Monday, May 18, 2009

Average Home Price in Detroit Falls to $11,533; Monthly House Payment Would Be Less Than $50

According to the Michigan Association of Realtors and Detroit Board of Realtors (data here), the average sales price of a Detroit home fell to $11,533 in April (Year-to-Date), a -43.8% decline from the $20,514 average home price during the same period last year (see chart above). 2009 year-to-date unit sales increased by 23.1% to 4,139 homes, compared to 3,360 Detroit homes sold last year over the same period. From the $97,850 peak Detroit home price in 2003, prices have fallen by an amazing 88%.

With a 20% down payment on a $11,533 average priced home in Detroit, the monthly payments on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 5% would be only $49.53.

For the entire state of Michigan, the average YTD home sales price has fallen by -28% to $87,033 through April 2009, compared to last year's average price of $120,481 for the same period.

Camera Phones to Interpret Visible World for Blind

iVisit, a company out of Santa Monica, California that specializes in video teleconferencing applications, has teamed up with the National Institutes of Health to turn a mobile phone's camera into an eye for the blind. Using advanced image recognition software to identify what is in front of the phone, the system reads off what it is seeing.

Watch this demo video below of the software in action:


Volatility Index Falls To A Level Suggesting "Market Correction is Complete, Back to Business As Usual"

The CBOE Volatility Index closed today at just barely above 30 (30.24), falling almost 3 points from Friday's close of 33.12, and is now more than 50 points below the November highs that were above 80.

According to Yale Professor Ian Ayres at the Freakonomics Blog on December 24, 2008: "When it (the VIX) drops below 30%, it will be a strong indication that the market correction is complete and we’re back to business as usual."

Exhibit A: Tax The Rich, Lose The Rich

BUFFALO NEWS -- Ending any speculation about another possible run for governor, Rochester businessman and Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano said Thursday he will be moving his legal residence to Florida to escape New York state taxes.

Golisano told a gathering of Rochester business executives that he will remain as owner of the Buffalo hockey team, but he is fleeing the Empire State to avoid paying $13,000 a day in state income taxes (MP: Almost $5 million per year).

The billionaire earlier this year told The Buffalo News that the only thing keeping him in New York was his family. “The only reason I’m staying in this state is I have family here. Economically, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said in February.

But since then, Gov. David A. Paterson and lawmakers approved a state budget that will raise $4 billion in new income taxes this year on wealthier residents. In Golisano’s case —and anyone else making more than $500,000 this year — he is seeing his state tax rate go from 6.85% to 8.97%.

HT: R. Adams

Tax The Rich, Lose The Rich

Here's the problem for states that want to pry more money out of the wallets of rich people. It never works because people, investment capital and businesses are mobile: They can leave tax-unfriendly states and move to tax-friendly states.

Updating some research from Richard Vedder of Ohio University, we found that from 1998 to 2007, more than 1,100 people every day including Sundays and holidays moved from the nine highest income-tax states such as California, New Jersey, New York and Ohio and relocated mostly to the nine tax-haven states with no income tax, including Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire and Texas. We also found that over these same years the no-income tax states created 89% more jobs and had 32% faster personal income growth than their high-tax counterparts.

We believe there are three unintended consequences from states raising tax rates on the rich. First, some rich residents sell their homes and leave the state; second, those who stay in the state report less taxable income on their tax returns; and third, some rich people choose not to locate in a high-tax state. Since many rich people also tend to be successful business owners, jobs leave with them or they never arrive in the first place. This is why high income-tax states have such a tough time creating net new jobs for low-income residents and college graduates.

~Art Laffer and Stephen Moore in today's WSJ

Bottom Line: If you tax something, you get less of it. Is that so hard to understand?

Plagiarism Update

Plagiarism update, following this CD post.

1. NY Time’s Maureen Dowd Caught Plagiarizing

2. It is common online behavior to copy and paste content off a website. Right or wrong, it happens,
but now with Tracer (available free in Beta from Tynt), you can watch each instance and begin to learn what people are most interested in. Each time a user pastes content from your website into an email, blog or website , we automatically add a URL link back to your site’s original content. This ensures you get credit for content that you have created. You can’t stop users from copying off your site but you can make the pasted content your virtual ambassador!

Read more: "Tynt Tracer » Take Credit" -

(Note: Since I copied and pasted the text above from the Tynt website, it automatically added the reference and link above. And when you go to that link, it highlights in yellow the text that was copied.)

HTs: Suzanne Perry (1) and David Damore (2).

Markets in Everything: Dynamic Pricing for Baseball

Baseball Tickets Too Much? Check Back Tomorrow

Because baseball teams set their prices months before opening day and resist changing them later, they have trouble reacting to the unexpected, like the weather, winning and losing teams or, this year, the ferocity of an economic downturn.

The San Francisco Giants are experimenting with a possible solution — software that weighs ticket sales data, weather forecasts, upcoming pitching matchups and other variables to help decide whether the team should raise or lower prices right up until game day. The Giants are the first major league team to test the software, which some industry analysts say could transform the way teams adjust to the ebb and flow of the season, not unlike how airlines, hotels and rental car companies — which also use dynamic pricing — adjust to changes in the travel industry.

