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Open Letter to Senator Charles Schumer September 20, 2008

Posted by The Armchair Economist in Business, Commentary, Economics, Politics.
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The Honorable Charles Schumer,

I am writing to you, as a constituent and resident of New York State, to share with you my thoughts and concerns regarding the Federal Reserve’s action in response to this week’s financial upheaval on Wall Street.

While I understand the necessity for swift and decisive action in order to stabilize financial markets, the actions outlined by the Federal Reserve do nothing to address the root cause of the sub-prime lending debacle. It is of my opinion that our problems derive from monetary policy driven by our exclusive reliance on continual economic expansion to fund increasingly large government programs (and an unpopular war), a policy that favors growth over stability. (more…)

Fed bailout of Wall Street: Reverse Redistribution of Wealth September 19, 2008

Posted by The Armchair Economist in Business, Commentary, Economics.
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Fiscal conservatives (and the rich) have always cried foul over progressive tax policies and socialist policies(or as they see it, the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor). Today, we are witnessing perhaps history’s greatest reverse redistribution of wealth.. from the lowly taxpayer/common man to those who gambled on risky bets (and lost).

While this bailout was necessary to stem the fear running in on the Street and risking catastrophic damage to the US/world economy (think: companies going bankrupt, people losing jobs, less tax revenue, less social services.. depression perhaps), there is no debate that this is basically a free ‘put’ option to gamblers who were caught holding the bag. (more…)

MyGallons.com: Profiteering off the frenzied fear of the weekly fillup July 4, 2008

Posted by The Armchair Economist in Commentary.
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Recently, I’ve been reading countless stories about consumers making ridiculous financial decisions to trade their SUVs for something more fuel efficient, anything ranging from a Smart car to a motorcycle.  The sad part is that for many of these people, they are upside down on their SUV (ie: they owe more on the SUV than the car is worth) so they are paying HIGHLY inflated prices for the gas sipper they are trading into (I’ve heard loans of 39k for a 27k Prius!)  Insane, but this isn’t normally enough to get me to post, but today I came across an article by Kimberly Palmer, of the Alpha Consumer blog on a company called MyGallons.com.

The premise of this company is that you can buy gas at today’s price and use it later, when gas prices increase even more.  Sounds good right?  (if you have any kind of training in finance you probably already see the faults).  The fine print includes: Annual Fee of: $29.95, ($39.95 if you don’t want to give them permission to automatically deduct from your credit card), a $1.95 ‘fill up’ fee if you use a credit card (the only accepted payment method), in addition to other fees (ie: an overdraft fee).  I’ll leave it to you to do some back of the envelope math to see how much ‘savings’ you need to negate the transaction costs.

So what happens if the price of gas goes DOWN?  The FAQ helpfully states: Gas prices move up and down all the time. If prices drop you can wait for them to go back up in the days or weeks ahead. (more…)

Economics of trading in an SUV May 29, 2008

Posted by The Armchair Economist in Commentary.
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With oil futures at $130/barrel and gas prices topping $4.00 a gallon in many areas, SUV owners are feeling the pinch at the pump where fill ups often cost between $80-100. While it is easy to villify SUV owners for their largess and lack of forsight, the question remains: Is it worth it to trade the SUV in for a smaller, more efficient car?

Many consumer finance organizations (1,2) argue that it isn’t economic to trade in an SUV while the SUV market is depressed and trade in values are low. The argument is that since everyone else is trading in their SUVs and no one is looking to buy them, the market is flooded with these vehicles. The trade in value you will get is thousands of dollars less than what these vehicles ought to be worth, and the hit you will be taking on trade-in value is not justified from the savings recouped by $30 per fillup. You would need hundreds of fillups to make the trade-in worthwhile and the smarter strategy is just to wait until the market improves before trading in your SUV.

This argument is predicated on two facts: 1) Gas prices will improve.. or atleast not continue to get worse 2) Demand of SUVs will improve in the future. Without a crystal ball, there is no guarantee that gas prices will improve (infact, Ford predicts gas prices will remain in the 3.75-4.25 range through 2009). While I don’t know if gas prices will be 3.00 or 5.00 one year from now, I’m willing to bet that it won’t go to the price levels in the 90s-early 2000s ($1-2/gallon) that enabled consumers to waste gas without a second thought. (To put that into some perspective, oil prices need to drop from the current $130/barrel level down to the $30-50/barrel level!) Without a significant drop in oil prices, we will likely not see any increased demand for gas guzzling vehicles. The only way we’d work through the current backlog of SUVs is for people who actually NEED the carrying capacity of these vehicles…

A RATIONAL decision to purchase an SUV? Thats a new one..

