Monthly Archives: September 2018

THE SPENDING WAVE AND WHERE IT LEADS – PART II

Last week we discussed the spending wave for adults which appears to peak about age 47 and we looked at the shortage of drivers in the trucking industry which appears symptomatic of our whole economy. So here in Par II we’ll take a look at the impact of oil and its importance on the spending wave, as well as the entire economy. To discuss oil, you must start with the Yum Kippur War of 1973 between a coalition of Arab nations and Israel—it did not end in a draw.

“In the first days of fighting, the Arabs caught the Jewish State by surprise and drove into Israeli territory. As the Israelis mobilized, they were able to stop the Egyptian incursion on the Southern border and then drive the Syrians out in the north. Eventually Israel took more ground, but then retreated to the borders established after the 1967 war to keep other nations, namely Russia, from joining in.

“The Arab nations celebrated as if they’d won the war, even though they lost thousands of soldiers and gained no ground. While they did not achieve a single objective in terms of land, they showed that Israel wasn’t invincible. And they established something else.

“In the midst of the war, the oil-producing nations of The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cut off oil shipments to nations supporting Israel, mainly the United States. Over the next few months, the price of oil shot up 300%, from $3 per barrel to $12. Once the cash started flowing in, OPEC kept the price of oil high for the rest of the decade, demonstrating that the cartel now controlled prices.

“The price of oil fluctuated after the 1970s, heading lower for much of the 1980s and 1990s after the Saudis dramatically increased capacity. Oil prices shot higher in the early 2000s as the Chinese economic miracle took hold, and then fell when American fracking opened a new supply. Prices climbed for the last two years after OPEC and several non-members agreed to cut supply in the face of low prices, so now we sit at roughly $70 per barrel. That’s more than twice the recent low, but less than half the price at the top in 2008. While $70 per barrel sounds high, if we adjust it for inflation, the price seems more tame.

“With the new trade sanctions on Iran, Venezuela’s pumping capacity in shambles, the OPEC agreement to limit supply still in place, and disruptions frequently occurring in places like Libya and Nigeria, oil could remain in the $65 to $80 per barrel price range for the next 12 to 18 months.

“And then things get interesting! Even though prices have risen lately, outside of shale, companies aren’t doing much to look for oil. In 2016, oil companies discovered the lowest amount of new oil in 70 years, and 2017 was about the same.

“With prices low in 2014 and 2015, shale oil rocking the markets, and the constant talk of renewable energy, oil companies weren’t motivated to spend their resources on exploration. Shale is great, but in the U.S. we don’t have the infrastructure to move more oil from where it is sourced to export facilities. Renewables make up a tiny fraction of world energy production and can’t possibly grow fast enough to satisfy energy needs in the new few years.

“Energy should be one of the booming sectors in the U.S. for years to come, lining the pockets of related companies, their workers, and even state coffers. But there’s another side to the equation. As prices move up or simply remain at current levels, we must pay more for everything that contains or is moved by petroleum.

“Have you ever considered which products are made with petroleum? Excluding food (which is typically grown using farm equipment that runs on gas or diesel), it’s probably easier to list the things that don’t contain oil. Obviously propane and gasoline come from oil, but we also use the stuff to make ink, ballpoint pens, floor wax, basketballs, lipstick, insecticides, aspirin, phones, refrigerators, plastics, and toothpaste!

“It’s safe to say that everything you pick up at the grocery store contains oil, was shipped using oil, or both. If oil prices remain elevated, then the prices of many everyday items will increase. So, we’ll be paying more to truckers to ship them. This scenario is already playing out in transportation. Recently, the major airlines have announced fare increases because of higher fuel charges. We can expect the same thing from FedEx and UPS as they gear up for the holiday season.

The Outcome

“The equity markets will struggle to adjust. Investors won’t know which signals to follow. Do you invest for growth based on inflation, which typically signals that the economy is heating up, or do you prepare for a recession based on the yield curve?

“Do rising wages mean that workers will soon be bidding up prices on goods and services, or do they mean that companies are going to take an earnings hit as they pay more to attract and retain workers? The confusion should lead to vitality, and that maybe good for us.

“As employers pay more, workers will have higher incomes. Inflation will eat away at the gains, but inflation is lumpy, it doesn’t hit everyone equally. If long-term interest rates remain steady, then the combination of higher pay and steady interest rates could give some working families the push they need to buy homes. Rising pay could also give many consumers with student loans a way to boost their spending while remaining current on their debts.

