From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Huh… busy week and it’s only Monday

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China buys two things from the United States:  agricultural products and Treasury bonds.  Thanks to our misguided attempts at a trade war, they’ve announced today that they’re going to quit buying one of those two items.  Indeed, for the past two decades, China has been working to expand their sources of basic resources, including foodstuffs. Other countries are happy to oblige.  Since 1970, Brazil has cut down about 20% of their rainforest, mainly for agriculture.  Most of the deforested Amazon is used for cattle grazing, and about 80% of that beef is exported (guess who buys it?).  Brazil is now also the world’s 2nd biggest producer of soy beans.  (Guess who buys THAT?).  Thanks to our U.S. trade policies, Brazil is poised to leap into first place.  By the way, the impact on the global biosphere is devastating, but that’s almost an afterthought.

Is this likely to cause a recession?  Coupled with the yield curve inverting, a slow-down in housing sales, and w-a-a-a-a-y too much Federal deficit spending, and all the signs are certainly there.  If there is one redeeming thing, it’s that so many of us recognize that a recession is likely at this point.

Written by johnkilpatrick

August 5, 2019 at 1:54 pm

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Lowe’s is laying off thousands

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Well, by itself, this is a startling headline (click here for the full story).  The CNN story blames it on needing to catch up with Home Depot and also right-sizing their inventory (which is, admittedly, huge).  Indeed, for several years, home remodeling has been the bright spot in the retail sector.

However, I’d also remind readers of my note about the remodeling sector from not long ago (click here for that story).  The homebuilding and home sales sectors have been reporting some softness, mainly cost driven, and that’s inexorably tied to home remodeling.  Intriguingly, the folks being laid off are generally in the assembly biz.

As a personal anecdote, I purchased a house in Key West not long ago, and immediately bought a new grill from Home Depot.  Not withstanding my normal “do-it-yourself” attitude about things, this particular grill was a multi-person job.  Home Depot was on the spot, and sent over a team to do the job (kuddo’s to the Home Depot in Key West, Florida!).  Had I not bought a house there, I wouldn’t have bought the grill, and the assemblers wouldn’t have had a job.  You do the math, folks….

Written by johnkilpatrick

August 1, 2019 at 1:01 pm

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Fed signals?

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The FED is expected to reduce its benchmark rate by 1/4 point today.  Market observers note that this is the first cut since the onset of the 2008 recession, and only the 5th time in 25 years that the FED has reversed from increasing to decreasing rates.

effective fed funds rate

The general role of the FED is to calm the waters, so to speak, and anticipate inflation or recessions.  Indeed, the powerful cut in 2008 was in response to a market on the precipice of an epochal recession.  Note that the most previous cut was in 2001, and before that in 1998. The 2001 cut was in response to an inverted yield curve and an impending recession, while the 1998 cut was in response to a close-call on the yield curve.  There were a series of cuts beginning in 1989 that foreshadowed the 1991/92 recession.

In a perfect world, FED rate cuts would forestall a recession.  In practice, however, all they can really do is soften the blow.


Written by johnkilpatrick

July 31, 2019 at 10:02 am

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Harvard Study Projects Remodeling Downtrend

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The good folks at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard (a well-respected old college near Boston) maintain, among other things, the Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity.  Home remodeling is a pretty significant component of our nation’s economy, with about a third of a trillion dollars spent annually fixing up homes.  In recent years, remodeling has grown by 6% to 7% per year, fueling job growth and the bottom lines of many of our leading manufacturers and retailers.

However, remodeling is (and this may come as a surprise to the uninitiated) heavily tied to home purchases.  Lest we forget, most homes bought in America, in fact about 90%, are “used” homes.  Whether bought as an investment (rental property) or for owner-occupancy, the first thing most “used” home buyers do is some remodeling.  This may be as little as repainting some rooms all the way to a major kitchen or bath re-do, or even adding on rooms, re-habbing the heating and air system, or replacing a roof.  As home sales have soared in America in recent years, so have remodeling budgets.

However, tightening interest rates and increasing prices have led many forecasters to project declining home sales.  Indeed, my own research suggests that homeownership rates, having bottomed out at about 63% after the recession, are now approaching a more market-normal rate of about 65%.  Thus, any residual pent-up demand may have already been spent.

So, the folks at Harvard suggest that by the first quarter, 2020, the annualize average rate of growth in remodeling will decline precipitously, to about 2.6%.  Further, on an annulized basis, actual dollars spent on remodeling are projected to plateau in the fourth quarter of this year, with a seasonally adjusted decline in the 1st quarter, 2020.


Graphic courtesty Harvard JCHS

Of course, major components of the remodeling sector actually thrive during downturns.  Homeowners who otherwise might “move up” to a bigger house may spend those move-up dollars remodeling.  Further, houses need to be maintained, and stuff just wears out. Thus, any decline in remodeling spending may not be as severe as home sales downturns.  However, it’s worth noting.



Written by johnkilpatrick

June 13, 2019 at 6:41 am

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Robots — free from their cages?

