Sunday, October 05, 2008

Blame Washington Not Wall Street for the Sub-Prime Crisis

The collapse of many financial institutions and the implications of this for the economy is the major economic concern in the United States and around the world as we head into the last quarter of 2008. The immediate cause of the crisis is the drastic reductions in the value of the assets of financial companies due to the large number of sub-prime (low credit quality) mortgages in their portfolios. However, the sub-prime mortgage problem is a sub-set of the collapsing of the housing market bubble. Basically, rising demand for housing and the profits to be made in meeting this demand led to increasing numbers of people moving into the housing market and seeing it as a means of getting rich. As prices continued to rise and thousands of people became wealthy as a result, more and more people jumped into the market. In times of frenzied activity in the market for a particular good, housing in this case, the mania takes on a life of its own as increasing numbers of people rush into the market hoping to get rich while knowing nothing about the mechanics of investing. At some point prices peak and those who entered last panic when they suddenly realize that rather than making large amounts of money they are about to lose everything. Their reaction is to cut their losses and sell, an act that begins to drive prices down causing others to begin frantically selling in their haste to exit.

Click Here to read full article:

Blame Washington - Not Wall Street for the Current Financial Crisis

Friday, August 29, 2008

Making a Fortune with Make-up

Following the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s the administration of President George H. W. Bush (father of the current President, George W. Bush) opened the Internet to the public. Previously the Internet had been reserved exclusively for use by the Armed Forces, military contractors and academics involved in defense related research. A few years later in 1994 an Englishman named Tim Berners-Lee (now Sir Tim Berners-Lee, having recieved a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his scientific contributions) working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland published the computer code for the World Wide Web which both greatly expanded what could be created on the Internet as well as making it relatively easy for people to create and use content on the Internet.

Use of the World Wide Web increase at such a fast pace that a mere four or five years later, as the 21st century was about to dawn, a full one-third of the U.S. economy was centered around the web. Today, almost every sector of the economy is in some way or another tied to the web.

The ease of use of the web and its vast spread is creating opportunities for people right and left and is changing the way business is done. In this new world of the Internet, one no longer has to have access to large amounts of capital, live in a big city or be a scientific genius in order to be a successful entrepreneur on the Internet. Thanks to outfits like eBay, Amazon, Google and numerous others, people can start and build successful businesses with nothing more than a computer, internet connection and possibly a digital camera.

A couple of years ago, after giving a report on the latest employment figures, which had hit an all time high, the anchor commented "and these figures don't include all the people who work from home producing content for their websites and blogs and living off the Google ad revenue their work generates". CNBC ran a story a while ago on people all over the nation, many in small towns whose economy collapsed following the closing of the local manufacturing plant, who learned to sell on eBay and built business that generated as much or more income than the manufacturing job which they had lost.

Then there is Lauren Luke. Lauren is a 26 year old single mother living in South Shields, a town of about 90,000 located at the mouth of the River Tyne in northeast England. Once a major shipbuilding center, the town's economy has been hard hit in recent years by the loss of that industry. A self-described loaner who lacks both self confidence and the stunning looks of a model, Lauren does not exactly fit the stereotype of a successful media personality or global entrepreneur. In adition to her other deficiencies (this is the way she describes herself) Lauren also lacks both the technical skills required for good video production and the presentation skills needed to perform well before a camera. Also lacking is formal training in the application of make-up even though her business is built around tips on how to apply make-up to achieve a desired look.

Operating from her bedroom in her home in South Shields, Lauren has built a world wide following and is generating thousands of dollars a month in revenue. What is the source of Lauren Luke's success? Self produced YouTube videos showing how to apply make-up. Thanks to Google's video ad sharing program, she has a stream of income from the ads that appear in the box around her videos. After pushing a button on the video camera attached to her computer, Lauren launches into her demonstration showing and describing how to apply make-up for the look in question. This is a one person production with Lauren demonstrating an narrating as she goes along. When she finishes, she signs off for her audience, stops the camera and uploads the video - there is no editing of the video since, again in her words, she doesn't know how to edit video. Google, in this case, has provided Lauren and millions like her the opportunity to make money by producing content designed to attract an ad clicking audience. Google also provides the easy to use technology needed to upload videos while advances in hardware and software have made it possible to purchase the needed equipment for a very low fee (compared to the cost of similar equipment in the pre-PC era).

This is the economic revolution that is shaking up and transforming the economic world around us.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Success is a State of Mind

Many people assume that success is a matter of luck. However, while luck,which usually involves being in the right place at the right time, may play a part in success, those who are successful are generally those who are on the lookout for opportunity.

A good example of this is the story about the clergyman and the flood which goes like this:

There was once a very devout clergyman who spent hours in prayer each day and whose response to the fears and those of others was to say "Don't worry. The Lord will provide".

One day it began to rain very hard and the public was warned to leave town and flee to higher ground away from the storm. As the clergyman sat in his home praying one of the families in his congregation came by in their car and offered to take him with them. But he declined saying "Don't worry, the Lord will provide for me".

The family left him in his house and soon the water level began rising, flooding the street and forcing the clergyman to move upstairs to escape the rising water. A couple fleeing in a boat saw him sitting in his window and rowed over and encouraged him to get in their boat but he declined saying "Don't worry, the Lord will provide for me". So they rowed on leaving him sitting in his window.