“How creeping inflation will affect you depends on your situation.

“If you’re retired, then chances are your expenses are skewed more toward energy, travel, and healthcare, so this could hurt. Energy and travel obviously are tied together, whereas healthcare costs are driven higher by overriding demographic factors.

“On the income side, most retirees or those near retirement aren’t job hunting, so that keeps a lid on earned income that might be pushed higher. For Millennials, this could be very beneficial. The group tends to have little in the markets, so they won’t suffer valuation swings, and they are the perfect group to leave their current employer for better pay at a competitor.

“If interest rates remain low as expected, then the income boost could be just the thing to push them to buy homes at a faster clip, which might finally move the generation closer to starting families and moving up their Spending Wave.”

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THE SPENDING WAVE AND WHERE IT LEADS

Another insightful view of our economy from Randy Johnson of Dent Research.

“Typically when we talk about demographics we’re referring to individuals as spenders.  The Spending Wave tracks the number of people in the population at their peak spending age.

“Starting at age 18, we follow people through their lives as consumers, tracking their movements through higher education, first jobs, apartments, early marriage, trade-up homes, empty-nesters spending on travel and cars, and, finally, retirement.

“Aggregate household spending climbs as we earn more money, peaks at age 47 just as our kids are leaving home, and then slopes slightly down.  Knowing this, we can track the number of 47-year-olds in the economy to get a sense of economic growth, which is the Spending Wave.

“It’s easy to see why we spend money in the early years.  We start earning a living so we have a bit more to spend and, once we have kids, living gets a lot more expensive.  But there’s something else to remember.  In our early years we augment our earnings with debt.

“Typically we finance our cars, homes, and even daily living with two auto loans, mortgages, and credit cards.  Debt allows consumers to increase their spending well beyond their paychecks.  When the kids are gone we tend to pare the use of debt, using our empty-nester years to get out of hock and save for retirement.

“We forecast Baby Boomer spending to peak around 2008 just as the highest number of Boomers, born in 1961, reached age 47.  This came after a flurry of home buying, car buying, and credit card use in the early 2000s.

“We all know how that ended.  After the financial crisis, spending dropped, the economy reset, and unemployment shot higher.

“We’ve been recovering for the last decade as we deal with Boomers holding down spending and the Millennials joining the economy, creating something of a consumption tug-o-war.  Boomers still earn the bulk of income, but they’re at the point of saving for the next phase of life.

“Millennials want their share of the economic pie as they join the labor force, but can’t earn enough to buy homes at the same pace as previous generations.  We’re not done with this part of the economic cycle, but it’s getting closer.

“In the worst part of the financial crisis, businesses laid off employees.  As workers found new jobs, they struggled to replace their old income.  Paying workers less allowed companies to be more competitive and eventually ramp up profits, but it came at a cost: unhappy workers.

“The huge generation that joined the labor force in the Disco era is now leaving and there aren’t enough new workers to take their place.  With the economy on stable footing for years and Boomers retiring, unemployment has fallen near record lows.

“Today, the U.S. economy has more job openings than people looking for work.  Companies claim they can’t find enough qualified employees.

“Still, Corporate America has been unwilling to pay higher wages, or has done so only grudgingly.  With unemployment so low, employees are becoming restive, and now workers find themselves in a position of power.

“Companies will have to spend more to attract and retain talent in the months and years ahead.  The problem isn’t about engineers or bankers.  It’s about plumbers, electricians, and forklift drivers.  We’re simply running out of blue-collar, non-college graduate workers, the very people that fuel our national economy.

“The trucking industry exemplifies the issue.

“Truckers are part of the delivery chain for almost everything we purchase.  Whether it is packages left at our doors after we order from Amazon or food at the grocery store, 70% of freight is hauled by truckers.

“Gasoline is delivered to service stations by truckers.  Even our water supply, which is typically pumped from reservoirs, relies on truckers to deliver the chemicals used to make it safe for drinking.

“To call truckers vital to our national economy is an understatement.  And we don’t have enough of them.

“According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), we need another 60,000 truckers right now, and the need is going to grow in the years ahead.

“Part of the problem is economic growth.  As America rebounds, we’re demanding more goods.  We’re also dramatically increasing online shopping, which drives package delivery.

“While the last mile of delivery is not handled by trucking companies, shipping firms move packages among distribution centers via trucks which requires truck drivers.