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I’ve long posited that the principle threat to manufacturing jobs in the future will be the robot.  Indeed, in there are presently 84 robots for every 10,000 workers in America, and almost 200 for every 10,000 factory workers.  In Korea, there are over 500 robots for every 10,000 factory workers.  One of the big constraints holding back the proliferation of robotics is the danger of human-robot contact.  Robots are smart in some ways, but very dumb in a lot of others.  Add to that the fact that they are huge and powerful, and you can see why most — in fact nearly all — robots on a factory floor are kept in cages.  The fencing is there not to keep the robots in place (they’re usually bolted to the floor) but to keep people from wandering into one.


Many of you may have seen Youtube videos of walking robots, and indeed the military is making use of mobile robots on the battlefield for a variety of purposes.  However, on the factory floor, mobile robots are usually limited in both size and scope.  This could all change, however, with new software and sensor technology which was just rolled out today by Veo Robotics.  These tools give the robots spatial awareness, and a monitoring system slows or even stops a robot if an unexpected human-size object is within a geofenced area.  When the obstruction leaves or passes, the robot can then continue as programmed, allowing work to proceed.

Four of the largest robot manufacturers have partnered with Veo on this project, which uses Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect depth cameras as a sensing device.  (Veo says they are working on their own technology to replace the Xbox tools.)

According to Patrick Sobalvarro, VEO’s CEO, “What we hear from every factory, every line manager … is that they can’t hire enough production workers. The production labor workforce is aging out, and one of the things we see as an advantage of our system is that physical strength will no longer be required for production workers.”  A recent study by McKinsey & Company suggest that almost half of human activities in the workplace have the potential to be automated.

Magdalena Petrova of CNBC has a great article on this, along with a video.  Click here to take a peek.  I can’t help but think that this is one of the more important issues facing the American workforce and productivity right now.

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 10, 2019 at 12:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The environment, the economy, and general welfare

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This is a bit off my normal subject, but I stumbled on this graphic this morning and wanted to share it.  I haven’t checked the author’s data or methodology, but the graphic generally follows pretty common logic.


The graphic basically shows that there is a positive correlation between environmental performance and “happiness” (or general welfare, if you will).  That makes some sense.  I was pleased to see how well the United States scored on both metrics, but that’s an aside.

More to the point, this graphic is an example of two effects having the same core feature — economic prosperity and a strong middle class.  The happiness index measures a country’s welfare across fourteen metrics: (1) business & economic, (2) citizen engagement, (3) communications & technology, (4) diversity (social issues), (5) education & families, (6) emotions (well-being), (7) environment & energy, (8) food & shelter, (9) government and politics, (10) law & order (safety), (11) health, (12) religion and ethics, (13) transportation, and (14) work.  All of these are driven by a strong economy.    The EPI, in turn, measures across ten metrics:  (1) air quality, (2) water & sanitation, (3) heavy metals, (4) biodiversity & habitat, (5) forests, (6) fisheries, (7) climate & energy, (8) air pollution, (9) water resources, and (10) agriculture.

Now quite obviously, both of these scales are related to economic success.  Poor countries are less likely to have good education, sustainable agriculture, adequate food and shelter, and work for everyone.  That said, there is a real chicken and the egg issue here.  Does a strong economy drive these factors, or is a strong economy (and I might mention, sustainable national security) driven by these?  For example, does the United States have good public education because we have a strong economy, or do we have a strong economy because we have good public education?

I would note that a lot of folks want to “make America great again” (not withstanding the fact that we’re already pretty great).  However, I would note that our best days — and the spark of great prosperity in our country — were times when we were focused on education, scientific research, preservation of our environment (anyone ever read about Teddy Roosevelt?) and securing, “…the blessings of liberty on ourselves and our posterity…”.

I’m glad to see that the U.S. ranks pretty high on both of these scales.  We should rank at the top. We used to.  We should treat education, scientific research, and environmental protection like national security issues, because indeed they are.

Written by johnkilpatrick

May 28, 2019 at 4:12 am

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Real estate preferred over stocks

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In a Gallup Poll released yesterday, Americans preferred real estate to the stock market by a margin of 35% to 27%.  This comes even as stock market indices are nearing all-time highs.

According to Gallup’s numbers, real estate has been the leader among four investment classes (real estate, stocks, savings accounts, and gold) since 2014.   Indeed, real estate as a preferred investment has actually grown in stature, from 30% to 35%, even as the stock market continued to lofty heights.  The big loser during this period was gold, shrinking from 24% of Americans preferring it in 2014 down to 14% today.

Gallup’s survey of investment preferences began in 2002.  Back then, and until the onset of the recession, real estate was preferred by investors at 50%.  During the recession, savings accounts or CDs were on the ascendency, and in fact gold topped the list in 2011 and 2012.

By the way, Gallup also finds that American stock ownership has declined in recent years.  Before the recession, in 2004, about 63% of Americans directly owned stocks or a stock mutual fund.  That declined to 52% in 2013 and today stands at 55%.

Written by johnkilpatrick

May 8, 2019 at 4:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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