The water continued to rise and he was forced to climb onto his roof to avoid being swept away by the water. The crew of a rescue helicopter saw him and dropped a rope ladder down encouraging him to climb aboard. But he waved them away saying "Don't worry, the Lord will provide for me".

Soon the water rose to the point where its waves rolled over the roof of the house, sweeping the clergyman away where he drowned.

Upon arriving in Heaven, the clergyman angrily confronted God demanding to know why God had ignored his pleas for help after he had been such a loyal and trusting servant of God all his life. To which God replied "How can you accuse me of ignoring you? Didn't I send a car, a boat and a helicopter to take you to safety? And you declined all of these offers of help."

The moral is that opportunity doesn't grab you and make you a success - you have to recognize and grab it if you want to be successful.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bartering Pepsi Cola for Vodka and Tanker Ships

Barter is defined as the act of purchasing a good by trading another good rather than using cash. Barter is usually viewed as an economic activity found in simpler, more primitive economies rather than in our complex modern economy. And, this is generally true as barter is an inefficient means of obtaining goods since considerable search time is involved in seeking out another person who both has what you want and wants to trade it for what you are offering. In a small Stone Age village this is not much of a problem because villagers tend to know one another and there are only a few economic goods available.

Despite the fact that barter is inefficient and associated with small villages in primitive economies, it remains alive and well as a niche market today where both small local businesses and large corporations operating globally still find uses for it.

One of the best publicized instances of barter in the modern world occurred in 1972 when, during a temporary thaw in the Cold War between the U.S. led West and the Soviet led East, Donald Kendall, CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of the Pepsi Cola Corporation (the name was later changed to Pepsico when Kendall initiated a merger between Pepsi Cola and snack food giant Frito Lay Corp.) negotiated a deal with the Soviet government that allowed Pepsi Cola to be bottled and marketed in the then Soviet Union in exchange for Pepsi importing and marketing vodka and other hard liquors produced in the Soviet Union. This deal gave Pepsi Cola, then the number two cola and soft drink company, a leg up on it arch rival, the much older Coca-Cola, Corporation had established a world-wide presence prior to World War II, years before Pepsi Cola even existed. However, with the Soviet deal, Pepsi Cola Corp. was able to enter the areas of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe which, as communist societies, had been closed to private corporations. This gave the Pepsi brand a virtual monopoly in a sizable chunk of the world and which, following the fall of communism in Europe and Soviet Asia, placed it well ahead of the pack when these markets opened to other foreign companies.

But why did Pepsi elect to trade Pepsi Cola for vodka rather than simply build bottling plants and establish market share then pocket the profits in cash? The fact is, Pepsi did not establish a corporate presence in the Soviet Union. Instead it helped establish bottling plants (upgrading some existing Soviet plants and helping to build others), supplied the syrup necessary for producing Pepsi Cola and had the final product sold as Pepsi Cola. However, the bottling plants, distribution chain and sale of the Pepsi Cola produced was all done by the Soviet government the same as all other productive enterprises behind the old Iron Curtain. Much as the old Soviet Union wanted western consumer products for their citizens they were not about to allow privately owned companies to be established in their Marxist-Leninist society. There was a more practical economic reason as well and that was the fact that they did not want their scarce foreign currency reserves being sent abroad to purchase Western consumer goods. With the Pepsi Cola for vodka deal the Soviets were able obtain Pepsi Cola without bending their communist principles and without having to spend their foreign currency.

In a cash deal, Soviet consumers would have purchased their Pepsi Cola with their local currency (rubles) which the Pepsi Cola Corporation would have then converted to dollars with the rubles ultimately being presented to the Soviet Central Bank for dollars. However, in order to obtain dollars or other western currency the Soviets needed to increase their foreign exports but, due to the gross inefficiencies in their state controlled economy, they had little to trade and what few dollars and other western currencies they did obtain they used to buy capital goods needed to upgrade their factories and military complex.

For Pepsi Cola Corporation, the benefit was a major presence in a new area of the world and a supply of vodka and other liquors which they could sell in the U.S. for dollars. The vodka and other liquors also increased the offerings of Pepsi's hard beverage division, Monsieur Henri Wines Ltd., which not only gave that division additional product to sell but also made them the exclusive sellers of Russian vodka in the U.S.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s with the Soviet Union crumbling and still suffering from a lack of export goods, Pepsico made additional barter deals which increased their sales and presence in the area in exchange for vodka plus tanker ships, submarines and other similar hardware which the company had cut up and sold to scrap metal dealers for the dollars it desired.

