Saturday, February 25, 2012

Why This Time Could Be Different: Rising Oil Prices Are Being Offset By Falling Natural Gas Prices

WSJ Blog -- "Soaring oil prices in the spring of 2008 sent gasoline prices surging and accelerated the recession. Now, rising gas prices are threatening the recovery. But lower natural gas and utility costs this time around might limit some of the damage, says Deutsche Bank chief U.S. economist Joseph LaVorgna.

In a note to clients last Tuesday, titled “Why this time could be different,” LaVorgna reminds us of his rule of thumb for measuring the effect of run-ups at the pump: a one-cent increase in gasoline prices increases household energy consumption by about $1.4 billion. With the 29-cent jump in gas prices over the past two months, that would translate into about $40.6 billion in higher household energy costs.

Today, he says the economy can handle the higher oil prices “provided that they do not increase substantially further and remain at elevated levels on a longer-term basis.”

One key reason: Lower natural gas prices, and lower utility consumption (including electricity) due to a warm winter, are offsetting much of the higher oil costs. LaVorgna puts the benefit from both at about $16 billion, or almost half of the recent run-up in gasoline prices (assuming gasoline prices hold near their current levels)."

MP: The chart above shows the historical relationship between monthly natural gas prices (data here) and crude oil prices (data here) with both price series converted to index equal to 100 in January 2002.  Both oil and natural gas prices spiked in 2008, and both series rose together and more than doubled between mid-2006 and mid-2008, and then both fell together through early 2009.  Since then oil prices have increased by 2.5 times, from about $40 in February 2009 to more than $100 today.  In contrast, natural gas prices have fallen by about 50% since early 2009, from about $5 to $2.50 per million BTUs.  The huge departure over the last few years from the typical historical, positive correlation between oil and natural gas prices explains why this time really could be different, as Joe LaVorgna suggests.

Update: PPL Electric Utilities in Pennsylvania just announced that it will lower electricity prices for 586,000 residential customers by almost 11% on March 1.  A company spokesman said that the lower rates were partly because of the abundance of natural gas, which has been driving down the cost of electricity generation.  (HT: John Hanger)

Hunger Strike at UVa, Will Michael Moore Join?

On Michael Moore's website, he features a post written by University of Virginia student and football player Joseph Williams, who is about 8 days into a hunger strike at UVa to protest the oppressive, slave and plantation-like wages of $7.25 per hour for some university employees, while his coach makes about $300,000 (he didn't say that, I'm not sure if he's thought of that).  Williams and his fellow hunger strikers are part of the Living Wage Campaign and they are calling on the UVa administration to pay "living wages" to all employees.  Here are the first two paragraphs:

"I am a third year studying Political and Social Thought, and a student-athlete at the University of Virginia.  Last Friday, 12 University students began a hunger strike to protest the economic and social injustices perpetrated by the UVa administration against the vast majority of the University’s service-sector employees. I joined two days later; since then, 5 more students have joined the hunger strike, which is now closing in on in its 7th day. Although the University of Virginia - Thomas Jefferson’s brainchild and the only US university designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site - has the prestige and high moral traditions of other top institutions, levels of inequality exist here today that are reminiscent of Jefferson’s days as a slave-master and plantation owner - with one anonymous employee even referring to the University’s Grounds as “the plantation.” 

Our University seeks to distinguish itself as a caring community and prides itself on traditions of honor and student self-governance. However, in our “caring community,” hundreds of contract employees may make as little as $7.25/hour while six out of the top ten highest paid state employees in Virginia hold administrative positions at the University. Many employees, mostly women and African Americans, do not receive enough pay for their basic necessities to exist in Charlottesville, where the cost of living is nearly 10% higher than the national average. This extreme inequality has disturbed and disillusioned students for decades, many of whom have tried to grapple with issues of race, class, and poverty in and out of the classroom. We have taken every conventional route towards this goal, garnered wide student, faculty and community support - yet our pleas have been consistently ignored and workers are still paid unjust wages."

 Question: Couldn't they get the portly Michael Moore to join the  hunger strike?


Don Boudreaux Responds to O'Reilly's Nitwitery


Don Boudreaux writes a classic and brilliant response to some nonsensical whining by Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs who complain on Fox News (see video above) that "working Americans are getting hosed at the pump" by high gas prices because U.S. oil companies are sending their products overseas to make more money:

"I was amused, by the way, that in your Feb. 17th discussion with Lou Dobbs, Mr. Dobbs shared your anger at rising U.S. oil exports.  This is the same Mr. Dobbs who repeatedly complains that the problem with America’s involvement in the global economy is that foreigners stubbornly refuse to buy sufficient amounts of American exports.  Go figure.

Now about your ethics.  You’re paid so handsomely because there’s a large nation-wide demand for your commentary and bombast.  In your career you’ve worked for broadcasters in Boston, Dallas, Denver, Hartford, and elsewhere.  And before moving to Fox you were a correspondent for ABC News.  You apparently never hesitated to sell your product to the highest bidder; you never hesitated to export yourself from one market to another in search of higher pay; you never resisted the bidding for your services by buyers (i.e., employers) far and wide which put upward pressure on the amounts of money that you are paid, both to appear on television and to deliver lunch and dinnertime speeches.  

