Smart Ways to Take Advantage of Your Tax Refund

Author: Teresa Mears

Tax season is a time of stress for many, but it can be a joyful time for the roughly 75 percent of Americans who receive income tax refunds.

While the refund really means you’re getting back money you loaned to the government at no interest, in practical terms it often means an unexpected infusion of cash into your wallet or bank account. Last year’s average income tax refund was $2,755, according to the Internal Revenue Service. That’s a nice chunk of change.

It’s a great problem to have: What do you do with your windfall?

The best choice for one person may not be the best choice for another. But experts agree on one thing: If you have debt, apply your refund to paying it off, whether it’s credit card debt, student loan debt or other consumer debt. “People should still be focusing first on paying down debt,” says Meisa Bonelli, a Wall Street finance and tax professional whose Millennial Tax company advises entrepreneurs on business and tax strategy.

Debt, particularly student loan debt, should be a primary target because it limits financial options, preventing people from doing what they want with their money, whether it’s buying a house, buying a car or taking a vacation. “Get that debt gone,” she says. “It holds you back from everything else you want to do in life.”

Eric Rosenberg, a financial analyst who writes the blog Narrow Bridge Finance, agrees. “The No. 1 thing anyone should do with a tax refund is pay down debt,” he says. After he left graduate school with $40,000 in student loan debt, he focused on aggressively paying it off. Using all his tax refunds and bonuses, he made the final payment just two years and six days after his graduation.

With his student loan debt cleared away, he began saving his tax refunds, with the goal of buying a home. He didn’t apply any of his refund money to splurges; instead, he saved for fun and vacation with his regular income. The refunds were earmarked for bigger things.

“I treated it like it was extra money that I didn’t need to live on,” Rosenberg says. “I always encourage people to think long term, not short term.”

Others believe that giving yourself license to splurge with part of your refund helps you save the rest. Stephanie Halligan, a financial consultant and blogger, signs a contract with herself before she does her taxes, allocating 50 percent of her refund to student loans and 25 percent to long-term savings. She can spend the remaining 25 percent on whatever she wants.

“It’s easy to react on impulse and emotion when your refund hits, so prepare now for what you’ll do with that moolah later,” she advises on her personal finance website, The Empowered Dollar.  If you’re getting a big refund, a check in the ballpark of $1,000 or more for taxpayers who don’t have a side business, consider adjusting your withholding so that you’ll have that money available to you during the year. But those who don’t have substantial savings want to avoid a scenario in which they owe four figures to the IRS at tax time.

“I think people should withhold the maximum they can withhold,” Bonelli says. Rosenberg concurs. As his businesses, running Narrow Bridge Finance and building websites, have grown, his refunds have shrunk. Last year he had to pay the IRS.

Here are the seven smartest things you can do with your refund:

Pay down debt.

If you have any consumer debt, student loans, credit card balances or installment loans, pay those off before using your refund for any other purpose. Car payments and home mortgages aren’t in this category, but you can consider paying extra principal.

Add to your savings.

“You can never save enough,” Bonelli says. You can use the money to build up your emergency fund, your kids’ college funds or put it toward a specific goal, such as buying a house or a car or financing a big vacation.

Add to your retirement accounts.

If you put $2,500 from this year’s tax refund into an IRA, it would grow to $8,500 in 25 years, even at a modest 5 percent rate of return, TurboTax calculates. If you saved $2,500 every year for 25 years, you’d end up with more than $130,000 at that same 5 percent rate of return.

Invest in yourself.

This could mean taking a class in investing, studying something that interests you or even taking a big trip. “Do something that enriches yourself or adds value to your life,” Bonelli says. She is planning to take a class in art therapy this year using money from her refund.

Improve your home.

Consider putting your refund to good use by adding insulation, replacing old windows and doors or other improvements that would save energy, and therefore money. Or perhaps it’s time to remodel your bathroom or kitchen. You’re adding value to your home at the same time you’re improving your living experience.

Apply your refund toward next year’s taxes.

This is common among self-employed taxpayers, who are required to pay quarterly taxes since they don’t have taxes withheld. By applying any overpayment toward upcoming tax payments, you can free up other cash.

Splurge on something you’ve always wanted to do.

If you’re out of debt and have substantial savings, this may be the time to take the trip to Antarctica or Australia that you’ve always dreamed of taking. Such an experience can be life-changing, and you never know what impact it will have on your future until you actually do it.

