Social Security Online

Originally published in Flourishing June 2012

Social Security statements are now sent out only annually to workers age 60 and older.  On May 1, 2012, Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, announced that an online version of the Social Security Statement is now available. 

“Our new online Social Security Statement is simple, easy-to-use and provides people with estimates they can use to plan for their retirement,” Commissioner Astrue said. “The online Statement also provides estimates for disability and survivors benefits, making the Statement an important financial planning tool.  People should get in the habit of checking their online Statement each year, around their birthday, for example.”

In addition to helping with financial planning, the online Statement also provides workers a convenient way to determine whether their earnings are accurately posted to their Social Security records.  This feature is important because Social Security benefits are based on average earnings over a person’s lifetime. If the earnings information is not accurate, the person may not receive all the benefits to which he or she is entitled.  The online Statement also provides the opportunity to save or print the personalized Statement for financial planning discussions with family or a financial planner.*

To view your social security statement online, you must first create an account at:

 

http://www.socialsecurity.gov/mystatement/

 When you arrive at this website, click on the Sign In or Create An Account button.  On the next screen, click  Create An Account.  After agreeing to the Terms of Service, click the Next button.  You will now need to enter your personal information; your name, social security number, date of birth, home address, and primary telephone number.  When you’re finished, click Next.  The next screen will ask you some questions to confirm your identity.  These questions are derived from information found at Experian (the credit bureau) and may contain questions about loans outstanding or insurance you have purchased.  Then click Next again.  You will be asked to create a username and password, and to enter your email address.  You will also need to complete some security questions, so you can still get to your account if you forget your password.  Click Next

Congratulations!  You account is now set up and ready to access.  Click on Next to log in for the first time.  You will need to agree to the Terms of Service one more time then click Next.  After entering your username and password, you will be able to view your statement of benefits.  ab

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* Source:  https://www.socialsecurity.gov/pressoffice/pr/ss-online-statement-pr.html

The End of the Euro? Not the End of the World!

 

Originally published in Flourishing June 2012 

Some months back, I wrote that the Eurocurrency and the European Union could go the way of the Dodo—that is, they could become extinct species.  We  seem to be  getting closer to that virtually inevitable day.   The financial media report on this as a bad thing only, because it may induce cataclysmic (temporary) market disruptions and a wretched (warranted) decline in European living standards.  But, there is more to the story. 

The good news in this “crisis” is—as noted by Nick Murray—that lessons will be learned.   To which I must add—perhaps somewhat less tactfully—the macro lesson of the European debt crisis is that it is the perfectly logical come-uppance of a collectivist/socialist philosophy of government.  As the “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher has said, “The problem with socialism is that—sooner or later—you run out of other people’s money.”

Unlike the governments of the European Union—or our own federal government for that matter—American businesses have reduced unproductive spending, paid down debt, and emerged from the recent recession better equipped than ever to produce the goods and services demanded by consumers.  Non-financial U.S. corporations have reduced their debt from 83% of GDP to 77%.  Financial sector debt has declined from 123% of

GDP to 89%.  Similarly, household debt has declined from 98% of GDP to 84%.1   In one simple, but telling, example of cost-cutting, UPS is getting more deliveries from existing resources just by eliminating left turns from its trucking routes.  Just as the business philosopher W. Clement Stone taught us, “Little hinges swing big doors.”

You may have heard that Americans don’t manufacture anymore.  It’s not true.  In 2011, for example, a GE gasturbine plant in South Carolina built and shipped ninety units to foreign markets, each with a price tag north of $25 million.  Total American exports to China alone exceeded $104 billion in 2011, more than double the $41.2 billion we shipped to them in 2005.  Don’t forget about food; in 2011, the U.S. exported $136 billion in agricultural products.2

But wait!  We’re just getting started with the good news.  The April 21st-27th edition of The Economist featured a 14-page “Special Report: Manufacturing and Innovation” in which it described “a third industrial revolution”.  The report notes that although the U.S. and China are about equal in manufacturing output in dollar terms, the U.S. achieves its production with 10% of the workforce required in China.  So, as wages continue to rise in China and other developing countries, America’s superior technology will make the American worker more competitive than ever.  And, Susan Hockfield of MIT says that American productivity may seem to mean fewer jobs, but jobs created by the huge supply chain needed to support automated American manufacturing will more than make up for fewer feet on the factory floor.  She also reports that there is a growing demand for post-sale support workers; 10-year auto warranties require skilled local technicians, for example.

