Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Garth Brooks Show Sells Out in 58 Seconds = Tickets Were Undersupplied and/or Underpriced

Calgary Herald -- "Some 15,322 tickets to country superstar Garth Brooks' highly anticipated July 12 show went on sale at 10 a.m. last Saturday and were snapped up in 58 seconds — the fastest sellout in the Calgary Stampede’s 100-year history.

Country music fans vented on social media. Indeed, by mid-morning, “Garth Brooks” was trending Canada-wide on Twitter. Fan frustration was mostly directed at online resale sites. Prices for single tickets on StubHub, for example, ranged from $275 to $4,500 a piece — much higher than their original $62 cost. That had music lovers like D.J. McMillan of Calgary crying foul about rampant ticket scalping."

MP: Fan frustration shouldn't be directed at online ticket websites, but at those ultimately responsible for creating a ticket shortage, which then creates a market for ticket resales: Garth Brooks and the concert promoters.  Obviously, the artist and promoter failed to both: a) price the tickets according to market demand, and b) supply the appropriate number of tickets to satisfy fan demand.  By under-supplying and under-pricing Garth Brooks tickets, it was the artist and promoter who guaranteed a secondary market for tickets above face value.  The secondary market can easily be eliminated by: a) raising the face value of tickets and/or b)  adding additional shows and increasing the number of tickets for sale.  

Basic Economics: Since the artists and/or promoters  have direct control over P (price) and Q (quantity supplied), simple economics tells us that it's the actions of the suppliers (artists and promoters) that create ticket shortages and ticket re-selling.  Eliminating ticket re-sales can easily be eliminated: simply raise P or raise Q and most of the secondary market and "ticket shortage" would disappear.   

Today is Tax Deadline: Bring Us Back to 1913 (Or Better Yet, Take Us Back to Pre-Income Tax 1912)

This post has become an annual tradition at CD around April 15.  

Page 1 of the original IRS 1040 income tax form from 1913 appears above. There were only four pages in the original 1040 form, including two pages of worksheets, the actual 1040 form above, and only one page of instructions, view all four pages here. In contrast, just the current 1040 instructions, without any forms, runs 189 pages.

Individual income tax rates started at 1% in 1913, and the maximum marginal income tax rate was only 7% on incomes above $500,000 ($11.6 million in today's dollars). The personal exemption was $3,000 for individuals ($69,500 in today's dollars) and $4,000 for married couples ($92,700 in today's dollars), meaning that very few Americans had to pay federal income tax since the average income in 1913 was only about $750. The Tax Foundation has historical federal income tax rates for every year between 1913 and 2011 here.

Chart of the Day: New Records for Oil/Gas Split

A new record was set last week when the share of U.S. rigs drilling for natural gas fell to only 32%, which was the lowest percentage since Baker Hughes started keeping records of the oil/gas split in 1987 (see chart above).  The previous record low share of rigs drilling for natural gas was 32.5% in September 1987.  As natural gas prices keep falling to record lows at the same time that oil prices are rising, the industry has shifted drilling activities from gas to oil, bringing the share of rigs drilling for oil from below 20% as recently as May 2009 to a record high of 68% last week.

This shift from gas to oil drilling illustrates how the price system transmits valuable information about relative scarcity, and brings about an automatic reallocation of productive resources by suppliers in response to price changes.  The power of the market, the invisible hand, and the profit motive in action....

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monday Afternoon Links

1.Recycling America’s Abandoned Auto Plants: Shuttered U.S. auto plants aren't eyesores, they're valuable assets worth saving and recycling.

2. Exxon's Big Bet on Shale Gas: ExxonMobil now produces about as much natural gas as it does oil, and CEO Rex Tillerson thinks the fracking party has just begun.

3. Hitchhiking in Cuba: It's about the only way to get around outside Cuban cities. Gasoline costs about what it does in the United States. Most Cubans don’t have cars. Most earn a monthly government salary of less than $20.

4. EveryHeartBeat.org: An online network into which anyone can record their medical data through a wireless phone.

5. George Will in The Washington Post asks "Should the U.S. Legalize Hard Drugs?" and I think his answer is Yes. 

6. Netflix's Unlimited Employee Vacation Policy; Why It Works

7. Indian Farmers Use Cell Phones to Pre-Purchase Solar Energy on a "Pay-As-You-Go" Basis.

8. Racial racketeer Marion Barry demonstrates the black racism against Asians that tends to get ignored. 

All originally sent through Twitter, follow me here

Energy Facts of the Day: The "Decline of Coal"

1. "Total U.S. carloads of coal by rail during the first quarter of 2012 fell to 1.55 million carloads, the lowest level for any quarter since the beginning of 1994, as demand for coal by the U.S. electricity sector decreased." Source: EIA

2. "Although still the largest single fuel for electricity generation, coal's share of monthly power generation in the United States dropped below 40% in November and December 2011. The last time coal's share of total generation was below 40% for a monthly total was March 1978. A combination of mild weather (leading to a drop in total generation) and the increasing price competitiveness of natural gas relative to coal contributed to the drop in coal's share of total generation." Source: EIA

Let's Abolish the Boutique Gasoline Regime

"Quick: How many kinds of gasoline do we use in America? Most people would say three or six: regular unleaded, mid-grade, and premium, along with the ethanol blends of the same that have become nearly universal. The actual number is somewhere above 45, though hard to pin down exactly, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It might even be closer to 70. Thirty-four states use specially blended gasoline, usually during the summer, which is one reason gasoline prices always rise during the “driving season.”

Is this a conspiracy of the evil oil companies to fatten their margins? Mostly no: It’s the product of EPA bureaucrats and the Clean Air Act, stubbornly maintained even though boutique fuels now deliver only marginal reductions in air pollution from cars, if any at all. And it’s a regulation President Obama could clear away if he wanted to. It wouldn’t deliver a large reduction in gasoline pump prices, but even 10 to 15 cents a gallon—a plausible figure for California’s market—would help.