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This article originally appeared at http://www.dailyfinance.com/2014/03/31/smart-tax-refund-strategies/; reprinted by permission.

What a Wonderful World

Originally Published in Flourishing May/June 2013

As many of you know, we are members of The Golden Circle, a group that provides support for a series of events performed by the South Kansas Symphony, led by Dr. Daniel Stevens.  Daniel is doing a fantastic job, both with the South Kansas Symphony and with the Southwestern Youth Symphony.  And, Daniel is himself a wonderful musician. 

Anyway, at this season’s finale, Daniel presented me with a plaque which says simply, “Life Is Good”.  Daniel said that he chose that message, because I’m always smiling.  He couldn’t have paid me a higher compliment.  Why do I mention this?  Simply to establish my credentials as an optimist.  And, yes, I am bragging.  Optimism is a state of mind, and as such, it is not something you’re born with; it is something you work to develop. (Ask my children, I used to be grumpy.)

But, did you ever hear me say that we don’t have problems?  No, you didn’t, and you have no idea of the troubles I’ve seen.  Nor will you, because I don’t allow trouble to define me.  Indeed, part of my job as your advisor is to help identify your troubles and aspirations, to put both into a rational perspective, and deal with them in a positive way.

So, the issue I hear about most frequently from clients is that our federal  government continues to spend irresponsibly—as it has for most of my lifetime.  But, now it’s worse than ever.  As Ben Stein’s economist father, Herb, famously said, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.”  But, life will go on;  and here’s the key point—BETTER THAN BEFORE.  That will be true, because it has always been true.  That is my faith.

Still, according to the federal government’s own actuaries, unfunded liabilities for things like Social Security and Medicare and federal employee pensions now exceed $87 trillion. That doesn’t include the official $16.7 trillion national debt.  The population is about 315 million people. Not counting the official $16.7 trillion national debt—and not allowing for cost-of-living adjustments—the average American owes over $275,000 for America’s unfunded liabilities.  (I’m not counting PPACA (Obamacare), either, but that’s an issue for another day.)

Looking at this more optimistically, I realized that if I’m the average American, Uncle Sam owes me $275,000 in future benefits.  So, here is my offer: The government says my life expectancy is another sixteen years.  Pay me now, instead of later.  I’ll even take a haircut.  In lieu of all future benefits, pay me today with a $100,000 Treasury bond with a guaranteed rate of 5% (the long-term historical average) and maturing in sixteen years.

Over sixteen years, I’ll collect $80,000 in interest on which I’ll pay tax at the optimistic rate of 25%.  The Feds will get back $20,000 in income tax payments, leaving a net cost of $160,000 ($100,000+80,000-20,000).  If I don’t live sixteen years, my heirs can either sell the bond in the open market or hold it to maturity.  And, let’s be fair about this:  Give every American citizen the same haircut, with the face amount and the maturity of each person’s bond based on today’s life expectancies.  I haven’t figured out how to treat people born tomorrow and the next day, but…

…I realize that the real solution needs to be a bit more sophisticated than my example here.  Whether my proposal is adopted or not,  you can be sure that something like it—a haircut for virtually everyone—will have to happen at some time, because as Ben Stein’s dad told Nixon, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t”.  And, that’s really a good thing, because…   

…out of fiscal necessity, I’m convinced that America must and will find a way to return to its founding ideals of self-determination and family responsibility.  The $trillions now committed to a very long list of wasteful entitlements—not to mention countless other stupidly expensive commitments—will be free to flow into privately funded miracle cures and “for profit” space stations; to name just two possibilities. But until then, don’t waste your mental energy on things you can’t control.  Ignore the “news”, if that’s what you have to do, and force yourself to notice and appreciate the good things in your life.  As my first self-help mentor, Earl Nightingale, always advised, “Begin each day with an attitude of gratitude”.  It really is a wonderful world out there—and that’s why I’m always smiling!  mh

Industry, Energy, and the Moral High Ground

Originally published in Flourishing Mar Apr 2013

I was watching television last night (March 26), when I was disturbed by a news item scrolling across the bottom of the screen.  Paraphrasing, the message was that the U.S. State Department will open new hearings on the Keystone XL pipeline project on April 18.  Huh?  I thought Hilary’s State Department had given President Obama clear passage to a decision on Keystone XL way back in 2012, long before the election.   And, I thought I’d read not long ago that the EPA Administrator was planning to resign, because she thought the President was going to approve the Keystone XL project.  So I checked, and my memory was correct.