NY Times

The Communists Are Out, India's Market Soars

MUMBAI, India (AP)India's stock market surged an unprecedented 17%, forcing trade to close for the day, after the Congress Party's definitive victory in national elections set the scene for long-delayed economic reforms. Within seconds of trading, the Bombay Stock Exchange's benchmark Sensex vaulted 2,110.79 points, or 17.3%, to 14,284.21, triggering the historic shutdown Monday (see chart above). Infrastructure, banking and real estate companies led gains.

Putting to rest fears of an unwieldy coalition, the victory raised hopes of a revival in foreign direct investment and economic growth, as well as tax reform and significant infrastructure spending. The near collapse of India's once powerful communist parties — which lost more than half their parliamentary seats — paves the way for long-awaited economic reforms, many of which the Left had blocked over the last five years.

The Congress party now has more room to ease restrictions on foreign investment in insurance, retailing and banking. The government may also sell some of its stakes in state-run oil, banking, and fertilizer companies. The nation's pension regulator could get proper legal standing, which would encourage greater investment. And some steps might be taken to loosen hidebound labor laws, like allowing contract labor, analysts and business groups say.

Citigroup economist Rohini Malkani said the result would likely revive India's investment growth, which was a key driver of the nation's four-year boom that's now waning in the face of the global slump.

MP: The BSE reached an 8-month high, the highest level since Sept. 11, 2008, and is up by almost 50% from the early March bottom.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

According to OECD, US GDP Fell By -1.6% in Q1

Bureau of Economic Analysis -- Real GDP -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the U.S. -- decreased at an annual rate of 6.1% in the first quarter of 2009, (that is, from the fourth quarter to the first quarter), according to advance estimates released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the fourth quarter, real GDP decreased 6.3%.

The Times of London -- The eurozone economy slumped by a record 2.5% in the first three months of the year, dragged down by Germany, which recorded the biggest drop in its GDP in nearly 40 years. The German economy, the engine room of the 16-nation eurozone, contracted by 3.8% in the first quarter of the year, battered by the fall in demand for manufactured goods. The US economy shrank by 1.6% in the same period.

MP: Notice how real GDP growth gets reported differently in the U.S. than in Europe. In the U.S., the quarterly real GDP growth rates are annualized by multiplying the quarterly percent growth rate by four (-1.6% quarterly x 4 = -6.4%, difference from -6.3% above due to rounding). European countries and the OECD report quarterly growth rates for GDP from the previous quarter, without annualizing. According to the OECD (data here) and the news report above, U.S. real GDP fell by 1.6% in the first quarter of 2009, and that rate is stated as a quarterly rate, not an annual rate.

Stronger the Drug Laws, The Stronger the Drugs

Washington, D.C. -- Today, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released the latest analysis from the University of Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project, which revealed levels of THC - the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana - have reached the highest-ever levels since scientific analysis of the drug began in the late 1970s. According to the latest data on marijuana samples analyzed to date, the average amount of THC in seized samples has reached a new high of 10.1%. This compares to an average of just under 4% reported in 1983 and represents more than a doubling in the potency of the drug since that time.

According to data from the White House (
here and here), the graph below shows that the purity of powder cocaine more than doubled between the early 1980s and the 1990s and after.

MP: As a general economics principle, I think it would be safe to say that the stronger the drug laws, and the stronger the enforcement of drug laws, the stronger the drugs.

Exhibit A: The original drug of choice made from poppies in the 1800s was opium, but after it became illegal, the market for heroin was born, which is made from opium/morphine.

Exhibit B: During prohibition in the U.S. during the 1930s, most illegal "moonshine" was the strongest possible alcohol like "bathtub gin," etc. Nobody bothered making illegal beer or wine, everybody wanted the strongest, purest alcohol possible.

Exhibit C: Going from powder cocaine to crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s, to get more "bang for the buck."

Top graph HT: Pete Boettke

Next to Heroin & Cocaine, Tobacco Most Addictive

According to this chart, heroin is both the most addictive and most harmful drug. On the dependence scale, the three most addicting drugs are heroin (#1), cocaine (#2) and tobacco (#3).

Update: As Colin points out in the comments, tobacco is both more addictive and more harmful than cannabis, and yet tobacco is legal and marijuana is illegal?

Business Week: 5 Reasons Ethanol is a Major Scam

Where's the Logic?

1. The primary job of the EPA is to protect our environment. Yet using ethanol actually creates more smog than using regular gas, and the EPA's own attorneys had to admit that fact in a court case.

2. Independent studies on ethanol, such as those written by Tad Patzek of Berkeley and David Pimentel of Cornell, show that ethanol is a net energy loser. Other studies suggest there is a small net energy gain from it.

3. All fuels laced with ethanol reduce the vehicle's fuel efficiency, and the E85 blend drops gas mileage between 30% and 40%, depending on whether you use the EPA's fuel mileage standards or those of the Dept. of Energy.

4. Forget what biofuels have done to the price of foodstuffs worldwide over the past three years; the science seems to suggest that using ethanol increases global warming emissions over the use of straight gasoline. Just these issues should have kept ethanol from being brought back for its fourth run in American history.

5. Don't let anybody mislead you: The new push to get a 15% ethanol mandate out of Washington is simply to restore profitability to a failed industry. Only this time around those promoting more ethanol in our gas say there's no scientific proof that adding more ethanol will damage vehicles or small gas-powered engines. With that statement they've gone from shilling the public to outright falsehoods, because ethanol-laced gasoline is already destroying engines across the country in ever larger numbers.