Links for additional reading:

The Pepski Generation (Time Magazine - Monday Nov 27, 1972)

Communicating in Global Business Negotiations (Google Books)

Barter: An Alternative Currency ("The Guardian" Feb 27, 2003)

Pepsi Will be Bartered in a Deal With Soviets (New York Times - April 19, 1990)

Ukraine Tankers Hope Things Go Better With Pepsi (International Herald Tribune - October 23, 1992)

Behind the Barter Boom (All Business - Wed September 1, 1993)

Touting Barter, Russia Continues its Economic Regression (Asia Times - July 30, 1999)

Business Notes: Trade (Time Magazine - April 23, 1990)

Cold Cash, Not Cold War (Newsweek Aug 21, 2008)

Moscow's Favorite Capitalists (New York Times - July 17, 1983)

Pepsi's Pitch to Quench Chinese Thirst (Fortune Magazine - March 17, 1986)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Saving Money & the Environment by Recycling Old Roadbeds

While skimming through the Denver Post newspaper at the airport while waiting to board my plane to take me home from a business trip, I ran across a small article stating that the rising price of oil is not only driving up the price of fuel needed to operate gas powered cars, trucks, airplanes, etc. but also the cost of building and repairing roads as the asphalt used in the roadbed. However, I reminded of the article a couple of days later when, while driving through a construction zone on my way to work, I observed a large machine, the rear end of which was biting off huge chunks of the old roadbed and conveyor on the front end was steadily pouring the finely ground roadbed material out the front and into a waiting truck. Obviously that old roadbed was being recycled and would find its way back into either the new roadbed they were laying down or another one.

Asphalt is basically crushed stone mixed with bitumen, a heavy tar substance which is what remains after a barrel of crude oil has been refined into gasoline and other usable products.

However, as the price of a barrel of oil rises so to does the price of the bitumen. Being basically a useful waste byproduct, bitumen has never been a high priced product. However, there is demand for it (for things like tar paper, asphalt shingles for roofs, etc. as well as for road building) and, as the price of a barrel of oil rises so too does the price of the bitumen left in the barrel after refining and this is driving up the cost of road building.

Waste is a relative concept that is closely related to scarcity. A scuba diver relying on the limited amount of compressed air in his tank for survival, is careful in his use of that air while, surrounded by a seemingly unlimited amount of air, those of us on the surface barely give a thought to our use of air. We tend to use and discard with ease things which are free or inexpensive while caring and conserving those things that are expensive. That is how the free market efficiently manages resources.

Road building material costs are going up today partly because the rising price of oil is pulling up the cost of bitumen. I say partly because, in addition to the rising cost of the barrel of oil which contains the bitumen, the supply of bitumen itself is shrinking due to the fact that, at $100 plus cost of a purchasing a barrel of oil, refiners have a strong incentive to invest in expensive technologies that allow them to produce more high end products, like gasoline, from the oil thereby leaving less waste in the form of bitumen as, at $4 per gallon, they will make more money selling the gasoline than by selling the bitumen.

In Western United States, state and local governments generally contract out road construction to private companies which bid on the projects (in the East and Midwest, the governments themselves frequently have their own crews for road construction and maintenance). Contracts, of course, are awarded to the lowest bidder which means that, to make a decent profit, the construction company must keep their costs low. Hence, the investment in asphalt recycling equipment to reduce the cost of the major ingredient in the road construction process.

While campaigns and slogans urging people to voluntarily recycle only about 30% of most solid wastes are recycled. With the price mechanism of the free market, rather than government PR people and their slogans, pushing asphalt recycling, we find that 80% of asphalt is recycled rather than being dumped in landfills and newly pumped bitumen used for road construction.

Contrary to popular environmental myths, the free market is not only Eco-friendly, it also works better than environmentalist nagging.

Links: Asphalt Recycling and Reclaiming Association asphalt pavement is the surprise leader in recycling of materials with about 80% recycled vs about 33% or less for other solid waste Salt Lake Tribune -Pricey oil paves way for asphalt to skyrocket

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Demand vs Quantity Demanded

When talking about Demand and Supply it is important to differentiate between the terms Demand (or Supply) and Quantity Demanded (or Quantity Supplied). While they sound the same, they are not interchangeable.

When we use the term Demand we are referring to changes in the entire demand curve. While when we refer to Quantity Demanded we are referring to a movement along the demand curve.

Remember the Law of Demand states that certis pariubs (economic speak for other things being equal) a change in price will result in quantity demanded changing in the opposite direction. Or as your book (Economics Today, The Micro View, and the Macro View, 14th Edition, by Roger LeRoy Miller, 2008, Pearson Education, Inc) in Chapter 3, page 52 states:

When the price of a good goes up, people buy less of it, other things being equal. When the price of a good goes down people buy more of it, other things being equal.

The Law of Demand deals exclusively with changes in price and quantity and, because of this, when we are describing changes under the Law of Demand we have to prefix the word Demand with the word Quantity. Thus, we refer to a change in Quantity Demanded rather than a change in Demand which refers to some other factor (income, tastes, changes in compliments and substitutes, etc.) changing.

While some will dismiss this as merely an exercise in semantics, it is important and will lead to problems in both understanding what is going on with demand and supply as well as lead to wrong answers on tests.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Pros and Cons of the Bush Tax Cuts. Do they really favor the wealthy or is that a myth? What will help the...

Click below to read my May 11, 2008 article for HubPages on tax cuts. This article was written in response to a request for more information on tax cuts and how they work.

The Pros and Cons of the Bush Tax Cuts. Do they really favor the wealthy or is that a myth? What will help the...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pending Financial Problems Depend upon How YOU Define Retirement

Read the current financial news today and much of it a abuzz with articles warning about how most of us nearing retirement are seriously unprepared financially to retire. The studies these articles are based upon take current life expectancy, which is increasing, rising medical costs including the expected increase in use of medical services by seniors, and the cost of maintaining some stereotypical retirement lifestyle. When these expenses are then compared to the published information about the status of this group's retirement accounts they come up seriously short. Of course, most of the people touting this line are financial and investment adviser's whose livelihood depends upon selling the very financial products which are deemed needed to solve this pending problem. Don't get me wrong, most of these financial and investment advisers know their business, are intelligent and are professionals with high integrity. But, like all successful sales people, they not only believe in their product and are also armed with stories, which they believe, of problems people have encountered because they failed to plan properly. The stories they don't tell are the ones about the numerous people who didn't follow the financial plans and advice that these advisers tout and end up living very well.