So I ask: are you guilty of an offense against those many Americans who – as a result of your responding to market signals regarding the value of your services – must now pay higher prices for the privilege of hearing your commentary?  Should you return to your long-ago job at a local Scranton television station, at your long-ago lower salary, and apologize to the good people of Lackawanna County for your greedy and evil habit of exporting yourself to wherever and whoever offers to pay you more money?"

Why $100+ Per Barrel Oil is a Godsend

From Holman Jenkins in today's WSJ "What's Right With Gas Prices":

"Ironically, the best therapy [for higher oil prices] is a higher oil price. It makes it profitable to bring into production more costly resources around the world. The rise in recent years to $100-plus a barrel is a godsend. Peak oil theorists are being refuted; so are greenies who imagined a towering oil price would usher in a carbon-free future. The opposite is seen to be true. Oil sands, shale hydrocarbons and even biofuels have been made profitable with existing technology, and of course technology can be counted on to advance.

A higher price not only elicits the new supplies to satisfy Indian and Chinese motorists; it helps to distribute production more broadly around the globe and lets the world be less dependent on cheap Mideast oil. 

Gasoline is the most visible price in the economy, and its gyrations cause the juju men in Washington and elsewhere to do crazy things, if not so crazy when understood that their real goal is to receive praise and ward off blame for the behavior of energy prices. But the price mechanism itself is still America's real energy policy, thank God.

One last thing: In the past 100 years, the real price of gasoline, in current 2011 dollars, has spent almost all its time between $2 and $4 (see chart above, data here). So today's price is hardly the end of the world."

Fact of the Day: Asia is Largest Consumer of Oil

The EIA has a great interactive chart showing annual global oil consumption from 1980 to 2010.  In 1980, North America was the world's No. 1 consumer of oil at 20 million barrels per day, and twice as much oil as Asia (10 million), see top graphic in chart above.  By 2010, Asia had become the world's largest oil consumer at 25 million barrels per day vs. 23 million for North America.  

Credit Card Delinquency Rate Falls to 17-Year Low As the National Debt Approaches 100% of GDP


The Federal Reserve released new data this week on delinquency and charge-off rates at U.S. commercial banks for the fourth quarter of 2011. For consumer credit cards, the delinquency rate fell for the 10th consecutive quarter to 3.27% during the October-December period last year, dropping to the lowest level since a 3.24% reading in the third quarter of 1994, more than 17 years ago (see blue line in chart). Compared to the 4.50% quarterly average since 1991, the delinquency rate on credit cards is now about a full percentage point below the long-run average.

For all consumer loans, the fourth quarter delinquency dropped to 3.08%, the lowest rate since the 3.0% rate in the second quarter of 2007 before the recession started (see red line in chart). The second quarter delinquency rate is also below the 3.50% historical quarterly average since 1991.

Delinquency rates for consumer loans and credit card debt are both back to pre-recession levels, and credit card delinquencies are the lowest in 17 years.  Likewise, the charge-off rates for all consumers loans and credit card loans are both back to pre-recession levels (data here). The drop in delinquency and charge-off rates for consumer debt is consistent with the drop in the household debt ratio in Q3 last year to 11.1% (red line in chart below), the lowest since 1994. 

 
When it comes to managing debt, American households seem to be acting more and more responsibly, maybe because of some hard lessons learned during the recession about fiscal responsibility.  Meanwhile, the politicians in Congress seem to be acting less and less responsibly, as the national debt (about $15.1 trillion) now approaches 100% of GDP ($15.3 trillion), see chart below.
      

Markets in Everything: Parking Smartphone App



Futuristic smartphone app from German-based Valeo, Park4U, that actually parks your car for you.

HT: W.E. Heasley

The New Reallocation of Global Manufacturing and The Renaissance of American Manufacturing



In the Knowledge@Wharton video above, Hal Sirkin of the Boston Consulting Group discusses the rebirth of manufacturing that is underway in the U.S., partly because of the erosion of China’s manufacturing cost advantages, especially for wages, which has started bringing manufacturing production and jobs back to the U.S., reversing a decade-long trend of outsourcing production overseas. Ten years ago when China entered the WTO and wages there were $0.58 per hour (vs. $15 in the U.S.), it made economic sense for American manufacturers to outsource production to China. But now with ongoing double-digit wage increases in China, high oil costs, long delivery times, and quality and intellectual property issues, American manufacturing can now increasingly compete on cost, productivity, quality and delivery.  Manufacturing in the U.S. makes more sense today than in a generation, especially for those products that are destined for the U.S. market.

