Monday, May 10, 2010

Natural Gas: The Game-Changing Resource That Will Revolutionize the Industry and Change the World

"Over the past decade, a wave of drilling around the world has uncovered giant supplies of natural gas in shale rock. By some estimates, there's 1,000 trillion cubic feet recoverable in North America alone—enough to supply the nation's natural-gas needs for the next 45 years. Europe may have nearly 200 trillion cubic feet of its own.

We've always known the potential of shale; we just didn't have the technology to get to it at a low enough cost. Now new techniques have driven down the price tag—and set the stage for shale gas to become what will be the game-changing resource of the decade.

I have been studying the energy markets for 30 years, and I am convinced that shale gas will revolutionize the industry—and change the world—in the coming decades. It will prevent the rise of any new cartels. It will alter geopolitics. And it will slow the transition to renewable energy."

Read more here of the WSJ article "How Shale Gas Is Going to Rock the World."

OECD Leading Index Hits 30-Year High in March

The OECD released data today showing that its Composite Leading Indicator Index for 29 member countries came close to reaching a 31-year high in March (see chart above, data here). Having increased now for 13 consecutive months starting in March of last year, the OECD Composite Leading Indicators reached 103.9 in March of this year, the highest reading since April 1979, almost 31 years ago.

Although there were monthly declines reported for some non-OECD countries like China and Brazil, and small monthly declines in OECD members Greece, Mexico, New Zealand and South Korea, a flat index for France, with almost all other leading indexes showing continued improvements in March including the overall OECD total (see graph above), 24 of the 29 individual OECD countries including the U.S. and Canada, 18 of the 20 European countries, the Euro area as a group, the G7 countries, NAFTA members, and the non-OECD countries India, Russia, Indonesia and South Africa.

Overall, this is a very positive report, and further strengthens the evidence that the broad-based global V-shaped economic recovery currently underway will continue into the future.

Michigan Companies Can't Find Seasonal Help

Michigan had the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 14.1 percent in March, and the ranks of the state’s unemployed total more than 682,000. The last time the March jobless rate in Michigan was that high was 27 years ago in 1983, when it reached 16.1 percent.

So you would think it would be easy to hire seasonal workers in Michigan for industries like landscaping, right? Well, you would be wrong this year, because unemployed Michiganders are getting unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks due to all of the federal jobless benefits extensions, and those benefits are creating disincentives for some of the unemployed to go back to work. Here’s the way the math works:

Landscape workers can earn about $12 per hour in Michigan and would make $480 per week before taxes working full-time, or about $350 per week after taxes. In addition, full-time landscape workers would face transportation costs and other work-related expenses. But collecting unemployment benefits and working zero hours per week, many of those unemployed workers can receive $255 per week tax-free for almost two years, which is only $95 less per week than if they worked full-time. For some workers who are getting the maximum of $387 per week in jobless benefits, they can receive even more from collecting benefits than they would get paid going back to work full-time.

So in the state with the highest jobless rate in the country, landscaping companies in Michigan are actually finding it difficult to hire seasonal workers this year, partly because of “the most generous safety net we’ve ever offered nationally,” according to Michigan economist David Littmann. Read more about it here in
today’s Detroit News.

Cross-posted at the
Enterprise Blog.

Scenes From The War on Drugs/War on Americans

Via Andrew Sullivan, Megan McArdle and Don Boudreaux, graphic scenes of a drug raid where a police SWAT team shot two family dogs, killing one and injuring the other, with a seven-year old child present. After searching the house, the police found a "small amount of marijuana."

Bottom Line: It's not really a war on "drugs," it's a war on Americans and sometimes even their family pets.

Rail and Trucking Freight Traffic Continue to Boom

1. The Association of American Railroads reported last week that the growth in rail freight traffic continued during the week ended May 1, as all 19 carload freight commodities and both intermodal categories were up from a year ago for the second consecutive week. U.S. railroads originated 295,718 carloads during the week ended May 1, up 16.3 percent from the comparable week in 2009.

Intermodal traffic was up 13.2 percent from last year but down 5.4 percent compared with 2008. Compared with the same week in 2009, container volume increased 15.2 percent while trailer volume gained 3.2 percent. Total volume was estimated at 32.9 billion ton-miles, up 16.7 percent from last year.

Combined North American rail volume for the first 17 weeks of 2010 on 13 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 6,229,078 carloads, up 8.2 percent from last year, and 4,328,397 trailers and containers, up 10.2 percent from last year.

2. The American Trucking Associations’ seasonally adjusted (SA) Truck Tonnage Index increased 0.4% in March, following a revised 0.3% decrease in February. The latest improvement put the SA index at 109.2, the highest level since November 2008.

Compared with March 2009, tonnage jumped 7.5%, which was the 4th consecutive year-over-year gain and the largest increase since January 2005. For the first quarter of 2010, SA tonnage was up 4.9% compared with the same period last year.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Other Highlights from Friday's Employment Report

Two of the hardest hit sectors during the recession are now starting to show employment gains:

1. Manufacturing employment increased by 44,000 in April, the largest single monthly increase in factory jobs since August of 1998.

2. Since the first of the year, manufacturing employment has increased by 101,000, the largest four-month increase in factory jobs since the four-month period ending February 1998.

3. Construction employment increased for two consecutive months for the first time since December 2006-January 2007.

4. The 40,000 increase in construction employment in March and April was the largest two-month increase in construction jobs in three years, since March-April 2007.

Data here.

Free Lunch: Competition from Google Docs Forces Microsoft to Offer Free Version of Office 2010

Seattle Times -- "Microsoft launches its latest version, Office 2010, on Wednesday in New York — and the stakes couldn't be higher. The lucrative franchise is threatened by a changing market spouting a four-letter word: free. The biggest threat comes from Google, specifically Google Docs, Web applications accessible from any computer. Because of Google, Microsoft has been forced to make a free ad-supported version called Office Web Apps."