Mention retirement and the image that immediately comes to mind is that of a person reaching 65 and exiting the labor force entirely. The person and spouse then buy an RV and hit the road or move to beautiful community for seniors where they divide their time between golf, swimming and cookouts with fellow seniors. Following the active retirement lifestyle comes the medical problems that result in the retirees spending their remaining days in care homes and spending thousands of dollars per month for medical and other care. These are the people who the media and experts have in mind when they write the scare stories about a pending crisis in retirement funding.

However, individuals are unique and the fact is that individual people are different and have different desires and expectations. Not everyone retires at sixty-five. As I mentioned in a previous post entitled What Will Happen When the Boomer Generation Retires, increasing numbers are voluntarily electing to continue working full or part-time. Some, who failed to make adequate provision for retirement, do it out of necessity, some do it for the money alone, but others, their financial security taken care of by savings and generous pensions, are working by choice. In addition to the increasing numbers who are electing to continue to work and earn some income, others see their expenses decrease substantially in retirement. Many people enter retirement with the car, mortgage and other bills paid off, the children educated and on their own and no more commuting and other work related expenses to be concerned about. For many of these people a happy retirement is spending time with the grandchildren, friends, their gardens, church and other charitable activities. For both of these groups their incomes will easily carry them through retirement.

As to high medical expenses, again people are different and those with the huge medical and care bills are probably not representative of the majority of retirees. Health and medical expenses are just starting to be given serious attention by retirement planners. Instead of merely assuming that medical expenses will be high, some planners are now beginning to recommend that people begin including healthy life style choices in their lives now so as to try to avoid high medical expenses later. The high cost of health care and pending collapse of Medicare will probably provide a bigger incentive for people to take care of themselves that all the lecturing by politicians and media public service announcements combined.

Yes, people should make plans now for their future retirement and should not hesitate to consult and use various financial experts. However, the plan, and the funding of it, should be for the individual's (and spouse) vision of what they want for retirement and not based on some, one size fits all, formula.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Priest and the Orangeman - A Lesson in Tolerance

St. Patrick's Church in Lansdowne, Ontario Canada is a beautiful, old stone church that sits in the meadows along a well traveled dirt road a short distance from the village itself. From its founding in 1860, it has been ministering to the area farmers and townspeople continuously for the past century and a half.

St. Patrick's Catholic Church Lansdowne, Ontario, CA ©Charles Nugent
This part of eastern Ontario, situated along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, was originally settled by immigrants from Ireland. The population of Lansdowne and the surrounding area in the mid-1800s consisted of mostly Irish Catholics.

As the community grew and prospered, there was a need for a new church. Funds were collected, land purchased and the solid stone church built. A few years and a pastor or two later, the parishioners decided that it was time for a new rectory.

The pastor convinced the finance committee that the new rectory should be built of stone just like the church. The parishioners, being both prosperous with their farms and generous with their contributions, donated the money and plans were drawn up.

 However, a problem soon arose in that there was no one in the congregation who was a stone mason. "No problem" said the pastor, "find one from a neighboring parish". After searching far and wide, the committee appointed to find the stonemason, reported back that their search had been fruitless.

Now this was a growing area and stone buildings were being built in many places so the pastor found this news hard to believe. Refusing to accept the fact that there was no stonemason in the area, he continued to grill the committee on their findings.

 Finally, with a slightly trembling voice, the chairman spoke. "Father, there is one stonemason in a nearby township. However, he and his sons are not only very busy with other work, but he is also a Protestant and an Orangeman* to boot!"

 Instead of the expected "well, thanks for trying" reply, the pastor slammed his fist on the table and roared "I don't care if the only stonemason is the Devil himself! This rectory is going to be built of stone. Now, go hire this man and his sons and build my rectory."

And that, according to local tradition as related to me by one of the area's amateur historians, is how St. Patrick's Church in Lansdowne came to have a matching stone rectory.

In addition to being a good story (and, despite my literary license in fashioning the dialog), this is also a good example of how people, when left to themselves, will put aside ancient hatreds and prejudices to cooperate with those they dislike to the mutual benefit of both.

It was probably fairly easy to find the Protestant stonemason who, more than likely, had many Catholics as clients. Both the stonemason and his Catholic customers probably continued to believe that the other was ignorant and dammed to Hell as a result of that ignorance.

While neither would ever consider a social relationship or, God forbid, their children marrying those of the other faith, the stonemason could easily suspend these beliefs in the interest of more business while his Catholic counterparts did the same in the in order to get the building they wanted.

In a free market, people's actions are guided by self-interest. Having the opportunity to advance and make a better life, individuals first find it beneficial to leave other people alone and devote their energies toward building a better material life for themselves and their families.

They still hold strong beliefs, both positive ones such as their religious faith, and negative ones like their prejudices. However, in exchange for being left alone and to believe as they wish, they reciprocate and allow their neighbors to continue to believe differently.