The Boston Consulting Group predicts that within a few years, China's manufacturing cost advantage will disappear for 70% of the products currently produced there for the U.S. market, and increasing amounts of production will be "reshored" or "insourced" to the U.S., with the potential to create 2-3 million new factory jobs in America.  Dozens of U.S. companies have already brought manufacturing production and jobs home, and that contributed to the manufacturing sector's strong economic performance in the last two years, with all-time record profits in 2011, almost 400,000 new jobs since the beginning of 2010, and output growth last year more than twice the rate of the overall economy.

Welcome to America's manufacturing renaissance, and it's just getting started.

HT: Dan Greller

Friday, February 24, 2012

Cartoon of the Day

From Michael Ramirez at IBD.

HT: Warren Smith

Friday Energy Links

1. CBS News: Boom times are back in Oklahoma for oil production


2. CBS MoneyWatch -- "There is one reason the U.S. economy is recovering: Low gas prices. Natural gas, that is. The price is at a 10-year low and expected to stay that way for awhile. This glut of inexpensive energy is why so many companies have been moving manufacturing back to the U.S.

The cheap price has been a boon to many industries, like plastics, fertilizers, chemicals and other things derived from natural gas. It has also helped manufacturers of everything from steel to beer, which use large amounts of energy. This, more than anything else, is responsible for the return of so much manufacturing to the U.S. Manufacturing employment rose by 225,000 jobs last year, sustaining gains for the first time since 1997."

3.  Houston Chronicle -- "The University of Texas Energy Institute recently released a report confirming that the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used to release oil and gas from shale rock, has a minimal impact on ground water."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The U.K. Learns a Lesson About the Laffer Curve

From a  WSJ editorial on how higher marginal tax rates in the U.K. lowered tax revenues from Britain's top earners, confirming that the Laffer curve is real and that "if you tax something, you actually do get less of it":

"Speaking of higher taxes (and President Obama always does), there's news from once fair Britannia. Preliminary figures out this week show that Britain's 50% top marginal income-tax rate may have reduced tax revenue from top earners by as much as 5%, compared to the old 40% top rate. Tax revenue from those filing self-assessments due January 31 was down some £500 million versus last year. 

What this week's numbers teach, however, is that Britain's richest taxpayers are simply shifting their incomes, or themselves, offshore, or deferring income, or otherwise arranging their affairs to avoid the confiscatory new top tax rate. Maybe that's unfair, too—the rich are usually better at protecting their assets—but it's the predictable consequence of a tax rate whose animating purposes are envy and spite."

Dec. 2011 Sets Record for the Highest-Ever Volume of Global Trade and Global Output in History

The CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis released its monthly report this week on world trade and world industrial production for the month of December 2011.  Here are some of the highlights:

1. World trade volume increased in December by 1.5% on a monthly basis and by 2.5% on an annual basis, bringing the global trade index to a new all-time record high of 166.6 (see blue line in chart).  World trade is now 4.0% above the previous April 2008 peak of 160.2 in the early part of the U.S. and global recessions.  

2. By region, annual export growth was led by the United States at 8%, followed by 6.2% export growth for Central and Eastern Europe and 5.2% for Latin America. 

3. World industrial output increased by 1% in December from the previous month and by 3.8% on an annual basis, reaching a new all-time high of 145.2 (see red line in chart), with especially strong annual output growth in Asia (8.85%) and emerging economies (7.1%).   Output declined in both Europe (-1.25%) and Japan (-2.75%) on an annual basis.

4. World output is now 7.6% above its pre-recession level and 23% above the recessionary low in March 2009. 

Bottom Line:  Both world trade volume and world industrial output ended last year at record high levels in December, providing more evidence of a global recovery last year from the 2008-2009 recession.  The economic weaknesses in Europe and Japan were more than offset by especially strong trade and output growth in the U.S., Latin America, Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe.  In an important economic milestone for the global economy, the year 2011 ended with the highest-ever volume of global trade in a single month and the highest-ever monthly amount of world industrial output in history.    

Update: Based on this explanatory note, I think the world trade volume series is adjusted for inflation, see the formula and discussion on page 6.  

Chart of the Day: Oil vs. Gasoline Prices

The chart above from GasBuddy shows retail gas prices and crude oil prices over the last three months.  Gas prices have increased by about 7.5% since November from $3.34 to $3.59 per gallon, while crude oil prices have increased by about 9%, from $97.25 to about $106 per barrel over the same period.  So there's really no mystery about why gasoline prices have gone up, is there?

Update: And why are oil prices going up? Nancy Pelosi blames "Wall Street profiteering" and "speculators."  (HT: W.C. Varones in the comments)

What N. Dakota Knows that CA Doesn’t: The Real Boom is in Traditional Energy, Not “Green Jobs.”