~Ed Wallace writing in BusinessWeek

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Deregulated Markets Punish Greed, Gougers

Perhaps it would be restful to give moral reasoning a rest and give economic reasoning a chance. Until recently, many states regulated ticket "scalping" by limiting allowable markups of ticket prices or by outlawing secondary markets for some events. Most of these states have repealed or relaxed those laws, even though a 1997 New York Times editorial demanded more aggressive enforcement of anti-scalping laws lest the public be victimized by "price-gouging ticket agents."

Actually, would-be price gougers are at the mercy of a public armed with information, which is what markets generate and communicate. Greed is worse than a moral defect; it is a cause of foolish pricing. That is why markets know it when they see it. And when markets are allowed to operate, greed generates its own punishment.

~George Will's column today in the Washington Post, based on this study on ticket sales on Stubhub.

20 Reasons the Recession is All But Over in the UK

THE INDEPENDENT -- Green shoots of recovery are thriving in the UK. Record high-street sales and optimistic economic forecasts show the only way is up for a Britain battered by the global slowdown. Here are 20 reasons why the recession is all but over.

#18. The FTSE 100 share index rose by 9.5% in April. The actuarial firm Watson Wyatt said share prices had continued to improve since the end of last month (see chart above).

The Real Problem with Credit Cards: Cardholders

Credit-card companies, though, may not be the only ones we need to be protected from. Every penny of Americans' nearly $1 trillion in revolving debt started with someone — some individual person — whipping out a piece of plastic and making a decision to use it. We could consider that free will and just call it a day, but there's plenty of reason to believe the story isn't so simple. There are piles of evidence that people are bad decision makers when it comes to how they use credit cards. Even when presented with full and fair information, they often make decisions that are not in their own economic best interest — a reality only partly taken into account by the new rules and pending legislation.

~Time Magazine

US Financial Conditions Index Hits 8-Month High

The Bloomberg U.S. Financial Conditions Index "combines yield spreads and indices from the Money Markets, Equity Markets, and Bond Markets into a normalized index. The values of this index are z-scores, which represent the number of standard deviations that current financial conditions lie above or below the average of the 1992-June 2008 period."

MP: The chart above displays the Bloomberg U.S. Financial Conditions Index daily from May 1, 2007 to May 15, 2009, and shows that the index reached an 8-month high yesterday, the highest level since Sept. 12, 2008. Based on this measure, financial conditions in the U.S. were at their worst in October 2008, and have been improving for the last 7 months. Assuming that an index level of zero is considered "normal," it might still be some time before financial conditions fully recover, but there has been significant recovery going on for many months, and the index is headed in the right direction.

Thanks to UM-Flint student Josh Charchan for help retrieving the data.

Saving Rate Reaches 10 Year High. Good or Bad?

The personal saving rate for Americans reached a ten-year high of 4.2% in the first quarter of 2009, the highest level since 1998 (see chart above), according to the BEA (data here).

From the NY Times:

The economic downturn is forcing a return to a culture of thrift that many economists say could last well beyond the inevitable recovery. This is not because Americans have suddenly become more financially virtuous or have learned the error of their free-spending ways. Instead, these experts say, Americans may have no choice but to continue pinching pennies.

This shift back to thrift may seem to be a healthy change for a consumer class known for spending more than it earns, but there is a downside: American businesses have become so dependent on consumer spending that any pullback sends ripples through the economy.

Fearful of job losses and anxious over housing and stock declines, Americans are squirreling away more of their paychecks than they were before the recession. In the last year, the savings rate — the percentage of after-tax income that people do not spend — has risen to above 4%, from virtually zero.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Philly Fed Survey: Positive Growth To Return in Q3

The Philadelphia Federal Reserve released its Second Quarter 2009 Survey of Professional Forecasters today, and the consensus forecasts for quarterly real GDP through 2010:Q2 are displayed above. The consensus forecast is for negative output growth to continue in the second quarter (-1.5%) of 2009 before turning positive in Q3 (.40%) and Q4 (1.7%), continuing into 2010 with growth of 2.2% and 2.9% in the first two quarters (see chart above, actual GDP through 2009:Q1, forecast GDP from 2009:Q2 to 2009:Q2).

Norway's Economy is Booming

NY TIMES -- In the midst of the worst global downturn since the Depression, Norway’s economy grew last year by just under 3%. The government enjoys a budget surplus of 11% and its ledger is entirely free of debt. By comparison, the United States is expected to chalk up a fiscal deficit this year equal to 12.9% of its GDP and push its total debt to $11 trillion, or 65% of the size of its economy.

MP: Norway's current unemployment is only about 3% vs. 8.9% in the U.S., see chart above.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

April's $4.2 Trillion Increase in World Stock Market Value Is Largest Single Month Increase in History

The top chart above shows the world stock market capitalization based on data from the World Federation of Exchanges, in trillions of USDs, monthly from January 1996 to April 2009. The bottom chart shows the monthly change in world stock market value, measured in trillions of USDs. The $4.2 trillion increase in April's world stock market capitalization, from $29.8 trillion in March to $34 trillion in April is the largest single month increase in the history of the World Federation's data.

CA 1st-Time Home Buyer Affordability Surges in QI

LOS ANGELES (May 14) -- The percentage of households that could afford to buy an entry-level home in California stood at 69% in the first quarter of 2009, compared with 46% for the same period a year ago (see chart above), according to a report released today by the CALIFORNIA ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS (C.A.R.).

