USA Inc.: Buy, Hold or Sell?
If the U.S. was a company, would you buy, hold, or sell the stock? A voluminous report put out last year by Mary Meeker sought to answer that very question. Since we’re in the thick of the presidential elections, why not review the important financial state of our great nation.
For those of you who may not know who she is, Mary Meeker is the well-known partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who is also affectionately known as the “Queen of Internet.” Apparently, beyond her renowned expertise in analyzing and valuing tech companies and start-ups, she also has the knack of dissecting government statistics and distilling wonky numbers down to understandable terms for the masses. “Distilling” may be a generous term, given the massive size of her 460-page report, USA Inc., but nevertheless, I am going to attempt to synthesize this gargantuan report even further.
As a visual learner, I think some key cherry-picked slides from her report will help put our multi-trillion debts and deficits in context, so here goes…
The Scope of the Problem
If one spends a few hundred billion dollars here, and a few hundred billion dollars there, before you know it, a trillion dollars will have piled up. Currently our government has run $1 trillion+ budget deficits for three years, and the estimated deficit is for another trillion dollar deficit this fiscal year. If you have ever wondered how many football fields it takes to fill with a trillion dollars of cash, then today is your lucky day. The answer: 217 football fields.
Financial Statements: The Health Thermometer
In order to determine the relative health of USA Inc., Meeker created financial statements for our country, starting with the income statement. As you can see from the chart below, unfortunately USA Inc.’s expenses have been significantly larger than its revenues, creating a “discouraging” trend of negative cash flows (deficits). An entity that takes in $2.2 trillion in revenue and spends $3.5 trillion, cannot sustainably continue this trend for long, before significant financial problems arise. The largest contributing factor to our country’s losses (deficits) has been the exploding costs of entitlements, including Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
As the pie chart shows, the major categories of entitlements comprise a whopping 58% of USA Inc.’s 2010 total expenditures.
Why Entitlement Spending is a Problem
Why are entitlements such a massive problem? The plain and simple answer to why entitlements are a major issue is that government expenditures are growing too fast. You can’t have expenses growing significantly faster than revenues for 45 years and expect to be in happy financial place.
Another reason for the abysmal spending record is due to politicians horrendous forecasting abilities. Future promises are made by politicians to garner votes today, and when they make overly rosy estimates about the costs of those promises, future generations are left holding the underfunded bag. Meeker points out that when Medicare was instituted in 1966, total future spending of $110 billion turned out to be about 10x more expensive (see chart below) than originally planned…ouch!
No Defense for Defense
Trillion dollar deficits and debts can’t be solely blamed on entitlements, but $700 billion in annual defense expenditures is not exactly chump change. The inopportune timing of the financial crisis in 2008-2009 didn’t help either, while two unfunded wars were being fought. Even if you strip out the wars, defense spending is still obscenely high. Given our poor state of financial affairs, we cannot afford to be the globe’s babysitter (see Impoverished Global Babysitter). Legacy Cold War spending on obsolete ground warfare needs to be reprioritized to 21st Century threats (i.e. focus on unmanned drones and coordinated intelligence). When a government spends more than the top 25 countries combined (see chart below), that country can certainly find some defense fat to trim.
The out-of-control gluttonous government spending is a threat to our national security, and although I wish I could say time alone will heal our fiscal wounds, unfortunately the opposite is true. Time is our enemy because the ticking demographic time bomb is about to explode, unless government acts to solve our spending problems. For starters, Americans are living longer, which means entitlement spending has accelerated faster than revenues collected, and life expectancy consistently continues to rise. As you can see below, life expectancy has outpaced Social Security age adjustments by +23% over a 74 year period.
Another self inflicted problem contributing to our colossal health care costs is the obesity epidemic. Over an 18 year period, the rate of obesity more than doubled to 32%. Individuals can and should shoulder more of the burden for these belt-busting costs, and government should spend more on prevention and education in this area. Bad drivers pay higher premiums for their auto insurance, so why not have bad eaters pay higher premiums? Genetics certainly can play a role in obesity, but so to do eating habits. The same accountability principle should be applied to smokers who overly burden our healthcare system too.
The USA spends more on healthcare than all OECD countries combined and 3x the OECD per capita average, yet as you can see from the chart below, the USA is not getting a life expectancy bang for its buck. The argument that the U.S. has the best healthcare in the world may be true in some instances, but the overall data doesn’t support that assertion.
The Rubber Hits the Road
The problem is easy to identify: Government spending going out the door is running faster than the revenues coming in via taxes. The solution is easy to identify too: Politicians need to cut spending, increase taxes, and/or do a combination of the two options. Like dieting, the solutions are easy to identify but difficult to execute.
Almost everyone wants the government to spend less, but at the same time nobody wants their benefits cut. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Citing two different studies, Meeker shows how 80% of Americans want a balanced budget as a national priority, but only 12% are willing to cut spending on Medicare and Social Security.
The rubber will hit the road in the next few months when politicians in a post-presidential election period will be forced to face these difficult “Fiscal Cliff” choices – $700 billion+ in tax hikes and spending increases that jeopardize the current recovery and our fiscal future.
As market maven Mary Meeker recognizes, our fiscal situation is quite “discouraging”. With that said, although USA Inc. may have earned a current “Sell” rating, Meeker acknowledges that our country can become a positive turnaround situation. If voters actively push politicians to making difficult but necessary financial decisions to lower deficits and debt, investors around the globe will be ready to “Buy” USA Inc.’s stock.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
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