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October 2017 Market Update

October 2017 Market Update | Steve Cain, RPBG Director - Writer / Editor

October 2, 2017

What a way to end the summer. Three hurricanes – Harvey, Irma and Maria – came in quick succession and devastated a wide swath of the Texas Gulf Coast, much of Florida from the Keys to Jacksonville, numerous islands in the Caribbean and, perhaps worst of all, Puerto Rico. The fifty-plus inches of rain in Houston put about a third of that city under water at the height of the storm.  The subsequent flattening of the Keys and near-complete collapse of the electric grid on Puerto Rico will make for a very long recovery in all of these locales. It also guarantees a steady and significant flow of FEMA money to these hard-hit areas.

Yet even as the US southeast suffered some of the worst hurricane damage in many years, the economy continues to hum along and the stock market keeps breaking new records. There are probably a number of reasons why the economy continues to perform so well. High on that list is Congress’s push to implement tax reform.

You might think that, after three tries and as many failures to repeal Obamacare, the markets might be a little leery of the current attempt to reform the tax system. But one look at the Dow Jones suggests otherwise. The markets seem to believe that, past failures notwithstanding, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate and a Republican Chief Executive are all that’s needed to get some sort of tax reform across the finish line. It also doesn’t hurt that the primary investors in the markets – notably the billionaire class – like the tax reform proposal a lot.

And why shouldn’t they? While these reforms are being touted as mainly benefiting the middle class, the statistics tell a different story. The Atlantic magazine reports that a study by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center finds that that taxpayers in the top 1% of households by income will reap approximately 50% of the tax reform benefits. Whether it is the reduction in the top tax bracket from 39.5% to 35%, the elimination of the alternative minimum tax, or a dramatically lower tax on corporations, the wealthiest Americans will benefit the most. For the half of all taxpayers at the lowest end of the income scale, the proposed tax reform will net them just 10% of the total tax savings.

But there are still some big hurdles that must be cleared before tax reform becomes reality. It’s much easier to cut taxes than it is to pay for them. The current tax reform plan knows exactly where it would like to see taxes cut. But it is vague about how where it will find the money needed to keep these tax cuts from exploding the national debt.

Of course, there is the well-worn promise that tax cuts will lead to faster economic growth and higher overall tax revenues – maybe this time it’ll even work out that way? Then there is the general promise that the plan will eliminate lots of special-interest loop-holes and deductions. But which ones? Every loop-hole seems to have its own lobbying group, and you can bet they are all gearing up to fight any effort to cut their loop-hole. Already, the ingenious Republican plan to eliminate the deduction of state and local taxes (generally highest in the Blue states like California and New York) is running into major pushback from the many Republican Representatives who live in the more conservative districts of those states.

We can expect a lot more of this before the proposed tax reform plan ever passes, if indeed it ever does. In the wake of the Obamacare failures and the dubious record of Congressional achievements thus far in 2017, perhaps the markets are being, oh, I don’t know… irrationally exuberant? We will know soon enough. Meanwhile, it sure does feel good to see the Dow zoom ever higher – above 22,500 as I write this article. How much longer can it last? My prediction – at least as long as the tax reform plan seems like it might actually pass. 