C.A.R.’s First Time Buyer Housing Affordability Index (FTB-HAI) measures the percentage of households that can afford to purchase an entry-level home in California. The Index is the most fundamental measure of housing well-being for first-time buyers in the state.

The minimum household income needed to purchase an entry-level home at $213,040 in California in the first quarter of 2009 was $38,090, based on an adjustable interest rate of 4.96% percent and assuming a 10% down payment. First-time buyers typically purchase a home equal to 85% of the prevailing median price. The monthly payment including taxes and insurance was $1,270 for the first quarter of 2009.

MP: From lows of 26% in both 2006:Q2 and 2007:Q2, the FTB-HAI has increased by 43 percent to 69% in the first quarter of 2009, the highest first-time buyer housing affordability in the history of the index. Stated differently, only about 1 in 4 California households could afford an entry-level home in 2007, and today almost 7 out of 10 households can afford an entry-level home.

Baltic Dry Index Jumps Another 100 Points Today

The Baltic Dry Index closed up higher today by 100 points, reaching a 7-month high of 2,432 (see chart above).

Ripped Off and Plagiarized in the Indian Press!!

From CD yesterday: The Baltic Dry Index (BDI) closed above 2300 for the first time since October 10, and reached a 7-month high today of 2332. Over the last ten days, the BDI has increased by 560 points (+32%), and over the last 25 days the index has increased by 869 points (+59%).

From Mandar Nimkar of the Economic Times of India today: The Baltic Dry Index (BDI) closed above 2300 for the first time since October 10, and reached a 7-month high on Wednesday of 2332. Over the last ten days, the BDI has increased by 560 points (32%), and over the last 25 days the index has increased by 869 points (59%).

Can you do that? Shouldn't you at least change it a little bit? I think the "copy and paste" feature for some writers (and students) is like "journalistic or academic crack cocaine" - easy, cheap, and instant results, i.e. irresistible and completely addicting.

Update: As misterjosh comments "India is outsourcing its reporting to low cost American college professor bloggers. I think we've come full circle."

564 Defunct U.S. Motor Vehicle Manufacturers

There's an interesting Wikipedia listing of the 564 "Defunct Motor Vehicle Manufacturers of the United States."

More than 500 American automobile manufacturers have failed, or were acquired, over the last 100 years for one reason or another, primarily due to the Schumpeterian forces of "creative destruction." As far I know, none of those 500 defunct auto manufacturers asked for, or was granted, government assistance, or received a government (aka taxpayer) bailout or loan. The now-defunct automakers (like Studebaker, see the 1953 Commander model pictured above) probably went through the bankruptcy and liquidation process like thousands of other firms that have not survived in hundreds of different industries over the last hundred years.

Q: Why should there now be an exception for GM, Ford or Chrysler to get a government/taxpayer bailout when none of the 564 defunct companies received similar taxpayer assistance?

Interactive Map of Job Losses

Click here to view an interactive map of job losses across the country, updated with the latest figures, from

Green Shoots or False Hope?

FINANCIAL TIMES -- Jean-Claude Trichet signalled on Monday that the global downturn had bottomed out with some large economies already able to put the recession behind them and look forward to renewed growth.

The European Central Bank president’s comments on Monday in Basel, Switzerland, had added weight because he was speaking on behalf of the world’s leading central bankers, not just for the eurozone.

Chart above (click to enlarge) shows OECD Composite Leading Indicators for China, France, UK and US.

Markets in Everything: Billion Dollar Notes

Zimbabwean notes for sale: $100 billion, $50 billion, $25 billion.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The DC School Voucher Rally



Computer Prices Have Fallen By 90% Over the Last Ten Years: Is That Evidence of Monopoly Power?

WASHINGTON POST -- The world's biggest semiconductor maker yesterday was fined a record $1.45 billion by European regulators for allegedly using its dominance to edge out rivals, a decision that has cast a spotlight on similar investigations by U.S. antitrust watchdogs.

After a five-year review of Intel's sales tactics, the European Union's competition commission said the company, with 70% share of the global chip market, gave hidden discounts to computer makers to use its chips and paid the firms not to use those made by competitor Advanced Micro Devices. It also paid a major retailer to stock only computers outfitted with Intel chips, the commission said.

According to
Dan Ackerman of CNET News, "Assuming Intel sells the Atom CPU (found in virtually every Netbook) to system makers for around $53, then it would only take 27,169,811 new Netbook sales to make up for the proposed fine."

MP: The chart above shows monthly "CPI for Personal Computers and Peripheral Equipment" back to January 1998 (
BLS data via Economagic here). Adjusting for quality improvements, computer equipment today costs only about 10% of what the same equipment cost in 1998. Consumers have never had it better when it comes to affordable computer equipment, so how can it be claimed that Intel is guilty of anti-competitive behavior that is damaging to consumers?

The true anti-competitive behavior of a coercive monopolist that should most concern government officials is when a producer (or group of producers, i.e. cartel like DeBeers or OPEC) restricts output and raises price. In the case of Intel, just the opposite has been happening: microchip output has been increasing, quality and speed have been improving significantly, and prices have been falling dramatically, and consumers have benefited enormously.

How can Intel be accused of anti-competitive behavior when it was giving "hidden discounts" to computer makers? A real anti-competitive monopolist, with true market power, possibly insulated from market competition (often because of a grant or license FROM the government), would be in a position to RAISE prices, not LOWER prices.