This is called tolerance. Tolerance is not accepting the beliefs and opinions of others as being equal to ones own. A person practicing tolerance is firmly convinced that their beliefs are correct and those of their neighbor are incorrect so there is no equivalency here.

St. Patrick's Church &  Cemetery in Lansdown, Ontario   ©Charles Nugent
However, rather than wasting time and resources fighting over these differing beliefs, each tacitly agrees to not only allow the other to continue to hold on to their incorrect beliefs but will actually defend  others' right to do so. This is not because they agree with the other. They don't. Rather, it is because each
knows that if they attempt deny their neighbor the right to hold incorrect beliefs, they risk losing the right to hold their own beliefs.

Tolerance not only encourages a live and let live attitude it also enables us to interact with each other to our mutual benefit in areas, like commerce, which do not require that we compromise our beliefs in the process.

Tolerance thus becomes the basis for a peaceful and prosperous society. However, tolerance is not for all.

A tolerant society, in which people work together as needed to solve mutual problems, has little need for a strong body of permanent leaders. As problems and needs arise, leaders emerge to manage the project and then return to their business.

However, this attitude of everyone doing their own thing does not sit well for those who have grand visions of what the society should become. In order to stay in power as a leader it is important for the leader to create a situation where the he or she is needed, and what better way to do this than by the classic method of divide and conquer. By dividing people into groups and stirring up fear and hatred among the groups, a person can emerge and remain the one leader who keeps everyone from killing each other.

England's treatment of Ireland is a classic example. About a thousand years ago the English King Henry II decided that Ireland should be a part of England. The Irish, of course, didn't quite agree and thus began a long struggle to keep the Irish in line. Following King William III's victory in the so called Willamite War of the 1690s, a decision was made to both confiscate the lands of the Irish nobility (a common practice) in the North of Ireland, which had long been a source of rebellion, as well as evict the peasants living on the lands.

Title to the lands was then given to nobles loyal to William and the lands themselves repopulated with peasants from the Protestant Scottish lowlands. Being a minority living in a Protestant enclave on a Catholic island, it was no problem keeping the new population of the north of Ireland loyal as their very lives depended upon the protection of the English Crown. Discriminatory laws for the native Irish and preferential treatment for the Protestants in the north resulted in the desired hatred between the two groups.

Refusing to work with each other, both groups stayed poor while the King continued to rule. But, in time some from both groups began to seek a new life in Canada. At that time, occupied with other parts of the empire, London had little time for Canada and people there were more or less left to themselves. With no one to fan the flames of hatred and division, the Irish of both religions grudgingly began to develop a working relationship so that the Irish community in Canada prospered while Ireland itself languished in hatred and poverty.

The Protestant stonemason and his sons were hired to cut the stones needed for the rectory at St. Patrick's Church in Lansdowne Township. While the pastor paid the stonemason for his work, more than likely he did not invite the stonemason to take a break and have a beer with him. But, then again, taking a break from his own work and observing the stonemason and his sons laboring in the hot summer sun, the pastor may have seen the stonemason, for a moment, not as a Protestant and Orangeman, but as a neighbor doing a job.
Rectory of St. Patrick's Church in Lansown, Ontario   ©Charles Nugent
Remembering the admonition from Jesus to love thy neighbor, the pastor just might have invited the stonemason and his sons to take a break and join him for a beer. The stonemason, visualizing the satisfaction of a cool drink on a hot day, probably accepted.

Thus, the two men (and the sons), again could have set aside their differences to enjoy the common pleasure of a cool drink on a hot day. One will never know which scenario actually played out during that long ago summer. However, one thing we know for certain - the conversation during that break was NOT about religion or politics!

*NOTE: The term Orangeman refers to a Protestant of Scots descent living in what is now known as Northern Ireland or Ulster. The ancestors of these people were moved from Scotland to Ireland by the British King, William of Orange (Orange was a duchy in Holland where William came from). The term Orangemen has been applied to the Protestants in the north of Ireland whose loyalty is to the British Crown.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Grocery Stores Cut Costs to Keep Profits

Supermarkets have come to dominate the grocery business. The large variety of food and competitive prices provide consumers convenience and good food on a budget.

But, not all supermarkets are equal. Less efficient chains are forced to charge higher prices to survive and consumers will notice a difference in prices between competing supermarket chains. Comparison shopping can save the consumer money. Different stores and chains also differ in the variety and quality of the products they sell and consumers may find that they can get more variety and better quality with little or no change in what they pay by switching stores.

Despite the low profit margins, there is no shortage of new entrants into the market. K-Mart and Wal-Mart have added groceries to their existing lines and large volume operations, like Costco, keep expanding their food lines. Specialty food stores and organic food stores have recently been aggressively expanding and drawing more customers into their niches.

How do these grocery operations manage to survive and keep expanding? The answer is mainly by continually cutting costs. Aggressive use of technology and better use of labor help to cut costs directly as well as provide information needed to further reduce costs. When the clerk scans an item at the checkout more than the price is recorded. Information is immediately sent to a central computer database at the warehouse indicating a reduction in stock for that item. When sufficient quantities of the item has been sold, a report is automatically generated informing the warehouse to ship more to that store - this insures that the store will neither run out of fast moving items nor end up storing large quantities of slow moving items. This data, coupled with data gleaned from frequent shopper cards, is also studied to determine the best mix of foods for particular stores in the chain. That is why there is some variation in what is offered by different stores in the same chain.