Here’s an opportunity for President Obama to “do something” about gasoline prices, even if it’s only by a dime per gallon. (And the difference between $4.95 gas and $5.05 gas might be the difference between reelection and defeat.) The Clean Air Act allows the EPA to waive the boutique gasoline requirements in the event of supply disruptions or shortages. Indeed, the boutique gasoline requirements were waived in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, when more than half the Gulf Coast refineries were knocked out of commission for several weeks. During the waiver, we imported gasoline from overseas to fill the gap, and prices were kept stable. There was no noticeable uptick in ozone levels in the EPA data. While high-priced gasoline might not meet the precise definition of a disruption or shortage, it shouldn’t be a problem for the clever lawyers of the Obama administration to come up with a plausible legal rationale for suspending the regulations.

Failing that, the House should pass a quick amendment to the Clean Air Act abolishing the boutique gasoline regime, and then dare the Senate or the president to block a measure that would offer relief at the pump this summer. The ethanol lobby would scream, along with environmentalists who never met a regulation they didn’t like, while refiners would quietly rue the loss of an artificial market-segmenting system that expands their profit margins. Sounds like a win-win all the way around."

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Manufacturing is Booming in Alabama; 313 Companies Expanding, 70 New Ones are Coming

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- "As manufacturing picks up across the United States, Alabama has become an unexpected beneficiary. The state -- best known for agriculture and textiles production -- is enjoying the best pickup in industrial manufacturing in five years as U.S. and foreign companies flock there.  The credit goes to the state's low taxes, top-grade trade schools, a statute that curbs union power, and other incentives spurring many manufacturers to move to or expand in the state, experts said. 

In 2011, 70 domestic manufacturers announced plans to set up a factory in Alabama. They're expected to create 4,879 jobs and $1.6 billion in capital investment over the next two to three years. In the same year, an additional 313 manufacturers, already in the state, announced expansion plans that would create another 12,369 new jobs and pour $2.5 billion in capital investment."

Markets in Everything: No Surveillance, Privacy-Protecting Cell Phone and Internet Service

CNET.com -- "Nicholas Merrill is planning to revolutionize online privacy with a concept as simple as it is ingenious: a telecommunications provider designed from its inception to shield its customers from surveillance.

Merrill, 39, who previously ran a New York-based Internet provider, told CNET that he's raising funds to launch a national "non-profit telecommunications provider dedicated to privacy, using ubiquitous encryption" that will sell mobile phone service and, for as little as $20 a month, Internet connectivity.

The ISP would not merely employ every technological means at its disposal, including encryption and limited logging, to protect its customers. It would also -- and in practice this is likely more important -- challenge government surveillance demands of dubious legality or constitutionality."

Supply Matters

From my article in today's Washington Examiner, "Gas prices are complex, but not mysterious": 

Simply put, oil supplies matter. Larger supplies of secure oil -- oil that won't be withheld from the market for political reasons -- can result in lower retail gas prices at the pump.
The importance of secure oil cannot be overstated. It's quite likely that oil and gasoline prices would decline over the long term if more oil were produced domestically and Canadian oil were allowed to flow freely through the rejected Keystone XL pipeline. In fact, just imagine how different the U.S. economy and the energy situation would be today if, 30 years ago, our elected officials had allowed drilling in the oil-rich areas of Alaska, along the West Coast, the East Coast and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Instead, they chose to block access to those supplies, keeping us dependent on foreign oil from politically unstable countries.

Our economy runs on oil, and DOE forecasts suggest that oil will be the "fuel of the future" and continue to play an important role in our energy mix for decades to come. It's time to embrace the facts about oil and discard the "fuel of the past" mentality. There is nothing that provides as much energy bang for the buck as oil. Basic economics tell us that if we had more of it, our bucks would go a lot further.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Change You Can Believe In, As Long As You're Using Someone Else's Money............

Year Bidens' AGI   Bidens' Charitable Gifts   Average Gifts for Bidens' AGI 

Joe and Jill Biden just released their 2011 tax returns. They reported $379,035 in adjusted gross income (AGI) last year, on which they paid $87,900 in income taxes; and they deducted $5,540 for charitable gifts.  The table above shows the Bidens 14-year history of AGI and charitable gifts and the average charitable gifts for AGI amounts comparable to the Bidens, according to IRS data via Forbes.  

Now that Vice-President Biden's tax returns are coming under public scrutiny he's suddenly feeling a bit more charitable than the former, rather uncharitable Senator Joe Biden, whose tax returns probably received little attention, if they were even released at all.  For example, back in 1999, Senator and Jill Biden made more than $200,000 and donated only $195 to charity that year, or less than $4 per week.  That compares to average charitable giving of more than $5,000 for taxpayers reporting the same AGI as the Bidens that year.  On average, taxpayers making $215,000 donated 2.58% of their AGI to charity, compared to the Bidens, who donated only 1/10 of 1% of their income to charity in 1999.  

The Bidens are feeling a little more charitable of late, but are still giving far less than average, only $5,540 last year, compared to $9,544 on average for taxpayers in their income category.  But they're making progress.....

Is Variable Pricing Coming for Movies?

LA Times -- "It's time for studios and the cinema industry to stop charging the same price to see any movie any day of the week, a media industry analyst said in a strongly worded research note Friday.

"Movie exhibitors are operating with the largest amount of excess capacity of any industry we could find in the free world," wrote Todd Juenger, a senior analyst at Bernstein Research. Nearly 93% of theater seats go unfilled, he said, including 99% between Monday and Thursday.

Over the years, many industry players and observers have called for "variable pricing" for movies. The basic idea is that the more popular films should cost more to see, while those that don't pack theaters would get a discount. But theater owners and studios have resisted, in large part because they are concerned about the negative perceptions that would come from some new offerings costing less to see than others.