“Today, 52% of truck drivers are 45 years old or older.  Many will retire in the years ahead.  The ATA estimates that the U.S. economy will be short more than 100,000 truckers by 2026, which is just after the peak number of Baby Boomers retire in 2024.  With so many openings, you might think that trucking companies are ramping up wages to attract more drivers.  They are, but not fast enough to attract the drivers they need.

“And they have a long way to go to catch up to the median pay scale.  Since 2014, truck drivers’ median wage has grown faster than the median wage for all occupations, but truckers still make 13% less than the median annual wage.

“The American Transportation Research Institute estimates that truck driver wages and benefits make up 43% of the cost of shipping via truck.  As those costs go up, so will the cost of delivery, which will drive up the cost of the goods we purchase.  Say hello to inflation.

The Internet Deflator

“Pushing the other way, the internet has served to keep prices low.  The internet is integral to our everyday lives.  We use it to work, study, communicate, research, share, shop, and sometimes, just goof off.

“While we waste a lot of time with cat videos and other questionable pursuits, there’s no doubt that the internet has disrupted many areas of our lives by allowing the almost instantaneous sharing of information.

“Documents travel via email, we buy products from across the country and around the world, we collaborate on work projects and research pieces without needing to travel.  The cost of transmitting is close to zero.

“Just as the Boomers were cutting back their spending, the internet gave us more ways to comparison shop and save money.  It was a match made in economic heaven.  Combined with lower spending by the largest generation, online shopping helped to hold inflation well below the Fed’s target rate, even as the central bank printed trillions of dollars.

“The move to interconnectivity via the web isn’t over, of course.  We are just at the beginning of the internet of things (IoT), where many devices are connected to the internet and can be constantly monitored.  But buying online is now mainstream, with shoppers of all ages checking prices on the internet before they head to the local store, if they get in the car at all.

“Amazon might drive prices a bit lower as it enters new sectors like groceries and healthcare, but competitors in those fields were already fighting a pricing battle against information.

“It’s unlikely that online shopping drives prices lower in the years ahead.  That deflationary ship has sailed.”

The “spending wave” is often now more a ripple then a wave.

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MARSHMALLOWS MAY PREDICT YOUR FUTURE

Here’s a psychological challenge for anyone over 30 who thinks “kids these days” can’t delay their personal gratification.  Before you judge, wait a minute.

It turns out that a generation of Americans now working their way through middle school, high school and college are quite able to resist the prospect of an immediate reward in order to get a bigger one later.  Not only that, they can wait a minute longer than their parents’ generation, and two minutes longer than their grandparents’ generation could.

It may not sound like much, but being able to hold out for an extra minute or two at a young age may serve them well in the long run.  Research suggests that superior results on a delayed-gratification task during the toddle years is associated with better performance in school and in jobs, healthier relationships, and have even fewer chronic diseases.

Those findings emerge from a new effort to understand how children’s ability to hold out for the promise of more has changed over time.  The study, published in the journal of Developmental Psychology, resurrected an experiment that’s become a developmental psychology classic, the so-called “marshmallow test.”

Pioneered in the 1960s by a young Stanford psychology professor, the marshmallow test left a child between the ages of 3 and 5 alone in a room with two identical plates, each containing different quantities of marshmallows, pretzels, cookies or another delicious treat.  Before leaving the room “to do some work,” the adult researcher instructed the child that the single treat on one plate could be eaten at any time.  But if the child could wait for him to return before eating it, the researcher added, she could have the second, bigger treat instead.

After the experimenter closed the door on the subject, researchers on the other side of a two-way mirror monitored the child’s bout with temptation and recorded how long he or she could hold out before licking or eating the treat.

Replicated many times and followed up by a wide range of researchers, the marshmallow test has earned recognition as a powerful predictor of future performance—at least among the white children of well-educated parents.  Compared with kids who lunged for the early reward, those who held out for a bigger prize did better in school, got higher SAT scores, had higher self-esteem and better emotional coping skills, and were less likely to abuse drugs.

Other studies found that children unable to defer gratification were more likely to be the opposite.

By the time U of Minnesota psychologist Stephanie Carlson and colleagues at the U of Washington ran the exact same experiment with 540 kinds from 2002 to 2012, the changes appeared to be real close to 60% of the children tested held out the full 10 minutes for a bigger reward.  And only about 12% claimed their reward in the first half-minute.

These kids—like the two earlier cohorts, overwhelmingly white from families with relatively high incomes and educational attainment—are now 11 to 21.