Unfortunately, in the bizarre world of anti-trust, ANY price can be illegal. The government could accuse a producer of anti-competitive, monopoly behavior when it charges prices that are "too high," i.e. higher than its competition, but it could also accuse a producer of anti-competitive behavior if its prices are "too low," i.e. "predatory." And if a producer happens to charge the same prices as its competitors, it could be charged with anti-competitive behavior of price-fixing or collusion. So producers, you better watch out - whether your prices are higher, lower or the same as your competitors, you could be accused of violating antitrust laws.

Baltic Dry Index Closes At 7-Month High

The Baltic Dry Index (BDI) closed above 2300 for the first time since October 10, and reached a 7-month high today of 2332. Over the last ten days, the BDI has increased by 560 points (+32%), and over the last 25 days the index has increased by 869 points (+59%). Here's one explanation from Investors Chronicle:

February to April saw the largest ever amount of iron imported by China, including more than 50 million tons in April alone. That has largely fuelled the rise in the BDI, with shippers reporting brisk activity on the Australia to China route. Chinese buying activity and evidence of large-scale restocking, is fuelled by a spot ore price that is at its lowest in four years: the latest CIF (cost, insurance and freight) price for iron ore is $80 per ton, down 40% compared with last year. According to Brazilian iron-ore producer Vale, contracts with medium-sized steel mills, presumably state-owned, were the driving force behind the pick-up in sales in the quarter.

Asian Economies Are Likely to Be First to Recover

South Korea’s exports rose by a seasonally adjusted annualised rate of 53% in the three months to April compared with the previous three months, Goldman Sachs estimates; Taiwan’s grew by an annualised 29% over the same period. China’s exports over the last few months have only managed to stabilise, but its industrial production jumped by an annualised 25% in the past three months.

Economists are revising up their forecasts for China’s GDP growth this year: 8% may now be possible even if American consumers continue to be frugal. There is a widely pedalled myth that China’s growth depends on American consumers. In fact, if measured on a value-added basis (to exclude the cost of imported components), China’s exports to America account for less than 5% of its GDP.

~The Economist article "Crouching Tigers: Asian Economies Are Likely To Be The First To Pull Out of the Global Recession"

Markets in Everything: Buy Black


Quotes of the Day

Thomas Sowell: After virtually every disaster created by Beltway politicians you can hear the sound of feet scurrying for cover in Washington, see fingers pointing in every direction away from Washington, and watch all sorts of scapegoats hauled up before Congressional committees to be denounced on television for the disasters created by members of the committee who are lecturing them.

Don't politicians ever learn? Why should they? What they have learned all too well is how easy it is to get credit for promoting home ownership and how easy it is to escape blame for the later foreclosures and other economic disasters that follow.

Walter Williams: One problem with the African-American label is not all people of African ancestry are dark. Whites are roughly 10% of Africa's population and include not only European settlers but Arabs and Berbers as well. So is an Afrikaner who becomes a U.S. citizen a part of United States' African-American population? Should census takers and affirmative action/diversity bean counters count Arabs, Berbers and Afrikaners who are U.S. citizens as African-Americans and should they be eligible for racial quotas in college admittance and employment?

John Stossel: Governments have repeatedly failed to save animals by banning their sale. They've failed with the Colobus monkey in West Africa, the alligator in China and now with the tiger in Asia.

How do we save them? Here's an idea. Let's sell them! And eat them! What has worked is letting people own and profit from the sale of exotic animals. It's worked with elephants in Zimbabwe, rhinos in southern Africa and the bison in America.

Markets in Everything: $2000 Bonus.... To Quit!

Every time my good friend Joe and I were talking about great companies to work for, we invariably talk about Zappos and its counterintuitive strategies: the company famously offers $2,000 to employees who have just completed its training course … to quit! Turns out they save money long-term on "weeding out" people that aren’t enthusiastic in working for them.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Portugal's Successful Drug Decriminalization

From the Cato study "Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies":

On July 1, 2001, a nationwide law in Portugal took effect that decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Under the new legal framework, all drugs were “decriminalized,” not “legalized.” Thus, drug possession for personal use and drug usage itself are still legally prohibited, but violations of those prohibitions are deemed to be exclusively administrative violations and are removed completely from the criminal realm. Drug trafficking continues to be prosecuted as a criminal offense.

None of the fears promulgated by opponents of Portuguese decriminalization has come to fruition, whereas many of the benefits predicted by drug policymakers from instituting a decriminalization regime have been realized. While drug addiction, usage, and associated pathologies continue to skyrocket in many EU states, those problems—in virtually every relevant category—have been either contained or measurably improved within Portugal since 2001. In certain key demographic segments, drug usage has decreased in absolute terms in the decriminalization framework, even as usage across the EU continues to increase, including in those states that continue to take the hardest line in criminalizing drug possession and usage.

By freeing its citizens from the fear of prosecution and imprisonment for drug usage, Portugal has dramatically improved its ability to encourage drug addicts to avail themselves of treatment. The resources that were previously devoted to prosecuting and imprisoning drug addicts are now available to provide treatment programs to addicts. Those developments, along with Portugal’s shift to a harm-reduction approach, have dramatically improved drugrelated social ills, including drug-caused mortalities and drug-related disease transmission. Ideally, treatment programs would be strictly voluntary, but Portugal’s program is certainly preferable to criminalization.