North Dakota currently has the lowest state jobless rate in the country at 3.3% and California is second-highest in the nation at 11.1%, and the Golden State hasn't seen a single-digit jobless rate now for three full years.  With that contrast in mind, here's an excerpt from "What North Dakota Knows that California Doesn’t," by Brian Calle in CityJournal:

"If California policymakers want to lift the state out of its economic malaise, they would do well to emulate . . . North Dakota. Once the least-visited state in America, the Peace Garden State is rapidly becoming the economic envy of the nation. Its 3.3 percent unemployment rate is the lowest of any state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. North Dakota also boasts a state budget surplus of $1 billion. Compare these figures with California’s 11.1 percent unemployment rate—second highest in the country—and a likely $13 billion budget deficit in the coming fiscal year, and suddenly the Great Plains look like an attractive alternative to the Golden State.

How did North Dakota pull it off? Oil production has driven the recent boom. Drilling restrictions in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and even Canada have given North Dakota an opportunity to expand its oil industry substantially. The state imposes no energy-efficiency resource standard for electricity or natural gas, and it has no mandatory statewide residential or commercial energy code. North Dakota lawmakers have let market demand dictate coal and oil production. According to North Dakota state senator John Hoeven, the state government’s approach to energy is to “develop all of our energy resources, both traditional and renewable . . . in a way where we incentivize new technologies to create more energy more dependably and more cost-effectively with good environmental stewardship.”

While California is rich in both conventional and renewable energy, gridlock in the state legislature has hampered development of these resources. Unlike North Dakota’s officials, who welcome the economic growth and new revenues, California lawmakers seem intent on reducing the state’s role in domestic oil production. Legislators have imposed laws much stricter than federal standards and worked aggressively to subsidize alternative energy sources and mandate their use. California law requires that the state obtain at least one-third of its energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal—and imposes onerous costs not only on businesses, but on every ratepayer and consumer in the state. One study projected that the law will cost the state economy $183 billion—a staggering burden for Californians already struggling under the highest energy prices in the nation.

By contrast, North Dakota’s underdog story illustrates how a different approach to public policy—and in particular, to traditional energy procurement—can bolster economic activity and job creation. While Golden State legislators bow to special interests and dither in a dream world where “green jobs” save the day, North Dakota is reaping the economic benefits of traditional energy production. It’s time California did the same."

The Great Gibson Guitar Raid


Reason: The Great Gibson Guitar Raid: Months Later, Still No Charges Filed

Cartoon of the Day


That reminds me of this classic....

Dumb City Regulations Threaten Foodtrucks

Matt Yglesias writes in Slate.com about how dumb city regulations around the country are threatening to kill the innovative, entrepreneurial food truck revolution:

"The fact that business owners would prefer not to face competition is not a valid regulatory purpose. A food truck is a kitchen and a vehicle and should need to follow the rules that generally apply to both things. But there’s no need for extra regulatory burdens over and above those. If you’re allowed to have a restaurant two blocks away from a school, there’s no reason to ban a food truck. If you’re allowed to park a van in a space somewhere, there’s no reason to ban parking a van that also happens to sell food.
 
Most of all, the fact that an existing business owner [restaurant] objects to the practices of a new business is a terrible reason to block a [food] truck from operating. Space is scarce and rents are high in the centers of major American cities. If new competition can bring prices down, we’ll all be better off in the long run. Meanwhile purveyors of traditional restaurants will be challenged to deploy their unique assets—tables, chairs, a roof, walls—in ways that provide meaningful value to customers. Municipal authorities need to learn to welcome the explosion of innovation happening around them and stop trying to choke it off."

MP: This is a perfect example to invoke the profound advice from French economist Bastiat: "Treat all economic questions from the viewpoint of the consumer, for the interests of the consumer are the interests of the human race."  

Unfortunately, in the world of politics, the viewpoint of the incumbent producers (restaurant owners in this case) frequently trumps the viewpoints of the consumer and the upstart producers (food trucks).  

Jobless Claims Fall to Lowest Level Since Mar. 2008

In another positive sign that the U.S. labor market is gradually improving, the Labor Department reported today that the four-week moving average for initial jobless claims fell to 359,00 for the week ending February 18, which is the lowest level since the week of March 22, 2008, almost four years ago (see chart above). This marks the sixth consecutive weekly decline in the four-week moving average, and the eleventh decline in the last twelve weeks. The number of seasonally-adjusted initial claims (not the four-week average) remained at 351,000, the same as the previous week, and the lowest level since early March 2008.  

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Months Supply of Homes Close to Six-Year Low

In another sign of a housing recovery, the National Association of Realtors reported today that "U.S. home resales surged in January to a 1-1/2 year high and the supply of properties on the market was the lowest in almost seven years."

The chart above shows the "months supply of homes" at the current sales rate, which fell to 6.1 months in January, the lowest level since April of 2006.  With the inventory of homes for sale falling back to historically normal levels, it's another sign that the real estate market is stabilizing, and it's only a matter for time before we see home prices trending upward. 

Economic Lessons in the News

1. The U.K. government is learning about the economic lesson that "if you tax something, you get less of it."  Following an increase in the top marginal income tax rate to 50%, tax revenues from high-income taxpayers are falling, and are not going up, as the Treasury somehow expected by ignoring the economic lesson that "people respond to incentives." A U.K. Treasury official explained the disappointing drop in tax revenues by saying it "was partly due to highly-paid individuals arranging their affairs to avoid paying the 50% rate."  Duh.

