Shipping via truck and railroad in a strong economy

If the economy is going well, the trucking and railroad industries have plenty of work to do:

The dynamics in the transportation sector are “clearly signaling that the US economy, at least for now, is ignoring all of the angst coming out of Washington D.C. about the trade wars,” the report by Cass said.

The Cass Shipments Index does not include shipments of bulk commodities, such as grains or chemicals. But shipments of commodities were strong too, according to the Association of American Railroads. Excluding the carload category of coal, which is facing a structural decline in the US, carloads rose by 6.7% year-over-year, including grain, up 14.7%; petroleum & petroleum products, up 27%; and chemicals, up 4.6%. Of the 20 commodity carload categories, only five showed declines, including nonmetallic minerals, metallic ores, and the biggie, coal.

And intermodal traffic – shipments of containers and trailers via a combination of rail and truck – surged 6.9% in July compared to July last year, the AAR reported.

At the least, this is just a reminder of how goods make their way to stores and eventually buyer’s residences. Those trucks and trains may be a nuisance when you want to get where you want to go but this is how it works in our society.

A few other thoughts:

  1. It is hard to imagine drones could make up for all or even many of the goods shipped by trucks and trains. Or, imagine drones like swarms of locusts.
  2. The shipping industry is another one highly affected by economic swings. Like the construction and housing industries, when times are good, there is a lot of need for goods to be moved around. When a recession hits, all that equipment and all those employees are not needed.
  3. Of course, there is an international component to all of this where goods have to enter or leave countries. That all happens on a consistent even with all the rhetoric regarding trade wars and trade agreements. I remember going past some of the shipping yards in Hong Kong and being amazed at the size of the facilities: cargo containers in huge piles for as far as one could see.

When a country depends on one company, like Finland did with Nokia

Here is a quick overview of how important Nokia once was for Finland:

Nokia, meanwhile, has been declining even faster, as Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Apple Inc. have carved up the market between them. The company that used to account for 20 percent of Finland’s gross domestic product has seen its sales decline dramatically in the smartphone era and is operating at a loss.

That raises an interesting question: What does this mean for Finland?

I’m not exaggerating how dependent Finland’s economy has been on Nokia. Here’s the Economist last year, detailing the extent of the country’s reliance:

NOKIA contributed a quarter of Finnish growth from 1998 to 2007, according to figures from the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (ETLA). Over the same period, the mobile-phone manufacturer’s spending on research and development made up 30% of the country’s total, and it generated nearly a fifth of Finland’s exports. In the decade to 2007, Nokia was sometimes paying as much as 23% of all Finnish corporation tax. No wonder that a decline in its fortunes — Nokia’s share price has fallen by 90% since 2007, thanks partly to Apple’s ascent — has clouded Finland’s outlook.

Since the trend in recent decades has been more toward diversification, this might strike many as surprising. But, I suspect Finland is not alone though I’m thinking more about countries reliant on companies dealing with natural resources like oil or minerals.

I’m also prompted to think whether the United States is in a similar position. There are clearly American brands known worldwide that also have large revenues: General Motors, Walmart, Budweiser, McDonald’s, Apple. But, even with (incorrect?) quotes like “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” our economy has a number of important corporations. At the same time, this doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t interrelated. Remember the talk from several years ago about what might happen if General Motors went bankrupt? Or, what might be the ripples if Walmart declined significantly? Perhaps more importantly, the companies cited above all make material goods. As the recent economic crisis suggested, we are very susceptible to problems in the financial industry where the products are less tangible and yet financing, investments, and debts are incredibly important parts of the modern economy. These companies are so large and intertwined with so many areas of the economy that their fate to that of many others.

Argument: if you want a Walmart, you have to accept the McMansions and other things that come with it

Henry Briggs argues that the phenomena of Walmart is related to other phenomena like McMansions:

In any event, the idea of paying less and less and buying more and more is a real driver of our economy. As most economists will tell you: unless the US consumer is spending, the US economy tanks.

That is what’s behind the “You deserve it! ” lines in ads, why having a “McMansion” is part of the “American Dream,” and why the American Dream is no longer a dream: “It’s my right, by God!”

