Released yesterday, the Census Bureau’s annual report painted an extremely positive view of the economy as a whole. So positive, in fact, that I’ve actually got some hope now that the fundamentals of the economy might even justify record stock prices (at least if you factor in low, low interest rates.)
How good was the report? In 2015, median household income rose 5.2% when adjusted for inflation from 2014. 3.5 million fewer Americans were living in poverty in 2015 than in 2014, a 1.2% drop and the steepest decline since 1968. 4 million people gained health insurance in 2015 taking the uninsured rate down to 9.1%, the lowest level since before the Great Recession. The unemployment rate declined to 4.9%, half of the rate seven years ago. Net private business investment has recovered to pre-recession levels. Home foreclosures continue to drop.
What’s not to like?
Well, it depends on where you live.
All the income gains, the Census data show, came in cities and suburbs and none flowed to rural areas. Add in the effect of Republican controlled legislatures in some states–largely rural or in the South–deciding not to expand Medicaid to allow more low-income people to buy insurance, and you’re looking at a very real imbalance in rural versus urban/suburban economies. (In states that expanded Medicaid the uninsured rate in 2015 dropped to 7.2%. In states that decided not to expand Medicaid, the uninsured rate was 12.3%.) The economic discrepancy doesn’t look likely to get better soon. Previous Census data has showed that in the years after the Great Recession, the country’s least-populated counties lost more businesses than they gained.
I sketched in some of the effects of this two-economy economy in the chapter in my book Juggling with Knives http://jugglingwithknives.com on real estate. In that chapter I contrasted Elmira, New York with the real estate markets in Florida cities such as Sarasota and with the current boom in Brooklyn, New York. For better (and sometimes worse) real estate money followed jobs and population to these urban and suburban areas.
The investing implications here go beyond real estate to include operators of retail malls and the REITs that own positions in these companies, the shares of companies specializing in small town or rural markets (and products), and stocks of companies with growth strategies that look to growing the number of stores in smaller towns (Wal-Mart (WMT) and Target (TGT) deserve a look) or companies operating in saturated markets (such as fast food) that are trying to figure out where to find growth.
And just so that we don’t get all gaga over the Census report, economists have been quick to point out that this good news only brings us back to where we were before the Great Recession. Real median household income, which climbed to an impressive $56,500 in 2015 from $53,700 in 2014, is still below the 1999 peak of $57,909.