Not only are the big supermarkets utilizing these lean operation techniques but newer competitors are also using them and expanding. I was recently surprised to discover an organic food market that offers a large variety of produce at very competitive prices. I am personally indifferent as to whether a product is organically grown or not. But I do like fresh fruits and vegetables and this store, in a addition to organic and other specialty packaged foods, has a large variety of high quality produce at prices that meet or beat those of other supermarkets in the area. Proving once again that the consumer is the beneficiary of all of this frenzied competition in the grocery business.

Monday, March 17, 2008

St. Patrick's Day

March 17th is St. Patrick's Day, a holiday honoring St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland who died on March 17th (the exact year is unknown but is believed to be around 460 A.D.). Click here to read the rest of the article St Patricks Day

Here are some other articles by me about St. Patrick and Ireland:

Eamon de Valera the first President of Ireland

Dual Irish and American Citizenship

Charles Carroll of Carrollton - Longest Living Signer of the Declaration of Independence

Edward O'Hare the Name Behind Chicago's Famous Airport

Hugo O'Connor the Founder of Tucson, Arizona

Wrong Way Corrigan - New York to Los Angeles via Dublin

Friday, March 14, 2008

How Price Steers Producers Toward Products Consumers Want

In a market economy prices are the mechanism by which consumers indicate their preference for various goods. When consumers buy goods they desire, they bid up the price, which alerts producers to what to produce. Similarly, when consumers ignore and don’t buy certain goods they don’t want, they also signal the producers which products not to produce.

On the demand side, prices also serve to ration goods that are scarce. When a good is in short supply, for whatever reason, the demand by a large number of consumers wanting to purchase the good will drive the price up as they outbid each other to get the good. As the price rises some consumers will drop out of the bidding because they cannot afford the product and others will drop out because the number of other goods they will have to forgo (opportunity cost) if they spend all their money on this good becomes unacceptable.

On the supply side, prices act as an incentive for producers to produce a product. As the price of a product rises, other things being equal, more producers are induced to produce that product. There are two reasons for this. The first is the fact that costs of production vary among producers. A farmer whose farm contains rich soil with all the nutrients for growing good crops, is located along a river that provides a continuous supply of water and is located in an area where the climate is ideal for growing will be able to produce bountiful harvests at a low cost. Contrast this farmer with one trying to grow the same crops in Arizona. The soil is poor, so our farmer has to buy fertilizer. We are in a desert, so our farmer has to pay for the installation and maintenance of an irrigation system plus pay for the water that the system delivers. Finally, with the harsh climate the yield per acre is not as great. Obviously, the Arizona farmer with a lower output per acre and the extra costs for fertilizer and irrigation is going to incur a much higher cost to produce a bushel of crop than the farmer with the ideal land. If it costs the farmer with the good land $1 per bushel to produce, say, corn, and the Arizona farmer $1.50 then the farmer with the good land can afford to produce and sell corn any time the market price is greater than $1 while the Arizona farmer has to wait until the market price rises above $1.50 before he can afford to produce and sell corn.

Because the farmer has with the ideal land has lower costs and higher output per acre, he can afford to sell his crop at a lower price than the Arizona farmer and still make a profit. Therefore, the Arizona farmer will not go to the effort and expense to grow food unless the price is high enough to cover his costs and yield a profit. Thus, as the price of a good increases, more producers can afford to enter the market and the supply of the good available for sale increases. At $1.55 per bushel both the farmer with ideal land and the Arizona farmer can both afford to profitably grow and sell corn. Obviously the profit of the farmer with ideal land will be much greater, but the Arizona farmer will still make a profit and thus have an incentive to produce and sell corn.

A second thing that prices do is attract new sellers into the market. Assume that the machinery owned by a cereal company can produce either corn flakes or wheat flakes (Wheaties) depending upon whether corn or wheat is fed into it. Also assume that both corn flakes and wheat flakes sell for $2 per box and the cereal company spends half the day producing corn flakes and half the day producing wheat flakes. A scientific study is then released showing that eating a bowl of corn flakes every day reduces the risk of getting cancer by 75%, causing millions of consumers to start eating corn flakes. This drives the price of corn flakes up to $4 per box. Since it can make twice as much selling corn flakes as wheat flakes, the cereal company decides to devote all of its production to corn flakes, thereby increasing the supply of corn flakes.

Let's look at another example. A student enters college having both enjoyed math in high school and received very good grades in math. Once in college the student decides to major in math. Since the only profession this student has seen that uses math is teaching, she decides to become a teacher. However, in talking to fellow math majors the student learns that engineering is another profession that requires an extensive math background. Both professions sound equally attractive to the student. Then she then learns that salaries for teachers start at $30,000 per year while engineering salaries start at $55,000 per year. The higher salary in engineering is too good to resist and our student is "pulled" into the engineering profession by the prospect of the higher salary.