MP: Another great example of how market competition is often more effective at regulating monopolies than the Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission, and how even long-standing monopolies and dominant firms are eventually challenged by innovation and competition.

World's Safest Table Saw: Finger Will Stop Blade

Conclusive proof that: a) things are getting better and better all the time, b) not all safety improvements are a result of OSHA regulations, and c) the invisible hand (aka "greed" or "enlightened self-interest") works.

HT: Mike Carlson

U.S. Mobile Culture Is Still in The Stone Age

NETWORK WORLD -- "The United States is surprisingly lagging other countries in the adoption of both cutting-edge and traditional mobile services, states a new survey by Sybase 365.

Sybase 365 commissioned a study of some 4,100 mobile phone users across 16 countries, including the United States, China, Germany, South Africa, India, Mexico and the United Kingdom, to learn about their mobile culture. The key finding: The United States finished dead last in the use of simple mobile technologies such as text messaging and instant messaging. Only one in three U.S. respondents take advantage of these services. In comparison, nine out of 10 respondents in China text on their mobile phones.

The United States fared only a little better with modern mobile services, such as mobile commerce and mobile customer relationship management solutions. Thirteen percent of U.S. respondents make use of modern services, edging out Canada. Whereas nearly half of respondents in China have adopted them.

How did other countries beat out the United States? Developing regions have more to gain with mobile commerce, Mallon says. In Africa, for instance, people can pay for goods with a simple text message and a payment card that acts as currency-that is, they don't need a bank account. In the United States, however, most people have access to banks and ATM machines. "Since we have more established and wider choices of payment infrastructure, there will be a slower rate of adoption for some new mobile payment services," Mallon says."

Amazing "Old World" Construction Techniques

Barefoot brick mover loading 22 bricks on his head (what would OSHA say?), throwing pails of cement up to a platform (notice the one-hand catch), and moving sand from the ground up to a roof with shovels in several stages (click on the arrows below to start the videos).

video video video

HT: Ed Joss

Reminds me of the story about Milton Friedman (from Steve Moore) traveling to Asia in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. Friedman was shocked to see that instead of modern tractors and earth-mover equipment the workers instead were using small shovels. Milton asked a government bureaucrat why there were so few machines, and the bureaucrat replied: 'You don't understand. This is a jobs program.' To which Milton Friedman replied: 'Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it's jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.'"

Unbelievable Piano Player Slim Gaillard

Skip the introduction and go to about 1:15 and see an amazing piano player who can play piano with his fingers updside-down.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Kauffman Survey of Economics Bloggers for QII

From the Kauffman Foundation:

America’s top economics bloggers represent a diverse group of writers with wide-ranging intellectual and political vantage points on one of the most important issues of the day—the economy. As independent thinkers who are immersed in discourse through the innovation of blogging, these economics writers have a unique voice and perspective, and potentially profound influence. The Kauffman Foundation is tapping their insights in a series of surveys called Kauffman Economic Outlook: A Quarterly Survey of Leading Economics Bloggers.

Economics bloggers have a balanced outlook on the U.S. economy in this quarter (second quarter 2010), with 59 percent saying that conditions are mixed, and the rest evenly split between positive and negative views. For an economy in which growth is the norm, 36 percent of respondents think that the U.S. economy is worse than official statistics indicate, and only 14 percent believe it is better. Regardless, the consensus three-year projection sees moderate growth in all areas: Gross Domestic Product, employment, inflation, and budget deficits. Fastest growth is expected in real interest rates.

full report here.

Jobless Rate Rounding: Apr. Increase Wasn't 0.20%

According to data in Summary Table A. Household Data in yesterday's employment report unemployment rates were 9.7% in March and 9.9% in April, rounded to one decimal place. dding a few more decimal places, the jobless rates were 9.749% in March (which got rounded down to 9.7%), and 9.863% in April (which got rounded up to 9.9%).

Therefore, because the March rate was rounded down to 9.7% and the April rate was rounded up to 9.9%, it made it look like the jobless rate increased a full 0.20%, when in fact the actual increase was only about half that amount: 0.11%, or a little more than a 0.10% increase.

This probably happens in a lot of months and mostly goes unnoticed, but this is a clear case where reporting the jobless rate to only one decimal place made the official increase in the April jobless rate (+0.20%) appear much worse than it actually was (+0.11%).

Friday, May 07, 2010

Anatomy of a Real Estate Recovery: Minneapolis

The chart above illustrates the significant recovery in the Minneapolis Area real estate market based on data through March:

1. New listings, pending sales, and closed sales have all increased compared to both March last year and March 2008.

2. The dollar volume of closed sales increased in March from last year.

3. The median sales price increased by 7% from March last year, and the average sales price by 6%.

4. The sales price as a percent of list price increased to 94% in March 2010, up from 91.5% last year and 91% in 2008.

5. Total listings available for sale have fallen by 17% since 2008, and the months supply of inventory has fallen by 32 percent since 2008.

Bottom Line: Although not presented here, the year-to-date data through March show the same strong gains as the March-only data. By every important measure (price, unit sales, inventory, etc.), the real estate market in the Minneapolis Area has experienced a full and broad-based recovery this year.

Four-Month Job Increase Highest in Ten Years

According to Table A for the Household Data in today's BLS employment report (historical data here), civilian employment based on the household survey increased by 550,ooo jobs in April, the largest monthly increase since a 598,000 increase in November 2007. Over the last four months, employment has increased by 1,663,000 jobs, which is the largest four-month job increase in exactly ten years, going back to a 2.7 million four-month employment increase in the first four months of 2000 (see chart above).

Increase of 550,000 Household Jobs, Highest Since 2007; Record 7-Month Increase in Temp Workers; 23-Month High for Mfg. Overtime Hours

From today's BLS employment report:

1) Average manufacturing overtime hours increased to 3.9 hours in April (from 3.7 hours in March), reaching the highest level in almost two years, since May 2008 (see graph). Manufacturing overtime hours have increased or stayed the same in each of the last 12 months. Compared to the low last March of 2.6 hours, overtime has increase by more than a full hour to 3.9 hours in April, which is a 50 percent increase.