This is why central planning and heavy-handed regulation don’t work; or perhaps I should say they don’t work for the American people or for economic progress.  We all know intuitively, I think, that political calculations in Washington more or less continuously trump reason and reality.  So, I’ve never understood how we get suckered into the belief that patently demagogic politicians and their swarm of camp followers can make better economic, environmental, and public safety decisions than the often brilliant and generally hard-working people who strive every day to offer life-enhancing products to increasingly discerning customers for a profit.  The historical evidence and our own life experience is virtually all to the contrary.  

We in the western world are the beneficiaries of the greatest development in human history—the Industrial Revolution—which enabled higher human productivity, more leisure time, faster and safer transportation, more complex scientific discoveries, safer and more comfortable places to live, and longer lives, to name just a few of its benefits; and left in its wake the Information Revolution and the emerging Biological Revolution. 

So, instead of trusting everything to the posers in Washington, I think we might want to once again embrace the free market principles that gave us that Industrial Revolution.  We could start, for example, by stopping the endlessly redundant nit-picking of every industrial project for the remote, one-in-a billion chance that somewhere, sometime, somehow, a pipeline will rupture and leave a temporary stain the size of a football field in some farmer’s patch of corn.  I mean no offense to the farmers, but do we think that the aggrieved farmer—who does retain his property rights—will not be recompensed, contractually or through the courts?

But wait, didn’t I also hear on the news yesterday that a Canadian freight train had derailed in Minnesota, spilling oil in a farm field?  Maybe we should weigh that all but trivial event—which I’m sure captured the President’s attention—against the incalculable human benefits of petroleum-based energy.  And, if you please, I’ll include nuclear and coal-based energy in my argument, too.

Really, it should be a moral embarrassment to us that in today’s world, millions of people die every year due to a lack of dependable energy supplies.  Isn’t it amazing that we environmentally aware, creature-sensitive Americans have cordoned off centuries worth of potential energy supplies in the form of natural gas, nuclear power, oil, and coal in the name of  “saving the planet”.  Rather than promote a better quality of life for desperate human beings throughout the rest of the world—which we could readily do at great economic, cultural, and moral benefit to ourselves—we instead celebrate, as  moral idealism, battery-powered cars with a driving range rivaling the distance of Tiger Woods’ 6 iron; and sorting through trash to put everything in its proper bin.  That’s a pitifully vapid—not to say inverted—path to moral self-esteem, don’t you think?

I’ve been watching this nonsense and remaining mostly silent for upwards of forty years.  But, yesterday I read something that was said by the greatest cultural icon of the 20th century in America:  Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about the things that matter.   So—not to offend or debate, but to educate—my self-imposed muzzle has been removed.  (I know that you know that I write to you out of love; and if you’re not convinced by my argument, that’s ok.  I won’t hold it against you, and I’d appreciate the same consideration.)

We Americans have taken industrial and material progress for granted, and we’ve carelessly embraced “going green” as a moral ideal–expecting that the unprecedented standard of living we’ve enjoyed would continue.  For forty years, we’ve permitted relatively small, but politically connected and well-funded, groups of anti-industrial environmentalists to roadblock new energy production and industrial development at nearly every turn.  Some call them “tree-huggers”; but since I love trees—just as I value the clean air and clean water,  which are available only in the most energy–intense industrial economies—I just say they’re wrong.   Since policies have consequences, we’re paying the price for the government’s stifling of innovation, productivity, and growth in the energy industry with nearly nationwide economic stagnation and fruitless “green energy” cronyism.   “Going green” is doing more damage to our moral and economic future with every day that passes. 

If we freedom-loving, prosperity-seeking people continue to grant the anti-industrialists the moral high ground they claim to represent with their “green energy” agenda, they may continue to inspire support for their “green economy” suicide pact.  But, don’t miss my main point:  To sacrifice the modern human environment we enjoy here in America—fueled by petroleum, nuclear, and coal-based energy—to the non-human environment, as the anti-industrialists insist we do, is not just bad economic policy, it is immoral.  A mere moment’s reflection on the living conditions that exist in the non-industrialized world is evidence enough of that fact.  So, do we want to live like they do?  Or do we want to help them live like us?  Because those are our choices. 