2. The economic lessons of "consumer sovereignty," "competition breeds competence" and "free trade benefits consumers" are illustrated in this AP story "For Car Buyers, It's Harder to End Up with a Lemon":

"In the past five years, global competition has forced automakers to improve the quality and reliability of their vehicles — everything from inexpensive mini-cars to decked-out luxury SUVs. The newfound emphasis on quality means fewer problems for owners. It also means more options for buyers, who can buy a car from Detroit or South Korea and know it will hold up like a vehicle from Japan.

With few exceptions, cars are so close on reliability that it's getting harder for companies to charge a premium. So automakers are trying to set themselves apart with sleek, cutting-edge exterior designs and more features such as luxurious interiors, multiple air bags, dashboard computers and touch-screen controls."

"It's a great time to be a consumer," says Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for the TrueCar.com auto pricing website. "You can't really screw up too badly in terms of your vehicle choice." 

Thanks to Morgan Frank and Dale Weaver.

Architecture Indexes and Homebuilder ETF: Has A Turning Point in Construction Arrived?

February 22, 2012 – "On the heels of consecutive months of strengthening business conditions, the Architecture Billings Index (ABI) has now reached positive territory three months in a row (see red line in chart above). As a leading economic indicator of construction activity, the ABI reflects the approximate nine to twelve month lag time between architecture billings and construction spending. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reported the January ABI score was 50.9, following a mark of 51.0 in December. This score reflects a slight increase in demand for design services (any score above 50 indicates an increase in billings). The new projects inquiry index was 61.2, down just a notch from a reading of 61.5 the previous month (see blue line)."

MP: In another positive sign for the construction industry, the chart below shows the "S&P Homebuilders SPDR" (XHB), an ETF that replicates the homebuilding sub-industry portion of the S&P Total Markets Index (blue line), compared to the S&P500 Index (red line) over the last six months.  While the overall stock market (S&P 500) has increased by about 20% over the last six months, the ETF of homebuilders' stocks has increased by 50%.    



Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Interesting Facts about BMW in the U.S.

New Investment in the U.S.: Almost $1 billion over the next three years to expand the 4.4 million square foot BMW complex in Spartanburg, S.C. to produce the new BMW X4 (pictured above).

Number of new jobs to be added this year in U.S.: 300

Total number of BMW jobs in South Carolina: 7,500

Number of BMWs produced in the U.S. since 1994: 2,000,000

Number of BMWs produced in the U.S. in 2011: 276,065 

Percentage of U.S.-made BMWs exported in 2011: 70% (192,813)

Number of export markets for U.S.-made BMWs: 130 

Source: IndustryWeek

Markets in Everything: Gender-Based Advertising Using Facial Recognition Software with HD Camera

"Plan UK’s campaign, which highlights the plight of the world’s poorest girls, launches a groundbreaking interactive ad on a bus stop in Oxford Street on February 22. The advertisement uses facial recognition software with an HD camera to determine whether a man or woman is standing in front of the screen, and shows different content accordingly."

Professor Alan Meltzer's Three Laws of Regulation

Alan Meltzer’s Three Laws of Regulation:

1. Lawyers and bureaucrats regulate, but markets circumvent regulation. 

2. Regulations are static. Markets are dynamic. 

3. Regulation is most effective when it changes the incentives of the regulated.

From a Reason review of Professor Meltzer's new book "Why Capitalism?"

Romney 2:1 Favorite over Santorum for Michigan

After dropping to 45% a few days ago, Romney's current Intrade odds to win the Michigan primary are at about 68%, compared to 35% odds for Santorum. 

First the Dutch Pull the Plug on Wind Subsidies, Now Germany Throws in Towel on Solar Subsidies

I recently posted about how the Netherlands, the nation known for its iconic windmills, decided to throw in the towel on offshore wind power, as Dutch officials determined the country can no longer afford large scale subsidies for expensive wind turbines that cannot produce electricity at economically competitive prices.

Now there's news that Germany, the country that once prided itself on being the “photovoltaic world champion” is coming to the same conclusion about subsidizing solar energy.  The German government is now planning to cut its generous government subsidies for solar energy (more than $130 billion so far) sooner than planned, and to completely phase out public (i.e. "taxpayer") support over the next five years.  

A news report from Copenhagen explains what happened: 

"One of the world’s biggest green-energy public-policy experiments is coming to a bitter end in Germany, with important lessons for policymakers elsewhere.

What went wrong? 

Unfortunately, Germany – like most of the world – is not as sunny as the Sahara. And, while sunlight is free, panels and installation are not. Solar power is at least four times more costly than energy produced by fossil fuels. It also has the distinct disadvantage of not working at night, when much electricity is consumed."

