Tag Archives: Inflation

America: Optimism on hold

By Alan Beattie and Robin Harding

Published: July 9 2010 20:40 | Last updated: July 9 2010 20:40

Mall of America
Shopped out: downtime at the Mall of America, one of the biggest in the US. Job growth remains too slow to support the rise in consumption required for a self-sustaining recovery

A month ago, it all seemed to be going so well. Growth in the US economy was picking up. The financial system was, mainly, functioning. The risk of contagion from Europe had diminished after an unprecedented €110bn ($139bn, £91bn) bail-out from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Things were creeping back towards normality.

Then in early June, as Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman, put it, the economy hit “an invisible wall”. The US had a run of bad news – disappointing job growth; unexpectedly low employment; indices suggesting manufacturing and services losing momentum; renewed jitters from Europe’s sovereign debt markets and its banks. While most economists think it unlikely this heralds the famous double-dip recession feared by policymakers, it does come at a time when America’s monetary and fiscal authorities are struggling for room to manoeuvre.

In truth, there was always a risk that growth would hiccup at this point. Fiscal stimulus and companies rebuilding inventories have given the recovery a strong push start. But those are one-off effects; the recovery must now switch to power from its internal engine. “We haven’t entered into that self-sustaining stage yet,” says Gus Faucher of Moody’s Analytics, who estimates the chance of a dip back into recession at 25 per cent.

A self-sustaining recovery needs a steady rise in jobs, wages and profits that will allow a steady rise in consumption and investment, feeding back into jobs, wages and profits. So it is worrying that private payrolls rose by only 33,000 in May and 83,000 in June – not fast enough to support a rapid rise in consumption – and both average wages and hours worked have dipped a little.

Business investment has boosted the recovery in the past few quarters but some surveys suggest it is slowing. June’s purchasing managers index for manufacturing fell from 59.7 to 56.2 – implying still rapid but slowing expansion. Nor is the housing market a roaring source of growth. Home sales and housing starts fell in May after the expiry of a tax credit. Prices appear to have stabilised but the IMF recently noted that “the backlog of foreclosures and high levels of negative equity, combined with elevated unemployment, pose risks of a double dip in housing”.

All this sounds bad. But as Neal Soss of Credit Suisse in New York points out, there is a big difference between a slowdown in growth and actual falls in economic activity. “The economy is still growing and there’s every reason to think it will keep growing,” he says.

Like many economists, Mr Soss has always thought the recovery would be slow as households have heavy debts and banks need to repair their balance sheets. One consequence, however, may be recurring alarm about a double dip. “You’ll have some speed-up scares and some slowdown scares,” he says. “But if you’re starting from a high level of unemployment, then slowdown scares are more likely to get attached to words like ‘recession’ instead of ‘deceleration’.”

The US could really do with a helping hand. Sadly, that seems elusive. If Europe thought the Greek crisis had been solved by the EU-IMF rescue package, it had succumbed to an early bout of World Cup euphoria. It may have eliminated Athens’ immediate financing needs but it did not end speculation that Portugal or Spain would follow. Nor did it quiet fears about the amount of Greek and Spanish debt held by eurozone banks.

In the past month, a familiar pattern of risk aversion has re-emerged. Credit spreads of indebted countries widened as investors fretted about the solvency of governments; equities dropped; the dollar and US Treasury bond prices rose as investors sought safe havens. This is not all bad news: higher bond prices equal lower long-term interest rates.

But more than America needs cheaper money, it needs businesses and consumers to be optimistic. “The net effect of the past month on the US has been slightly negative. The purely economic factors cancel each other out but the uncertainty, on top of a poor jobs picture, has not done any good,” says Professor Eswar Prasad of New York’s Cornell University.

Seeking to rebalance its lopsided economy, the US is embarking on a drive to double exports and thereby create 2m jobs. But plans an­nounced this week by President Barack Obama – a ragbag of bureaucratic shake-ups and trade missions – are regarded by many economists as inadequate. Far more importantly, the global environment for demand looks unpropitious.

With a strong dollar, even higher demand growth in emerging markets is unlikely to give US net trade much of a boost. The flexibility in the Chinese exchange rate announced in June was symbolically important. But the small rises allowed so far will not suck in many US exports.