The anti-industrialists like to talk about “industrial policy” by which they mean the obstruction of private industry initiatives and the demise of the large-scale energy production our modern economy requires.  The only industrial policy we really need to assure ourselves of a healthy environment, and to restore prosperity and abundance, is one which respects private property rights and individual self-determination.  As the history of western civilization since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has demonstrated, human ingenuity and the natural human desire to create better lives for ourselves and our families will take care of the rest. mh

Washington’s Immigrant Secretary

Originally published in Flourishing Jan/Feb 2013

For Christmas 2011, our daughter Janelle gave me a copy of Laura Hillenbrand’s most recent book, Unbroken,1 which tells the life story of Louis Zamperini.  The son of Italian immigrants, Louis didn’t learn to speak English until his parents moved from Olean, New York to Torrance, California.  In the 1930’s, he became a national sensation as a track star at USC, where he set a national record time for the one mile run, which stood for fifteen years; and in Berlin at the 1936 Olympiad—at the age of nineteen—he finished eighth in the 5,000 meter run.  While in Berlin–to make a statement about Hitler’s racism and to celebrate America’s Jesse Owens—Louis climbed a flagpole and stole Hitler’s personal banner.  Remember—he was only nineteen.  After graduating from USC,  Louis became a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator, and when his plane went down in the Pacific in the summer of 1943, he and other members of the plane’s crew spent more than a month drifting on a tiny raft, before becoming Japanese prisoners of war.  The Japanese guards remembered Louis from the Olympics—not a good thing.  After the war, Louis became one of many veterans suffering the effects of PTSD.  And finally, thanks to a persistent and loving wife, Louis found his true calling as an inspirational Christian speaker.  The book is oxygen for the soul, and you should read it.  But, that’s not the subject of this essay; I just had to get it in here somewhere.  Perhaps it will help set the tone for what follows:

He was born in 1757.  His birthplace is uncertain, but was likely the island of Nevis near St. Croix.  His mother, Rachel Faucett, was a beautiful woman of British and French Huguenot descent. While still a young woman, Rachel was forced to abandon her first child and his abusive father, and she went to live with James Hamilton, a Scottish ne’er-do-well, on the nearby island of St. Kitts.  Though they never married, she and James had two children together, James and Alexander.  Before long, the elder James deserted Rachel and the two boys, never to be heard from again. When Alexander was nine years old and James was eleven, Rachel, who was not yet forty, died on the island of St. Croix of yellow fever.  Upon becoming orphans, the boys were separated from each other; and Alexander went to work for the local office of a New York-based firm that was engaged in shipping and trading.  He made such a name for himself, that by the time he was fifteen, he was landed in New York with letters of introduction to several well-to-do families.  By the time he was thirty-two, Alexander Hamilton was George Washington’s, and our nation’s first, Secretary of the Treasury.  The Founders and Finance2   was my Christmas gift from our daughter Sara in 2012.  How do those girls know so much about their father? 

There is much history to learn from this book, and the theme is compelling and timely.  Of our six leading founders—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton—Alexander Hamilton was by far the youngest.  He was also, perhaps, the most visionary, and he was the only immigrant. 

Hamilton was thoroughly self-educated in finance, he had studied and practiced the law, he was an extraordinary administrator, and a prolific writer. To General George Washington, he had been a most trusted aid and confidant during the Revolutionary War. 

By the time Hamilton took office in 1789, the Revolutionary War had been history for six years, the Constitution was two years old, and the young nation’s debt exceeded $74 million at face value.  America’s finances were in such bad shape that both state and federal bonds were trading for ten to twenty cents on the dollar.  Historical documents show that for the year 1789, federal tax receipts were a mere $162,000.3  And, you think we’re living beyond our means!

All this debt had been issued to pay for the War, and most of it had no physical collateral to back it up.  America’s financial situation was so desperate that many people thought that the young republic wouldn’t survive.  Alexander Hamilton understood how hopeless the situation was, but he had a plan.  Just as important, he had experience; and despite his age—and being foreign-born—he had the trust and support of President Washington.  