Juenger noted that everything from airplane tickets to hotel rooms and even DVDs at Wal-Mart have some degree of variable pricing. "The only industry we could think of that is remotely similar to movies in terms of flat pricing with big spikes in utilization is fast-food," he observed."

Jeffrey Immelt: Outsourcing Based Only on Labor Costs is Becoming an Outdated Business Model

Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, in the Harvard Business Review article “On Sparking an American Manufacturing Renewal”:

"One thing is clear: Outsourcing that is based only on labor costs is yesterday’s model. 

Today at GE we are outsourcing less and producing more in the U.S. We created more than 7,000 American manufacturing jobs in 2010 and 2011.  Our success on the factory floor rests on human innovation and technical innovation – the keys to leading an American manufacturing renewal.  When we are deciding where to manufacture, we ask, “Will our people and technology in the U.S. provide us with a competitive advantage?”  Increasingly, the answer is yes. 

Engineering are hands-on and iterative, and our most innovative appliance-design work is one in the United States.  At a time when speed to market is everything, separating design and development from manufacturing didn’t make sense. 

Complex trade-offs have always been involved in location decisions, but as these trade-offs have shifted, around 2008, we came to the conclusion that outsourcing was quickly becoming mostly outdated as a business model for GE Appliances.”

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Workers Quitting Jobs Is Highest in Three Years

In another sign that the labor market is slowly recovering, the number of workers quitting their jobs is rising (see chart above).  In February, almost 2.1 million Americans quit their jobs, and it was the sixth month out of the last eight months that more than 2 million workers voluntarily left their job.  The February count was the highest number of monthly quits since November 2008, more than three years ago.

From a related Wall Street Journal article:

"Strategists at ConvergEx Group pointed out in a note to clients that quits are a measure of economic confidence — people don’t tend to quit their jobs in tough labor markets because they’re worried they won’t be able to find a new one. During the downturn, monthly quits plunged to a record low of 1.6 million in September 2009, down from more than three million per month before the recession began. The fact that they’re rising again suggests that workers may finally be seeing signs that the job market is improving.

Quits matter for another reason, too: They’re a component of “churn,” the regular comings and goings that are a critical element of any healthy job market. When people leave jobs in search of higher pay and new opportunities, they open up opportunities for others. When they stop quitting, those opportunities dry up."

HT: Steve Bartin

State Tax Revenues Rose in All States in 2011, Led by an Energy-Related Gain of 44.5% in N. Dakota

1. CNBC -- "Tax collection rose in all 50 states in fiscal 2011, and in nine states increased by more than 10 percent, according to U.S. Census data released on Thursday that marked the end of a severe revenue collapse.   Tax collections rose the most in North Dakota, 44.5 percent, followed by oil giant Alaska, 22.4 percent. They were up 17.4 percent in California, 15.3 percent in Illinois and 15.1 percent in New Mexico. Wyoming, also a state that produces energy sources, had revenue increase 14.1 percent in the fiscal year."

2. The Tax Foundation has a related post with a historical chart and a table ranked by percentage increases.

America's Energy-Based Economic Renaissance

From Fortune, "America's Energy Job Machine is Heating Up"

"Along the Texas coast it's easy to spot the effects of America's oil and gas renaissance in new hotels built in the past five years (many of them now populated by itinerant oilfield workers), in the multiplying numbers of overnight "shale-ionaires," in rising home values, expanding car and truck dealerships, and effectively full employment.

What really excites experts is that these signs of prosperity in the gulf point to a larger trend. "We call it the great revival of the North American oil industry," declares Daniel Yergin, head of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. "This is a turnaround not just for North America's oil supply, but one with global impact. It's certainly the biggest development in the world oil market of this century."

That means the oil and gas boom could make America a major player again in the world energy market and help spur the entire U.S. economy. Already, both Texas and Louisiana have unemployment rates significantly below the national average, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the West South Central region -- which includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas -- has the second-lowest overall unemployment rate in the country, at 7.1%. The lowest? West North Central, which includes North Dakota (with a 3% unemployment rate), where gas producers in the supergiant Bakken formation can't find enough workers to fill their shifts.

Cheap domestic energy is also good news for the manufacturing sector. "The discovery and development of North America's shale resources has the potential to be the most remarkable source of economic growth and prosperity that any of us are likely to encounter in our lifetimes," U.S. Steel CEO John Surma told the Congressional Steel Caucus in a late March hearing. It's a virtuous cycle: More drilling requires more steel, and lower energy costs give U.S. steel producers a cost edge. This at a time when the Department of Energy reports that the energy intensity of U.S. steel companies is now among the lowest in the world."

The Wacky World of Government Antitrust

1. In the case of Apple and five major book publishers, the government claims that collusive behavior led to higher e-book prices for consumers, and the participants are being charged with price-fixing.

2.  In the case of taxi and limousine companies in Nashville, a federal judge has upheld the collusive, price-fixing practices of the established limo and taxi companies that have conspired with the help of local government officials to impose a $45-per-trip minimum fare. The taxi cartel wants to squash the competition from some new, smaller upstart companies who were challenging the cartel with discount fares of $25.  (See recent related CD post.)

3.  In the case of Safeway in California, a lawsuit by the retailer's rivals has been filed accusing Safeway of "unfair business practices" for selling gasoline at prices that are "too low" and "below cost."  If the plaintiffs prevail, a Bay Area judge may force Safeway to raise its gas prices, because "prices below cost" are illegal under the Unfair Practices Act.

So in some cases the government enables incumbent producers like limousine companies to engage in collusive behavior and fix high prices, and in other cases it brings charges against book publishers for collusive behavior and fixing high prices, and in other cases it might find retailers like Safeway guilty of  charging low prices and force them to charge higher prices?  Welcome to the wacky world of antitrust. 

Cartoon of the Day

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Youngstown, OH: America's Next Boom Town?