2) The number of temporary help workers increased in April by 26,200 to 2,054,700 employees, the highest level since November 2008, 17 months ago (see graph above). Temporary workers increased in April for the seventh straight month, following 23 straight months of declines, and it marks the first time since early 2000 of seven consecutive monthly increases. The 330,300 increase in temporary jobs since the September-low is the largest 7-month increase since this data series started in 1990.

3) Nonfarm payrolls increased by 290,000 in April, the largest monthly gain in four years - since March 2006 - and private sector jobs increased by 231,000. According to the more comprehensive household survey, 550,000 jobs were added in April, the largest monthly increase since November 2007.

Bottom Line: As I have reported before, both the surge in temporary workers and the increase in overtime hours are early indicators of a broader recovery in the labor market, and signal future increases in job creation. In the early stages of economic recovery, it makes sense for cautious employers to both increase temporary hiring and increase overtime hours of existing workers. As the economy stabilizes and expands and employers become more confident there will be broader hiring for permanent workers. Today's report showing a 550,000 increase in the household-survey employment level, a 29-month high, signals that broader employment gains are starting.

, the increases in both manufacturing jobs (44,000 new jobs in April and 101,000 so far this year) and construction employment (gains in the last two months totalling 40,000), in two of the hardest-hit sectors during the recession, provide additional evidence of ongoing and broad-based hiring activity.

Markets In Everything: Crash of 2:45 p.m. Shirts


HT: Dennis Gartman in today's "The Gartman Letter"

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Markets In Everything: High-End $12 Cup of Coffee

"It is a higher-end coffee, and you have to take a lot of time developing and processing it," said Steve Holt, vice president of Ninety Plus Coffee, the company distributing the beans for the $12 cup of coffee. "Once the coffee is harvested, it is dried on a raised African drying bed -- the actual coffee cherries never sit on the ground."

Colleen Duhamel, a coffee buyer and barista at
Cafe Grumpy said the Nekisse beans, which are roasted on site, yield a far more complex coffee that should only be taken black.

Rasmussen: Consumer and Investor Confidence Reach Highest Levels in April Since February 2008

From Rasmussen:

"The Rasmussen Consumer Index, which measures the economic confidence of consumers on a daily basis, jumped six points on Thursday to its highest level since Feb. 5, 2008. At 91.1, the Consumer Index is up eight points over the past week, up nine points from a month ago, and up 17 points from a year ago.

The Rasmussen Investor Index, which measures the economic confidence of investors on a daily basis, climbed five points today to its highest level in more than two years (since Feb. 6, 2008). At 105.4, the Investor Index is up seven points from a week ago, up eight points from a month ago, and up 25 points from a year ago. Among investors, 45% say U.S. economic conditions in the country are getting better, while 31% say they're getting worse. These findings show a dramatic shift from last year when 34% said economic conditions were getting better and 42% said they were getting worse."

Update: DJIA down by 350 points today.

The Irrelevance of Yuan Revaluation

Good article in today's Wall Street Journal by WSJ Asia editor Joseph Sternberg, sub-titled "You're not going to change the balance of China trade by adding 25 cents to the cost of a T-shirt."

To some in Washington these days, adjusting the yuan-dollar exchange rate is the fix for all America's ills. That single number supposedly determines which jobs stay in the United States and which go to China. It dictates which and how many goods move where. It's attributed the mystical power to raise or destroy mighty economies by its movements or lack thereof. Except that the real world doesn't work that way.

Mr. Sternberg then explains why the "revaluationists" have it wrong when they assume that the bulk of the value of imported Chinese products is exposed to the value of the yuan, when in reality only a portion of imports from China are exposed to exchange rates:

Take a $10 pair of boy's summer shorts: $2.50 is cotton, the price of which won't change with a revaluation because it's a globally traded commodity priced in dollars. Another $2.50 (perhaps) is profit. That leaves roughly $5 in Chinese labor and other yuan costs that are affected by a revaluation. Subject that portion to the 5% revaluation (that's at the upper range of current expectations for what Beijing will do) and the shorts now cost . . . $10.25.

And that $0.25 increase from an appreciation (depreciation) of the yuan (dollar) won't have any meaningful effect on the balance of trade like the revaluationists would have us believe. There's also the important issue of shifting production to other countries, which also weakens the revaluationists' case:

When China becomes too expensive, manufacturing moves elsewhere in Asia—not back to America. Rising labor costs, higher taxes on foreign businesses and the like have already pushed ultra-low-price T-shirts and jeans to the likes of Vietnam or Bangladesh. What remains in China are higher-value-added, more profitable name-brand products.

So according to the arguments made here, a revaluation of the yuan won't change anything meaningful, and certainly won't affect jobs in the U.S. And as I have argued before, to the extent that an artificially overvalued dollar (undervalued yuan) has any effect at all, the overall effect is positive for the millions of U.S. consumers and thousands of American businesses that purchase products imported from China.

Monster Job Index:April Growth Highest Since 2007

The Monster Employment Index rose eight points in April as a number of industries initiated springtime recruitment efforts. The annual growth rate in the Monster Index was 11 percent in April, the highest rate of increase since July 2007 (see chart above).

“The positive momentum in the Index is consistent with other economic indicators suggesting that we may be in the early stages of an economic recovery,” said Jesse Harriott, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at Monster Worldwide. “While most industries and occupations are showing increased demand for workers, public administration remains muted and below seasonal expectations as several state and local governments continue to face budgetary pressures.”

Highlights of the April report include:

1. Online job availability rose in 17 of the Monster Index’s 20 industry sectors and in 21 of the 23 occupational categories covered.

