Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inflation, It's There Somewhere

We went to Berkeley last week to see where my son will be going to college. The two pictures below are of a parking meter that was a block from the campus.

Notice the rates in the second picture. Two minutes for a nickel and a dime is good for 4 minutes (minimum transaction is 30 cents). The thing that surprised me was that it also accepts credit cards. Three of the cars parked in front of this "Revenue Raising Tax God" had handicapped tags swinging from the rear view mirror. If you're handicapped, you don't have to pay. Notice the bicycler chained his bike to the machine.

You have to wonder about this 12 minute minimum charge. The nearest public restroom is a 6 minute walk (if you know where it is).

30 years ago, a quarter would have bought an hour of time on the meter. Now it buys 12 minutes. So the quarter buys only 1/5th of what it used to. Put another way, our dollar has lost 80 percent of its value in 30 years.

The dollar's devaluation has been very gradual and spread out over time. California is about to raise the state sales tax to around 10%. If you study history, you'll notice that the sales tax was started during the Great Depression as was Social Security. These two taxes are approaching absurd levels and now we will face a health care tax.

Here we sit arguing over whether or not we are going into inflation or deflation and the real question is; have we had enough of incompetent government yet? The Mayor of Bell California was getting $787,000 until it was put in the press. The price tag for running a photo red light in California is $400, thats enough to start a divorce among young newlywed couples.

I would like to suggest that the reason we haven't seen any inflation is because of the obscene salaries of many people, they can't spend it that fast so they put it in the bank. As long as it is in the bank, there is no inflation effect, if the bank can't find anyone credit worthy to loan it to. Of course the little people like you and me don't have to worry about how to keep $250,000K FDIC insured in a bank (we don't have it to begin with).

Bernanke's goal is to stave off deflation. It's kind of like him going into a "house of ill repute" and slashing rates 50% and claiming it will bring in more business. He's right, but he's wrong. You'll get more business, but it is business you never wanted to see in a lifetime. Common sense rules when you have to work for a dollar the hard way. It is a shame that the government doesn't do it's COLAS off of hooker revenue. Minimum Social Security might approach 100K a year.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It's Never Been This Bad Before (Reprinted)

I've been on vacation the last 10 days. This is a reprint from January 16, 2008 that is worth a second look.

Here is a little bit of history. It gives you an insight into real estate during the Great Depression from people who lived through it. Quoted from:

By 1927, according to Homer B. Vanderblue, most of the elaborate real-estate offices on Flagler Street in Miami were either closed or practically empty; the Davis Islands project, "bankrupt and unfinished," had been taken over by a syndicate organized by Stone & Webster; and many Florida cities, including Miami, were having difficulty collecting their taxes. By 1928 Henry S. Villard, writing in The Nation, thus described the approach to Miami by road: "Dead subdivisions line the highway, their pompous names half-obliterated on crumbling stucco gates. Lonely white-way lights stand guard over miles of cement side- walks, where grass and palmetto take the place of homes that were to be .... Whole sections of outlying subdivisions are composed of unoccupied houses, past which one speeds on broad thoroughfares as if traversing a city in the grip of death." In 1928 there were thirty-one bank failures in Florida; in 1929 there were fifty-seven; in both of these years the liabilities of the failed banks reached greater totals than were recorded for any other state in the Union. The Mediterranean fruit-fly added to the gravity of the local economic situation in 1929 by ravaging the citrus crop. Bank clearings for Miami, which had climbed sensation- ally to over a billion dollars in 1925, marched sadly downhill again:


And those were the very years when elsewhere in the country prosperity was triumphant! By the middle of 1930, after the general business depression had set in, no less than twenty-six Florida cities had gone into default of principal or interest on their bonds, the heaviest defaults being those of West Palm Beach, Miami, Sanford, and Lake Worth; and even Miami, which had a minor issue of bonds maturing in August, 1930, confessed its inability to redeem them and asked the bondholders for an extension.
This next bit discusses the dire straights of many states in 1933: Pg 285 America’s Great Depression by Murray Rothbard. Quoted from Agricultural Discontent in the Middle West, 1900-1939,Wisconsin Press 1951 p.448

As in most depressions, the property rights of the creditors in debts and claims were subjected to frequent attack, in favor of debtors who wished to refuse payment of their obligations with impunity. We have noted the Federal drive to weaken the bankruptcy laws. States also joined in the attack on creditors. Many states adopted compulsory debt moratoria in early 1933, and sales at auction for debt judgments were halted by Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Governor Clyde Herring of Iowa asked insurance and mortgage companies to stop foreclosing mortgages. Life insurance companies protested that they were being very lenient, yet in many areas the courts would not enforce foreclosures for insurance companies, enabling many borrowers arrogantly to refuse to pay. Minnesota forbade foreclosures on farms or homes for several years.
So we can say without a doubt that we have never seen anything like this, but it did happen here about 78 years ago. We could be on our way to an experience of a life time. Are you ready?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

We Have Been Here Before (Reprinted)

Reprinted from 2/1/07.
Today we read that the savings rate in the US has dropped to a negative one percent. It is also mentioned that it hasn’t been this bad since the Great Depression years of 1932 and 1933. The following is an article from way back when, that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, CCV (November 5, 1932), pp. 3-4 titled" What about the Banks." It was written by Frank A. Vanderlip, former president of the National City Bank of New York. Bear in mind that 1932 was three years into the Great Depression. So if we carry forward to today, this would have appeared in the future year 2012. So we are not really where he was at, when he wrote this.