North Dakota Sets New Records in February for Both Crude Oil Production and Oil Employment

The "Economic Miracle State" of North Dakota pumped another record amount of oil during the month of February at a daily rate of 558,255 barrels, which was an increase of 2.24% and 12,000 barrels per day compared to January, and was 60% above the output level from a year earlier (see top chart above). The new record-setting production in recent months has moved the Peace Garden state ahead of California to become the nation’s No. 3 oil-producing state, behind only Texas and Alaska. If North Dakota continues to increase monthly output at the current rate, it could soon surpass Alaska to become the No. 2 oil-producing state.

As a result of the ongoing oil boom in the Bakken area, North Dakota continues to lead the nation with the lowest state unemployment rate at 3.1% for February, more than five percent below the national average of 8.2% for February. There were 13 North Dakota counties with jobless rates at or below 3% for February, and Williams County, which is at the center of the Bakken oil boom, boasts the lowest county jobless rate in the country at just 0.9%.  The exponential growth in North Dakota oil production has fueled exponential growth in the state's "Natural Resources and Mining" employment, which has tripled in less than three years, and surpassed 20,000 for the first time in February.  

Bottom Line: The ongoing record-setting oil production in North Dakota continues to make it the most economically successful state in the country, with record levels of employment and income growth, a labor shortage, increasing tax revenues, the lowest foreclosure rate in the country, a strong real estate market, and jobless rates in many counties of the Bakken region below 3%.

Update: According to the Conference Board, there were fewer unemployed workers (12,060) in North Dakota in February than advertised online jobs (13,700), for a Supply/Demand ratio of only 0.88. Nationally, there were 12.806 million unemployed workers and 4.42 million advertised openings for a Supply/Demand ratio of 2.91.

The Most Visited Libertarian Websites

Rankings here from the Capital Free Press, blog post here introducing the rankings.  Carpe Diem ranks #25 out of 114.

Test Your News IQ with the Pew Research Quiz

Test your knowledge of the major political parties by taking the Pew Research Center's short 13-question quiz. Then see how you did in comparison with 1,000 randomly sampled adults asked the same questions in a national survey conducted Mar. 29-Apr. 1.

Free Health Care at Sam's Club

Sam's Club -- "To help communities get smart about brain health, Sam’s Club is providing free health screenings at all Sam’s Club locations with a pharmacy, Saturday, April 14 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for members and the public. The free brain health screenings include a memory test with educational materials on Alzheimer’s and dementia provided by the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, glucose, body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure tests, typically valued up to $100."

Inflation-Adjusted Natural Gas Futures Prices Fall Today to Lowest Since 1994, Maybe Lowest Ever

Natural gas futures prices fell below $2 per million BTUs today for the first time since January 2002.  On an inflation-adjusted basis, that's the lowest price for natural gas futures in at least 18 years, going back to the beginning of data series available from the EIA starting in 1994 (see chart above).  

Wednesday Morning Links

1. Healthy polar bear count in northern Canada confounds the doomsayers.  There are 66% more bears than previous estimates, maybe more, and the population is growing, not declining.

2. Award-Winning Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez's Acclaimed Blog (Generation Y, which gets 14 million hits per month) Turns 5 Years Old. Congratulations Yoani!

3.  Study finds that nearly two-thirds of hybrid owners would not purchase another hybrid vehicle when it's time to trade in.   

4. Interactive Table: Average College Faculty Salaries, 2011–12 The Chronicle of Higher Education.

5.  The Williamsport (PA) Chamber of Commerce president said he never has seen an economic boom such as the one creating lines at local restaurants, no vacancies at area hotels and a general optimism among many capitalizing on the area’s expanding gas and oil industry. In the past three years, about 115 new businesses began operating in the area, including hotels, office buildings and restaurants, and about 2,000 people have been hired. 

6. Natural Gas Sparks a Manufacturing Renaissance:  "The rapid development of shale gas technology has helped reduce energy imports and, in some cases, encouraged companies producing petrochemicals, steel, fertilizers and other products to return to the United States after relocating overseas."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Mythology of Diversity and Mismatch Effect

UCLA Law Professor Rick Sander guest-blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy and quoted at Mind the Campus:
"Colleges and universities are committed to the mythology that diversity happens merely because they want it and put resources into it, and that all admitted students arrive with all the prerequisites necessary to flourish in any way they choose. Administrators work hard to conceal the actual differences in academic preparation that almost invariably accompany the aggressive use of preferences [the "mismatch effect"]. 

Any research that documents the operation and effects of affirmative action therefore violates this "color-blind" mythology and accompanying norms; minority students are upset, correctly realizing that either the research is wrong or that administrators have misled them. In this scenario, administrators invariably resort to the same strategy: dismiss the research without actually lying about it; reassure the students that the researchers are misguided, but that the university can't actually punish the researchers because of "academic freedom"--with the invocation of "academic freedom" becoming "a device to protect the administration."

KC Johnson at "Minding the Campus" comments:

"Sander's scholarly contributions to the issue of racial preferences came through his work on the mismatch effect in law schools--that is, the situation of "students receiving large preferences (for whatever reason) were likely to find themselves in academic environments where they had to struggle just to keep up; professor instruction would typically be aimed at the 'median' student, so students with weaker academic preparation would tend to fall behind, and, even if they did not become discouraged and give up, would tend to learn less than they would have learned in an environment where their level of academic preparation was closer to the class median."

The failure of this [affirmative action] strategy may very well backfire when the Supreme Court considers the Fisher case. The justices will be presented with several years' worth of well-researched, richly-documented studies explicating the mismatch effect--with little or nothing from the other side of the matter beyond thinly-concealed allegations of racism. Will this approach be enough to persuade Justice Kennedy to uphold the continuing use of racial preferences?"

North Dakota Now Produces More Oil Than Crude Imports from Nigeria and Colombia for First Time

The EIA reported today that:

"The trend of declining crude oil imports into the United States continued in the first month of 2012. There has been a particularly sharp decline in imports from Nigeria due to the idling in late 2011 of two refineries on the East Coast, which were significant buyers of Nigerian crude, and reduced imports by refiners on the Gulf Coast. Prior to the idling of the refineries, Nigeria typically accounted for about 10% of the crude oil imported into the United States; in January, that share dropped to about 5%.