Following the success of the American Revolution, many skilled European artisans saw opportunity across the pond.  But European governments were opposed to the exporting of manufacturing talent; in some cases departing artisans came under the threat of fines and imprisonment.  Such was the case with young Samuel Slater, who in 1789—the same year that Hamilton became Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury—disguised himself as a farm boy and sailed from England to New York with the blueprints for a cotton mill etched in his brain.  Slater soon moved from New York to Providence, Rhode Island, where he was introduced to the Brown family.  The Brown’s—for whom Brown University was later named—had prospered from trans-Atlantic commerce,  and wanted to invest in domestic American manufacturing.  With the Brown’s acting as venture capitalists, Slater established a cotton mill near PawtucketFalls that produced machine-spun cotton thread.  That was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America, and it was exactly what America’s young Treasury Secretary had in mind when he submitted his Report on the Subject of Manufactures to Congress in 1791.  Perhaps he was channeling the great Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith4 when he wrote:

“The results of human exertion may be greatly increased by diversifying its objects.  When all the different kinds of industry obtain in a community, each individual can find his proper element, and call into activity the whole vigor of his nature.”

Hamilton understood that social harmony could be produced through free and mutually self-interested exchange—Adam Smith’s invisible hand—and that the natural division-of-labor implicit in a free society would mean full employment for everyone able and willing to work. In another passage from the same report Hamilton wrote:

“[immigrants] would probably flock from Europe to the United States to pursue their own trades or professions, if they were once made sensible [aware] of the advantages they would enjoy.”

As indeed they did.  During the entire colonial period, only eight for-profit corporations were chartered in North America.  During the 1790’s, three hundred and eleven such corporations were chartered.  A total of 3,884 entrepreneurs participated in these ventures, often pooling their resources to underwrite their more capital-intensive projects. 

One hundred and fifty years later, Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), the great Austrian economist, wrote of Hamilton’s report, …“applied economics at its best.”  Of Hamilton himself he wrote, “…[Hamilton] was one of those rare practitioners of economic policy who think it worth while to acquire more analytical economics than that smattering that does such good service in addressing audiences of a certain type.”  I thought it interesting that Schumpeter himself was only thirty-six, when he was appointed Finance Minister of Austria. 

But, I’ve skipped ahead of myself.  As mentioned above, President Washington’s most pressing problem upon taking the oath of office in 1789 was the crippling debt left over from the Revolutionary War.  It was in answer to that problem that Alexander Hamilton first displayed his mastery of finance before Congress.  Advised by Hamilton, Congress quickly passed a law establishing modest tariffs on imports.  Hamilton also advised taking care not to make the tariffs punitive or restrictive of trade.  For the next one hundred and twenty-four years—until the Sixteenth Amendment authorized a tax on income in 1913—such tariffs provided by far the greater part of our government’s revenue.  But, passing The Tariff Act was the easy part.

The more difficult problem was how to (re) establish America’s credit rating and begin to pay down its debt.  Like many others, Hamilton believed that if the country couldn’t borrow money on reasonable terms it wouldn’t survive. 

To begin the restructuring of America’s debt, Hamilton submitted to Congress a Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit in January of 1790.  In the report, Hamilton first asked for authority to repay the $12 million (at face value) of loans owed to foreign governments, plus all accrued interest.  He would accomplish that by refinancing all the outstanding debt on terms agreed upon by the parties involved. 

Second, Hamilton proposed that the U.S. Treasury issue new bonds to replace the total principal of all the other old debts, again at face value.  Those bonds would not have a fixed maturity date, but neither could the government redeem the bonds if interest rates fell; e.g. the buyers would have “call protection”.

Third, Hamilton insisted that the war debt accumulated by the states be assumed by the federal government, and restructured in the same manner as all other federal debt.

Fourth—and this idea must seem eerily familiar to almost every reader—Hamilton insisted that the federal government set aside a fixed portion of its receipts to pay the interest on its bonds as it became due each year.  This would reassure bond holders, and it would avoid the annual renewal of bitter and partisan showdowns over the nation’s debt in Congress.

Hamilton also insisted that interest on the federal debt would be paid in gold and silver.

There is much more to Thomas McCraw’s important and elegantly written book.  Alexander Hamilton’s story consumes only the first half of the book, which ends with his death by duel at the age of forty-seven.   If you were to read only that chapter—The Duel—and especially, Hamilton’s final letter to his wife, you might benefit by insight into the nature and strength of his character.  That’s an important thing; it was their character, more than anything else, that drew Hamilton and Washington together. 

Then there is the story of Albert Gallatin, the stoic, French-speaking Swiss runaway, who was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by Thomas Jefferson in 1801.  It was Gallatin who corrected Jefferson’s long-standing vilifications of Hamilton; and who helped America finance the Louisiana Purchase, among many other achievements that helped to define our nation.