The Fallacy of Carbon Offsets May 18, 2008

Posted by The Armchair Economist in Commentary.
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Have you ever noticed the options to purchase ‘Carbon Offsets’ from travel sites when you buy airline tickets? My first thought when I saw these start popping up several years ago were that these were a scam (how do you know they really plant trees or pass the money to organizations that do.. and what is their ‘commission’?). Eventually, I started hearing about people calculating their carbon footprints and then buying the appropriate carbon offsets so that they are ‘carbon neutral’.

While, I can’t imagine that it is bad to plant more trees and to be more aware of your impact on the environment via your ‘carbon footprint’, the whole idea of ‘carbon offsets’ is at odds with an environmental friendly way of life. When we hear about greenhouse gases and global warming, most of us probably feel alittle bit guilty about our individual contributions.. however the idea of being able to ‘buy’ our way out of our guilt only serves to divert our attention from where it really should lie: Conservation.

When you calculate how much electricity/oil your 4000 sq ft home consumes during the summer/winter, as well as how much gas your V12 SUV consumes, its easy to feel responsible. While buying carbon offsets may help you feel that you did something for the environment, it isn’t the answer. If paying for the appropriate carbon offsets is all you did, you are ultimately consuming the same number of resources (ie: and contributing to the rise of price of natural resources). Similarly, when you purchase carbon credits from airlines to offset the carbon footprint of your trip, you are giving the airline a free pass to keep on using an aging, fuel inefficient fleet. Put your wallet where your mouth is and do alittle research into the airline that flies your route and uses the most efficient aircraft (I wonder if a site exists that does this automatically?)

Besides selling your house or trading in your SUV for a Prius (kudos to you if you are that invested in our environment), there are simple and effective (yet not very obvious) things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint, all of it revolving around conservation and reuse. Figuring out the amount of trash that you throw away is a good gauge of your impact on the environment. Reuse those plastic bags (stop getting them from the grocery stores, do you know how much energy and oil based products it takes to make plastic bags, not to mention their uncanny ability to resist biodegradation). Minimize the amount of water you use (Fix those leaks and turn off those faucets when brushing your teeth). Buy bigger sized products (Speaking directly to those manufacturers that try to hide price increases by decreasing the amount of product while using the same sized container.. I’d rather you just raise the price and give me the same amount of product, since the product:waste ratio only gets worse). Walk/Bike/Skate/Use Public Transportation.. and STOP DRIVING to the next store within the same shopping complex! Refuse to purchase convenience foods (ie: packaged salads, ‘lunch sized’ package of foods).

The ways you can minimize your carbon footprint are endless.. and none of these require you to spend an extra cent! digg story

Accountability and the Mortgage bailout May 17, 2008

Posted by The Armchair Economist in Commentary, Economics, Politics.
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Five years ago, I was three years out of college and had just written the check for the final payment of my college loans (hurray). My thrifty ways had led to a slowly growing pile of cash in my money market account. I considered purchasing a home since I was gainfully employed, had little expenses and had enough cash for a nice down payment. A little more research into the housing market showed that many of the newest mortgage loans were Adjustable Rate Mortgages, mortgages that had low teaser rates that were to reset in a few years (usually 3-5 years) at the prevailing interest rates. The historically low interest rates, coupled with the stratospheric (not yet ionospheric, as I was soon to see) housing market, and number of ARM mortgages was enough to put a slight pause into my own dreams of owning a home. I reckoned that by the time the interest rates rose in the next few years,  many people who bought in hoping for a quick buck will head towards the exit – all expecting to  cash out before their loans reset, leading a possible downturn in the housing market possibly creating some buying opportunities. By the way, this was before mortgage lenders found a way to mediate the perfect storm of less knowledgeable (subprime) borrowers , increasingly greedy banks willing to accept an amazing new form of seemingly low risk, high return mortgage products , and an increasing number mortgage brokers with surprisingly absent scruples that finally caused the housing market to crash and burn.

Last week, the House has passed a $300 billion in federal insurance to refinance troubled mortgages. While I feel some sympathy for some families that will lose their homes, I question the wisdom of not letting the market work out the kinks of the housing bubble. In the true American (read litigous) fashion, we’ll likely be arguing about who lied to who, who knew what when, and who is truly a victim for the next decade, the truth is that everyone involved in the entire chain of events is partially responsible and should be held financially and criminally (if warranted) liable. Why should bystanders and taxpayers be held financially responsible for other peoples actions? 