The Portuguese have seen the benefits of decriminalization, and therefore there is no serious political push in Portugal to return to a criminalization framework. Drug policymakers in the Portuguese government are virtually unanimous in their belief that decriminalization has enabled a far more effective approach to managing Portugal’s addiction problems and other drug-related afflictions. Since the available data demonstrate that they are right, the Portuguese model ought to be carefully considered by policymakers around the world.

The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success. Within this success lie self-evident lessons that should guide drug policy debates around the world.

The Fear Index (VIX) Falls to an 8-Month Low

The CBOE Volatility Index, also known as the "Fear Index," is a measure of the market's expectation of stock market volatility for the next 30-day period. Today the VIX fell by -3.26% and closed below the 32 level for the first time since September 16, 2008 (see chart above). Market volatility and the "fear index" are gradually subsiding and returning closer to normal levels.

UK Job Losses Reaching Bottom?

The Monster Employment Index UK increased by two percent in April. This was the second monthly rise in three months, suggesting that UK job demand may be starting to stabilise. Year-on-year, however, the Index was down 67 points, or 37 percent. The rise in April was driven by increased job opportunities in the healthcare, social work, education, training and library, management and consulting, and legal sectors. By contrast, hiring fell sharply for workers in construction and extraction, and HR.

Shortages and Stockpiling: Coins in Argentina, Diamonds ("Pieces of Carbon") in Russia

1. Where are Argentina's coins?

A serious shortage of coins in Argentina causes problems for consumers and merchants.
The coin scarcity has created a strange predicament: Merchants regularly refuse to sell their goods or services if it means they’ll have to give coins back as change. For small transactions, they’d rather lose the revenue than spare the change.

2. Russia Stockpiles Diamonds, Awaiting the Return of Demand

Russia quietly passed a milestone this year: surpassing De Beers as the world’s largest diamond producer. But the global market for diamonds is so dismal that the Alrosa diamond company, 90 percent owned by the Russian government, has not sold a rough stone on the open market since December, and has stockpiled them instead.

As a result, Russia has become the arbiter of global diamond prices. Its decisions on production and sales will determine the value of diamonds on rings and in jewelry stores for years to come, in one of the most surprising consequences of this recession.

Though it is a major commodity producer, Russia has traditionally not embraced policies that artificially keep prices up. In oil, for example, Russia benefits from the oil cartel’s cuts in production, but does not participate in them. Diamonds are an exception. “If you don’t support the price,” Andrei V. Polyakov, a spokesman for Alrosa, said, “a diamond becomes a mere piece of carbon.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Great Depression II? Not Even Close

Real GDP contracted annually by 8.6%, 6.4% and 13% (updated) in the first three years of the Great Depression, for a cumulative decrease of almost (updated ) 26% (see chart above). According to the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Survey of Professional Forecasters (released February 13, to be updated this Friday), real GDP will contract this year by -2.0 before increasing by 2.2% next year. Even if real GDP contracts by much more than 2% this year before returning to positive growth next year, it will be nothing close to the contraction in real GDP of the early 1930s.

Related: See guest Freakonomics post "This is Not Another Great Depression," which concludes: "We are experiencing pain now, but the problems of the Great Depression were several magnitudes greater."

Related: The White House is projecting that the nation's economy will shrink by 1.2% this year and increase by 3.2% next year. In addition, it projects that "by the end of this year," the economy will be growing at a 3.5% annual rate.

Great Depression II. Not.

Between 1931 and 1940, the MINIMUM monthly unemployment rate was 11% in July 1937, and the average jobless rate was 17.3% (see chart above). It seems very likely that the MAXIMUM unemployment during the current recession won't reach the MINIMUM of 11% during the Great Depression.

According to the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Survey of Professional Forecasters (
released February 13, new survey is due out this Friday), the average unemployment rate expected for 2009 is 8.4% and the average forecast for 2010 is 8.8%. Obviously these forecasts will be adjusted upward this Friday, but it still seems probable that the jobless rate in this recession won't even reach the minimum monthly rate of the 1930s, and certainly won't come anywhere close to the 17.3% average jobless rate during the Great Depression.

For a related analysis, see Freakonomics post "
This is Not Another Great Depression"

Note: Unemployment insurance didn't exist until 1935.

Low (High) Union = High (Low) Employment Growth

From 2003 to 2008, for example, aggregate private-sector employment grew by a healthy 10.4% in the 11 states in which fewer than 5% of private employees were under union
monopoly control as of 2003. In the 18 states with private-sector monopoly bargaining below the national average, but above 5%, employment grew by 6.1%. But in the 21 states with above average private-sector unionization, aggregate employment grew by just 3.5% -- roughly a third as much as in the lowest-union-density states.


Unionization = 10% Decline in Firm Value

From the NBER Working Paper "Long-Run Impacts of Unions on Firms: New Evidence from Financial Markets, 1961-1999" by David Lee and Alexandre Mas (Princeton Univ.):

We estimate the effect of new unionization on firms' equity value over the 1961-1999 period using a newly assembled sample of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) representation elections matched to stock market data. Our event-study analysis reveals substantial losses in market value following a union election victory – about a 10% decline, equivalent to about $40,500 per unionized worker. The evidence supporting this finding is compelling: we find that these firms’ average returns are quite close to the predicted returns every month leading up to the election, but at precisely at the time of the election, the actual and counterfactual returns diverge (see bottom chart above).