In January 2012, imports from Nigeria totaled just 449 thousand barrels per day (bbl/d), a 54% decrease from January 2011, marking the lowest monthly import total from the country since 2002. One third of this decline was the result of two idled Philadelphia-area refineries. ConocoPhillips' Trainer refinery (idled in September 2011) and Sunoco's Marcus Hook refinery (idled in December 2011) imported a combined 173 thousand bbl/d of Nigerian crude in January 2011. Most of the remaining decrease in Nigerian imports was the result of several Gulf Coast refiners reducing Nigerian imports in favor of domestically-produced crude."

MP: The chart above shows that domestic production in just the one state of North Dakota (546,000 barrels per day in January, with production for February and March estimated) now exceeds imports from Nigeria for the first time.  Further, EIA crude oil import data show that North Dakota has been consistently producing more oil than imports from Colombia in every month since last June (468,000 bbl/d average in 2012).   

Robot Leaps Building in A Single Bound

Temporary Employment Hiring is Improving

The American Staffing Association reported today that its weekly Staffing Index of temporary and contract employment increased to a year-to-date high of 90 for the week ending April 1, which was almost 6% above the year-ago level and 0.74% above the previous week. For Week 14, it was the highest reading since 2008 (see top chart above), and just slightly below the 91 index level for the comparable week in 2007.

The bottom chart shows the monthly measure of Temporary Help Services employees from the BLS, and the 2.48 million temporary employees in March of this year was the highest since February 2008, although it fell slightly from 2.487 million in February.   

As a leading indicator of future, broader-based labor demand, the upward trend in the ASA Staffing Index this year, and the upward trend in temporary employment for the last two years would suggest that conditions in the labor market will continue to improve going forward.

Energy Boom Comes to Appalachia Ohio

Appalachia has been the "forgotten part of Ohio for the last 50 years," explains Glenn Enslen, Carroll County’s economic development director, in the video above, "but now we're at the forefront of economic development in the state of Ohio." 

Reason? A huge boom has just started for oil and gas development in the Utica Shale area of east-central Ohio. There are thousands of new jobs being created in and around Carroll County, the local Days Inn hotel is booked for the next three years, local landowners and residents are receiving bonus and royalty checks from oil and gas companies, and the local Chevy dealer has seen a huge increase in sales. And it's just getting started. 

HT: Energy Tomorrow via Robert Kuehl

Monday, April 09, 2012

That Hissing Sound? Textbook Bubble Is Deflating

Can $220 textbooks survive?
Is this really a sustainable model where a concentrated group of textbook publishers charge students more than $1,000 per semester for traditional college textbooks (assuming 5 books @ $200 like Mankiw's "Principles of Economics" above at $220) when comparable textbooks are now available "for free" from Flat World Knowledge?  One example is "Principles of Economics, " by Libby Rittenberg and Timothy Tregarthen, which is currently in use at 120 colleges including University of Florida, San Diego State, New Mexico State, St. Louis University, Penn State, etc.

Actually it's only the online version that's totally free, the other options are $35 for a printed black and white version, $90 for full color version, a print-it-yourself version for $25, and the e-book version for $25.  Students can also purchase individual chapters at a reduced cost.

According to the Wikipedia entry for Flat World Knowledge, 2,000 colleges and 300,000 students have used its textbooks.

Bottom Line: It's hard to see how the traditional cartel-style textbook model can survive, and that giant hissing sound you might be hearing is the "college textbook bubble" starting to deflate.....  After all, the U.S. textbook bubble makes the U.S. housing bubble seem almost insignificant by comparison, see the chart below:

HT: Sy Banerjee

Monday Energy Links

1. Kansas Prepares for Gold-Rush Style Oil Boom. "It will enrich the area in a way it never has before economically," says independent oilman Robert Murdock. "It is going to change things forever in this part of the world."

2. "If the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale formation proves to be a honey hole for oil and gas companies, then southwest Mississippi could see a boost in business and an influx of oil workers and residents with new disposable income.  Britt Herrin, executive director of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development District, points to hundreds of new jobs and customers for existing businesses seen in communities in and around the Eagle Ford oil formation in Texas."

 3. "The combined forces of high oil prices and improved drilling technology have produced a gush of unexpected tax dollars from oil and gas wells across Texas. Six months into the state's budget year, taxes paid on natural gas production are up 73% over the same period last year, while revenue from the oil production tax is up 49%. 

Together, oil and gas taxes so far have brought in a total of $1.8 billion. That amounts to $684 million more than in the first half of last year, which was a blockbuster year in itself with $2.6 billion in oil and gas tax revenues. And the state's most important source of revenue — sales tax collections — has been far exceeding projections, due in part to oil and gas companies' heavy spending on equipment, supplies and services needed to drill new wells."

VIDEO: Why We Need Voter-ID Laws

Polling station in DC would have allowed an imposter to vote as "Eric Holder."

From John Fund's NRO column "Why We Need Voter-ID Laws Now":

"Average voters understand that it’s only common sense to require ID because of how easy it is for people to pretend they are someone else.

In the video above, filmmaker James O’Keefe demonstrated just how easy it is on Tuesday when he dispatched an assistant to the Nebraska Avenue polling place in Washington where Attorney General Holder has been registered for the last 29 years. In Washington, it was child’s play for O’Keefe to beat the system. O’Keefe’s assistant used a hidden camera to document his encounter with the election worker at Holder’s polling place. 

Note that O’Keefe’s assistant never identified himself as Eric Holder, so he was not illegally impersonating him. Nor did he attempt to vote using the ballot that was offered him, or even to accept it." 