The present economic disturbance has been so severe that it as make even some changes in our language. No longer is it an apt metaphor to say that anything is “as safe as a bank.” The word “securities” has almost become obsolete. An investment that drops in price to a tenth or, perhaps, even to a twentieth of its former range is not a security; it is a jeopardy. The page of stock-and-bond quotations might well be headed Quotations of Risks and Hazards. To call them securities in the light of their fluctuations is ironical.

In 1720, a financial debacle added to the English language a phrase which has persisted in common world-wide use for two centuries. A hopelessly exploded financial venture is to this day called a South Sea Bubble.

The South Sea Company in its time was the rival of the Bank of England. It was the ambition of the Tories that it should supplant the Bank of England. When the bubble burst, the extreme decline in the price of the stock was from 1,000 to 135. The company withstood the shock, however and continued in business for eighty years.

Here is an example from out own times: United States Steel and General Motors stocks, the two leading industrials of the country, declined from the high quotations of 1929 to 8 per cent of that price. The decline in the stock of the South Sea Company was only to 13 ½ per cent of its highest quotation. Take another: The stock of what has long been one of the premier banks of the country declined from 585 to 23 ½. That is to say, it fell to 4 percent of its highest quotation. The decline in the market price of this great American banking institution was therefore more than three times as severe as was the fall in the stock of the South Sea Company.

That illustration is by no means a unique one. There were innumerable American bank stocks which made a more distressing record. Between October 1, 1929, and August 31 1932, 4,835 American banks failed. They had deposits aggregating $3,263,049,000. . . . .

The decline in the price of bank stocks was only a minor phase of our debacle. The quoted value of all stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange was, on September 1, 1929 $89,668,276,854. By July 1, 1932, the quoted value of all stocks had fallen to $15,633,479,577.

Stockholders had lost $74,000,000,000. This figure is so large, that not many minds can grasp it. It is $616 for every one of us in America. It is, roughly, three times what we spent in fighting the World War (WWI). . . . . . .

Not only did our investments shrivel in the last three years but we even frequently lost our pocketbooks. Cash in hand, left for safekeeping in a bank, often went the way of our investments, and worse. Almost $3,000,000,000 of our daily-used cash funds were sequestered in the doubtful assets of the 4,835 insolvent banks. Widespread communities were left with only the mattress as a safe depository, and with little to put into it. People became so frightened in regard to the safety of the banks that they locked up in safe-deposit vaults, or secreted elsewhere, more than $1,500,000,000.
In the Great Depression there was a very good reason for feeling negative about life. The interest only mortgage loan had ruined many banks. If you had any money invested, it was probably gone by then. Age 65 ready to retire, it must have been very depressing to some.

This bit of history was full of pain, the players from that era are just memories. The show will play again and we will be the actors upon the stage. The trouble is, we are not willing participants.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Invisible Inflation

Some prices seem to be declining, and others are increasing. So if one looks for inflation or deflation, it doesn’t take much searching to find an example to fit either argument. There are two different things happening here. One group of items that have been produced for retail sale, are also being resold by end consumers to raise cash. When you have consumers reselling into the market against retailers, prices will drop. The second group of items is pretty much just for consumption without a resale option. These prices are rising dramatically; food, beer, cigarettes, gasoline, drugs, and health care.

With prices rising the consumer has a choice, pay the higher price or switch to an off brand or generic. Blue Goose Vodka at $35 a liter doesn’t have quite the bang of a generic 1.75 liter bottle of the store brand at $10. Of course, then there is the nagging sleight of hand trick where the product size gets reduced and the price stays the same. The family size bag of potato chips now fits in a lunch box.

It’s not hard to notice the decreased consumption of optional goodies; cable, cell phones, internet, the second car, eating out at restaurants. This decreased consumption has a peculiar effect on public utilities. If everyone decreases their water consumption, water bills increase (this happened in our area). Why? Every company has fixed costs that don’t decrease when consumption decreases. With government services, the costs will increase or stay the same, even though they lay off police, firemen and teachers. You get less, so you’re really paying more for it.

What we are going to see from here in the coming year, is a concentration of thought, on how to enjoy our lifestyle by spending less. By shopping more carefully we get better prices from everyone. Some of us know how to do it, the rest of us will learn by going hungry now and then. The real question to ask is, are we able to buy more with our paycheck (deflation) or less (inflation)?

If you buy the premise that Bernanke and the Federal Reserve are saving us from deflation, then you’ve bought into the assumption that printing all these dollars is good for the economy. If you buy the premise that raising the national debt level passes these costs on to our kids, you have bought into the assumption that it’s free for now, and you’ll struggle with the morals of this despicable act of passing our debts onto future generations. If you reject both, you realize that we have a debt problem that will never make it to the grandkids. Our government has borrowed every penny in our banks and spent it.

One of my readers (Rob) commented that the candy bars he purchased had gotten smaller. My half gallons of ice cream are now 1.75 quarts and they take up more space in the freezer. The gallon bottles of ammonia for a dollar are now half gallons. If you have gotten on an airliner lately, there is a new seating section called “cattle class.” What is happening to us is almost invisible. It is a little like sawing a quarter inch off of Grandpa’s walking cane every week; sooner or later, he’s going to catch on. Old Ben Bernanke might convince Grandpa that he’s growing taller and sell him a new cane.