Net trade boosted US gross domestic product by 1.2 percentage points in 2009 but largely because weak consumer spending caused a huge drop in imports. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Paris-based think tank, predicts that imports will grow faster than exports, subtracting from economic growth by 0.3 percentage points this year and 0.4 percentage points in 2011.

Worryingly, a combination of economic and political factors constrains US authorities. Thus any hit to confidence from events such as the Greek crisis are likely to be magnified.

On the monetary policy front, Federal Reserve officials are, as yet, not particularly concerned about the health of the recovery. They still think that the most likely outcome is steady growth over the next couple of years. But they do think the downside risks to growth and inflation have risen in recent months, and probably outweigh upside risks such as a surge in bottled-up consumer demand.

So one measure Fed officials will watch is inflation expectations, especially if inflation is very low later this year, which could be­come a self-fulfilling process. The risk of a slide into outright deflation could prompt easier monetary policy from the Fed.

The central bank thinks it has tools available for the unlikely eventuality that it is forced to act. One is buying more long-term assets such as Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. Another is cutting the interest rate paid to banks that deposit money with it. That would increase their incentive to lend money out instead.

But no amount of monetary easing will help if banks do not extend credit because consumers do not want to spend nor companies to invest. And the weapons governments tend to use in such circumstances – spending rises and tax cuts – pose prob­lems more political than economic.

On the economic side, bond market investors do not seem worried about the effect of current deficits on US solvency or expecting Washington to inflate its way out of debt. Yields on 10-year Treasury bonds have sunk to very low levels, about 3 per cent, and expected inflation derived from the prices of index-linked bonds remains about 2 per cent.

Less happily for those in the administration who believe in continued stimulus, political support for public spending is eroding. Al­though recent primary elections ahead of November’s midterms have produced mixed results, some seemed to punish candidates for favouring Big Government.

Administration officials insist that the damage is mainly to candidates who supported the troubled asset relief programme, the federal financial bail-out, rather than government spending in general. But even continuing current stimulus is a struggle. Proposals to extend unemployment benefits and prolong aid to states are snarled in Congress. One senior administration official reports an interlocutor saying: “There are only three Keynesians left in America, and they all work in the administration.”

Alec Phillips of Goldman Sachs says: “The potential expiration of stimulus measures appears to be an increasingly important risk to growth.” As Treasury secretary Tim Geithner is fond of pointing out, for all the accusations that the US is a fiscal profligate, its deficit is due to fall more sharply in the near future than that of almost any other leading economy, from 10.6 per cent of GDP in 2010 to 5.1 per cent in 2013, compared with a fall from 5.5 per cent to just under 3 per cent in supposedly self-flagellating Germany.

Mr Phillips calculates that if the stimulus bill enacted last year is allowed to expire, including unemployment benefits, aid to states and a special personal tax credit, the effect could be to subtract 2 percentage points of GDP growth – more than half the US trend growth rate – at about the middle of next year. Even a more plausible scenario, in which the unemployment payments and tax credits are extended, would take at least a percentage point off growth throughout next year.

The US economy is not yet in severe trouble. Rises in equity prices over the past few days have comforted optimists that confidence is returning. But the economy’s sputter over the past month indicates just how fragile the recovery is and how dependent America is on generating its own demand. And if it starts to turn down rather than simply to decelerate, policymakers turning to their arsenal will find it dangerously depleted.


Reality of America’s fiscal mess starting to bite

By Gillian Tett

Financial Times

Published: June 17 2010 16:15 | Last updated: June 17 2010 16:58

If you pop into a toilet on the Seattle waterfront this summer, you might see over-flowing bins. The reason? A polite notice explains that “because of 2010 budget reductions”, the Seattle government can no longer afford to “service this comfort station” each day. Hence the dirt.

Investors would do well to take note. In recent months, America’s fiscal mess has assumed a rather surreal air. On paper, the country’s federal-level deficit and debt numbers certainly look very scary. But in practical terms, the impact of those ever-swelling zeroes still seems distinctly abstract.

After all, so far the federal government has not been slashing spending; on the contrary, there was a stimulus bill last year. And, as my colleague John Plender pointed out this week, Treasury bond yields have been falling as investors flee the eurozone woes. As a result, those scary numbers still seem to be a problem primarily concocted in the world of cyber finance.

