities for excessive charges. But one lesser-known reason for those high prices is the stranglehold that a few giant intermediaries have secured over distribution. The antitrust laws are supposed to provide protection against just this kind of concentrated economic power. But in one area after another in today’s economy, federal antitrust authorities and the courts have failed to intervene. In this case, PBMs are sucking money out of the health-care system—and our wallets—with hardly any public awareness of what they are doing.
Here’s how it works…
In the case of PBMs, their desire for larger patient networks created incentives for their own consolidation, promoting their market dominance as a means to attract customers. Today’s “big three” PBMs—Express Scripts, CVS Caremark, and OptumRx, a division of large insurer UnitedHealth Group—control between 75 percent and 80 percent of the market, which translates into 180 million prescription drug customers. All three companies are listed in the top 22 of the Fortune 500, and as of 2013, a JPMorgan analyst estimated total PBM revenues at more than $250 billion.
The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, the industry’s lobbying group, claims that PBMs will save health plans $654 billion over the next decade. But we do know that PBMs haven’t exactly arrested skyrocketing drug prices. According to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, between 1987 and 2014, expenditures on prescription drugs have jumped 1,100 percent. Numerous factors can explain that—increased volume of medications, more usage of brand-name drugs, price-gouging by drug companies. But PBM profit margins have been growing as well. For example, according to one report, Express Scripts’ adjusted profit per prescription has increased 500 percent since 2003, and earnings per adjusted claim for the nation’s largest PBM went from $3.87 in 2012 to $5.16 in 2016. That translates into billions of dollars skimmed into Express Scripts’ coffers, coming not out of the pockets of big drug companies or insurers, but of the remaining independent retail druggists—and consumers.
Why haven’t PBMs fulfilled their promise as a cost inhibitor? The biggest reason experts cite is an information advantage in the complex pharmaceutical supply chain. At a hearing last year about the EpiPen, a simple shot to relieve symptoms of food allergies, Heather Bresch, CEO of EpiPen manufacturer Mylan, released a chart claiming that more than half of the list price for the product ($334 out of the $608 for a two-pack) goes to other participants—insurers, wholesalers, retailers, or the PBM. But when asked by Republican Representative Buddy Carter of Georgia, the only pharmacist in Congress, how much the PBM receives, Bresch replied, “I don’t specifically know the breakdown.” Carter nodded his head and said, “Nor do I and I’m the pharmacist. … That’s the problem, nobody knows.”
The PBM industry is rife with conflicts of interest and kickbacks. For example, PBMs secure rebates from drug companies as a condition of putting their products on the formulary, the list of reimbursable drugs for their network. However, they are under no obligation to disclose those rebates to health plans, or pass them along. Sometimes PBMs call them something other than rebates, using semantics to hold onto the cash. Health plans have no way to obtain drug-by-drug cost information to know if they’re getting the full discount.
Controlling the formulary gives PBMs a crucial point of leverage over the system. Express Scripts and CVS Caremark have used it to exclude hundreds of drugs, while preferring other therapeutic treatments. (This can result in patients getting locked out of their medications without an emergency exemption.) And there are indications that PBMs place drugs on their formularies based on how high a rebate they obtain, rather than the lowest cost or what is most effective for the patient.
Additionally, The Columbus Dispatch explained last October how, in some cases, a consumer’s co-pay costs more than the price of the drug outside the health plan. But the pharmacy is barred from informing the patients because of clauses in their PBM contracts; they can only provide the information when asked. The excess co-pay goes back to the PBM.
Absolutely disgusting and should be criminal.
Game-playing with brand-name drugs pales in comparison to more profitable schemes for generics, which represent the vast majority of filled prescriptions (though they account for only about half of the revenues, since brand-name drugs are so much more expensive). PBMs reimburse pharmacies for generics based on a schedule called the maximum allowable cost (MAC). But the actual number is hidden until the point of sale. “The contracts are written in the form of algorithms,” says Lynn Quincy, director of the Healthcare Value Hub for Consumers Union. “It’s not a list of drugs with a price next to it. Nobody knows what they’re up to.”
The MAC list that goes to the pharmacy does not necessarily match the one for the health plan. By charging the plan sponsor more than they pay the pharmacy in a reimbursement, PBMs can make anywhere from $5 to $200 per prescription, without either player in the chain knowing. While some spread pricing can be expected, the opacity of the profit stream masks the allegedly low costs PBMs tout to health plans to get them to sign up.