That’s why household debt shot up from $734 billion in 1974 to $13.6 trillion in 2009, from 45 percent of GDP in 1974 to 96 percent of GDP in 2009.

We complain about Walmart wrecking communities, even as we go there for the deals, and then we must go there for the deals because Walmart is all we can afford.

If you walk into a house built in the ’50s or ’60s, you’ll find smaller closets, smaller kitchens and smaller garages. This in a time when people were happier, the country was thriving, and the future glowed with promise.

You want things cheaper? There’s a price.

This is a familiar argument about McMansions: they are linked to larger patterns of consumption. But, if the economy really does depend on such spending, can’t buying McMansions, smartphones, and other items and shopping at Walmart be seen as helping American society? Of course, one can choose to buy “better” items than others – instead of a McMansion, perhaps a passive house or a tiny house. Instead of a regular car that contributes to sprawl, perhaps a membership to Zipcar. While some complain about particular kinds of houses, Briggs and others suggest that consumption comes in bundled packages. If this is the case, then McMansions are just the symptoms of a society that consumes and spends too much and likes sprawl.

 

A hard look at Washington, DC’s economic boom

In light of the recent fiscal cliff showdown, Annie Lowery at the New York Times writes a long profile on “Washington’s Economic Boom, Financed by You“:

Billions in federal spending, largely a result of two foreign wars, were pouring into the local economy by the early 2000s. Then came the housing bubble. But after it burst, a remarkable inversion occurred: as the country withered, Washington bloomed. Since 2007, the regional economy has expanded about three times as much as the overall country’s. By some measures, the Washington area has become the richest region in the country. It is now home to the three highest-income counties in the United States, and seven out of the Top 10.

The growth has arrived in something like concentric circles. Increased government spending has bumped up the region’s human capital, drawing other businesses, from technology to medicine to hospitality. Restaurants and bars and yoga studios have cropped up to feed and clothe and stretch all those workers, and people like [developer] Jim Abdo have been there to provide the population — which grew by 650,000 between 2000 and 2010 — with two-bedrooms with Wolf ranges.

Despite its recent success, however, the article suggests that “Peak Washington” is already here, that there is nowhere to go but down:

And yet there is a sense that the capital is headed for a slowdown. Among the Pentagon’s plans to cut nearly $500 billion over the next decade could be reductions not only in materiel but also to all manner of support staff. The homeland-security budgets look certain to see significant reductions, too. One recent estimate noted that more than two million jobs would be at stake if the sequester comes into effect.

Lowery suggests that a tempering of expectations in metro DC would, on balance, be a good thing:

There’s something unsavory about having a capital city doing outrageously well while the rest of the country is limping along — especially when its economy is premised in part on capturing wealth rather than creating it.

To the extent that DC’s economy is indeed “premised in part on capturing wealth rather than creating it,” I agree.  Nevertheless, Lowery cites plenty of evidence that “creative” (as opposed to “capturing”) work is being done in metro DC (“Google has opened an outpost….LivingSocial owns a huge, hiply decorated space….Audi, Intelsat, Hilton Worldwide and dozens of other firms have opened up offices or moved their headquarters to the region”).  Presumably, every urban area “captures” some of its wealth and “creates” some.  How much “capture” is too much, thus making a whole region “unsavory”?

Along these lines, I’m also intrigued by the quote from Virginia Congressman Jim Moran (D), who observes that “Maryland got the life sciences [centered around the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD], and Virginia got the death sciences [centered around the Pentagon in Arlington, VA]….Of course, NoVa [Northern Virginia], given the two wars, it’s done even better than suburban Maryland.”  Does this suggest that DC’s Maryland suburbs are less “unsavory” than DC’s Virginia suburbs?  Or does it only matter that the National Institutes of Health and the Pentagon both spend tax revenue, making them equally offending because they “capture” the country’s wealth?

Measuring how much the Internet is worth: $8 trillion?