HT: Morgan Frank

Caterpillar: Poster Child for the U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance: Record Order Backlog of $30 Billion

Reuters - "It hasn't been long since Caterpillar Inc looked like the typical resident of the Rust Belt. Having misjudged how deep the U.S. economy would decline, the world's largest maker of construction machinery reduced its workforce by 33,000 people worldwide in 2009, closed plants and posted lower profits.  But the Peoria, Illinois-based company has mounted a quick recovery and is emerging as the poster child for America's manufacturing renaissance.

In 24 months, 15 Caterpillar facilities have been built or updated in the U.S., tens of thousands of workers have been added to the payroll and $2 billion is committed for capital investments on its home soil this year.

"We haven't seen Caterpillar doing this much building in the United States since probably the 1960s," said Peter Holt, owner of the Holt Caterpillar dealership in San Antonio. Caterpillar is building a $200 million plant two hours southeast of his store, in Victoria, Texas, that is slated to start churning out badly needed excavators later this summer.

Underpinning Caterpillar's U.S. momentum is a flood of demand by heavy equipment users in America - ranging from construction companies to oil drillers to cement producers - who are looking to replace aging machines now that the economy is improving and credit is easier to obtain.

While the company has expanded quickly in emerging markets and new sectors, including mining and railroads, much of its confidence hinges on its faith in a gradually improving U.S. economy.

"We came out of the recession much stronger and faster than expected," Caterpillar Chief Executive Doug Oberhelman said in a company report in March. "I'm not one for passing up sales, so we really had to ramp up production quickly."  Key to this optimism is Caterpillar's record order backlog of $30 billion, three times higher than it was in 2009. Some customers will not get trucks they have ordered until as late as 2014."

Related: See CD post below on Midwest manufacturing.  

John Taylor: Trust in The Power of the Market

Stanford Professor John Taylor discusses the "Power of the Market" on CNBC based on his book "First Principles: Five Keys to Restoring America's Prosperity." 

HT: Warren Smith

Chicago Fed: Midwest Manufacturing Is Booming

The ChicagoFederal Reserve reported today that its Midwest Manufacturing Index increased 1.0% in February, to a three and-a-half year high of 90.1 (2007 = 100), following a revised 2.1% monthly gain in January. Here are some highlights of manufacturing activity in the 7th Federal Reserve district covering Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin:

1. Manufacturing output in the Midwest region rose 10.1% from a year earlier in February, almost twice the 4.7% increase in national manufacturing output over the same period (see chart).
2. Regional machinery output in February gained 10.9% from its year-earlier level, compared to a 4.8% increase in machinery output at the national level. 

3. Regional steel output improved 13.9% from its February 2010 level, compared to an 9.8% increase in national steel output over that period.

4. The Midwest’s automotive output increased 18.7% in February from its year-ago level, compared to a 12.9% gain in national automotive output. 

MP: The manufacturing sector of the economy grew at 4.6% last year, or more than twice the 1.7% growth in real GDP, so it's clear that American manufacturing is at the forefront of the economic recovery as has been frequently reported here and elsewhere.  And given the growth in Midwest manufacturing activity over the last year (+10.1%) compared to output at the national level (4.8%) as reported today by the Chicago Fed, I think we can say that it's "Midwest manufacturing" that is at the forefront of the economic recovery.  The Rust Belt and its traditional industries like machinery, steel and motor vehicles are coming back. 

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Markets in Everything: Mobile Hangover Treatment

From the HangoverHeaven.com website, based in Las Vegas:

"Hangover Heaven is a revolutionary new treatment that can cure your hangover in less than 45 minutes. Hangover Heaven involves placing a small IV in your arm to give you the necessary treatment to continue the party or just get back to your normal self. We use small Pediatric IVs and numbing medicine to make the process very comfortable.

We continuously make loops up and down the Las Vegas Strip. Most of the larger casinos have a “Tour Bus” pick up area, that’s where you’ll want to crawl and wait for us to pick you up. All of the casinos have this area pretty well marked–if your eyes are too blurry to read signs, ask the concierge or just some person walking by. We have faith in you. Below is a list of casinos with Tour Bus pick up areas and those where we can pick you up at the main entrance.

Once on the bus, our physician will take a brief medical history, and assess your hangover severity score. Then, numbing medicine is applied to your skin and a small IV will then be placed. Most people find it completely painless. Then you start receiving the treatment."

HT: Drudge with this link

Corporate Profits Reached Record High in 2011

WSJ -- "Big U.S. companies have emerged from the deepest recession since World War II more productive, more profitable, flush with cash and less burdened by debt. An analysis by The Wall Street Journal of corporate financial reports finds that cumulative sales, profits and employment last year among members of the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index exceeded the totals of 2007, before the recession and financial crisis.

Deep cost cutting during the downturn and caution during the recovery put the companies on firmer financial footing, helping them to outperform the rest of the economy and gather a greater share of the nation's income. The rebound is reflected in the stock market, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average at a four-year high. "U.S. companies became leaner, meaner and hungrier," said Sung Won Sohn, a former chief economist at Wells Fargo WFC."

MP: The chart above shows after-tax corporate profits for U.S. corporations as a whole, which set a new record high in 2011 of more than $1.5 trillion, and were 20.5% above the pre-recession peak of $1.26 trillion in 2006 (adjusted for inflation).  While the weakness in the labor market continues to receive media attention, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that U.S. corporations have never been more profitable.  

Measured by real GDP, output is just now barely above pre-recession levels, and measured by employment, the economy is still five million jobs below December 2007.  Measured by corporate profits, the economy has made a strong and complete recovery and is now above pre-recession levels by more than 20%.

Markets in Everything: 3D Chocolate Printer

BBC News -- "The UK scientists who developed a prototype chocolate printer last year say they have now perfected it. They hope to have the machine on sale at the end of April - just missing the Easter egg rush. It would allow chocolate lovers to print their own custom-made sweets, layer by layer.