September 2017 Market Update

September 2017 Market Update | Steve Cain, RPBG Director - Writer / Editor
September 4, 2017
The long Labor Day weekend is always just a little bittersweet. As much as we love the extra day off, we know it also marks the end of summer, the return of cooler weather and, for many of us, a renewed focus on making those end-of-year numbers before the holidays hit.
This year, like the last several, we can get back into work mode without worrying too much about the state of the economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the economy has not seen a net decline in the number of jobs since September 2010. That makes the 156,000 net new jobs in August the 83rd consecutive month of job gains, one month shy of seven years! 
But, about those 156,000 jobs... expectations were higher with predictions at about 200,000. The BLS also revised job numbers downward for June and July by 41,000, reflecting an economy that is expanding, but at a sluggish pace. Finally, unemployment ticked up to 4.4% from 4.3%. Not a big change, and nothing that anyone seems to think is worth losing sleep over. But it is not the robust growth than many have been hoping for, and that the stock markets still seem to believe is coming. Despite the mildly disappointing news, the equities markets continue to perform well with the Dow Jones just under 22,000 as I write this market review.  
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the latest round of economic news is the surprising weakness is wage growth. This is especially puzzling, given that the unemployment rate has been at or below 5% since September 2015. Generally, when unemployment falls to “full employment” levels (somewhere in the 5% range), pressure on wages increases. But that does not seem to be happening, at least not right now. The good news is that this may cause the Federal Reserve to hold off on further increases in interest rates. But the bad news is that, for a lot of Americans, wages are still barely keeping up with expenses.  
One big concern not reflected in any of these numbers is the impact of Hurricane Harvey which devastated Houston and other parts of the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast at the end of August. Houston alone accounts for approximately 3% of the US economy, and the state of Texas accounts for almost 10%. The flooding in the region was widespread, impacting residences and businesses alike. Even worse, there is at least a possibility that these horrors could be compounded by Hurricane Irma which is now a Category 4, and could potentially blow into the Gulf of Mexico later this week.
Putting aside the possibility of a second hurricane, the recovery from Hurricane Harvey is likely to take many months and cost tens of billions of dollars. Although fewer people died in Harvey than Katrina, the devastation could be more impactful on the national scene for the simple reason that Houston is a much larger and more economically important city than New Orleans.
We won’t know for another month what impact Hurricane Harvey had on the national economy, but it is hard to imagine that it will not be felt, at least in the short term. The statistics are staggering. One million cars unusable; 40,000 homes destroyed and many more damaged; oil refineries shut down. Just east of Houston, the entire city of Beaumont is still without running water. For tens of thousands of Texans, getting back to work will be difficult if not impossible. Even those with dry houses and working cars may find that their employers are shut down or inaccessible. For those whose cars were destroyed by the floods, just getting to work in car-dependent Houston will be a major challenge. 
Kind of makes crying over the end of summer seem a bit silly. There are worse problems in the world – just ask anyone who lived through Harvey.


August 2017 Market Update

August 2017 Market Update - Chicago leads major U.S. cities in population loss, sees drop for 3rd year in a row | Steve Cain, RPBG Director - Writer / Editor

The economic recovery is a little like the Energizer Bunny – it just keeps going. Signs of the good times are all around us. The Dow Jones hit another high, breaking through 22,000 for the first time on August 2. The jobs report for July showed 209,000 new jobs for the month and unemployment declined to 4.3%, the lowest rate since March 2001. Corporate profits have generally exceeded expectations. By any measure, this seems to be an economy hitting on all cylinders.

Hidden in all this good news is the somewhat surprising slump in the dollar relative to other currencies. Normally, the red-hot US economy would translate to a stronger dollar as more investors rush to invest money in the US. But just the opposite is happening with a declining dollar against pretty much all the major world currencies including the Euro, the Chinese Renminbi, the Japanese Yen, the Swiss Franc and even the British Pound which has been pummeled in the wake of Britain’s decision to pull out of the European Union.

The decline in the dollar is also surprising, given that the US generally – and the US dollar in particular – are considered safe-havens in a turbulent world. But this time, it looks like the world is laying at least some of the responsibility for global turbulence at the doorstep of the United States. This has much to do with recent antics in Washington and, more recently, the saber-rattling between Donald Trump and the North Koreans. Whatever the reasons, our currency is not doing as well as our economy.

Perhaps the best measure of the nervousness in the equities markets is the performance of the VIX, also known as the Volatility or “Fear” Index that was created by the Chicago Board Options Exchange. As recently as July 26, this index dropped below 9, it’s lowest reading ever. But over the past few days, the index has risen again, partly due to escalating tensions between the US and North Korea but possibly also due to growing concerns about American leadership (or the lack thereof) on the world stage.