For example, in a March 1999 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) representation election, workers at National Linen Service (NLS) Corp., a large linen supplier, voted by an over 2 to 1 margin to organize as a local chapter of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). The stock market response appeared to punish NLS in a severe, though perhaps not swift, fashion. Figure 1 (top chart above) shows the cumulative return of NLS’ stock for the two years prior to and following the election, as well as the cumulative return of a broad market index over the same period. Before the election, the returns for NLS and the market tracked each other quite closely. But immediately following the election, NLS began to lag. By March 2001, the price of NLS shares had fallen by 25%, while the broad market index had increased by 50%.

HT: Travis Walker (and Freakonomics)


Tech Trends

1. 60% of US Twitter users fail to return the following month.

One in five US households are now cellphone only.

3. Amazing HD video.


India now adds more cellphone connections than anyplace else, with 15.6 million in March alone.

Re-Emerging Markets Get Their Groove Back

WALL STREET JOURNAL -- As fears of a deepening global recession are pushed aside by expectations of recovery, investors have rediscovered their appetite for risk in places ranging from Brazil and China to Russia. Brazil's Bovespa stock index is up 75% since its October lows, and across the emerging-market world, stocks are up 50% since the beginning of March, according to the MSCI Emerging Markets index, which tracks 23 markets (see chart above).

Behind the optimism are signs the worst of the global slump may have passed, and that China's massive stimulus plan is kicking in, heralding a pickup in demand for commodities and agricultural products. Investors appear to be trying to get in early on a long-term bet: Emerging-market economies will get back into their grooves long before the U.S. or Europe shake off the global crisis.

Several emerging economies entered the crisis with better initial conditions and, as such, will likely maintain a better economic performance than most industrial countries going forward," says Mohamed El-Erian of Pacific Investment Management Co., manager of the world's biggest bond fund.

"I think it's an awareness of where the growth stories are coming from," says Jonathan Auerbach, managing director at international brokerage Auerbach Grayson. "We're about 12 months away from a genuine return to global growth, and it's going to be driven by the emerging markets."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

More US Workers Outsourcing Own Jobs Overseas

Click large Grey arrow in middle of the screen below.

More American Workers Outsourcing Own Jobs Overseas

USPS: Unconscionable Stamp Gouging?

WASHINGTONThe Governors of the U.S. Postal Service have approved new prices for mailing services, including a 2-cent increase in the price of a First-Class Mail stamp to 44 cents. Prices for mailing services are reviewed annually and adjusted each May. The new prices will go into effect Monday, May 11.

Over the last 90 years, the average retail price of gasoline has increased about 8.5 times, from 25.5 cents per gallon in 1919 to $2.16 per gallon in 2009, according to annual price data from the EIA. Over the same period, the price of a first-class stamp in the U.S. has increased 21X, from 2 cents in 1919 to 44 cents in 2009 (starting tomorrow), according to historical stamp price data available here.

The chart above compares stamp prices to gas prices using an index that is equal to 100 in 1919 for both series, and includes the CPI index from 1919-2009, also equal to 100 in 1919.

If stamp prices had increased over time at "only" the rate of gas prices, a first-class stamp would only cost only 17 cents today instead of 44 cents. If stamp prices had increased at the same rate as consumer prices in general, stamps today would cost about 25 cents.

When gas prices rose last summer, Rep. Bart Stupak (D.-MI) introduced "The Federal Price Gouging Prevention Act," which would make it a crime to "sell crude oil or gasoline at a price that is unconscionably excessive." Shouldn't we now investigate "unconscionably excessive stamp prices" of the postal monopoly?

Blogosphere: Great Depression vs. Green Shoots

"Great Depression"
" Green Shoots"
BlogPulse Trend Search allows you to create graphs that visually track "buzz" over time for certain key words, phrases or links in the blogosphere.

The charts above are for the term "Great Depression" and "Green Shoots" over the last six months.

Washington:The New Financial Capital of the World

New York, which until eight months ago was the financial capital of the world, is no longer even the financial capital of the United States. Washington is.

~George Will's latest column, "Upside-Down Economy"

Saturday, May 09, 2009

NY Fed Model Suggests Economic Recovery Has Started, and Recession Will End This Year

According to the New York Fed, "Research beginning in the late 1980s documents the empirical regularity that the slope of the yield curve is a reliable predictor of future real economic activity."

New York Fed just released its latest "Probability of U.S. Recession Predicted by Treasury Spread," with data through April 2009, and the Fed's recession probability forecast through April 2010 (see chart above, click to enlarge). The NY Fed's model uses the spread between 10-year and 3-month Treasury rates (currently at 2.77%) to calculate the probability of a recession in the United States twelve months ahead (see chart below of the Treasury spread).

The Fed's data show that the recession probability peaked during the October 2007 to April 2008 period at around 35-40%, and has been declining since then to less than 10% for December 2008 and January 2009. Looking forward through 2009, the Fed's model shows a recession probability of only about 1% on average through the next 12 months, and below 1% by the end of the year (0.82% in December 2009). By April of 2010, the recession probability will be only 0.37%, close to the lowest level since mid-2005.

Further, the Treasury spread has been above 2% for the last 12 months, a pattern consistent with the economic recoveries following the last six recessions (see chart above).