Did I mention that Alexander Hamilton was a poor immigrant boy with no formal education, and that he was orphaned at the age of nine?  Yes, I guess I did.  But, I didn’t tell you that four of America’s first six Secretaries of the Treasury were immigrants, and that those four immigrant Secretaries served for twenty-one of the first twenty-seven years under the Constitution.  The full title of Thomas McCraw’s book is The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy

My friend and mentor Nick Murray is fond of quoting Harry Truman:  “The only thing new in this world is the history you don’t know.”  So Nick, in his monthly newsletter for advisors, frequently recommends books that he thinks we should read for the historical context they can provide.  And, unknown to Sara, The Founders and Finance  was Nick’s “first must-read book of 2013.”  Now, it’s mine, too. mh

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1.  Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand, Random House, 2010.   Hillenbrand is also the author of Seabiscuit, which became a hit movie in 2003.

2.  The Founders and Finance,  Thomas K. McCraw,  The Belknap Press of HarvardUniversity Press, 2012.

3.  This was for only a partial year.  The full amount for 1789 is unknown.

4.  An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, 1776.  Smith was also the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, for which he was better known during his own lifetime.  Smith (1723 — 1790) is now regarded as one of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, a movement that greatly influenced America’s founding fathers.

Hercules vs. the Hydra

Originally published in Flourishing November/December 2012

In the June 2012 issue of this newsletter, I asked you to think about the reasons for America’s high unemployment rate.  Then in the next two issues, I wrote that government interference in the form of minimum wage laws have helped raise the unemployment rate among black inner city youth to nearly 40%; and that laws favoring union bosses over non-union workers have in many states forced wages to uneconomic levels. 

The important thing to keep in mind is that for most businesses, wages are their most significant cost.  So, when the price of labor is forced to uneconomic levels by government interference, unemployment and business failures are certain to be the result.  The principle also applies to government mandated, one-size-fits-all, health insurance benefits. All labor costs—however necessary or desirable they may seem—consume capital that might otherwise be deployed in new business investment and in creating new jobs. 

Now, as an exemplar of government overreach in other areas, let’s consider the national 55 miles-per-hour speed limit.  Passed by Congress in 1974 with the intention of reducing fuel consumption, that law—when it was obeyed—increased labor costs for the obvious reason that it required at least twenty percent more time for shippers to deliver the goods.  Because it was virtually unenforceable and widely ignored, the 55 miles-per-hour speed limit was ultimately repealed in 1995.  That alone tells you just how economically silly the law was. 

Then consider that from January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2011, the Code of Federal Regulations has increased by 11,327 pages.  According to the Office of Management and Budget, that brings the total register of federal regulations to 169,301 pages.  That’s a stack of paper 32 feet high.  I’m not sure I can throw a football that high.  Common sense tells me that every one of those pages adds to the cost of doing business.  And, what are the odds that in 169,301 pages of regulations there will be contradictory and ambiguous rules? The probability must be pushing 100%.  If I’m right, a regulatory violation is virtually guaranteed for every business in America.  That makes me suspect that the real purpose of our government is not to catch criminals, but to create them. I have to ask, “How many productive jobs could be created with the dollars it takes to pay and entertain the little Caesars who dream up 11,327 pages of regulations in just three years?”

Taxes come at businesses from virtually every legislative body, and for an unending variety of “needs”.  These costs—with the exception of most sales taxes—are not generally passed along to consumers, as is frequently claimed. It’s a myth; like labor costs, they’re usually paid out of capital.  Virtually every dollar taken out of the private economy by taxes is consumed; either by the government directly—where waste, fraud, and abuse are notoriously rampant—or by those who are the beneficiaries of government largess.  These are all dollars that won’t be voluntarily invested in the expansion of existing businesses, the launching of new enterprises, or the creation of new jobs.  Higher business taxes mean fewer jobs. 

Contrary to another myth, most entrepreneurs and business managers aren’t keen to take unnecessary risks.  In recent years, though, they’ve faced bellicose, irresponsible, and undeserved taunts and vague economic threats; all for the purpose of media attention and/or political expediency.  When the most productive people in America are collectively demonized by politicians and pundits for allegedly being selfish, predatory, unpatriotic, and unnecessary—as if every successful business in America is run by Bernie Madoff or Vito Corleone—is it any great surprise that many companies, especially relatively small businesses with 50 to 500 employees and limited legal budgets, are reluctant to expand and hire new workers?  I think not.