MP: To paraphrase Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal, "Solar (wind) energy is produced by mixing sunshine (wind) with our tax dollars."  And the Germans, like the Dutch, are finding out that you eventually run out of other people's money (tax dollars) to fund alternative energy sources that are not justified by science or economics.  As Margaret Thatcher taught us, that's always the problem with socialism - running out of other people's money.....

Fact of the Day: Even on Less Than $15,000 per Year, 56% of 18-24 Year Olds Have Smartphones

MashableTech -- "When a twentysomething’s budget is tight, her smartphone is far from the first expense to go, suggests a new study from Nielsen. The survey of 20,000 U.S. mobile customers found that smartphone ownership skews toward the young and the wealthy — exactly as you’d expect.  What is more surprising, however, is this nugget: smartphone penetration among young people in the lowest income bracket is higher than it is among older people in the wealthiest bracket. 

Among 18- to 24-year-olds, more than half of respondents who make less than $15,000 each year said they own a smartphone. This might be explained if the parents of many college-age students are footing their children’s phone bills. 

Still, even in the next oldest, post-college age group, the percentage of those in the same income bracket who own a smartphone was a mere 13% lower. Making less than $15,000 in a year doesn’t stop 43% of these 25- to 34-year-old mobile customers from paying for a smartphone. Meanwhile, fewer than 20% of respondents older than 45 who make less than $15,000 said they owned a smartphone."

Natural Gas Prices Are the Lowest Since 1999


Based on data through the middle of February from the EIA, the inflation-adjusted spot price of natural gas (Henry Hub Gulf Coast) this month at $2.50 per million BTUs is close to the lowest price in the history of the EIA data back to January of 1997 (see chart above).  There have been only three other months in the  last 15 years that real spot gas prices have been lower: December 1998 ($2.40), February 1999 ($2.45) and March 1999 ($2.48).

Welcome to America's shale gas revolution, where thanks to modern, advanced drilling technologies, we've become the "Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas," which translates into the lowest prices in recent history for U.S consumers and businesses.   

Related quote from Kevin Williamson in his National Review article "The Wonders of Frack: Why We Should Be Exploiting Our Natural Gas":

"Cheap, relatively clean, ayatollah-free energy, enormous investments in real capital and infrastructure, thousands of new jobs for blue-collar workers and Ph.D.s alike, Americans engineering something other than financial derivatives - who could not love all that?" 

BPP@MIT Data Show Inflation Trending Downward

The Billion Prices Project @ MIT just updated its daily online price index through the end of January 2012, and the annual inflation rates from that index are displayed in the graph above.  After peaking at close to 4% in the one-year period through the end of July 2011, the annual inflation rate from the BPP @ MIT daily price index has been trending downward, and the current rate is about 2.75%, the lowest annual inflation in almost a year.    

According to this real-time, daily measure of retail price changes across multiple categories and retailers, inflationary pressures in the U.S. economy have been moderating over the last six months, and annual inflation was below 3% for multiple days at the end of January for the first time since last March.    

Monday, February 20, 2012

Carter (+19) vs. Obama (-2) in February of Year 4

Now this is pretty interesting....  The chart above shows the approval-disapproval ratings for President Carter and President Obama in February of their fourth year in office (1980 vs. 2012), based on the Gallup/USA Today Presidential Approval Tracker website.  Carter's approval was 55% in early February of 1980 vs. 46% for Obama in mid-February 2012, and Carter's disapproval was 36% vs. 48% for Obama. Carter's Approval-Disapproval spread was +19 compared to Obama's -2 point spread.

Note: In March of 1980, Carter's ratings tanked and by the end of the month he was at -12 Approval-Disapproval.

Intrade Odds: Romney vs. Obama, Obama Wins

Current Intrade odds are shown above for: a) Romney to be the Republican nominee for president (72.5%) and b) Obama to be re-elected (59.5%). 

What Do AP Subject Exams Tell Us About Differences in Academic Interest By Gender?

  AP Subject Exam, 2011    % Female   % Male 
Studio Art: Drawing7426
Studio Art: Design7228
French Language6931
Art History6634
English Literature6337
Psychology6337
Spanish Language 6337
Spanish Literature6337
English Language6238
Biology5941
Chinese Language5842
French Literature5842
Environmental Science5644
Japanese5644
World History5545
Human Geography5446
U.S. History5446
European History5347
U.S. Government5347
Statistics 5248
Latin5050
Calculus AB4951
Italian4951
Comparative Government 4852
Chemistry4753
German4753
Macroeconomics4654
Microeconomics4456
Music Theory4258
Calculus BC4159
Physics B3565
Physics C22674
Physics C12377
Computer Science A2080
Computer Science AB1486

The table above shows the gender breakdown for 35 Advanced Placement subject exams taken by high school students in 2011, based on data just released in the subject supplement as part of the 8th Annual "AP Report to the Nation."  Here are some observations:

1. Of the 35 AP subjects, female high students were over-represented in 20 subjects, male students were over-represented in 14 subjects and one subject (Latin) was perfectly balanced by gender. 