So, here we are once again wondering if we should pop the champagne or run for the hills? If you’re looking at the stock market, unemployment rate or corporate profits, this is indeed the best of times. But if you’re wondering how far those North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles can really travel, then perhaps buying more stocks is not your primary concern.

My best advice – assuming North Korea hasn’t launched a nuclear missile at Guam, or the US hasn’t launched a pre-emptive attack on Pyongyang by the time you are reading this article – is to take a deep breath and relax. It’s still August, a generally a slow month for the markets while many Wall-Streeters are out on vacation. So, do like the magnates. Take a break. Go to the beach (it doesn’t have to be The Hamptons) or escape to your cabin. We only have a few weeks left to enjoy the summer before school starts up again (well, maybe not in Illinois – but I digress). Enjoy the last weeks of our all-too-short summer season. Fall is just around the corner and summer hours will be a thing of the past very soon. We’ll be back at work worrying about the next crisis before you know it. They’ve been coming fast and furious lately. No sign that that is going to change anytime soon.


Immigration, Refugee Resettlement and Rogers Park – Part One


This is the story of Cumar and Axlam (not their real names), two recent arrivals to Chicago and to Rogers Park. Unlike just about everyone reading this article, Cumar and Axlam were not able to simply book a flight or rent a U-Haul and move. In fact, when they began their odyssey, the odds of them successfully getting to the United States were almost laughably remote.


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Video - The Sullivan High School Soccer Team

Sullivan from Anthony Pellino on Vimeo.

Sullivan High School sits in the Rogers Park neighborhood just north of the Chicago loop. Their soccer team, The Tigers, is made up of 14 different players from 13 different countries. They are the only urban team to compete in Chicago's highly competitive High School Premier League.

Many of the players do not speak English, and rely on select teammates for translation. This film is a glimpse into their 2016 playoff run, and serves as a look into the passion and love these young men have for the sport that has helped them persevere through so much.

Production: Reverse (, Curfew (

Director: Anthony Pellino
DP: Zach Lowry, Jason Koontz
Boom/Mix: Scott Wietrzykowski
Editor: Carlos Flores
Color: Kath Raisch / Company 3 Color
Producer: Kate Aspell
Original Score: Ankit Suri
Sound Mix / Master: Lyell Roeder


July 2017 Market Update

July 2017 Market Update - Chicago leads major U.S. cities in population loss, sees drop for 3rd year in a row | Steve Cain, RPBG Director - Writer / Editor
These are strange times. Our political world has rarely felt more divided, acrimonious, unsettled and unpredictable. Such conditions generally spread outward, affecting people’s confidence in the future and, ultimately, the direction of our economy. But in today’s world, all the anguish about our body politic seems to have little impact on the economy which continues to hum along as it has done for years and shows every sign of continuing to do.
On the national level, the past few weeks have seen considerable hand-wringing about the future of health care. On the left, there is a palpable fear that the Republican proposals from the House and Senate will take away the “essential benefits” that the ACA made law, force millions back into the ranks of the uninsured, and transfer billions of dollars from the poor to the rich. On the right, there is enormous anger at Washington which is thoroughly and completely in Republican hands, yet seems unable to deliver on the promise that has held the party together for eight long years and four election cycles – to replace, if not completely repeal, the Affordable Care Act – better known as Obamacare.
On the state level, if anything, things are even worse. There is a dark cloud hanging over Illinois, and it seems to grow blacker and more ominous with every passing day. The state’s calamitous stalemate over the non-existent state budget is about to enter year three. Only this time, there appear to be some real-world consequences that just might start to get the attention of everyday Illinoisans who seem to have brushed off our civic dysfunction up until now. 
Specifically, the three major ratings agencies are all threatening to cut Illinois’ bond ratings to junk, an ignominious first in the illustrious history of our great country. With junk status bestowed upon our bonds, other impacts begin to unfold, some of which seem likely to draw the ire of our fellow citizens. Among these is the impending shut-down of all construction work on area highway improvement projects. That would include the rebuilding of the Circle Interchange and I-55/Lake Shore Drive, a development that might just catch the notice of commuters heading into and out of the Loop. Five state universities could be forced into bankruptcy. And oh, by the way, no more Powerball ticket sales in Illinois. Now if THAT doesn’t get people riled up, nothing ever will.
The conflict over health care in Washington, or the budget in Springfield, are just the latest skirmishes between the Democrats and the Republicans in an endless stream of conflicts that have been raging between the two parties and, more fundamentally, between Blue and Red America. Yet the stock markets – always a good barometer for how the country is feeling about the economy – are once again near historic highs. The Dow Jones closed Friday, June 30 at 21,349, not far from the all-time high of just over 21,500 earlier in June. 
Am I the only one who feels like the disconnect between our political and economic realities is getting hard to reconcile? Has anyone else felt a little schizophrenic when contemplating the permanent state of crisis that defines our politics, and the blue skies and roses that describes our economy?  I will admit to being delighted with the performance of my investment portfolio; but I’m still afraid to turn on the radio in the morning to listen to the news. And I have a feeling I’m not the only one. I just can’t seem to shake this feeling that something has to give. I just hope it’s something good. The way things are going, it is getting harder to be an optimist these days.