Thus, as the demand by consumers for a product increases, the price is driven up. This higher price attracts more sellers by first, making it possible for higher cost sellers to enter the market and still make a profit and then by attracting new producers to the market who are lured by the promise of high returns (which can be high salaries, high rents or high profits - all result from the high prices resulting from increased consumer demand and all work to attract more productive resources to the production of the product the consumers want.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Income vs Wealth

Many people tend to confuse income and wealth. We automatically assume that rich people have high incomes or, more frequently, that people with high incomes are rich. This may be true but, while working as a mortgage loan underwriter in a savings and loan years ago I frequently reviewed loan applications from people with rather high incomes but little or nothing in the way of net assets. Oh, they often had a number of items listed in the asset column of their loan application – expensive cars, boats, etc. however, in the liability column to the right of the asset column were debts that more than equaled the stated value of the assets. While the incomes of many of these people enabled most of them to obtain the mortgage they were applying for to purchase their dream home, they could hardly be considered rich or wealthy.

Income is the money one receives from their work (this is the most common source of income) or from owning a business, property one can rent or from other income producing investments. Wealth, on the other hand, is the ownership of income producing assets. All wealth originates as saved income – a person either saves and invests a part of their income or they inherit assets from someone who saved and invested their income. Most truly wealthy people will use the income produced by their assets but generally will not sell their assets and spend the proceeds on consumption as this will reduce their wealth and the income it can produce.

I mentioned above that a high income does not necessarily mean that a person is wealthy. Ironically, a large number of the self-made millionaires do not have high incomes. Instead they accumulate their wealth over time by regular savings (and prudent investment of that savings) or by starting a business and plowing much of the profit back into the business each year to grow the business. While some people with high incomes do save and invest regularly and build that savings into true wealth, many people with very high incomes – sports figures, movie stars, some entrepreneurs whose businesses take off and makes them a millionaire over night as well as most people who hit it big by winning a lottery frequently end up spending their money as fast as they acquire it and end up broke when they lose the job that is producing the income for them.

Just as in the old fable about the hare and the tortoise, it is usually the person who steadily saves and invests money over time who retires wealthy while the person who begins the race by being first out of the gate with a high paying job, ends up with little or nothing to show for their efforts in the future.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Economizing on Groceries

One of the ways to measure a society's economic progress is by comparing the percent of income spent on food now with that spent by our ancestors. Our prehistoric ancestors devoted most of their waking hours to seeking food. As society has advanced the time and money spent acquiring food has steadily decreased. When I was in college the it the average household spent about 25% of their income on food. Today that average has decreased considerably.

Despite the fact that the portion of income spent on food is decreasing, most of us spend considerably more for food than is necessary to sustain life. But then most of us seek more from life than just keeping ourselves alive. The fact that we do have the luxury of choosing food on the basis of what we enjoy eating rather than struggling to get what we can in order to keep ourselves going is a tribute to the economic progress which has allowed us to fewer and fewer personal resources to the acquisition to this basic ingredient of life. I can still remember my macro economics professor in graduate school who cited a study which claimed the average person in the 1970s could live on $75 worth of food per year. As we looked on in astonishment, he made a face and said "Of course the diet consists of mostly sauerkraut and beans!"

Given that the portion of our income spent on food is decreasing (and this is especially true for people whose incomes are rising) and that much of what we spend on food is discretionary, the household grocery budget is a place where cuts can often be made when money is tight or we just want more funds for other things. climate

The obvious first place to start is to look at food consumption in the household seeking to first identify and eliminate waste. Next, check for substitutes. If you can't tell the difference between the brand name soda, cereal, etc. and the generic equivalent then buy the generic. However, despite the fact that the taste may be the same, if you get more pleasure from drinking soda from a red Coca Cola can than the brown store brand can then, by all means, continue to purchase the Coca Cola. The goal here is to improve your life style by spending more wisely not build cash by sacrificing and lowering your standard of living. Similarly, if you shop at the local Mom and Pop grocery store but can purchase the same products at a lower cost at the Wal Mart down the street go to the Wal Mart. Again, only make this change if your level of satisfaction remains the same. If you enjoy shopping at the Mom and Pop store then continue shopping there.

However, what if you cannot find waste or substitutes? Savings are still possible by managing your spending on groceries. By making some alterations in the way you shop, you can reduce spending on groceries without changing what you buy or where you buy. The suggestions below apply to both those who are unable to find savings through elimination of waste or by making substitutions as well to to those who have achieved savings through one or both of the above.

Below are six suggestions for achieving savings simply by altering your shopping habits:

1 Make a list before going to the store. This can be very elaborate or very simple. At a minimum you should have a general idea as to what you will be eating during the next week and then check the pantry and refrigerator to see how much you already have. Your list will then contain the items that you need but don't have. The more elaborate method would be to plan each meal and then list what you need to purchase to serve those meals. Once in the store stick to your list and limit or, better still, avoid impulse buying.

2 Don't shop when you are hungry. When you are hungry you have a tendency to purchase what looks good. The end result is you use a good portion of your budget for the week's food on a couple of days worth of meals. In conjunction with this try to do all of your grocery shopping in one trip as this will give you both better control over the amount you spend and limit the number of times you are in a store and subject to the temptation of impulse buying.

3 Set a spending target, then keep track of the price of each item you place in your cart and try to keep the final total close to your target. Again, if you do all of your shopping once a week it will be relatively easy to determine how much spend in an average week on groceries. Once you determine a realistic average try to make that your spending target so as to maintain the average.