2. In the science area, female students showed a greater interest in biology (59%) and environmental science (56%) than males, and males showed a greater interest in chemistry (47%) and physics (65%).

3. For mathematics subjects, female high school students were slightly over-represented in statistics (52%) and males were slightly over-represented in calculus (51%).  For advanced calculus, male students were over-represented at 59%.  

4. For all languages except German, more female students took language AP exams than males, and for French, female students outnumbered male students by more than 2-to-1.

5. Male high school students were significantly over-represented in all three physics exams, and both computer science exams. 

Bottom Line: Assuming that high school students take AP classes and exams based on their interests and aptitudes in certain subjects, there do appear to be many gender-based differences in academic interests.  Even within STEM fields there appear to be gender differences, with female high school students showing a greater interest than males in biology and environmental science and males showing a greater interest in chemistry and physics.  Female students show an interest in statistics and calculus, but less of an interest in advanced math (calculus) and very little interest in computer science compared to their male classmates.   

Here's a prediction: If these AP test results generate any controversy or concerns, it will only be a very selective concern about female under-representation in physics and computer science, but no concern about male under-representation in art, language, history, biology, environmental science and psychology.

Further, assuming that the AP test data reflect some natural gender differences in academic interest, that could then explain this recent prediction from Science, as reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"It could take nearly 100 years before half of all professors in science and engineering are female, according to an article out on Friday in the journal Science. The assertion is shocking because people in academe have been working for decades to increase the number of women in those fields."

MP: Maybe it's not so shocking if the AP subject test data are reflecting natural differences in "revealed gender preferences" of academic interest.  When there are almost 350 high school boys taking the advanced physics AP exam for every 100 high school girls, and more than 600 boys taking the advanced computer science AP exam for every 100 girls, it's understandable that it might take 100 years for perfect gender parity for STEM professors.  And based on the "revealed academic preferences" of female high school students who are voluntarily choosing different subjects than boys for AP classes and AP exams, maybe that's demonstrating that women can live perfectly successful and rewarding lives without ever achieving perfect gender parity in STEM fields.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

As China's Wages Continue to Heat Up, Expect More Reshoring of Production Back to the U.S.

1. New York Times editorial "Chinese Labor, Cheap No More" by Beijing journalist Michelle Dammon Loyalka:

"But while China’s industrial subsidies, trade policies, undervalued currency and lack of enforcement for intellectual property rights all remain sticking points for the United States, there is at least one area in which the playing field seems to be slowly leveling: the cheap labor that has made China’s factories nearly unbeatable is not so cheap anymore. 

 In the past, China’s migrant workers were just thankful not to go hungry; today they are savvy and secure enough to start being choosy. Higher salaries, basic benefits, better working conditions and less physically taxing jobs are only the beginning of their demands, and for many factories, these are already too costly to be tenable. 

Thanks to China’s rising labor costs, it looks as if America might be back in the manufacturing game sooner than expected."


2. From a CNBC report last February, "China's Role as 'World's Factory' Coming to an End":

"China’s economy is at a significant crossroads as it enters 2011, with wages rising rapidly and the labor force, particularly of migrant laborers, starting to shrink. The shift is causing many to predict the end of the country’s status as the world’s shop floor."


3. Bloomberg -- "Foxconn Technology Group, the world’s biggest contract manufacturer of electronics including Apple Inc.’s iPhone, raised the pay of its workers in China this month, the third increase since 2010.

Pay rose by 16 percent to 25 percent starting Feb. 1, the company said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. The basic monthly pay of a junior worker in Shenzhen has risen to 1,800 yuan ($290) from 900 yuan three years ago, it said. Foxconn will raise monthly salaries to more than 2,200 yuan for workers who pass technical examinations."


4. Hal Sirkin, a senior partner and managing director at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG):

"It's now becoming more effective to produce in the U.S. than it is to produce in a lot of different countries. Between the shift in the dollar and the incredibly rapid rise in wages in China, people are starting to do this. In a BCG report, we predicted that this would not happen until 2015. We're surprised in a very good way because we're starting to see it happen in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Now we think this is just the tip of the iceberg that we're seeing -- that we're going to see a whole lot more because the economics continue to shift in favor of the U.S. The fundamentals are that the tide has turned, as it did with Japan, as it did with the Asian Tigers. We're seeing a repeat of this with China."

HT: Scott Lincicome's blog and here on Twitter.

Donor Compensation, Not Kidney Swaps, is the Only Solution to Growing Kidney Shortage in U.S.



Saturday's New York Times article "60 Lives, 30 Kidneys, All Linked" features "the longest chain of kidney transplants ever constructed, linking 30 people who were willing to give up an organ with 30 who might have died without one."  The article has been getting a lot of attention and is currently the second most e-mailed NY Times article and fourth most viewed.

After a similar 13-kidney exchange in December 2009, which at that time was the world's largest ever, Sally Satel and I wrote an article in the Washington Post, and excerpts of that article appear below, with some minor edits and updating:

Such organ exchanges are a godsend for sick people with loved ones who are willing to give them a kidney but are not biologically compatible with them. In an exchange, unmatched couples switch partners to form compatible pairs.