Evening of Theater and More at Sullivan High - June 13th

An Evening of Live Theater & More at Sullivan High School

Tuesday, June 13 / Doors open 6:15pm / Program begins 7pm

6631 N. Bosworth / Park in lot off Greenview

An Evening of Theater and More at Sullivan High promises to be a genuine "feel good RPBG appreciation night" - and one that might cause you to feel immensely proud to be associated with our organization.

The performance - produced and directed by Lifeline Theater - based on stories from the student actors - reflects the diversity of their lives - and 11 of the 20 actors are immigrants and refugees.

(By the way, the amazing story in Chicago Magazine about Sullivan's refugee program (Welcome to Refugee High) is now available ON LINE.)


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June 2017 Market Update

June 2017 Market Update - Chicago leads major U.S. cities in population loss, sees drop for 3rd year in a row | Steve Cain, RPBG Director - Writer / Editor

For the third year in a row, Chicago has lost population. It is the only one of the 20 largest cities in the country to do so. The population loss was very slight – down by only 8,638 people out of a total population of over 2.7 million. But a loss is a loss, and the fact that we are the only large city in the country to be in this position is worrying.

But there was another headline that you might not have noticed because it was much more obscure. Did you hear about the Rider Levett Bucknall North American Crane Index? No, I didn’t think so. Well, as a died-in-the-wool nerd, it caught my attention.

RLB puts out a survey of 13 major cities in Canada and the US that literally counts up the number of cranes in these city-centers at different points in time. As of January of this year (2017), downtown Chicago had the second highest number of cranes (56) of any American city, behind only Seattle (62). At 81 cranes, Toronto was the North American leader. Together, these three city centers accounted for close to 50% of all the cranes in the survey.

These two headlines raise an obvious question that begs to be answered – how can both be true? How can Chicago be alone among the 20 largest US cities in population loss, and still be near the top of the pile in terms of new construction? What the heck is going on?

Crain’s Chicago Business (not to be confused with cranes) had an interesting observation about Chicago’s population loss that I think sheds some light on this subject. In his September 29, 2016 article, Greg Hinz teams up with two demographers to pull apart the population loss numbers to better understand what is happening to our city. A number of interesting findings emerge from this analysis, but the bombshell is this – the population loss currently ongoing in Chicago is primarily due to the continued out-migration of African-Americans from the city, a trend that has been occurring since at least 2000. The Caucasian, Latino and Asian populations all continue to increase, although slowly. And, depending on where you live within the city limits, the economy is either booming, stable or in free-fall. Can you guess which neighborhoods are in the latter category, and which group is most impacted by this decline?