Lead scientist Dr Liang Hao, from the University of Exeter, founded the Choc Edge company to commercialize the device after interest from retailers. 3D printing using plastic, wood and metal is already widely used by industry to create objects ranging from jewellery and footwear to human bones."

Sunday Morning Links

1. 50 Amazing Numbers About Today's Economy.

2.  How A Dumb Federal Law Blocks A Great Way To Fuel America with Ethanol from Natural Gas and Coal, Instead of Corn 

3. Oil Boom Fuels Population Boom in North Dakota City: The fastest-growing small city in the U.S. is Williston, North Dakota.

4. Bill Gates funds new machine that filters toilet waste into 'drinkable' water.

5. President Obama Claims: “Google, Facebook Would Not Exist” Were It Not For Government Spending.

6. Interesting article: "The Price of Nails" back to 1700.....

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Fuel Economy Index for New Cars Sets Record

Wards Auto -- "U.S. new light vehicles achieved record fuel-efficiency for the third month in a row in March, according to the WardsAuto Fuel-Economy Index (see chart above).  Cars and light trucks sold in the month had a combined 24.1 mpg rating, a 1% improvement on the previous record set in February. It was the first time the index has risen above 24 mpg.

The new benchmark represents a 15% increase in fuel efficiency over the index’s base rating of 20.9 mpg, established in fourth-quarter 2007. March light vehicle sales signified a continued movement toward smaller fuel-efficient vehicles that dominated the first quarter.

Car companies have rolled out an increasingly large selection of small and midsize vehicles, including a growing number of hybrid and alternate-power vehicles that provide consumers interested in fuel economy greater choice than ever. Indeed, vehicles rated higher than 30 mpg on the index accounted for 11.8% of sales in March, up from 4.3% year-ago. The 270% increase was made possible, in part, by the increasing number of vehicles available in that category."

MP: Every time I think I'm aware of all of the economic indexes available, I find a new one like this. 

Perhaps this is a consumer response to higher gasoline prices?  Replacing a used vehicle getting 20 mpg with a new vehicle getting 24 mpg would completely offset an increase in the price of gas going from $3.33 per gallon to $4 per gallon, on an annual basis. 

More on the Great American Manufacturing Renaissance: And It's Just Getting Started

Off a Cliff: Falling natural gas prices are making U.S. manufacturers more competitive.

From today's WSJ article "The Great Reversal: Playing the U.S. Manufacturing Boom":

"Investors who have favored emerging markets like China in recent years should pay attention to another growing manufacturing center. It boasts plenty of skilled workers; cheap and abundant energy; stable institutions; and a large middle class that likes to shop. It is the U.S., where a long industrial decline might be in reverse.

In March, manufacturing expanded for the 32nd straight month, and contributed 37,000 of the 120,000 U.S. jobs added, the government reported (see related CD post). That's partly because of the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession. But the economy is also changing.

Three trends suggest America's "manufacturing renaissance" is just getting started, says Neil Dutta, U.S. economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

1. The cost advantages of outsourcing factory work are narrowing. Emerging market wages, while still much lower than U.S. wages, are rising, and high oil prices have made shipping more expensive. That is expanding the range of goods U.S. factories can produce at competitive prices (think sophisticated machines, not toys).

2. A weakening dollar makes U.S. goods more attractive to foreign buyers. The dollar has fallen by nearly one-third over the past decade against a basket of currencies including the euro, British pound and yen.

3. Energy production is booming in the U.S., and domestic natural-gas prices have recently plunged. That gives an edge to U.S. producers of fabricated steel, transportation equipment, machinery and chemicals, which use natural gas extensively, according to a recent report from Citigroup."

HT: Robert Kuehl

Spot Natural Gas Prices Fall Below $2, Might Be Lowest Inflation-Adjusted Price in U.S. History?

The spot price of natural gas fell below $2 per million BTUs this week, reaching lows not seen since 2001 in nominal terms (see chart above, data here).  When adjusted for inflation, the $1.88 spot price on Monday could likely have established a new all-time record low for natural gas (EIA data only go back to 1997).  Some industry analysts expect prices to fall even lower in the coming months, due to the strong supplies and weak weather-related demand, possibly as low as $1?

Friday, April 06, 2012

Markets in Everything: Market-Based, Deeply-Discounted Surgery for Cash, Payable in Advance

Here's something rarely seen in U.S. health care - an actual, transparent price list for medical procedures: 
 Knee $3,740
 Knee with lateral release or microfracture $4,510
 Shoulder $5,720
 Elbow $3,740
 Wrist $3,740
 Hip $5,225
 Ankle $3,740
 Anterior cruciate ligament repair $7,040
 Posterior cruciate ligament repair $7,040
 Medial Collateral Ligament $6,160
 Tibial Tubercle Osteotomy $6,160
 Open Rotator Cuff Repair $6,160
 Bankhart Stabilization $6,160
 Distal Clavicle Excision $4,730
 Ulnar Nerve Trasposition / Epicondylectomy $4,510
 Carpal Tunnel Release $2,750
 Dupuytrens Contracture $2,915
 Trigger Finger $2,750
 Ganglion Excision $2,750
 Achilles Repair $5,830
 Bunion $4,125
 Hammertoe (1) $2,475
 Hammertoe (2) $2,860
 Hammertoe (3) $3,355
 Gastrocnemius Recession $4,180
 Plantar Fasciotomy $3,080
 Neuroma Excision $2,750
 Closed Reduction and Casting $1,925
 Percutaneous Pinning - finger 1-2 pins $2,805
 Inguinal $2,860
 Bilateral $4,275
 Umbilical $3,190
 Incisional $4,075
 Cholecystectomy $5,665

"The Surgery Center of Oklahoma is a 32,535 square foot, state-of-the-art multispecialty facility in Oklahoma City, owned and operated by approximately 40 of the top surgeons and anesthesiologists in central Oklahoma. The facility has been accredited by the AAAHC since 1998 without interruption and has annually provided care to thousands of patients. If you have a high deductible or are part of a self-insured plan at a large company, you owe it to yourself or your business to take a look at our facility and pricing which is listed on this site. If you are considering a trip to a foreign country to have your surgery, you should look here first. Finally, if you have no insurance at all, this facility will provide quality and pricing that we believe are unmatched."
From the FAQ section:

"To keep our prices as low as possible, cashier's checks or cash are the methods preferred. Credit cards and personal checks cannot be accepted. Human resource departments or divisions of self-insured companies can make other arrangements if necessary.