But there is one place where reality is already starting to bite in America and that is in terms of state finances. Just look at the statistics. A report from the US Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued last month estimates that in fiscal 2010 the US states collectively posted a $200bn-odd budget shortfall, equivalent to 30 per cent of all state budgets.

Last year, that pain was partly eased by Barack Obama’s stimulus package(s). But that spending splurge is now fading away. And in fiscal 2011 and 2012, the states are expected to face another combined budget deficit of $260bn, with the 2011 shortfall in places such as New Jersey, Illinois, Nevada and Arizona projected to be more than 35 per cent of last year’s budget.

So far, the municipal bond market has been dangerously complacent about all this, with yields on 10-year municipal bonds hovering just above 3 per cent. But even if markets seem relatively relaxed, the key point is that the state statistics are already having a very real world impact – in contrast to the federal debt.

Never mind the trivial matter of Seattle’s comfort stations; as it happens, Washington State’s finances are better than most. In New Jersey schools, classes are being cut. In California, public sector employees are not getting paid. In New York, a subway extension has just been cancelled. And in places such as Illinois and San Diego, pension benefits are being renegotiated altogether, breaking numerous taboos.

This, in turn, begs a bigger question: what will be the wider economic and psychologal impact? One obvious, immediate consequence of these cuts is that they appear to be undermining consumer confidence, over and above the damage already being inflicted by the stubbornly high unemployment rate. The pattern may also be fuelling some subtle shifts in terms of how investors view the future.

In Seattle, for example, local insurance companies have recently changed the message they are giving to customers. For though financial planners used to steer households into tax-deferred products (such as 401K), since they assumed that employees would pay lower taxes when they retired, the new mantra is “tax diversification”. That is based around the idea that households should not defer tax payments, since taxes wll inevitably rise in the future, as the fiscal squeeze takes hold. And that, in turn, raises another question: namely what all of this real-world squeeze in Seattle (and eslewhere) might – or might not – do to the bigger debate about the federal debt.

It is a fair bet that eventually the debate about state spending cuts will encourage investors and voters to start paying more attention to the seemingly abstract federal fiscal numbers.

That might spark more market upheaval. it might also create more political upheaval. Just look at the rise of the Tea Party for signs of that.

But if you want to be optimistic, it is also possible to put a more upbeat spin on this. For all the gloomy statistics about state deficits and spending cuts, what has not received as much attention is that some states are now trying proactively to tackle their woes. Illinois, for example, is facing a big crunch due to credit downgrades; but it is also doing some imaginative things, such as raising the retirement age for local state employees.

That may not please voters. Nor will it necessarily save Illinois from further downgrades to its debt. But this is the type of step that needs to embraced at the federal level, too. So if places such as Illinois can actually break these taboos, it could be a reason for cheer; conversely, if it sparks too much social unrest, it will be a powerful warning sign. Either way, holders of US Treasury bonds had better keep a close watch on what happens to state budgets this year; even in the all-too-tangible world of the Seattle waterfront.

US money supply plunges at 1930s pace as Obama eyes fresh stimulus – Telegraph

US money supply plunges at 1930s pace as Obama eyes fresh stimulus – Telegraph.

The House of Cards is Tumbling Down.

May 6, 2010, 6:11 am <!– — Updated: 8:57 am –>

It’s Not About Greece Anymore


Louisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Protesters at the Acropolis in Athens waved flags and hung banners in front of the Parthenon.

Peter Boone is chairman of the charity Effective Intervention and a research associate at the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. He is also a principal in Salute Capital Management Ltd. Simon Johnson, the former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, is the co-author of “13 Bankers.”

The Greek “rescue” package announced last weekend is dramatic, unprecedented and far from enough to stabilize the euro zone.

The Greek government and the European Union leadership, prodded by the International Monetary Fund, are finally becoming realistic about the dire economic situation in Greece. They have abandoned previous rounds of optimistic forecasts and have now admitted to a profoundly worse situation. This new program calls for “fiscal adjustments” — cuts to the fiscal deficit, mostly through spending cuts — totaling 11 percent of gross domestic product in 2010, 4.3 percent in 2011, and 2 percent in 2012 and 2013. The total debt-to-G.D.P. ratio peaks at 149 percent in 2012-13 before starting a gentle glide path back down to sanity.