PBMs can also charge pharmacies additional fees months after a sale. Direct and indirect remuneration (DIR) fees were originally conceived as a way for Medicare to discover the true net cost of the drugs Medicare beneficiaries purchased through Part D, by forcing disclosure of all rebates from drug manufacturers. But PBMs secured a key loophole keeping their disclosures to the federal government confidential, while arguing that DIRs also legally apply to pharmacies.
The PBMs’ use of these fees also harms patients and taxpayers. Consumers pay co-pays or deductibles for drugs based on the list price, without DIR fees or rebates that would lower them. And retroactive DIR fees are routinely not reported to Medicare, as PBMs call them “network variable rates” or “pharmacy performance payments” and keep them for themselves. Obscuring DIR fees makes the net costs of drugs look higher to Medicare than they actually are. As a result, patients hit the “donut hole” coverage gap in Medicare Part D faster, forcing them to pay the full cost of their drugs. And it accelerates high-usage patients into catastrophic coverage faster as well, where Medicare pays 80 percent of all costs. All of this leaves subscribers and Medicare, i.e. the taxpayers, to pay more out of pocket, as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services noted in a January report.
The question begging to be asked is why all the players in the market—plan sponsors, drug companies, and pharmacies—put up with a middleman that extracts profits from all of them? And the answer is the failure of federal antitrust policy.
Three years later, Optum gobbled up Catamaran, creating the current situation where three firms control 80 percent of the market. Brill adds that the Big Three carve up the market geographically, effectively not competing in certain regions of the country. Amid such concentration, plan sponsors have little ability to select the best PBM on price or quality. “I just sat down with [one of the Big Three PBMs], I had half a billion dollars on the table,” says Susan Hayes. “They said, ‘Where are you going to compromise?’ Really? Where else do I bring half a billion and they say where will you compromise?”
With such monopolized control, PBMs offer pharmacies take-it-or-leave-it contracts, with no opportunity to negotiate. These contracts employ punitive terms, including allowing the PBM to audit pharmacies, allegedly to ferret out waste, fraud, and abuse. “Minor technicalities are used to extract money,” says Susan Pilch, vice president of policy and regulatory affairs for the NCPA. “There are examples where you were supposed to initial on the bottom right of prescription, not the bottom left. The PBM recouped all claims on that.”
Gotta love that “free market.”
Other pharmacies have little recourse to fight back. PBM contracts frequently contain gag orders, preventing them from talking to local elected officials or disclosing the terms of the contract.
Another model would empower pharmacies. A 2016 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance highlights a quirk of law in North Dakota, which only allows drugstores to operate if owned by pharmacists (similar laws exist in Europe). The law prohibits chain pharmacies from entering the state. Not surprisingly, North Dakota’s independents deliver among the lowest prescription drug prices in the country, along with better health outcomes and more drugstores per capita than any other state. This flies in the face of industry claims that big chains and giant conglomerates save consumers money or improve services.
Why can’t this successful model be replicated elsewhere? “The answer is PBMs,” says Stacy Mitchell, the report’s author. “Because in North Dakota, independents are the only game in town, PBMs have to negotiate with them. In other states, they have no leverage.” Unsurprisingly, PBMs and chains want the North Dakota law overturned rather than adopted in other states.
Trump did say in his address to a joint session of Congress that he would “bring down the artificially high price of drugs.” And in his confirmation hearing, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, discussing Trump’s idea for competitive bidding in Medicare, said that “right now the PBMs are doing that negotiation. … I think it is important to have a conversation and look at whether there is a better way to do that.”
Only in America can three companies controlling 80% of the market be seen as competition. No wonder our economy is a total neofeudal nightmare.
Obamacare 'Explosion' Could Come On May 22nd, Here's Why
ZeroHedge.com Mar 29, 2017 11:45 AM
After a stunning healthcare defeat last week, delivered at the hands of his own party no less, Trump took to twitter to predict the imminent 'explosion' of Obamacare.
As it turns out, that 'explosion' could come faster than anyone really expects as legislators and health insurers have to make several critical decisions about the 2018 plan year over the next 2 months which could seal Obamacare's fate.
As the Atlanta Journal Constitution points out today, the Trump administration has until May 22nd to decide whether they will continue to pursue the Obama administration's appeal to provide subsidies to insurers who participate in the federal exchanges.
Of course, any decision to remove those subsidies would likely result in yet another massive round of premium hikes and further withdrawals from the already crippled exchanges where an astounding number of counties across the country have already been cut to just 1 health insurance provider. And, as we've pointed out before, higher rates = lower participation = deterioration of risk pool = higher rates....and the cycle just repeats until it eventually collapses.