Bottom Line: My reading of the New York Fed's Treasury spread model suggests that an economic recovery is probably already underway, and the Fed's model predicts the end of the recession in 2009.

4th Monthly Increase in Used Vehicle Value Index

MANHEIM CONSULTING -- April marked the fourth consecutive monthly increase in wholesale used vehicle prices on a mix, mileage, and seasonally adjusted basis. The Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index now stands at 106.6. That represents a year-over-year decline of 1.7%, but an increase of 8.8% since the beginning of the year.

This year's rise in wholesale pricing (and the strong conversion rate at auction) was initially driven by the steep falloff in new vehicle sales, which reduced the supply of trade-ins much more than the underlying demand for those units. Now, however, the stability in the used vehicle market appears to be more “despite of”, rather than “because of”, the weakness in the new vehicle market. As such, periodic setbacks in pricing may be experienced even though the supply/demand dynamics remain positive for used vehicle values.

From a previous report:

Some analysts have suggested that the rapid rise in wholesale used vehicle pricing is a precursor to an improvement in new vehicle sales and may even point to a recovery in the overall economy.

Aplia in the Washington Post

Greg Mankiw points to an article about economist Paul Romer and his interactive homework software Aplia in yesterday's Washington Post, written by Steven Pearlstein. I have used Aplia for the last several years in both economics and finance classes with great success. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Today, Aplia is used at more than 815 colleges by 170,000 students per term, with course offerings covering more than a dozen subjects (economics, finance, accounting, business law, statistics, taxation, philosophy,
Aplia website here). A quarter of all students enrolled in college economics classes work with Aplia.

Students seemed to like Aplia's engaging and easy-to-use software, as well as the feedback. Professors liked Aplia even more. It allowed them to leverage the grade-grubbing instincts of today's college students to get them to do homework -- but without having to spend countless hours reading and correcting the assignments. They also got reports from Aplia identifying which students were having the most trouble with the material and which concepts were stumping the class as a whole.

For me, however, what's really exciting about Aplia is that it finally holds out the possibility of bringing to higher education the same productivity revolution that has lowered costs and improved quality in almost every other industry over the past two decades.

By relieving instructors of the considerable burden of reviewing homework assignments, the technology makes it possible for universities to require professors to teach more students, either by increasing class sizes or the number of classes they teach. More important, it frees instructors to spend more time preparing for class, working with individual students and even doing their own research.

Note: For those unfamiliar with Aplia:

Founded in 2000 by economist and Stanford professor Paul Romer, Aplia is an educational technology company dedicated to improving learning by increasing student effort and engagement.

For students, Aplia offers a way to stay on top of coursework with regularly scheduled homework assignments. Interactive tools and content further increase engagement and understanding.

Aplia is a homework management and course management system integrated into one with a digital text, current event news articles, and math tutorials. The problem sets are interactive, auto-graded, give immediate feedback, and are written in the same language as the book. What's more, all of Aplia's materials are predicated on getting students better prepared and more engaged in the subject matter.

How to Save Endangered Tigers: Kill Them?

At this link you can watch John Stossel's full 20/20 segment "How to Save Endangered Tigers: Kill Them?"

Case Study: In 1967, the American alligator was listed as an endangered species (under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973), meaning it was considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

The creation of large, commercial alligator farms helped to save alligators. Alligator farming is a big and growing industry in Georgia, Florida, Texas and Louisiana. These states produce a combined annual total of some 45,000 alligator hides. Alligator hides bring good prices and hides in the 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 m) range have sold for $300 each, though the price can fluctuate considerably from year to year. The market for alligator meat is growing and approximately 300,000 pounds (140,000 kg) of meat is produced annually.

Today, in just the state of Louisiana, there are 723,000 alligators on alligator farms, and biologists estimate Florida has 2 million wild alligators. In fact, there are so many wild alligators in Florida that state officials have lifted the ban on alligator hunting, and they now have an 11-week hunting season. The American alligator was removed from the endangered species list in 1987 after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pronounced a complete recovery of the species.

Bottom Line: Private property rights, commercial farming, and the commercial sale of alligator meat and hides played a large role in the recovery of the American alligator. The same approach could help save tigers, elephants and rhinos, or any other endangered species.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Emerging-Markets Stocks Reach 7-Month High

May 8 (Bloomberg) -- Emerging-market stocks rose to the highest in seven months as stress tests indicated U.S. banks may plug their capital hole with private funds and fewer job losses in the U.S. signaled the worst of the global recession is over.

The MSCI Emerging Markets Index added 1.4% to 725.13, its highest level since Oct. 3.

MP: Since the March bottom, the Emerging Markets Index has increased by 52.6%, and is up by 28% since the first of the year.

New Car Affordability At Historical Record High

DALLAS/May 8, 2009 The purchase of an average-priced new vehicle took only 21.5 weeks of median family income in the first quarter 2009, according to Comerica Bank’s Auto Affordability Index. This reading is down 1.3 weeks from the prior quarter and is the lowest on record (index started in 1979). Median family income fell in the first quarter, but the total vehicle cost of buying and financing a new car fell more sharply than income, reflecting sharply falling interest rates on car loans. The total cost of buying an average-priced light vehicle fell to $26,000 in the first quarter, down $1,700 from the prior quarter.

MP: Just like falling home prices are helping the real estate market to recover and heal, the highest auto affordability in history should help the ailing auto industry to recover and heal.