The “Special Report” also describes digital 3-D printing—an incredible new manufacturing process.  In one example, a factory in Rock Hill, South Carolina is printing parts for consumer products, like electric drills, dashboards for cars, lampshades, and—hang on to your hat—artificial human body parts. The materials that can be printed now include plastics, ceramics, and many metals.  Food can be printed (CornellUniversity researchers are printing cupcakes).  Simple living tissues like skin, muscle, and short stretches of blood vessels can be printed; and someday, whole body parts might be printed, using the patient’s own stem cells as a digital program to circumvent—or at least reduce—the body ‘s natural tendency to reject transplants.

[Go to http://www.businessweek.com and read how “programmable matter” may create devices that can “evolve” by changing their own physical structure, morphing, for example, from wrench to antenna to tripod.  Prepare to freak out.]

More down to earth, and perhaps more relevant, is the fact that operating earnings of the S&P 500 companies came in at $98.57 last year, 17% better than 2010, and more than 12% better than the previous high, set in 2006.  That may not seem significant, until you realize that the S&P 500 Index closed out 2011 at 1257.60, still 14% lower than where it was on December 31, 2007 (1466.36).  Operating earnings for 2011 were nearly double the operating earnings at the depth of the recession in 2008 ($49.51), and 75% greater than at the peak of the tech bubble in 2000 ($56.13).  In the last twenty years, operating earnings of the S&P 500 companies have nearly quintupled, while the S&P 500 Index itself has not quite quadrupled.  The consensus estimate for 2012 earnings is $103.06, and for 2013, $112.82.3  It is axiomatic that stock prices track corporate earnings—sometimes anticipating them, sometimes lagging.  So, stay attuned to corporate earnings.

Now, you may fairly ask, “If things are so good, why is unemployment so stubbornly high?”  I’ll leave that question to your imagination and/or analysis; and I’ll give you my answer next month.  For now, I’m merely suggesting that you not look to the future through the lens of chronically dysfunctional government behavior, which has nearly always come-a-cropper; nor to the daily short-attention-span theater of the financial media; but to the long-term performance of America’s and the world’s best managed, most innovative companies.   mh

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http://finance.yahoo.com/news/u-debt-load-falling-fastest-040045522.html

Daniel Gross, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/

S&P 500 data provided by University of Pennsylvania (Wharton School) Finance Professor Jeremy Siegel at    http://www.jeremysiegel.com/; subscription required.

A Notable June Birthday

Originally published in Flourishing June 2012. 

Claude Frédéric Bastiat was born on June 29, 1801 inBayonne,France, located on theBay of Biscaycoast. 

Orphaned at the age of nine, Bastiat was raised by his paternal grandfather.  During his teen years  Frédéric worked in his uncle’s export business, and while there, he developed an interest in economics.  When he was twenty-four, his grandfather died, leaving his entire estate to young Frédéric.

Influenced primarily by Adam Smith and Richard Cobden, Frédéric spent his remaining years developing his understanding of economics, and he became famous in his own right as a brilliant economic essayist.  His most popular work was his satirical “Candlemakers’ Petition”, in which he mockingly called for the government to outlaw open windows and the Sun; published as part of the larger Economic Sophisms, published in 1845. 

In his most important work, The Law, published in 1850, Bastiat asserted (like our Founders before him)  that the sole purpose of government is to defend and protect the right of an individual to life, liberty, and property. From this definition, he concluded that the law cannot defend these things if it promotes socialist and interventionist policies; they are diametrically opposed to individual liberty.  In this way, he wrote, the law is turned against the very things it is supposed to defend.  

One hundred and sixty-two years later, we are about to find out whether and/or to what degree the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with Bastiat, when it hands down its decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) later this month. 

Wouldn’t it be a delicious coincidence if a decision to throw out that Act were announced on Bastiat’s birthday?  I think so, anyway.   mh