Finally, if this discussion wore you out or made you angry—as it just did me—I’m sorry.  But, just imagine how a business executive or small business owner must feel.  Concerned for the welfare of her employees and their families, responsible to her bankers and her investors, trying desperately to provide quality products and services to her customers—all the while dealing with government’s taxes, rules, mandates, and threats—she  must feel as Hercules felt in his battle with the Hydra.  She is my hero. mh

All of Them

Originally published in Flourishing November/December 2012

As recently as 2005, the annual average price of natural gas in the U.S. was $8.81 per thousand cubic feet (mcf)1; and gas ended that year at the astronomical price of $13.05 per mcf.  In September 2012, the cash price for natural gas was $3.52 per mcf.2  For American job-seekers, this trend could be a game-changer.

And, not that long ago, the bullies in Russia and Iran imagined they were going to corner the world market for natural gas.  Even now, there is an omnipresent threat of politically motivated supply shortages throughout Europe.  That situation may be about to change, too.

The short explanation for these possibilities is that investment in oil and gas exploration and development has exceeded $1.5 trillion in just the last three years3.  Much of that capital outlay has gone into various shale formations throughout the U.S., including the Mississippian Lime that underlies Cowley County.   

The somewhat longer explanation is that with persistent research and field experimentation in the 1980’s and 1990’s, George Phydias Mitchell, the son of an immigrant Greek sheep herder, developed technologies for drilling into shale formations horizontally, and then fracturing the rock so that oil and natural gas could flow into a concrete-sealed, steel-lined well-bore, and rise safely to the surface.4 It was largely as a result of Mitchell’s work that so much capital was attracted to shale development and hydraulic fracturing.  Mitchell sold his company to Devon Energy in Oklahoma City for $3.5 billion in 2002.

In 2011, the U.S. became a net exporter of oil for the first time since 1949.5  Within a few years, we may become the world’s biggest natural gas exporter; but that depends on the approval and completion of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals. 

You might ask yourself, “What about European oil companies?  Can’t they do the same thing?”  Maybe they will, someday, but what makes North American shale formations viable as new sources of energy isn’t just geological or technological.  It’s also philosophical.  American entrepreneurial energy, which in this case is a by-product of private ownership of the means of production, including land, equipment, and mineral rights, is a critically important factor.  Julio Friedman, chief energy technologist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, sums it up nicely, “The mineral rights, the availability of small players to enter the market, the availability of geological data, these things are all part of an entrepreneurial model that is unique to the United States.”6

(Incidentally, the first commercial use of hydraulic fracturing occurred near Hugoton, Kansas in 1947.  The best illustration of the fracturing process that I’ve seen is at http://www.devonenergy.com.)

Incentivized by George Mitchell’s success, American oil companies have recently discovered (or rediscovered) and begun to develop more than twenty different shale formations in North America, each with more than 20 billion barrels of recoverable oil7; and, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), nearly one quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas. Thanks to these discoveries, North America could increase its production of oil and natural gas liquids from 15 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2010 to as much as 27 million b/d by 2022.   That would be an increase of 80% in just twelve years.  The U.S. may become the world’s largest oil exporter as early as 2017.8 

Why is this important?  It’s not because it makes us “energy independent”.  It doesn’t.  But, follow me closely, because the potential is much bigger than that:

In the fantasy world of Keynesian9 economics, it is believed that if the government will create sufficiently large budget deficits (stimulus packages), and if the Federal Reserve will print enough money to buy the government’s bonds to keep interest rates low; then jobs will be created, the economy will grow, and everyone will be fat and happy. 

But, we’ve repeatedly seen what those policies really produce: Corruption and carelessness in banking and on Wall Street; rampant mal-investment and cronyism in government programs; credit crises; and inflation. 

So, what does stimulate job creation and real economic progress?  The answer was provided by French economist Jean-Baptiste Say more than two hundred years ago:

“It is worthwhile to remark that a product is no sooner created than it, from that instant, affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value. When the producer has put the finishing hand to his product, he is most anxious to sell it immediately, lest its value should diminish in his hands. Nor is he less anxious to dispose of the money he may get for it; for the value of money is also perishable. But the only way of getting rid of money is in the purchase of some product or other. Thus, the mere circumstance of creation of one product immediately opens a vent for other products.” 10

In economic science that’s called Say’s Law.  It’s often misrepresented and derided by those who think that deficit spending and the Federal Reserve printing press can create wealth.  But you, and I, and the Little Red Hen11 know—as Say’s Law suggests—that if one wants to reap a bountiful harvest, one must actually plant and nurture a fertile seed.  And, that is precisely what America’s oil industry entrepreneurs have done—in spades.  Thanks to their tireless efforts and their colossal investments, we’re seeing lower energy prices, a rebound in manufacturing, a cleaner environment, and thousands of good new jobs.   