As background, in 2014, House Republicans sued the Obama administration over the constitutionality of the cost-sharing reduction payments (a.k.a. "taxpayer funded healthcare subsidies"), which had not been appropriated by Congress. Republicans won the initial lawsuit but the Obama administration subsequently appealed and now Trump's administration can decide whether to pursue the appeal or not.
One key to insurers selling plans in the marketplace are reimbursements they receive called cost-sharing reductions. These aren't the same as the tax credits that people receive to help pay their premiums; it is financial assistance to help low-income people pay their out-of-pocket costs, such as deductibles. The Congressional Budget Office projected those payments would add up to $7 billion this year and $10 billion in 2018.
But for insurers, there's a question over how long that money will be delivered, due to an ongoing political and legal dispute about whether the cost-sharing money should be distributed at all.
In 2014, House Republicans sued the Obama administration over the constitutionality of the cost-sharing reduction payments, which had not been appropriated by Congress. The lawmakers won the lawsuit, and the Obama administration appealed it. Late last year, with a new administration on the other end of the suit, the House sought to pause the proceedings — with a deadline for a status update in late May.
The Trump administration and House lawmakers have to report to the judge this spring. If the Trump administration drops the appeal, it would mean the subsidies would stop being paid — a huge blow to the marketplaces and millions of people. If lawmakers wanted the payments to continue, they would have to find a way to fund them. One opportunity for that is coming up fast, the continuing resolution that must be passed by April 28. If the Trump administration continues the lawsuit, it will be in the odd position of fighting its own party.
The CBO estimates the payments would total roughly $10 billion in 2018.
As we've noted before, several large insurers, including UnitedHealth Group and Aetna, have already made the decision to exit Obamacare due to financial losses. Now, Molina Healthcare is also pondering whether it would be able to continue to participate in the absence of federal subsidies.
Big insurers like UnitedHealth Group and Aetna have mostly left the individual market over the years, citing financial reasons. Several counties across the country only have one insurer offering ObamaCare plans.
Now Molina Healthcare is signaling it may downsize its presence in the market, or pull out altogether, if Congress or the administration doesn’t act to stabilize it. Molina has 1 million exchange enrollees in nine states this year.
“We need some clarity on what’s going to happen with cost-sharing reductions and understand how they’re going to apply the mandate,” said Molina CEO Dr. Mario Molina.
Asked if Molina would leave ObamaCare if the payments are stopped, the CEO said: “It would certainly play into our decision. We’ll look at this on a market-by-market basis. We could leave some. We could leave all.”
Mario Molina, chief executive of Molina Healthcare, predicted that if the cost-sharing reductions are not funded, it could result in premium increases on the order of 10 to 12 percent.
While all this uncertainty swirls, health insurers must decide — soon — whether to make rate filings to sell insurance in 2018. The deadline varies by state, but for those that have marketplaces run by the federal government, it is June 21. Filing doesn't mean that insurers will participate; they'll have months more to negotiate and could still drop out. But it's the first step toward offering plans in 2018 and should provide a signal about what the marketplaces are likely to look like.
$540,701,000,000: U.S. Property Taxes Hit Record in 2016
By Terence P. Jeffrey | March 27, 2017 | 4:58 PM EDT
(CNSNews.com) - Americans paid a record $540,701,000,000 in property taxes to state and local governments in fiscal 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was up $16,748,620,000—or about 3.2 percent--from $523,952,380,000 in property taxes (in constant 2016 dollars) that state and local governments collected in fiscal 2015.
The prior national record for property taxes was set in fiscal 2009, when they hit $527,850,500,000 in constant 2016 dollars. Fiscal 2016's record total of $540,701,000,000 was up $12,850,000,000—or about 2.4 percent—from that previous record.
The nationwide state and local property tax receipts for fiscal 2016 were released last week with the Census Bureau’s “Quarterly Summary of State and Local Government Tax Revenue for 2016: Q4.”
The fiscal year 2016 that the Census Bureau references in this data is the year that runs from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016. That is because most states end their fiscal years on June 30.
The Census Bureau defines “property taxes” as “taxes imposed on ownership of property and measured by its value.”
“Property,” says the Census Bureau, “refers to real property (e.g., land and structures) as well as personal property; personal property can be either tangible (e.g., automobiles and boats) or intangible (e.g., bank accounts and stocks and bonds).” Although total inflation-adjusted state-and-local property taxes hit a record in fiscal 2016, inflation-adjusted property taxes hit their per capita peak in fiscal 2009.