2. Demand for employment rose in all U.S. Census Bureau regions, with the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions showing the highest gains in April, both increasing 11 percent from March.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Kick-Ass Double-Digit March Home Sales Increases: Phoenix (+16%), Miami (+43%), Seattle (+52%)

1. Phoenix March Home Sales - In March a total of 9,626 new and resale houses and condos sold in the Phoenix metropolitan area, up 41.1 percent from the month before and up 16.0 percent from a year earlier. Buyers paid a median $135,000 last month for all new and resale houses and condos sold in the Phoenix metro area, up 3.9 percent from $129,000 a year ago, the first year-over-year price increase since January 2007.

Miami March Home Sales - In March, 8,658 new and resale houses and condos closed escrow in the Miami metro area, up 43.3 percent from February and up 43.1 percent from March 2009. March marked the 13th consecutive month in which the region's overall sales rose on a year-over-year basis. The 4,312 condos that resold in March marked a 45.2 percent increase from February and a 62.1 percent gain from March 2009. It was the highest number of condo resales for that month since March 2006, when 4,406 condos resold. The median price paid for all homes sold rose insignificantly from February and fell 11.3 percent below the year-ago level, marking the smallest annual decline in 22 months.

3. Seattle March Home Sales - A total of 3,939 new and resale houses and condos sold during March in the Seattle metro area, the highest for that month since 2007, and an increase of 55.0 percent from February and 52.0 percent from March 2009. Total sales have risen on a year-over-year basis for nine consecutive months. The median sale price for homes sold in March logged the smallest annual price decline in nearly two years.

Workshops Needed to Enhance Gender Equity and Overcome Bias in Higher Education Against Men?

"The America Competes Act reauthorization is working it's [sic] way through Congress and the Association for Women in Science has been actively supporting the inclusion of initiatives to support women in academic science and engineering. We are very pleased to report that the proposed amendment offered by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson to the America Competes reauthorization, "Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science," was passed unanimously by the House Science Committee on April 28. The amendment includes support for workshops to enhance gender equity and outlines guidance for the collection of data on demographics of faculty for institutions receiving federal funding for science and engineering."

Sample text from the amendment:

"Activities at the workshops shall include research presentations and interactive discussions or other activities that increase the awareness of the existence of gender bias in the grant-making process and the development of the academic record necessary to qualify as a grant recipient, including recruitment, hiring, tenure review, promotion, and other forms of formal recognition of individual achievement, and provide strategies to overcome such bias."

MP: Given the huge gender disparities in higher education in favor of women at all degree levels from associate's degrees up through doctoral degrees (see chart above), shouldn't there be workshops to increase the awareness of gender bias that must run throughout all of higher education, and not just in STEM fields? If enhancing gender equity is a worthy goal, shouldn't colleges take active measures to overcome the underrepresentation of men at all levels until a 50-50 gender ratio is achieved? Or do gender imbalances only matter in one direction and not the other?

HT: Christina Sommers

Al Gore's New $9 Million Ocean-View Villa in CA

From the LA Times: "Former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, have added a Montecito (CA)-area property to their real estate holdings. The couple spent $8,875,000 on an ocean-view villa on 1.5 acres with a swimming pool, spa and fountains, a real estate source familiar with the deal confirms. The Italian-style house has six fireplaces, five bedrooms and nine bathrooms(see pictures above, and view more here)."

Al Gore's testimony to the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee: "I believe that the transition to a green economy is good for our economy and good for all of us. And I have invested in it. But every penny that I have made, I have put right into a nonprofit, the Alliance for Climate Protection, to spread awareness of why we have to take on this challenge. And, Congresswoman, if you’re… if you believe that the reason I have been working on this issue for 30 years is because of greed, you don’t know me."

Doug Ross: "Don't you love these hypocritical Climatards? They want to control your lives: how big your car can be, how much water your toilet can hold, the kind of light bulbs you can use. They even think there are limits on how much money you should be able to make. But they put no limits on what they can have. Kind of like the old Soviet Politburo. Which is the kind of society they intend for us."

See this CD post about Al "Bigfoot" Gore's enormous electric bill at his 20-room, 8 bathroom Nashville estate (pictured below, note the fleet of SUVs), where he burned through 19 times as much electricity as the average U.S. household in 2007. The Gores also own a home in Virginia and another one in Tennessee.

BP Is By Far The Leading Victim of the Oil Spill

Lew Rockwell of the Mises Institute asks an interesting question: "Why Not Feel Sorry for BP?" (based on an article in 1989 by Murray Rothbard "Why Not Feel Sorry for Exxon?"):

"BP market shares have been pummeled. So long as the leak persists, the company loses 5,000–10,000 barrels a day. BP will be responsible for cleanup costs far exceeding the federal limit of $75 million. The public relations nightmare will last for a decade or more. In the end, the costs could reach $100 billion, perhaps wrecking the company and many other businesses.

It should be obvious that BP is by far the leading victim, but I've yet to see a single expression of sadness for the company and its losses. The incident is a tragedy for BP and all the subcontractors involved. It will probably wreck the company, a company that has long helped provide the fuel that runs everything from our cars to our industries, and keeps alive the very body of modern life. The idea that BP should be hated and denounced is preposterous; there is every reason to express great sadness for what has happened.

The abstraction called the "ecosystem" – which never seems to include humans or their civilization – has done far less for us than the oil industry. So let us not forget that the greatest tragedy here is BP’s and its subsidiaries’ and subcontractors’, and the private enterprises affected by the losses that no one intended. If the result is a shutdown of drilling and further regulation of private enterprise, people will lose. And that is what counts."

HT: Jim Morse

Kauffman Economic Survey of Top Econ Bloggers

(KANSAS CITY, Mo.), Feb. 2, 2010 -- In the inaugural Kauffman Economic Outlook: A Quarterly Survey of Top Economics Bloggers, the Kauffman Foundation sent invitations to more than 200 top economics bloggers, most of whom were on the Palgrave's December 2009 rankings. The Foundation will be surveying the bloggers about their views of the economy, entrepreneurship and innovation every quarter to provide a new gauge for the nation's fiscal health.