Subprime borrowers were giddy at the prospect of finally owning a home, but did they ever wonder WHY even though they didn’t have enough credit to buy a used car, people were now giving them hundreds of thousands of dollars without even checking their income (or even requiring a down payment!)? Did borrowers using ARM mortgages ever consider what would happen if the interest rates ever increased from historic lows (did they really think rates would stay there, or even go lower?!?). While I can see the excitement of owning your own home, as well as the prospect of watching it go up in value 100% every 3 years, did these borrowers ever consider that housing prices might not continue appreciating exponentially in perpetuity? Sure, I understand that that some of these folks might claim that mortgage brokers lied to them or misrepresented some aspects of the loans, but didn’t these borrowers have a duty to try to figure out ‘whats missing’ in this picture rather than blindly sign on the dotted line and hope that they wouldn’t need to consider the ‘what ifs’ should things go sour? In the end, sure, it sucks to lose your home, but should you have been able to purchase this home in the first place (ie: did you really lose it if it was never meant to be yours?). I won’t even get into borrowers who can afford to pay their loans but decided to walk away because their loans are now upside down (ie: they owe more on the house than the house is worth).

Mortgage brokers represent another one of the responsible parties. Enticed by hefty commissions on subprime mortgages, brokers did everything and anything to write loans to innappropriate borrowers.  Mortgage brokers first lowered the credit standard of the borrowers (ie; subprime borrowers, who never should have been able to borrow in the first place),  they lent money without even proof of the borrowers income via ‘Stated Income’ loans, they lent money with ‘No Money Down’ removing the borrowers stake in the gamble, and they underwrote loans for amounts greater than the collateral was worth (ie: money for your house AND renovations).  All of these tactics served to increase the pool of borrowers and ensure that the hefty commissions kept on rolling in.  Brokers may argue that their managers told them to lend money via these standards, while managers may argue that the brokers acted on their own but one cannot deny that as professionals, both parties should have enough understanding that basic mortgage underwriting principles were being violated. 

What enabled the mortgage companies to underwrite such risky loans?  Weren’t they concerned about the fact that they wouldn’t be able to collect on their mortgage payments when the borrowers hit upon hard times?  The beauty of this scam lies in their ability to sell these mortgages to other investors, thus absolving them of the riskiness of these loans and yet keep the fees and commissions from writing these mortgages. 

Banks and Investors, in blind pursuit of ever increasing returns,  was the likely party that enabled the house of cards framework of the mortgage crises.  Companies such as Fannie Mae existed that bought mortgages from the primary mortgage market and bundled these mortgages together to sell as a portfolio product that promised high returns with limited risk (with favorable ratings by credit rating agencies).   The basic rule of finance and investment is high returns come with high risk, and there are VERY little opportunity to get high returns with low risk (free market economics states that there are no free lunches).  Securitidized mortgage products (a portfolio of thousands of mortgages bundled together reduces the risk of individual defaults much like the protection you receive when you buy a mutual fund and one of these companies goes bankrupt) have always held a dear place in investors hearts due to their predictable (and relatively safe) income stream.  With the increasing number of subprime loans, loans offered to risky borrowers and thus had higher interest rates, the rate of return of these packaged mortgage products rose accordingly.  For some reason that I don’t understand, credit rating agencies failed to see the risk inherent in these loans and gave them credit worthy scores.  These credit ratings encouraged investment banks to blindly invest in these products creating a cycle of more demand for risky mortgages.  At some point, why didn’t someone at the investment banks question WHAT had fundamentally changed to enable the once modest mortgage market to offer such an increased rate of return in exchange for minimal change in risk? 

One can argue how borrowers were coerced to borrow money by mortgage brokers; Mortgage brokers are just writing the loans that ‘help people own homes’ and to fulfill the demand of the securitidized mortgage products, and Investors were misled about the riskiness of the mortgage products. However each party likes to play victim, each should be responsible for their actions and the resulting consequences without burdening the rest of the population. 

Disclosure: I still don’t own a home.. maybe in a few years. digg story

The costs of the “Free Shipping” option at Amazon November 29, 2007

Posted by The Armchair Economist in Business, Economics, shopping, Technology.
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This morning, I caved and bought the Nikon D40 D-SLR that I’ve been fantasizing about on and off for 6 months. In any case, I ordered the camera with an extra 55-200mm VR zoom lens in addition to several other accessories (which came to almost free taking advantage of various promotions). Being the cheapass that I am, of course I opted for the ‘Free Shipping’ option.

I wouldn’t call myself a frequent buyer from Amazon, for one, I feel that their prices aren’t all that much better than elsewhere (especially on textbooks and review books, where there is often a 0% discount, go figure.. they have less overhead but charge full price?). But on occasion, a deal crops up where I’ll bite the bullet and buy from them, always using the free shipping option. I noticed that up until maybe 2 or 3 years ago, anytime I used the free shipping option, it would ship within a few hours. However, within the past 3 years, my “free shipping” items would often be delayed a few days before it shipped. This coincided with the “Amazon Prime” offering, where you could get free 2nd day air if you pay them 79$/year. I figured the delayed shipping on the “Free” option was just their strategy to artificially inflate the ‘value’ of Amazon Prime. This time is probably a record, the ship date is 5 days AFTER i placed the order.. and all of my items are in stock and are available for 1 day shipping. This got me curious enough to do a quick google search and I info (posted below)… apparently its from an insider and provides some details into the free shipping/ estimated date of shipment algorithms.. [source: techdirt.com]

I used to work at Amazon, in fact I was responsible for a lot of the algorithms used in Amazon’s logistics network in use today. I’ve read a lot of FUD about Amazon order fulfillment so I have to try to add some facts to these discussions.