In fiscal 2016, the $540,701,000,000 in property taxes that state and local government collected equaled about $1,673 for every one of the 323,127,513 men, women and children the Census Bureau estimated were residing in the United States as of July 1, 2016.
In fiscal 2009, the $527,850,500,000 in property taxes (in constant 2016 dollars) that state and local government collected equaled about $1,721 for every one of the 306,771,529 men, women and children the Census Bureau estimated were residing in the United States as of July 1, 2009.
Most of the property taxes were collected by local governments. Of the $540,701,000,000 in total property taxes collected nationwide in fiscal 2016, according to the Census estimate, $16,040,000,000—or about 3 percent—was collected by state governments.
Your Pension Will Be At The Center Of America's Next Financial Crisis
ZeroHedge.com Mar 26, 2017 10:30 PM
Authored by Jeff Reeves via The Hill
I’m not a fan of the “greed is good” mentality of Wall Street investment firms. But the next financial crisis that rocks America won’t be driven by bankers behaving badly. It will in fact be driven by pension funds that cannot pay out what they promised to retirees. According to one pension advocacy organization, nearly 1 million working and retired Americans are covered by pension plans at the risk of collapse.
The looming pension crisis is not limited by geography or economic focus. These including former public employees, such as members of South Carolina’s government pension plan, which covers roughly 550,000 people — one out of nine state residents — and is a staggering $24.1 billion in the red. These include former blue collar workers such as roughly 100,000 coal miners who face serious cuts in pension payments and health coverage thanks to a nearly $6 billion shortfall in the plan for the United Mine Workers of America. And when the bill comes due, we will all be in very big trouble.
It’s bad enough to consider the philosophical fallout here, with reneging on the promise of a pension and thus causing even more distrust of bankers and retirement planners. But I’m speaking about a cold, numbers-based perspective that causes a drag on many parts of the American economy. Consider the following.
Pensioners have no flexibility
According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report from 2015, the average household income of someone older than age 75 is $34,097 and their average expenses exceed that slightly, at $34,382. It is not an exaggeration, then, to say that even a modest reduction in retirement income makes the typical budget of a 75-year-old unsustainable — even when the average budget is far from luxurious at current levels. This inflexibility is a hard financial reality of someone who is no longer able to work and is reliant on means other than labor to make ends meet.
Social Security is in a tight spot
So who will step up to support these former pensioners? Perhaps the government, via Social Security, except that program itself is in crisis and will see its trust fund go to zero just 17 years from now, in 2034, based on the current structure of the program. If millions of pensions go bust and retirees have no other savings to fall back on, it will be nigh impossible to cut benefits or reduce the drag on this program. But won’t a pension collapse mean we desperately need Social Security, even in an imperfect form, well beyond 2034?
The guaranty is no solution
There is an organization, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), which is meant to insure pensions against failure. However, it was created in 1974 as part of a host of financial reforms and is far from a perfect solution, primarily because it is funded by premiums from defined-benefit plan sponsors and assets seized from former plan sponsors that have entered bankruptcy.
What happens when a handful of troubled pension funds turns into dozens or hundreds? Remember, the PBGC guarantees a certain amount that is decidedly lower than your full pension — as members of the Road Carriers 707 pension fund learned when the group “protected” their pensions by helping to pay benefits, which had been reduced from $1,313 per month to $570. That’s better than zero, but hardly encouraging.
This is not about helping Baby Boomers fund an annual cruise to the Caribbean. Older, low-income pensioners are not saving their money. Instead, they’re spending it on necessities such as food, housing, healthcare and transportation. That means every penny you reduce from their budget means a penny in spending that is removed from the U.S. economy.
Anyone who has taken Econ 101 knows about the “multiplier effect” where $1 in extra spending can produce a much larger amount of economic activity as that dollar circulates around businesses, consumers and banks … or in this case, how $1 less in spending causes a an equally powerful cascade of negative consequences.
By helping ward against a pension crisis, America will be protecting its economy for everyone — plain and simple. But that requires some tough decisions on all sides. For instance, the U.S. Treasury denied a cut to New York Teamsters’ pension plan that was proposed last year. But now the fund is on the brink of collapse, and its recipients are facing benefits that are in some cases one-third what they were 15 years ago.
Like Social Security, current workers can’t contribute enough to offset the big obligations owed to retirees. And as with the flagship entitlement program, it’s up to regulators and legislators to step in — even when it may not be easy — in order to keep the system from collapsing. Let’s hope they make both pension reform and Social Security reform a priority in the near future.