"As independent thinkers who are immersed in discourse through the innovation of blogging, these economics writers have a unique voice and perspective, and potentially profound influence," said Tim Kane, senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and author of the study. "While they individually express themselves virtually every day, we think their collective voice needs to be heard."

MP: Results from the second quarterly Kauffman Economic Outlook will be published tomorrow, and it will include a question that I suggested as a supplementary item for the current survey: "Globally, how serious are each of these issues over the next ten years?" More than 70 bloggers responded to the question, and the results appear in the graph above. As might be expected, the number one issue of concern to the economic bloggers is "fiscal deficits/crises," a serious pending problem clearly illustrated by this chart below from Veronique de Rugy (and these are the projected deficits just from Social Security and Medicare).

As also might be expected, with a looming budget crisis being considered such a serious problem (followed by war and unemployment), the issue of "income inequality" is the issue of least concern to the bloggers. I'll link to the full report tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Fill-In-The-Blank Price Gouging Form

Fearing increases in the prices of WATER (name of item in short supply) as a result of a MASSIVE PIPE BREAK (type or name of disaster), officials in MASSACHUSETTS (affected state or municipality) have declared a state of emergency whereby restrictions on "price gouging" are now in effect. According to ATTORNEY GENERAL MARTHA COAKLEY and GOVERNOR DEVAL PATRICK (politicians or law enforcement officials), the law is designed to protect innocent consumers from "unconscionable" increases in the prices of WATER (or food, gasoline, ice, electric generators, and home-repair services). The unintended, unseen consequences, however, are predictable, unfortunate, and avoidable.

~Blank form was provided by Art Carden.

See related CD post here.

The 3 Classes of American Business: You Can't Win

4-Block World.

Low Level of Economic Literacy is Plaguing Financial Reform; Time for Grownups To Step In

"From the perspective of economic literacy, last week’s hearings before the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations exposed an unnerving ignorance of fundamental principles of market economics by folks who have a hand in remapping rules of finance that will be with us for a while. Flip assertions about what is and is not socially valuable reflect a confusion about our market economy that is as fundamental as knowing that George Washington was the first president of the United States. Maybe it’s human nature to get self righteous about the mistakes others make when there are even worse problems in our own back yard that we should be tending to.

The low level of economic literacy is plaguing financial reform. Reform is dangerous—it produces unintended consequences—if we don’t understand the connection between incentives and economic behavior. Folks may like to hear that someone else is to blame for the mistakes they made, but everyone knows—including those who bought houses far beyond what they could afford and then walked when the promise of endless capital gains died and including the investors who bought funky financial instruments that enabled the housing bubble out west and in Florida to inflate—that Wall Street isn’t the only culprit in the housing debacle.

Goldman was no more culpable in the housing debacle than Congress. Because Washington is mostly focused on appeasing political outrage, the financial reform legislation in its present form seems likely to do little to fix the flaws and is heavily focused on changing things that had little to do with the housing debacle.

What flaws need fixing? The financial system is highly interconnected. The bankruptcy laws need to be modified to allow for an orderly unwinding of a failing financial institution (for example, ending the exemption given derivatives has attracted some attention). No institution should be too big to fail. Public funds should not be relied on to resolve failing financial institutions.

Now that the financial reform debate is in the final innings, it’s time for the grownups to step in. In its present form, financial reform will make credit more expensive and more difficult to obtain and businesses will find it more difficult to shed risk, harming the very people we are trying to help. Done right, reform will increase transparency, allow failing institutions to fail, and not stand in the way of financial innovation that has allowed those who want to shed risk to pass it to those who seek it, an evolution that has contributed to the US economy’s robust performance in the past."

~Jim Glassman, senior economist at JPMorgan Chase

HT: Pete Friedlander

What's Wrong With Price Gouging? Nothing!

"It never fails. No sooner does some calamity trigger an urgent need for basic resources than self-righteous voices are raised to denounce the amazingly efficient system that stimulates suppliers to speed those resources to the people who need them. That system is the free market’s price mechanism — the fluctuation of prices because of changes in supply and demand.

When the demand for bottled water goes through the roof — which is another way of saying that bottled water has become (relatively) scarce — the price of water quickly rises in response. That price spike may be annoying, but it’s not nearly as annoying as being unable to find water for sale at any price. Rising prices help keep limited quantities from vanishing today, while increasing the odds of fresh supplies arriving tomorrow."

Jeff Jacoby writing in today's Boston Globe about the latest calamity leading to charges of "price gouging": the massive pipe break that left dozens of Greater Boston towns without clean drinking water over the weekend.

MP: In response to the reports of "price gouging," Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said “There is never an excuse for taking advantage of consumers, especially not during times like this.’’ With this statement, the governor shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how markets works.

Sellers always try to take advantage of consumers, in the sense that they should always charge "whatever the market will bear," and this condition should prevail regardless of the circumstances, i.e. after a calamity or before a calamity. For example, thousands, if not millions, of goods are sold daily through Ebay auctions, and in each case the seller is getting a price that reflects "whatever the market will bear." And those market-determined prices don't depend on whether the auctions took place before, during, or after a natural disaster.

Each day about 15,000 homes are sold in the U.S., and in each case the homes sell for "whatever the market will bear," and it doesn't matter whether it's a seller's or buyer's market, whether it's the height of a real estate bubble or the bottom of a real estate bust, or whether it's right before, or right after, an earthquake, flood or hurricane. In some markets, sellers actually sell ("scalp") their homes for more than the list price, a clear case of taking advantage of desperate home buyers by "price gouging."

I'm very, very confident that the last time Governor Patrick personally sold one of his own homes, shares of stock, boats or paintings he sold his possessions for the highest price possible ("whatever the market would bear") and not a penny cheaper, and in the process did his very best as a seller in every transaction to "take advantage" of the buyer.