4 Take advantage of sales. Most cities have multiple stores and they are very competitive. Check the flyer's you receive in your newspaper or in the mail from each store to see who has the best deals. The time to review these flyer's is when you are making up your shopping list. If practical, divide your shopping between a couple of stores, buying the items on your list from the store with the best price. But, be realistic and don't chase all over town buying an item here and and item there just to save five or ten cents. What you spend on time and gas will be more than what you will save on food.

5 Buy frequently used, non-perishable items in bulk or on sale. Things like paper towels, toilet paper, flour, sugar, etc. often offer significant savings per unit when purchased in larger sizes. So long as you use these items regularly and have room to store them, it makes sense to take advantage of the savings. These items are also often either on sale or have coupons which further reduce your final cost. Warehouse stores, like Costco and Sam's Club, often carry these items in bulk at significant price reductions.

6 Sign up for and use a grocery store savers card. Many stores have done away with paper coupons and offer the same sale discounts when the shopping card is presented. Sure, the store will be tracking what you purchase. But, what is so secret about what you are buying? The store's purpose in collecting this information is to enable them to determine what items their customers prefer the most and stock their shelves accordingly. In some places stores also use the information to send targeted coupon mailings to customers. This not only saves the store money on marketing but saves you, the customer, from having to leaf through a 20-page newspaper insert trying to find the two or three coupons for items that you want.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Convenience of Online Banking

The term "bankers hours" is seldom heard these days, and with good reason. Gone are the days when banks were open from 9 - 3 Monday through Thursday and 9 - 6 on Fridays. Thanks to online banking, banking services are available 24/7. Today practically every banking transaction except making a cash deposit or accessing your safe deposit box can be done online. But with ATM machines even cash (other than coins) and check deposits can be made 24/7 via an ATM machine.

The name of the game here is service and security. We want to be able to access bank services quickly and easily and make sure that our money is safe. Ironically, despite all the Internet scams we read about where people lose money, studies have shown that people who use online banking regularly have fewer losses than those who do their banking the traditional way. The reason is that people who use online banking generally access their accounts online many times a month and can quickly spot when something is wrong. While those who engage in traditional banking have to wait until they receive their statement at the end of the month to see if anything is amiss.

Like services from traditional brick and mortar banks, the services from online banking operations vary in price and quality. However, with online banking you literally have every bank in the nation competing for your business, so you can shop around to find the bank that offers the types of services you want and the quality of service you want either for free or a low price. For instance, my main bank is a totally online and mail operation. They offer excellent service and most of their services are free (free interest bearing checking accounts, free bill pay, free savings accounts, etc.). I can not only move money between accounts at that bank but can move it between other banks that I do business with. To handle things like checks I receive in the mail and my wife's pay check, which is still hand written by her employer, I maintain an account with a neighborhood credit union. Checks are deposited into the credit union ATM and the funds are then moved, via the Internet, to my main bank. We also have the children's accounts at the credit union and have received some good deals on loans from them as well.

Being online, I can access my accounts from anywhere. I also have my paycheck automatically deposited to my checking account. Even when I am traveling out of state or out of the country on pay day, I still have immediate access to my pay check from wherever I am and, using the bank's bill pay service, I can sit down in my hotel room and pay my bills on the spot rather than waiting until I get home and risk a late fee.

However, I have discovered that "online" means different things to different banks. A couple of months ago my wife and I stopped by a couple of car dealerships on a Saturday morning window shopping for a car for our daughter. We found a nice one but did not want to do the financing through the dealer. I drove home, went online with my main bank, filled out an application and received an approval all within about 30 minutes. I printed the approval which stated that I had the loan contingent upon my actually purchasing the car and confirming to the dealership that a check would be FedExed to them on Monday. I picked up my daughter on her lunch break and she had her car before she returned to work. Then a couple of weeks ago I went online with my credit union on a Sunday evening, filled out an application for a Visa card for my wife and I, and submitted it. On Monday evening there was a message on my phone to call the credit union, which I did on Tuesday and was informed that the card had been approved but that my wife and I would have to come in and sign the application. When we arrived we discovered that "signing" the application meant giving a loan officer all the information I had previously submitted on line. He dutifully typed it into the computer, printed it out and we signed it. An hour and a half later we left with the assurance that the cards would be mailed to us shortly. Obviously, some banks have put more thought into their systems than others.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Profit – Its Definition and Use

Profit is the term used to describe the revenue produced by a corporation that is in excess of its expenses. Profits are necessary for a firm to grow and expand. Without profits a firm would be unable to purchase the additional resources necessary to expand the firm's productive capacity and increase output.

The accounting formula for the calculation of profit is:

Profit = Total Revenue – Total Cost

If total revenue exceeds total costs the resulting surplus is called profit. However, if total revenue is less than total cost, we have a loss and the firm is forced to borrow, dip into reserves or sell assets in order to make up the difference.

Legally, profits belong to the owners of the business and in the case of a singular undertaking such as the construction and sale of a single home or group of homes, the owners dissolve the business once the objective has been met, the profit is divided among them and each goes their own way. In the case of an on going business such as an oil company or TV network, the firm calculates its profit and divides it up periodically. In this case the owners usually take part of the profit in cash for use elsewhere and reinvest the remainder in the business in order to expand the business and increase future profits.