Payment in full is required at the time service is rendered. No payment arrangements can be made. These deeply-discounted prices are otherwise not available."

HT: Paul Harris

In Celebration of the Speculators, Who Bless Society With Significant Benefits

1. "Nothing sparks spasms of poor economic commentary like rising oil prices. From left to right, pundits and politicians outdo each other at accusing evildoers of hurting good people. This week, a Democratic congressional committee held a hearing on the issue of high gas prices and excessive oil speculation.

Speculators are easy targets. They seem to produce nothing. They merely buy and sell and hope for prices to move in directions that will bless them with big profits. In fact, though, speculators also bless the rest of us with significant benefits -- although too few Americans understand this truth.

Speculators should be celebrated -- not so much for their motives (which are no better or worse than normal) but for the socially beneficial, if largely invisible, consequences of their activities. Speculation makes resources more abundant when there is great scarcity by encouraging people to use those resources more sparingly when there is relative abundance."

~Don Boudreaux in Newsday

2.  "Speculators anticipate shortages and buy up commodities early, thereby removing them from the market. This alerts consumers to the oncoming shortage, fulfilling the important financial market role of providing information and allowing them to reduce consumption as prices rise. Later, the speculator sells, ameliorating the shortage while making a profit.

Speculators anticipate and warn others about shortages—they do not cause shortages. As a result of their trades, price swings are less severe than they otherwise would have been. We do not blame doctors, police, or firemen for profiting from the misfortune of others because it is understood that they help a bad situation. Speculators deserve the same consideration."

3. "People who argue that speculation is destabilizing seldom realize that this is largely equivalent to saying that speculators lose money, since speculation can be destabilizing in general only if speculators on the average sell when the currency (commodity) is low in price and buy when it is high."

~Milton Friedman, Essays in Positive Economics (p. 175)

MP: In other words, speculators who continually lose money by buying high and selling low (which would increase volatility and be destabilizing) will be forced to leave the market eventually, and only rational speculators – those who will actually help to stabilize prices – will survive.

Strong Gains in Manufacturing Jobs Continue

Here are some highlights from today's BLS employment release:

1. Manufacturing employment increased by 37,000 in March, following gains of 31,000 in February and 52,200 in January, for a first quarter factory job gain of 120,000.  That's the largest first quarter increase in manufacturing jobs in 28 years, going all the way back to 1984.

2. The 37,000 gain in March factory jobs represented almost one out of every three of the total 120,000 payroll jobs added last month.

3. The jobless rate for the manufacturing sector fell from 8.4% in February to 7.6% in March (not seasonally adjusted - NSA), which was the lowest rate since November 2008, and marked the tenth straight month that the manufacturing jobless rate was below the national average (8.4% in March, NSA).

4. Average weekly overtime for manufacturing edged up to 4.3 hours in March, which was the highest weekly overtime since March 2007. 

MP: The chart above displays the percentage employment gains since January 2010 for: a) manufacturing and b) total payroll employment, showing the 4.03% increase in factory jobs compared to the 2.71% increase in overall payrolls.  American manufacturing has made a strong comeback over the last several years, which has increased factory employment by 462,000 since 2010, and has brought the once-dismissed industrial sector to the forefront of the economic expansion.

According to a recent Merrill-Lynch research report "An Industrial Revolution":

"We think that the manufacturing sector represents an important growth driver for the U.S. economy – generating more economic activity than any other business sector. In our view, the U.S. economy is in the early stages of a long term manufacturing renaissance. Manufacturers are increasingly likely to bring at least some production back to the U.S. while established players reinvest for further productive capacity and productivity improvements over the coming years."

In its March 27 report, Merrill-Lynch lists 68 new major industrial investment projects totaling more than $200 billion that have been announced or started just since 2011 in a wide variety of manufacturing industries like petrochemicals, chemicals, steel, refining, autos, heavy equipment, aerospace, plastics and ethylene.  

Welcome to America's manufacturing renaissance. 

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Markets in Everything: Bully Prevention Guru

Yahoo News -- "A former tattoo artist who legally changed his name to The Scary Guy is using his persona—and frightening facial ink—to teach schoolkids to stop bullying. Scary, a Minnesota man formerly known as Earl Kauffman, has become an in-demand "bully prevention guru." His mission, according to his website, is "The Total Elimination of Hate, Violence and Prejudice Worldwide." The 58-year-old changed his name in 1998, when 85 percent of his body was covered in tattoos, according to the Smoking Gun. According to CNN, which profiled Scary on Sunday (see video above), he charges as much as $6,500 for scholastic speaking engagements."

HT: Joe Lais

Jobless Claims Fall Close to a New Four-Year Low, ASA Staffing Index for Temporary Help Improves

Initial jobless claims (seasonally adjusted) fell to 357,000 for the week ending March 31, which was the lowest number since mid-April 2008, almost four years ago, according to today's Labor Department report.   The four-week moving average of weekly claims, which smooths out weekly volatility, fell to 361,750 - also falling to the lowest level since April 2008.  The ongoing declines in jobless claims suggest that the labor market is gradually stabilizing and improving. If the declines in claims continue at the current pace,  they'll reach pre-recession December 2007 levels sometime this summer.  

Further evidence of an improving labor market is provided by the ongoing gains in the weekly ASA Staffing Index, which measures hiring activity for temporary, contract and freelance staffing (see chart below, 2012 is the orange line).