This new program is honest enough to show why it is unlikely to succeed.

Daniel Gros, an eminent economist on euro zone issues who is based in Brussels, has argued that for each 1 percent of G.D.P. decline in Greek government spending, total demand in the country falls by 2.5 percent of G.D.P.  If the government reduces spending by 15 percent of G.D.P. — the initial shock to demand could be well over 30 percent of G.D.P.

Obviously this simple rule does not work with such large numbers, but it illustrates that Greece is likely to experience a very sharp recession — and there is substantial uncertainty around how bad the economy will get.  The program announced last weekend assumes the Greek G.D.P. falls by 4 percent this year, then by another 2.6 percent in 2011, before recovering to positive growth in 2012 and beyond.

Such figures seem extremely optimistic, particularly in the face of the civil unrest now sweeping Greece and the deep hostility expressed toward the country in some northern European policy circles.

The pattern of growth is critical because, under this program, Greece needs to grow out of its debt problem soon. Greece’s debt-to-G.D.P. ratio will be a debilitating 145 percent at the end of 2011.

Now consider putting more realistic growth figures into the I.M.F. forecast for Greece’s economy — e.g., with G.D.P. declining 12 percent in 2011, then the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio may reach 155 percent. At these levels, with a 5 percent real interest rate and no growth, the country needs a primary surplus at 8 percent of G.D.P. to keep the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio stable.  It will be nowhere near that level.  The I.M.F. program has Greece running a primary budget deficit of around 1 percent of G.D.P. in that year, and that assumes a path for Greek growth that can be regarded only as an “upside scenario.”

The politics of these implied budget surpluses remains brutal.  Since most Greek debt is held abroad, roughly 80 percent of the budget savings the Greek government makes go straight to Germans, the French and other foreign debt holders (mostly banks).  If growth turns out poorly, will the Greeks be prepared for ever-tougher austerity to pay the Germans? Even if everything goes well, Greek citizens seem unlikely to welcome this version of their “new normal.”

Last week the European leadership panicked — very late in the day — when it realized that the euro zone itself was at risk of a meltdown. If the euro zone proves unwilling to protect a member like Greece from default, then bond investors will run from Portugal and Spain also — if you doubt this, study carefully the interlocking debt picture published recently in The New York Times.  Higher yields on government debt would have caused concerns about potential bank runs in these nations, and then spread to more nations in Europe.

When there is such a “run,” it is not clear where it stops.  In the hazy distance, Belgium, France, Austria and many others were potentially at risk. Even the Germans cannot afford to bail out those nations.

Slapped in the face by this ugly scenario, the Europeans decided to throw everything they and the I.M.F. had at bailing out Greece.  The program as announced has only a small chance of preventing eventual Greek bankruptcy, but it may still slow or avert a dangerous spiral downward — and enormous collateral damage — in the rest of Europe.

The I.M.F. floated in some fashion an alternative scenario with a debt restructuring, but this was rejected by both the European Union and the Greek authorities. This is not a surprise; leading European policy makers are completely unprepared for broader problems that would follow a Greek “restructuring,” because markets would immediately mark down the debt (i.e., increase the yields) for Portugal, Spain, Ireland and even Italy.

The fear and panic in the face of this would be unparalleled in modern times: When the Greeks pay only 50 percent on the face value of their debt, what should investors expect from the Portuguese and Spanish? It all becomes arbitrary, including which countries are dragged down.

Someone has to decide who should be defended and at what cost, and the European structures are completely unsuited to this kind of tough decision-making under pressure.

In the extreme downside scenario, Germany is the only obvious safe haven within the euro zone, so its government bond yields would collapse while other governments face sharply rising yields. The euro zone would likely not hold together.