On average, they waited two minutes longer (during a 10-minute period) than those from the 1960s before seizing their reward.  And they waited one minute longer than those tested in the 1980s.

Surprised?  You’re not alone.

In a survey conducted before performing the new analysis, the study authors found that adults in the U.S. “generally intuit” that children today are less tolerant of delayed gratification and less self-controlled than children were 50 years ago.

Roughly three-quarters of a representative sample of U.S. adults did not believe that children these days would show such self-restraint for a better reward.  And parents—Latino parents especially—were overwhelmingly convinced their own kids would not delay gratification as long as they would have when they were 4 years old.

Carlson wasn’t so sure.  On the one hand, she wondered how kids’ self-control would hold up under the influence of daily television and amid a dramatic rise in attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder diagnoses.\

On the other hand, she knew that research has chronicled a steady rise in kids’ IQ scores—the so-called Flynn effect—which correlates with executive function.  And she knew that a growing portion of kids’ screen time, including video games and some social media, can help them learn to manipulate language and other abstractions to accumulate social approval and other rewards.

Higher preschool enrollment and changes in parenting styles, including the rise of the empowered child, also might contribute to generational improvement in kids’ ability to delay gratification, Carlson said.  After all, only 15.7% of all 3- and 4-year-olds in the United States attended preschool in 1968.  By the year 2000, more than half of kids that age attended schools that stressed social skills and self-control as cornerstones of educational readiness.

The findings “do make me hopeful,” she said.  Not only have qualities such as perseverance and self-control not disappeared, a simple and unchanged measure of those qualities—the marshmallow test—has withstood many trials, including the test of time.

“Delay of gratification is still a good bellwether of these self-regulation and executive function skills, and we’re learning more every day about how important they are for school readiness an achievement.”

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TRAVELS AT THE TOP OF THE LIST

In our over 80 some odd trips, it was hard to pick out the ones to call “The Best.”  Interesting in all these trips there were only two we could say were the least enjoyable.

Back to picking out the best.  In early 2015 we had a blog in January and one in February attempting to name those best.

In no particular order, here were our nominations for best trips:

China, right after 9/11, small group.  Fascinating combination of ancient history busting with energy and modernization.

Canadian Rockies with Tauck.  Beautiful Banff, Jasper, and unforgettable Lake Louise.

Peru, on a private tour to Lima, Cusco, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and the highlight was an unbelievable Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest lake and South America’s largest.

Loire Valley, France, on a Backroads bike trip.  Outstanding close up of life in a beautiful countryside.

West Africa cruise and six-day inland trip in Mali, including Timbuktu and a number of awesome sights.  What an amazing bygone world!

Southern Africa, including Joburg, Kruger National Park safari, Victoria Falls, Botswana with three different safaris, Namibia with three more safaris, and the fabulous city of Capetown.

The next set included:

Southeast Asia – interesting traveling to Laos, Ankor Wat and the highlight was Burma, including Inle Lake with a guide named Wa Wa.  All wonderful!

Chile/Argentina – both countries most enjoyable with an outstanding all-day trip with three buses and two boats from Chile to Bariloche, Argentina.  We’ll get to Iguazu Falls later.

Barge trip outside of Dijon, France – seven days of interesting cruising where you could walk faster than the barge—or ride one of their bikes, or take a morning town or church visit, and three outstanding meals every day.

Rafting the Grand Canyon – eight days of nature and adventure with lots of rapids and small hikes to tour turquoise waterfalls.  Amazing!

Spain – fabulous eight-day peek into the Muslim, Jewish and Christian history of Seville, Cordoba, Alhambra, Grenada, Madrid and then wonderful Barcelona and  Bilbao.

Washington, D.C. – what a great treat to spend time in our nation’s capital and get to see a bit of Congress, the White House, but really special was the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Smithsonian museums, the Portrait Gallery, Spy Museum, and the National Cathedral.  A terrific place to visit!  You leave with a great sense of pride.

I’ve mentioned some of the great cities sometimes when describing them as part of a trip, but there are a dozen other very special cities to call attention to:

  • New York
  • Vienna
  • Berlin
  • Dubrovnik
  • Paris
  • Shanghai
  • Vancouver
  • New Orleans
  • London
  • Quebec
  • Sydney
  • Singapore
  • Amsterdam
  • Beijing

I’m sure you have your own nominations.  Next month we’ll take a look at the next to the best trips.

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