Amazon’s order fulfillment process is insanely complex and involves hundreds of different variables which impact customer satisfaction and costs. Since keeping costs (and thus prices) as low as possible is also a major factor of customer satisfaction, it’s important to understand that the underlying principle for all of the algorithms used is to maximize the customer experience. But that’s very complicated. Without disclosing any trade secrets, here are a few of the types of parameters which go into the order fulfillment decisions:

* What has the customer paid for? If they’ve paid for next-day delivery, Amazon assumes they want their order as quickly as possible. Likewise, if they’ve chosen super-saver free shipping, they assume it’s not needed that quickly.

* Where is the inventory? Amazon has many distribution centers scattered across the U.S.A. and not all items are available at each center. It obviously costs less to quickly get an item to a customer from a nearby warehouse. But it might be necessary to ship from further away.

* Are inventory levels as low as possible? To maximize cash flow and utilization of its warehouse space, Amazon is very aggressive about managing its inventory levels. This may mean that rarely ordered items are not kept in inventory and may require time to source from a supplier. It also means that Amazon tries to move inventory out to customers as quickly as possible. Usually, delaying shipments has inventory costs. Believe me, Amazon has no desire to own inventory one minute more than it has to.

* Where is there space for inventory? Related to the above point, space can get very very tight in the Amazon warehouses, especially before the holidays. They just may not have room for dozens of 60″ plasma TVs in every distribution center.

* Does the item need to be ordered from a distributor or manufacturer? If an item is not in Amazon’s inventory it may already be on order and due on a future date supplied by the source or it may need to be ordered. Obviously it’s cheaper to buy large volumes directly from a manufacturer, but those items may not be available quickly. If a customer has paid for next-day delivery though, Amazon will pay to get that item to them.

* Which distribution center has enough people working today? To help keep employees happy, Amazon tries to smooth work loads. Employees prefer to know when and how many hours they will be working next week. When there are high volumes of orders, this may mean delaying some low-priority orders.

* Which distribution center has capacity in their automated systems? It’s much cheaper to fulfill an order using Amazon’s automated facilities than to do it using manual labor. But only so many orders can go through these automated systems a day. Orders may be routed to a different fulfillment center, or delayed to minimize the handling costs.

* Are there any automated fulfillment lines? For big ticket items (think new Harry Potter book) Amazon will often dedicate mechanized packaging and shipping hardware to just that product. It may be much cheaper to wait a couple days until one of these mechanized production lines is in place before fulfilling an order.

* Which shipping company is cheapest? Amazon utilizes just about every common carrier in the U.S. and can even use them together to minimize shipping costs and reduce delivery times. These rates change regularly and service levels can vary from day to day. It may cost 50% less to get a non-next day order to a customer by waiting a day or two before shipping it.

* Do the shipping companies have capacity? Many of Amazon’s distribution centers are in low-cost rural areas. It’s not uncommon for Amazon to max-out the capacity of UPS, DHL, USPS, FedEx, or other shipping companies from one of these centers. If that happens, an order for New York City may end up coming from Nevada rather than near-by Pennsylvania.

* How quickly can Amazon be paid for an order? Legally, Amazon can’t charge you for an order until that order has shipped. To maximize cash flow, Amazon normally tries to get orders out as quickly as possible so they can be paid as quickly as possible.

* How good of a customer is this? And yes, if you’re a good customer, Amazon will spend more to keep you happy. In extreme cases, I’ve seen Amazon send employees to local Walmarts or other retailers to buy an item which is then couriered to a great customer. Believe me, this isn’t cheap. This cost and effort doesn’t go into a first-time buyer’s Super Saver order.

These are just a handful of the types of decisions which have to be made for every order. During peak periods Amazon handles over a million orders a day; trying to balance and optimize all of these constantly changing variables is a difficult job but I believe the company does a pretty good job of it. And yes, I believe there is intellectual property in the software created by Amazon to make this happen.

In general, I think Amazon’s customer service is great. But when I hear that some individual customer service rep, who is probably sitting in West Virginia or India and has never seen the algorithms used for fulfillment or even been to one of Amazon’s fulfillment centers explains how free shipping works, I just have to giggle. They really have no idea.

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