There is still a narrow escape path, without immediate debt default and the chaos that that would produce:

  1. Talk down the euro — moving toward parity with the American dollar would help lift growth across the euro zone.
  2. As the euro falls, bond yields will rise on the euro zone periphery.  This will create episodes of panic.  Enough short-term financing must be in place to support the rollover of government debt.
  3. Once the euro has fallen a great deal, announce the European Central Bank will support the euro at those levels (i.e., prevent appreciation, with G-20 tacit agreement), and also support the peripheral euro zone nations viewed as solvent by buying their bonds whenever markets are chaotic.
  4. At that stage, but not before, the euro zone leadership needs to push weaker governments to restructure. That will include Greece and perhaps also Portugal. Hopefully, in this scenario Spain can muddle through.
  5. European banks should be recapitalized as necessary and have most of their management replaced. This is a massive failure of euro groupthink — including most notably at the political level — but there is no question that bank executives have not behaved responsibly in a long while and should be replaced en masse.

To the extent possible, some of the ensuing losses should be shared with bank creditors. But be careful what you wish for. The bankers are powerful for a reason; they have built vital yet fragile structures at the heart of our economies. Dismantle with care.

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ObamaCare: An Unmitigated Disaster

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May 01, 2010

ObamaCare: An Unmitigated Disaster

By Janice Shaw Crouse

Americans are learning that ObamaCare will pile on insurmountable debt and cause government to encroach on every area of our lives.  ObamaCare is, as Yuval Levin said, an “unmitigated disaster — for our health care system, for our fiscal future, and for any notion of limited government.”  And the more we learn about the specific provisions, the more we discover that the bill does not reflect our values — faith, family and freedom — nor does it strengthen those principles that are the foundation of a great nation.
Each day while Democrats are criss-crossing the country to declare that ObamaCare is not a government takeover of health care, a new government expert releases figures indicating that ObamaCare is going to be outrageously expensive and won’t do what the president promised it would.  Now they tell us!
Many Americans were outraged after ObamaCare passed when a report from the Office of the Actuary of Medicare indicated that the costs of the bill would increase rather than cut the costs of health care in the United States.  In an April 23 appearance before the House Appropriations Committee, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared that nobody really knows what ObamaCare will cost.  Ed Morrissey, the prominent blogger on Hot Air, called the $5 billion appropriated for ObamaCare just a “spit-balling number,” because “no one has the faintest clue how much money will actually get spent on this program.”  There is clear evidence, however, from the Congressional Budget Office that the average fine for those three million middle-class Americans who are expected to pay a penalty for not having health insurance will amount to more than $1,000 per person.  The report estimates that the government will collect about $4 billion per year in fines from 2017 to 2019.
In addition to questions about cost, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll reveals that over half of Americans are confused about what the law means (55 percent) and what impact it will have on them (56 percent).  Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), ranking Republican on the Budget Committee and a leader in explaining Obamanomics, believes that the nation is at a “tipping point” and could be on a “very dangerous” path toward a social welfare state.  He says ObamaCare “has $2 trillion in higher taxes, doubles the debt in five years, triples the debt in 10 years,” and consists of the “largest entitlement” expansion in 35 years where the “majority of Americans are more dependent upon the government than they are themselves.”  More than 70 percent, Ryan claims, will get more benefits from the government than they pay for in taxes — making 3-out-of-10 families either supplement or supply the income for the other seven families.
Numerous polls indicate that the public’s trust in government is at an “historic low.”  The Pew Research Center reported that only 22 percent of Americans trust government today.  A Quinnipiac poll notes that the President’s approval rating is down to 44 percent, and Congress’s approval is 25 percent.  Daniel Henninger, of the Wall Street Journal, said, “The American people have issued a no-confidence vote in government.”  Henninger thinks that the distrust is because, with almost universal access to the Internet, the “veil was ripped from the true cost of government” so that everyone could see how much spending — $9 trillion — was out of control.
ObamaCare contains $670 billion in tax increases.  For the middle class, there are at least 14 different tax increases signed into law that target taxpayers making less than $250,000 per year.  In Massachusetts, a state that enacted health care reforms similar to the national plan, more than a half-dozen lawsuits were filed to stop double-digit premium increases.  The Boston Globe warned that ObamaCare could result in similar lawsuits at the federal level.  Indeed, Richard Epstein, a constitutional lawyer writing in the Wall Street Journal, stated that regulated public utilities have a right to a “risk-adjusted rate of return on their invested capital.”  Others are predicting federal lawsuits where courts will slap down “efforts to control by fiat the price of the insurance” that Americans are legally mandated to buy.  Attorneys general in more than a dozen states are working to challenge the legal mandate in federal court as unconstitutional.
Finally, officials are owning up to what most Americans already knew.  ObamaCare means higher costs and lower quality; ObamaCare means rationing and higher taxes – including a Value Added Tax (VAT).  It means mandating and penalties.  President Obama and his liberal colleagues on the Hill jettisoned the world’s best health care system for the dubious honor of having achieved “health care reform.”  Now, in addition to figuring out how to pay for the trillion dollar government takeover of health care, we have to untangle the budgetary gimmicks, bureaucratic mess, and disastrous financial crisis that the nation faces as a result.