Just like an earthquake, hurricane, flood or massive price breaks don't change the fundamental laws of physics, gravity or aerodynamics, those disasters also don't change the basic laws of supply and demand. If sellers of bottled water in Boston are guilty of illegal "price gouging" for selling water at elevated market prices after a major disruption like a massive pipe break, then sellers of all products at all times are guilty of "price gouging." Sellers always charge "whatever the market will bear," and are always trying to "gouge" buyers to the maximum extent possible. To act any differently would be foolish and even disruptive to our economic system.

It's only in the fantasy world of politics that the "anointed elected officials" think they get to be the "price deciders," and determine if sellers are guilty of "price gouging," "ticket scalping," or "predatory pricing." In the real world of the marketplace it's much different and much more democratic - the impersonal market forces of supply and demand become the "price deciders," and we're all much better off with those market-determined prices than with the artificial prices determined by politicians and bureaucrats.

Rail Freight Fuel Efficiency Has Doubled Since 1980

On Earth Day (April 22, 2010) the Association of American Railroads announced that "the nation’s freight railroads in 2009 averaged 480 ton-miles to the gallon when moving a ton of freight. Ton-miles-per-gallon is the railroad measurement for fuel efficiency, like autos use miles-per-gallon. Overall, freight rail fuel efficiency is up 104 percent since 1980 (see chart above). In 2009, railroads generated 67 percent more ton-miles than in 1980, while using 18 percent less fuel.

Railroads use sophisticated on-board monitoring systems to gather and evaluate information to provide engineers with real-time "coaching" and calculate the speed that maximizes fuel savings. Railroads also use innovative freight-car and locomotive designs that cut down fuel consumption, helping make rail four times more fuel efficient than trucks."

MP: This is just one of many efficiency gains over time that have contributed to making 2009 the "Most Energy-Efficent Economy in U.S. History," see this recent CD post showing that the U.S. economy used less total energy in 2009 than in 1997. The significant improvements in rail fuel efficiency over time also illustrates that many of the gains in energy efficiency over time are market-driven to achieve cost savings, and not always as a result of government mandates and environmental regulations.

Quote of the Day/Century

"The champions of socialism call themselves progressives, but they recommend a system which is characterized by rigid observance of routine and by a resistance to every kind of improvement. They call themselves liberals, but they are intent upon abolishing liberty. They call themselves democrats, but they yearn for dictatorship. They call themselves revolutionaries, but they want to make the government omnipotent. They promise the blessings of the Garden of Eden, but they plan to transform the world into a gigantic post office. Every man but a subordinate clerk in a bureau. What an alluring utopia! What a noble cause to fight!

Against all this frenzy of agitation there is but one weapon available: reason. Just common sense is needed to prevent man from falling prey to illusory fantasies and empty catchwords."

"Bureaucracy" by Ludwig von Mises (1944)

Shortages of Coffee, Surpluses of Wine

1. WSJ -- There is a glut of wine all over the world—an oversupply so significant that some wine is now cheaper than water and selling as low as $1 per gallon.

2. WSJ - Venezuela coffee shortages predictably follow Hugo Chavez's price controls.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Female Computer Scientist to Women: Stop Making Excuses, Step It Up, Get On With It and Go For It

NY Times -- "Women now outnumber men at elite colleges, law schools, medical schools and in the overall work force. Yet a stark imbalance of the sexes persists in the high-tech world, where change typically happens at breakneck speed."

Eileen Burbidge, BS in Engineering Computer Science degree from the University of Illinois, and an early-stage tech angel/investor and advisor
responds in the first of a three-part series:

"There have been recent calls to give more women a chance within tech; there are calls [presumably to men] to take women more seriously and to work harder at recruiting and attracting women into tech in order to overcome systemic bias in the “system”. I take issue with these approaches and perspectives firstly because I find them patronizing and secondly because I think the call to action is directed at the wrong place.

On the first point, I don’t want someone to cut me some slack or “give me a chance” just because I’m a woman. I don’t want a hand-out, I don’t want to be patronized. I want to be recognized and respected because of what I’m capable of doing and achieving. If someone wants me on their team strictly because I’m a woman, then there’s probably something amiss in that intention. So don’t patronize me, please. It works both ways — It’s not pleasant (or wise) if someone shuts a door on me strictly because I’m a woman, but I also don’t want the door opened only because I am.

On the second point, I don’t think we should just ask men for more opportunities. I think instead we need to get more women to step it up and if they are seeking opportunities in tech (and not getting them), I think they should speak up or look harder. Within tech, I don’t think we need to give more women a chance; I think we need to tell more women to go for it — if they want it.

Stop making excuses and get on with it. All the men I know are looking out for women to join their teams. But if you’re not good enough, you might just not be good enough. Stop using the woman thing as a crutch and work on what needs to be done in order to break-through. I want to change the call to action from asking men to give us a chance to asking women to step it up and make sure you’re making it known if you want to be in tech/business — and will be successful in it."

Obamacare: Majority of Americans Are Skeptical

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of likely U.S. voters about the health care plan passed by Congress in March finds that:

1. 52% say the plan will be bad for America, a view that went up slightly after the plan became law and has now held steady for five weeks.

2. 54% favor repeal of the legislation, including 44% who Strongly Favor it.

3. 59% of voters think the plan will increase the deficit despite assurances from the plan’s supporters that just the opposite is the case.

4. 52% say the quality of health care in America will get worse under the new plan.

5. 56% believe the plan will cause the cost of health care to go up.

2009: Most Energy-Efficient Economy in History

The EIA released new energy data last Friday showing that the U.S. had the most energy-efficient economy in history last year, based on the amount of energy consumed to produce each real dollar of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 2009, it required only 7,290 BTUs of energy (petroleum, natural gas and other energy) to produce each real dollar of GDP, an all-time record low, and less than half the energy required in the mid-1970s to produce a dollar of output (see chart top above).

In other words, the U.S. economy is twice as energy-efficient today compared to the 1970s due to technology, innovation and improvements that allow us to produce more output with less energy. We did save some energy in 2009 because output (GDP) fell by 2.44 percent due to the recession, but energy consumption fell by about twice as much (4.81 percent) last year, which lowered energy consumption per dollar of real GDP for the 18th consecutive year to an all-time historical record low.