These findings are certainly disturbing and confirm that for far too many Chicagoans, life in the city is often difficult, dangerous and, increasingly, not worth the trouble. But the conclusions of the article also give us reason to believe that our overall population decline does not necessarily have to be permanent, nor does it seem to be accompanied by widespread economic decline. Certainly, if you live on much of the South and West Sides of the city, there are a lot of good reasons to run as far from Chicago as you can get. At the same time, all those cranes (not to be confused with Crain’s) on the horizon are not an illusion. They are very real, and they herald the emergence of 21st Century Chicago which remains a favored location for corporate headquarters, and which is still a leader in finance, advanced business services and, increasingly, technology.

These are difficult times to call Chicago home. Our state officials fiddle while Springfield burns. Our president disparages us (not unfairly) for our violence and our high murder rate. We are unique in losing population when all of our peers are gaining. But look deeper at the numbers, and the picture changes. As Mark Twain once said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Perhaps this is also true for Chicago in 2017. No one disputes that much is wrong in the city and the state. But it may be too soon to write us off entirely. Perhaps a different and better future could emerge from our current distress. Wouldn’t it be great if this future could benefit all Chicagoans, regardless of zip code or race?


May 2017 Market Update

At the macro-level, the economy appears to be in a sort of high-altitude holding pattern. After dipping a bit mid-April, the Dow Jones is back at near-record highs, and recently flirted with the 21,000 mark. Unemployment is currently as low as it has been since before the onset of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate was 4.5% in March, two-tenths of a point below the February rate and the lowest it has been since May 2007.

On the flip side of this good news, only 98,000 net new jobs were created in March, well below expectations. GDP increased at just 0.7% on an annualized basis during the first quarter of 2017, and consumer spending increased at a disappointing 0.3% during the same period.

In the face of these conflicting indicators, the Federal Reserve’s Open Markets Committee (FOMC) held rates steady after wrapping up their two-day meeting May 2-3. For now, at least, the federal funds rate will remain at its current 0.75% to 1.0% level, although an increase at the next meeting June 13-14 is expected.

So, is the glass half-full or half-empty? And why do so many people still feel so gloomy about the economy this many years into the recovery? One of the explanations for this conundrum is becoming more and more obvious with every passing year – how you feel about the economy depends as never before on where you live.

Trulia, an online real estate resource, recently conducted a study of housing value improvement for the 100 largest metropolitan areas across the country since the end of the recession, measuring house values as of December 1, 2007 and again as of March 1, 2017. What they found was startling. Overall, just 34.2% of all homes nationally have seen values surpass pre-recession peaks, and the disparity in home values was widely correlated with where you live. Certain regions of the country have done much better than others, and even within metro areas, some zip codes have far out-performed others.

Not surprisingly, the metro areas with the most widespread recoveries include such Millennial favorites and technology hot spots as Denver, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Portland and Austin where 80% of more of all homes have increased in value since December 1, 2007. At the other end of the spectrum, the worst performers seem to be those places that were especially high-flying before the recession hit. At the bottom of the Trulia study are such cities as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando and the Inland Empire (Riverside-San Bernardino, CA) where fewer than 5% of all homes were worth more than they were before the recession. 

A Crain’s article, “Housing Recovery Lags Other Big Metro Areas” (May 3, 2017) picked up this story, and took a look at how the Chicago area stacked up. In short, the answer is – not very well. While a handful of zip codes mostly in and near the downtown area have done well, overall only 7.6% of the homes in greater Chicago are now worth more than they were before the recession. This places Chicago at the bottom on the list of the ten largest metro areas in housing value recovery and in the lowest quintile among the top 100. This poor housing value recovery is closely tied to the area’s below-average job growth and near-zero population growth.

So, the next time you hear someone say they don’t believe the economic recovery has gotten to them yet, don’t be too judgmental. If they live in most of metro Chicago and large parts of the Industrial Midwest – indeed, if they live in any of the nearly two out of three zip codes nationwide where home values have still not fully recovered from the last recession – then they are probably spot on.


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