Page Printed from: http://www.americanthinker.com/2010/05/obamacare_an_unmitigated_disas.html at May 01, 2010 – 03:13:15 PM CDT

The Associated Press: Health premiums could rise 17 pct for young adults

Health premiums could rise 17 pct for young adults

By CARLA K. JOHNSON (AP) – 17 hours ago

CHICAGO — Under the health care overhaul, young adults who buy their own insurance will carry a heavier burden of the medical costs of older Americans — a shift expected to raise insurance premiums for young people when the plan takes full effect.

Beginning in 2014, most Americans will be required to buy insurance or pay a tax penalty. That’s when premiums for young adults seeking coverage on the individual market would likely climb by 17 percent on average, or roughly $42 a month, according to an analysis of the plan conducted for The Associated Press. The analysis did not factor in tax credits to help offset the increase.

The higher costs will pinch many people in their 20s and early 30s who are struggling to start or advance their careers with the highest unemployment rate in 26 years.

via The Associated Press: Health premiums could rise 17 pct for young adults.

Economic Recovery Ahead?

Topic: Economic Policy
Economic Recovery Ahead?

What will stop our economy from recovering.

by Steve Hutchinson
Monday, March 15, 2010

What a difference a year makes,or does it? A year ago our financial institutions, government and policy regulators faced one of the gravest situations our country has ever dealt with. And before we knew it, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers evaporated in a mist of government intervention in the name of economic stability. The investment banking industry disappeared almost overnight and firms with storied names and reputations such as Merrill Lynch and Wachovia were absorbed into larger entities in a rash of orchestrated consolidations and government policy making.

We saw our financial markets drop precipitously as investors clamored for the safety of cash. Uncertainty and fear reigned. Interest rates dropped overnight as the Federal Reserve intervened into the money supply as never seen before. And this was just during the month of October.

What lies ahead? Can our economy rebuild? Can our government deliver on promises of economic security? Will the small businesses of America restore their self confidence and seize the opportunities created by this chaos to grow and expand their businesses? These are good questions .

I am not certain about economic recovery, but I am certain about four precepts that could potentially delay or place our potential for economic prosperity at risk. They are not political in nature, but grounded in solid economics and study.

1. Increasing government control or regulation.

2. Limiting or restricting free-trade

3. Inflationary money supply

4. Raising personal and business taxes.

Each of these independently can be managed, but the implications of all four of these policies manifesting themselves could have significant implications for the resumption of the long term growth of our economy.

Today the government controls two-thirds of our auto industry. The government’s interests in our banking, insurance and investment businesses concerns many Americans. We have seen the Federal Reserve increase the money supply to historic proportions. The impact of unwinding these activities stokes realistic fears of inflation. Tax policy is at the centerpiece of the government’s economic policy. Their focus seems to be taking a larger share of our incomes and redistributing this revenue through more government programs. Many of the the hindrances to reestablishing our prosperity are already in place.

As quickly as one can possibly imagine we have saddled our children and grandchildren with a debt thay can’t possibly repay. As of this date 100% of all tax revenues are used to pay for entitlement programs. The continuing role of confiscatory taxes will be the norm for the future.

We should watch carefully as policy changes manifest themselves and remember that more often than not, uncertainty for the masses can generate opportunities for some if we maintain perspective in our judgments and keep our focus fearless. We have a great country and a great people. Founded in hard work and the love of freedom. But through this we should seek wisdom.

A person who does not seek wisdom, will soon find himself at a banquet of consequences” Author Unknown

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