Amazingly, the EIA report also showed that total U.S. energy consumption in 2009 (94.66 quadrillion BTUs) was less than the total energy consumed 12 years ago in 1997 (94.76 quadrillion BTUs), even though we produced almost 32 percent more output last year than in 1997, the U.S. population has increased by 34.5 million people in the last 12 years, and traffic volume (miles driven) was 17.5 percent higher last year than in 1997 (see bottom chart above)!

The new EIA data showing that we’re living in the most energy-efficient economy in history probably won’t get much media attention (especially compared to an event like Earth Day or the Gulf oil spill), even though it’s an ongoing and remarkable story of environmentally-friendly, green achievement. As American Enterprise Institute fellow Steven F. Hayward
commented in 2008, “The consistent improvement in America's energy efficiency is an untold and underappreciated long-term story.”

With all of the media coverage of the oil spill in the Gulf dominating energy news, don't expect any reports on 2009 setting a new record for the most energy-efficient economy in history.

Cross-posted at
The Enterprise Blog.

April ISM Manufacturing Index of 60.4 is Highest Since 2004; Real GDP Growth Could Be 6.2%

The ISM report came out today and showed continued, sustained, and strong improvements in the U.S. manufacturing sector, with the PMI Index posting the highest reading in almost six years (see chart). The index has increased in 13 out of the last 16 months, and reached 60.4 in April, the highest level since June 2004.

It was also the ninth consecutive monthly index reading above 50, which means that economic activity in the manufacturing sector has been steadily expanding since last August. Further, index readings for the PMI above 42 indicate an expansion of the overall economy, and therefore "the PMI indicates growth for the 12th consecutive month in the overall economy," according to the ISM.

See Scott Grannis for more details on today's ISM report.

Update: According to the ISM, "an index reading of 60.4 is consistent with real GDP growth of 6.2% annually," thanks to Brian Wesbury and Bob Stein.

Restaurant Blowout in March, Industry Index Hits Highest Level Since Sept. 2007; Recession's Over!

"Fueled by improving sales and traffic levels and growing optimism among restaurant operators, the National Restaurant Association's comprehensive index of restaurant activity rose sharply in March. The Association's Restaurant Performance Index (RPI), a monthly composite index that tracks the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry stood at 100.5 in March, up 1.4 percent from February and its strongest level since September 2007. In addition, the RPI rose above 100 for the first time in 29 months, which signifies expansion in the index of key industry indicators. Other highlights include:

1. For the first time in 22 months, restaurant operators reported net positive same-store sales. Forty-three percent of restaurant operators reported a same-store sales gain between March 2009 and March 2010, up from 28 percent of operators who reported higher sales in February. In comparison, only 36 percent of operators reported a samestore sales decline in March, well below the 57 percent of operators who reported negative sales in February.

2. Restaurant operators also reported a net increase in customer traffic in March, the first positive reading in 31 months. Forty-one percent of restaurant operators reported an increase in customer traffic between March 2009 and March 2010, up from 25 percent who reported higher customer traffic in February. Thirty-six percent of operators reported a traffic decline in March, down from 55 percent who reported lower traffic in February.

3. The Expectations Index, which measures restaurant operators’ six-month outlook for four industry indicators (same-store sales, employees, capital expenditures and
business conditions), stood at 101.9 in March up 0.5 percent from February and its strongest level in nearly three years. In addition, the Expectations Index stood above the 100 level for the third consecutive month, which signifies expansion in the forward-looking indicators.

4. Restaurant operators are also gaining confidence in the direction of the economy. Forty-six percent of restaurant operators said they expect economic conditions to improve in six months, up from 38 percent last month and the strongest level since March 2005. Meanwhile, only 12 percent of operators said they expect economic conditions to worsen in the next six months."

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

A $1 Billion Ski Resort Near Atlanta? Anything's Possible with Somebody Else's (Taxpayer's) Money

From Georgia State Senator Chip Pearson, chairman of Georgia's Economic Development Committee, commenting on Friday about Georgia's legislative session, which recently ended:

"With the creation of the “Georgia Tourism Development Act” under HB 1251, we can truly attract large developments to Georgia by granting a sales tax refund to companies who establish new tourism attractions here. To be eligible for the tax refund, projects must exceed $100 million and have a positive economic impact on the state."

From a Georgia newspaper:

"Plans for a $1 billion, million-square-foot indoor ski resort in Bartow County, Georgia (near Atlanta), are progressing and apparently hinge on one decision -- if Governor Sonny Perdue signs the Tourism Development Act passed Thursday by the Georgia General Assembly, the facility, billed as the world's largest of its kind, could go up on more than 750 acres of land near Red Top Mountain State Park.

The development -- to be divided into the Alpine and Village levels -- would include five ski runs, the world's only indoor snow mobile track at a mile long, two NHL hockey rinks, a 2,000-seat outdoor waterfront amphitheater, three four-star hotels, a conference center, 30 restaurants, 400,000 square feet of retail space and multiple residential components.

Rep. Paul Battles, a cosponsor of the bill, said it would provide incentives to developers via sales tax rebates of a quarter of a percent for the next 10 years. Bartow County would receive $25 to $30 million in road improvements, including a proposed new four-lane bridge over Lake Allatoona."

HT: Evan Julber, who asks in an email: "What's next, $1 billion government-subsidized indoor beach complexes in cold states like Idaho, Montana and Minnesota, complete with palm trees, surfing areas, tidal pools, scuba diving areas, etc.?"

Just Two Words: Plastic Corks; Reinventing an Old World Industry and Breaking The Cork Monopoly

ZEBULON, N.C. WALL STREET JOURNAL - "In a nondescript factory in this small, wooded town, 10 giant machines worked around the clock last year to churn out 1.4 billion plastic corks, enough to circle the earth 1.33 times if laid end-to-end. Unknown to most American wine drinkers, the plant's owner, Nomacorc, has quietly revolutionized the 400-year-old wine-cork industry. Since the 1600s, wine has been bottled almost exclusively with natural cork, a porous material that literally grows on trees in Portugal, Spain and other Mediterranean lands.