Consider, for example, that companies as diverse as GE and Cummins are now partnering with smaller companies to develop products for the emerging natural gas transportation market.  And, why wouldn’t they?  Natural gas is now $1.50 to 2.00 per gallon cheaper than gasoline or diesel.  Natural gas refueling stations are springing up all across the country, and as many as one thousand commercial truck fleets are already sporting natural gas engines.12  (Paul Abram of Abram Ready Mix in Beloit, my friend and former employer, just sent me an article from Heavy Duty Trucking magazine, which shows Ferrara Brothers Ready Mix of New York City, using trucks powered by Cummins’ compressed natural gas (CNG) engines to deliver concrete to the World Trade Center.)

Then, there is the matter of electricity generation.  In previous issues of this newsletter, I’ve touched on the  lousy economics of solar and wind power, but natural gas is also making changes in the electric utility industry by driving down the demand for coal.  In 2004, natural gas provided for less than 18% of all electricity generation in the United States, while coal accounted for nearly 50%.  In 2012, natural gas will provide for more than 30%, and coal will provide for less than 38%.13   I wouldn’t write coal off completely, though. It’s still a plentiful, inexpensive, and with the latest technology, clean source of energy. 

Natural gas is not just a fuel, it’s also a key ingredient in many chemical manufacturing operations.  Chevron Phillips Chemical Company (a joint venture of Chevron and Phillips Petroleum) is planning to spend $5 billion to build a new, state of the art ethylene plant in Baytown, Texas, along with two polyethylene plants and related infrastructure.  According to the company’s executive vice-president Mark Lasher, the chemical industry is likely to spend up to $30 billion on such plants in the next few years.14  Confirming this, Dow Chemical has announced that it will build a new ethylene plant in Freeport, Texas, spending more than $4 billion and creating 2,000 new jobs.15.  Most of the remaining $20 billion or so will likely come from Sasol Limited, Formosa Plastics Corporation, and Royal Dutch Shell. I expect many more such announcements.

According to a report by the global research combine IHS-CERA, posted on the Exxon/Mobil website16, there were 37,000 new jobs created directly by the oil and gas industry in 2011.  That activity drove the creation of another 111,000 new jobs in industries that serve the energy producers.   But that only  begins to tell the story.  The technological transformation of the energy industry, led by the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing innovators, couldn’t have been predicted, or even believed, as recently as ten years ago.  Yet today, the “unconventional” gas and oil industry employs, directly and indirectly, more than 1,300,000 Americans.  The average starting salary for petroleum engineers, for whom demand is rising, is now $79,000 per year.

As a further demonstration of Say’s Law, it might be interesting to discover how many jobs are ultimately made possible by the production of oil and natural gas.  With a moment’s reflection, you’ll probably realize that you don’t need a calculator or a degree in labor economics.  The answer is: All of them.  That is the reality of today; and it’s our assurance—if we will let it be—of a prosperous tomorrow.  mh

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Notes:

1.  U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA).

2.  Ibid., EIA

3.  Citi/GPS, Energy 2020: North America, the New Middle East? 2012, p 3.

4.  http://newsok.com (Mitchell, who was born in 1919 in Galveston, graduated first in his class from TexasA&M.University.  He served in the U.S. Army during WWII, attaining the rank of Captain.)

5.  Oil: The Next Revolution, Leonardo Maguerri, Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School, 2012, p 20.

6.  CTIT/GPS, Energy 2020.

7.  Ibid., Maguerri

8.  Ibid., Citi/GPS

9.  Refers to Lord John Maynard Keynes, whose 1936 book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money,  has corrupted the science of economics for three generations.

10.  J. B. Say, A Treatise on Political Economy, 1803; available in PDF at http://www.econlib.org/

11.  The Little Red Hen is a children’s story, popularized in the 1940’s and 1950’s, emphasizing personal initiative and a work ethic. Truly a classic.

12.  http://www.marketwire.com

13.  http://www.bloomberg.com

14.  http://www.downstream.com

15.  Ibid.

16.  http://www.exxonperspectives.com

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