A recent report by McKinsey puts the value of the Internet at $8 trillion. Here are a few other fun facts:

There is a lot of Internet to measure, with two billion global consumers and $8 trillion in total revenue. So McKinsey’s report limited its scope to the online economy in the G-8 countries plus five more: Brazil, China, India, South Korea and Brazil. It defined Internet activities as private consumption (electronic equipment, e-commerce, broadband subscriptions, mobile Internet, and hardware and software consumption); private investment (from the telecommunications industry and the maintenance of extranet, intranet, and Web sites); public expenditure (spending and buying by government in software hardware and services); and trade (which accounts for exports of Internet equipment plus business-to-business services with overseas companies)…

As an industry, the Internet contributes more to the typical developed economy than mining, utilities, agriculture, or education. In Sweden, fully one-third of economic growth in the five years leading up to the recession came from Internet activities. For the entire G-8, the average was 21 percent. In an analysis of France since the mid-1990s, McKinsey found that the Internet created more than twice the number of jobs it destroyed.

Much of the Internet’s contribution to our lives is nearly impossible to measure. For example, I use email. How much is that worth to me? I can’t even begin to say. I read hundreds of news sources a day. What is that worth to me, or to the news organizations? Pricing this kind of thing is exhausting to think about. But since analyzing what the rest of us find “exhausting to think about” is McKinsey’s job, their researchers looked at the “consumer surplus” of the Internet, concluding that the total annual benefit to the United States comes out to $64 billion…

The United States is the world leader in the online industry, grabbing 30 percent of global Internet revenues. But the UK is the world leader in online retail. The British spent $2,535 on e-stuff in 2009, more than twice the average of the world’s largest countries and still 1.4 times the amount of the typical U.S. shopper. Sweden leads the world in Internet’s contribution to GDP. Fully 6.3 of the country’s economy is online — twice Germany, France or India. In Russia, the Internet contributes not even one percent of GDP.

Some interesting stuff here:

1. I appreciate the emphasis on the difficulty of measuring this topic. In addition to simply thinking about the economic benefits, we could spend a lot of time discussing how it has altered social interaction, private practices, and democracy. I wonder what the margin of error is on the estimates.

2. There is some indication of the splits between the Internet haves and have-nots. If the Internet is so valuable, should this be a leading component of aid to poorer countries? It does require a decent investment in infrastructure but it would allow people to easily connect to first-world countries and industries. For example, what is the impact of the less than $100 laptop that was touted for years?

3. With all of this money (and value floating around), it is a reminder why so many states want to get their hands on sales tax revenues from Internet sales. Do European countries like Britain have a similar system? I have bought a few things from Amazon.co.uk in the past and I don’t recall the experience being much different.

4. I would be interested to know the future prospects for the Internet’s growth: how quickly will it grow? How much will it expand? Is most of the growth within developed countries or in opening or expanding newer markets (China and India plus others)?

The decline of men in the American workforce

The Economist examines some recent figures showing that men, particularly less-skilled workers, have lower levels of participation in the labor force:

The decline of the working American man has been most marked among the less educated and blacks. If you adjust official data to include men in prison or the armed forces (who are left out of the raw numbers), around 35% of 25- to 54-year-old men with no high-school diploma have no job, up from around 10% in the 1960s. Of those who finished high school but did not go to college, the fraction without work has climbed from below 5% in the 1960s to almost 25% (see chart 2). Among blacks, more than 30% overall and almost 70% of high-school dropouts have no job…

The main reason why fewer men are working is that sweeping structural changes in rich economies have reduced the demand for all less-skilled workers. Manufacturing has declined as a share of GDP, and productivity growth has enabled factories to produce more with fewer people. Technological advances require higher skills. For the low-skilled, low demand has meant lower wages, both relative and absolute. This in turn reduces the incentive to find a job, especially if disability payments or a working spouse provide an income.

Men have been hit harder than women by these shifts. They are likelier to work in manufacturing; women have been better represented in sectors, such as health care and education, where most job growth has taken place. Women have also done more than men to improve their academic credentials: in most rich countries they are likelier than men to go to university.

There is a lot to think about here. One reason that the article cites for this trend is the numbers of women (compared to men) who are getting college degrees. This has been noted by others (with some interesting data from the White House here) and it really does seem to be a sizable shift in American society.

A few other questions come to mind:

1. Could politicians promote policies that specifically target less-skilled male workers?

2. What are some of the broader consequences of this trend, such as the impact on community life or family life?

3. How could schools, particularly high schools and colleges, tackle this issue?