But now for the bad medical news. There are more than 90,000 Americans with renal failure on the national waiting list for kidneys, a grim new high (see top chart above). Almost 13 patients on the waiting list die each day. In addition, almost 7 people are removed each day from the waiting list because they are too sick to survive a transplant operation.  As ingenious, painstaking and justifiably attention-getting as domino swaps are, they shouldn't blot out the dismal news that rates of kidney donation, from both living and deceased donors, fall woefully short of the need.

As the number of renal transplant operations remains mired between 16,000 and 17,000 a year, the number of candidates on the waiting list mounts. Within the last seven years, for example, the list grew by 50%, from about 60,000 patients in 2004 to 90,500 at the end of last year.

This means that only one kidney transplant operation was performed in 2011 for every 5.4 needy patients, making the chance last year of getting an organ less than one in five -- an all-time low of only 18.5%. As recently as the early 1990s, patients on the waiting list had a greater than 50 percent chance of receiving a kidney in a given year, but the situation has worsened every year since 1991 (see bottom chart).  Thus, even if surgeons were able to schedule an additional 30-kidney swap operation every day this year, more than 62,000 patients would still languish on dialysis, facing premature death.

The only realistic long-term solution to the growing kidney shortage in the United States is not kidney swaps, but rather it is to allow some form of donor compensation (which was never mentioned in the NY Times article). This would require Congress to amend the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 so that people who give organs could receive a benefit, perhaps a tax credit, tuition voucher, lifetime health coverage or a contribution to a retirement plan. Such compensation would be regulated by the government, with kidneys allocated to ill patients according to the national formula being used across the country.

We should surely celebrate the world's largest-ever 30-kidney exchange and hope that more of them occur. Yet we shouldn't lose sight of the reality that the most promising long-run solution to the kidney shortage is a system of donor compensation.

Markets in Everything: Floating Cities


"The Seasteading Institute was founded in 2008 by activist, software engineer and political economic theorist Patri Friedman, grandson of Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, and technology entrepreneur, investor and Philanthropist Peter Thiel.

At The Seasteading Institute, we believe that experiments are the source of all progress: to find something better,you have to try something new. But right now, there is no open space for experimenting with new societies. That’s why we work to enable seasteading communities — floating cities — which will allow the next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for government. The most successful communities can then inspire change in governments around the world. We’re opening this new frontier because humanity needs better ways to live together to unlock our full potential."

Reuters recently featured seasteading in the video above. 

 HT: Michael Denny

Renegade Aspen Cabbie Back in "Business"

About a month ago, I reported on a 76-year old Aspen senior citizen, Phil Sullivan, who received a 15-day jail sentence for operating an unlicensed taxi service.  After serving nine days in jail, the renegade cabbie is back on the street of Aspen, this time as a volunteer driver for his new nonprofit organization, Free Rides for People Who Need Them Inc., according to the Aspen Times:
Donations to the company will be used to maintain Sullivan's white Kia minivan and to pay for vehicle insurance, according to a “sponsorship agreement” between Sullivan and the nonprofit that accompanies the certificate of incorporation.

Sullivan cannot draw a salary or receive any compensation for his time, the agreement states. “It allows me to operate and give my friends a free ride home, but I don't look at it as a victory,” Sullivan said Thursday of his new arrangement.
Members of Aspen's "taxi cartel" couldn't be reached for comment, but have complained very vocally in the past about Sullivan's low prices (voluntary contributions) and "unfair competition."  They are probably not happy that the renegade senior is back on the road.   

Markets in Everything: Mansion Rental

Minneapolis StarTribune -- Rental houses used to be limited to modest starter homes or rundown digs for college students. But if you prefer the finer things -- and can shell out as much as $10,000 a month in rent -- you can now choose from a variety of million-dollar-plus houses: Historic mansions in Kenwood, executive homes in gated communities, sprawling estates on Lake Minnetonka.

Thanks to the sluggish real estate market, luxury rentals, once an oxymoron, have become a way to generate cash for their owners. Transferred executives and builders with excess inventory are renting their unsold homes while they wait for the upper-bracket market to recover.

"It's the new American way," said agent Paul Larson of Coldwell Banker Burnet. "If you can't sell 'em, rent 'em."

Interesting Fact of the Day: Anthem in 4/4 Time

Rickey Minor, Whitney Houston's musical director in the 1990s (now band leader on "The Tonight Show") discussing Whitney Houston's performance singing the national anthem at the 1991 Superbowl:

“The original version [of the national anthem] is in 3/4 time, which is more like a waltz.  What we tried to do was to put it in 4/4 meter… We wanted to give her a chance to phrase it in such a way that she would be able to take her time and really express the meaning.”

MP: Besides the great vocals, that change to 4/4 time is probably another reason that Whitney Houston's version of the national anthem was so memorable.