World Events

Cars and Trucks, Philosophy and Money: A Research Case Study

© www.canstockphoto.com / Apriori

How do YOU get where you want to go? Transportation. We are invested rather fully in automakers and related companies, so we pay a lot of attention to this vital sector of the economy.

Many companies in the sector are reaping handsome revenues and profits, paying generous dividends, and yet the valuations in the marketplace do not reflect the good results. Some say this is because vehicle sales are at a peak, 17 million units a year, so stock prices reflect a future decline in revenues and profits. Others forecast new sales records ahead for the industry, with rosier outlooks. Who is right?

With 260 million light vehicles in the US fleet, it seemed to us that 17 million, or one-fifteenth of the fleet, was clearly a sustainable annual sales pace. After all, replacing 1/15th of the fleet does not seem excessive.

But we know the story is a little more complicated than that. We wanted to see how annual sales compared to fleet size through recent history. We looked back at annual sales data from Wards Auto and annual fleet size from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation. It turns out that the current rate of about 6% annual-sales-to-fleet ratio is in the middle of the 4 to 8% range that has prevailed over the last 25 years.

Annual sales are made up of two things: changes to the size of the fleet, and replacement for existing vehicles in the fleet. Annual sales equal the change in the fleet plus a replacement factor of 5.5% of the fleet, on average, over the past twenty five years. This means that we are replacing 1/18th of the fleet every year.

We immediately wondered if replacing 1/18th of the fleet makes sense—eighteen years is a long time to replace the whole fleet! But if that replacement rate held steady for many years, the average age of the fleet would not be eighteen years, but only half that—nine years. With the current actual average age at eleven years (Ward’s data), this makes sense.

What does it all mean? When you figure a replacement rate of 5.5% plus a fleet growth rate equal to population growth, or use the average fleet growth rate of 1.2% over the last twenty-five years, you find that annual average sales might be in the 16.5 million to 17.5 million range going forward.

The upshot is that the current sales rate may be near the actual equilibrium pace, with future years coming in higher or lower depending on economic and other factors. We reject the notion that current sales are at an unsustainable peak, while acknowledging they will go up and down.

We know the future rarely follows a straight line from the present, though. Think of the dramatic evolution that the automobile has undergone in our lifetimes: fuel injection, catalytic converters, four wheel drive, air bags, onboard computers… what’s next? The work of understanding the world is never done, and we will always be researching and studying to further our knowledge.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Broken Windows, the Government, and the Economy

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Elenarts

Frederic Bastiat, a 19th century French thinker, gave us a number of enduring ideas including the “broken window fallacy.” His idea went like this:

When the shopkeeper’s son accidently breaks a window, bystanders assure the shopkeeper that it is a good thing, since the glazier will profit, money will circulate, and everyone will be better off. Bastiat names these things as “what is seen.” What is unseen is that the shopkeeper would actually have spent that same money on a pair of shoes or a book or some other good. The glazier’s gain is the cobbler’s loss, and society is poorer by one pair of shoes—after you consider what is unseen.

So imagine a society in which 98 people are gainfully employed in producing goods and services, and 2 people work in necessary, worthwhile and cost-effective ways to regulate the efforts of the 98. If we concede that some level of regulation is necessary, one might conclude that this society shares the output of 100 people.

Now imagine a combination of circumstances that leads to a program to provide better paychecks to five of the workers. The society elects to hire the five to dig holes and fill them in again for generous wages, thus providing “good jobs” for all. What is seen is that everyone has a paycheck, money keeps moving, and thereby everyone benefits. But what is unseen is that society has permanently lost the output of five workers, so the standard of living on average must decline by 5%. No wealth or advantage is created by the digging of holes, when everything is tallied up.

Worse yet, the five might instead be employed in unnecessary regulation of the other workers. If those five spend their days interacting with other workers, the output of five more workers is lost to their oversight. The standard of living on average then must decline by a total of 10%.

Our purpose in writing is not to argue about regulation in general, or the impact of new rules on community banks and financial advisors, or the proper level of government employment. Rather, we are hoping that people will think about what is unseen, as well as what is seen, in matters of public debate. Those of us looking to elevate our economic understanding would do well to start with the Wikipedia article on Bastiat.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Not All That Glitters is Gold

© www.canstockphoto.com / scanrail

The gold standard is a seductive idea that tends to emerge in times of economic confusion. We see this today with the anxiety surrounding the Federal Reserve’s long-anticipated rate increase. Gold is synonymous with wealth, and a gold-based currency represents stability in a world of economic uncertainty… or so we think.

Unfortunately the reality is more complex. The value of a currency is based on two things: the amount of that currency, and the amount of economic wealth it represents. If our supply of currency increases at the same rate as the supply of “stuff” for it to buy, prices remain stable.

If the supply of currency grows faster than the supply of “stuff”, it takes more currency to buy the same amount. Prices rise, and then we have inflation. The gold standard is not a guarantee against this: sudden increases in the gold supply (such as from a mining boom) can create spikes of inflation in a gold-based economy. This risk decreases as we accumulate more gold stockpiles, but gold supplies can still be manipulated by currency speculators in the open market, doing serious damage to gold-based economies.

Worse, even if we could keep the supply of gold stable, the supply of “stuff” is not. If a large amount of wealth is wiped out (by wars, natural disasters, or economic collapse) then we have inflation again as there is now too much currency for the shrinking amount of stuff, creating a “double whammy” of inflation on top of economic hardship.

If the currency supply fails to keep up with the “stuff” supply (as is likely when mineral gold reserves become depleted), it’s just as bad. In this case, the currency becomes more valuable and prices decrease. We have deflation, the opposite of inflation. This sounds fantastic at first: all our money becomes more valuable! But then we have a problem, because who wants to spend money today if they know it will be more valuable tomorrow? Everyone begins hoarding money instead of spending or investing it, creating an economic slowdown.

We don’t always agree with the Fed’s policies. However, we believe that having someone influencing the money supply on purpose is a better way to stabilize prices than crossing our fingers and hoping that our supply of shiny metals just happens to expand and contract itself as needed.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Investing involves risk including loss of principal. No strategy assures success or protects against loss.

The China Syndrome

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / rfx

In today’s increasingly globalized world, actions can have far-reaching economic consequences.

Take, for example, China. If you pay attention to business news you will probably hear a lot about China; as the second largest economy in the world, this should not be surprising. China is a major importer of raw materials such as oil and metals, so any signs of the Chinese economy slowing down tend to be met with alarm and panic in the markets.

These raw material imports have fueled a massive construction boom unprecedented in human history. Over the past 25 years, the percentage of China’s population living in cities has more than doubled. Almost 500 million people have moved from rural China into the cities—that’s the equivalent of the entire metro population of New York City moving into China’s cities every year for the past 25 years. It’s no surprise that the Chinese construction industry has played such a huge part in the world economy.

Some skeptics will argue that this part of China’s role is over and the boom is unsustainable—Chinese construction will level off, China will import fewer materials, and much of the world economy will slow down.

We view this as short-sighted. To put China’s demographic trends in context, China’s level of urbanization is on par with where the United States was at in the 1920s. China’s urbanization is still a century behind ours, and at some point they’ll have to catch up. If China follows the demographic trends of every other modern industrial nation, at some point in the not too distant future another 500 million people will be moving into Chinese cities—and they will still need places to live there.

We may not be sure of the timing. It might take them another 25 years, or it might take them longer or shorter. But the demographic reality is that China’s urbanization is not done, and neither is the construction they need to do to make it happen, or the demand for raw materials to build with. In the big picture, we view concerns of China’s economy slowing down as premature.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.