But over the past 10 years, an estimated 20% of the bottle stopper market has been replaced by a new technology—plastic corks that cost between 2 and 20 cents apiece (see chart above). More than one in 10 full-sized wine bottles sold worldwide now come with a Nomacorc plug, while another 9% or so come from other plastic cork makers. Screw caps took another 11% of the market. "We infuriated the cork industry," says Marc Noel, Nomacorc's chairman.

The story of how Nomacorc and other stopper upstarts broke the centuries-old cork monopoly is a lesson in how innovation, timing and hustle combined to exploit an opening in a once airtight market. It shows that any dominant industry can be vulnerable to competition, especially if it grows complacent about its position."

MP: Great example of: a) creative destruction, b) how market competition is often the best form of regulating monopolies, c) how even long-standing monopolies and dominant firms are eventually challenged by innovation, competition and young upstarts, d) American ingenuity and entrepreneurship, and e) why U.S. manufacturing is alive and well and entering a new cycle of growth.

HT: Gene Hayward

More TV Sets (2.93) Than People Per US Household (2.54); Average TV Sets Per Home Sets New Record

The average American home now has 2.93 TV sets per household, up from 2.86 sets per home in 2009, the largest year-over-year increase since 2006 according to Nielsen’s latest Television Audience Report (see chart above). In 2010, the number of U.S. homes with three or more TV sets increased to the highest percentage ever at 55% (up from 54% last year and up from 11% in 1975) and the number of households with only one TV decreased to the lowest level ever, at 17%, down from 18% last year, and down from 57% in 1975. The report also finds that the number of people per TV home has held steady at about 2.54 for the last six years, carrying on the trend of more TVs per home than people.

Other highlights:

1. Since at least 2005, there have been more TVs per household on average than people per household.

2. In 1975, there were only 1.57 TVs per household, when the average household size was 2.88.

3. Since at least 1995, more households have three TV sets than the number of households with only one TV.

4. There has been almost a complete reversal between 1975 and 2010: In 1975, 57% of American households owned only one TV set, and by 2010, 55% of households owned three TV sets.

5. Interestingly, during the "greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression," the number of American households with three TV sets increased to the highest level in U.S. history, and the number of households with only one TV set decreased to the lowest level in history.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Top 15 Largest Oil Spills in History

Wikipedia link. Note that it's been 18 years since a major oil spill of more than 100,000 tons (30 million gallons), the last one was in 1992 in Uzbekistan. And there hasn't been a major U.S. oil spill since 1989 - Exxon Valdez - which ranks #15 by size on this list (and at 30,000 tons doesn't really even qualify for the list?).

HT: Paul Kedrosky

I Think the Answer is Yes

From Bankrupting America.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Jobs, Jobs, and More Jobs

Caterpillar is bringing back 9,000 laid-off workers worldwide.

McDonald's is planning big "Hiring Day" for 700 part-time crew and managers in Utah.

Thanks to Kevin Wroblewski for the McDonald's story.

What If I Had Bought Apple Stock Instead?

On November 10, 1997, Apple released the Apple PowerBook G3 250 computer for $5,700, when Apple stock was trading at $4.67 per share. Apple is now trading at $262.93, or about 56 times the share price in 1997 (see chart above).

What if instead of buying the Apple computer in 1997 for $5,700, you had purchased 1,221 shares of Apple stock with your money? Today, those shares would be worth about $321,000 (APPL is trading at $262.93 right now).

See more of these comparisons for different Apple computers in different years here.

HT: Matt B., the Plaid Pundit

Consumer Spending is Back: 3-Year High in QI

One highlight of today's BEA report on GDP is that real personal consumption expenditures increased 3.6% in the first quarter, which is the largest quarterly growth in consumer spending since the 3.7% growth in the first quarter of 2007 (see chart above). It's also the first time since 2007 of three consecutive quarters of positive growth in consumer spending, and is above the 3.05% average growth rate since 1980.

This rebound in consumer spending starting in the third quarter of 2009 provides further evidence that the recession ended last July, and we are now ten months into an economic expansion that is gaining strength and momentum with almost every new economic report.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kick-Ass: Rail Freight Traffic Hits 16-Month High

"The Association of American Railroads (AAR) said today that rail freight traffic is continuing to gain strength as weekly carload volume was at its highest level since the first week of December 2008, and weekly intermodal volume reached its highest level this year.

U.S. railroads originated 298,218 carloads during the week ended April 24, 2010, up 14.6 percent from the comparable week in 2009. However, volume was still down 10.8 percent from 2008. In order to offer a complete picture of the progress in rail traffic, AAR now reports 2010 weekly rail traffic with comparison weeks in both 2009 and 2008.

Intermodal traffic totaled 212,347 trailers and containers, up 15.1 percent from last year but down 5.4 percent compared with 2008. Compared with the same week in 2009, container volume increased 17.3 percent while trailer volume gained 4.2 percent. Compared with the same week in 2008, container volume was up 2.7 percent while trailer volume fell 34.5 percent.

All 19 carload commodity groups were up from last year, led by gains in commodities associated with the steel industry: metallic ores, up 163 percent; metals, up 80.2 percent; waste and scrap, up 59.7 percent; and coke, up 12 percent. Other notable increases included 25.3 percent for motor vehicles and equipment; 45.2 percent for primary forest products; 22.8 percent for lumber and wood products; and 13.1 percent for chemicals. Grain was up 20.1 percent, and coal rose 6 percent.

Combined North American rail volume for the first 16 weeks of 2010 on 13 reporting U.S., Canadian and Mexican railroads totaled 5,846,219 carloads, up 7.6 percent from last year, and 4,062,641 trailers and containers, up 9.9 percent from last year."