By James Murray: Computer power has reached the point where almost anything can be automated, and computer pricing has reached the point where it is profitable to do so. The world is undergoing a mega shift, and governments have no clue how to handle the problem.
Consumer spending hasn’t exactly been hot. With one big exception: auto sales. At 20% of total retail sales, they’ve been phenomenal and propped up overall retail sales. But in September, there was a downdraft. The calendar got blamed. And in October, there was the government shutdown and debt-ceiling debacle. And now all bets are off.
Selling airline tickets to our increasingly pauperized consumers is an art. And hiding price increases is an even greater art. While there are people who don’t worry about the price as they luxuriate in first class, others aren’t so lucky. For them, the industry has a special treat: squeezing their hips.
The amount in Federal assistance received by families of workers in the fast-food industry, who’re dogged by low wages, part-time work, and scarce employer-provided health benefits, amounted to $7 billion per year. A way for the $200 billion industry to shuffle off part of the costs of doing business to the hapless taxpayer.
It is starting to show up in the numbers: the debt-ceiling and government-shutdown debacles are worming their way into the economy. Americans blame the already single most disparaged institution, Congress, for it and have started to react economically. Clicks of seatbelts being fastened can be heard around the world.
How much have Americans received of the nearly $3 trillion the Fed printed since the financial crisis? The recipients included JPMorgan, now negotiating to settle its various mortgage scams for $11 billion; it made $53.2 billion in profits over the last three years. American consumers weren’t so lucky. And Wal-Mart shoppers have been hit the hardest.
Men’s Warehouse joined the crowd of revenue-challenged retailers when it reported results and cut guidance. Revenue fell, profit plunged. As with its peers that had already reported, it’s not so much that sales were crummy – gosh, they were – but that the excuses they came up with to keep their stocks from crashing were even crummier.
Men’s retailer Jos. A. Bank warned that sales in the quarter plunged 11%. OK, it suffered from management foul-ups, goofy marketing, obnoxious ads, and – at least at the store I looked at – dusty shirts on the shelf. But it isn’t an outlier. It’s the latest entry on a laundry list of revenue-challenged retailers whose woes are spreading relentlessly across the US.
Home prices have jumped around the country, in some cities over 20% on an annual basis. “Recovery of the housing market,” is what this phenomenon is called. Everyone from President Obama on down has taken credit for it, particularly the Fed, whose handiwork this is. But there is a very ugly fly in this illusory ointment.
People in the upper income categories, those who don’t have to worry about the price of toilet paper, have seen their incomes rise over the years. The rest are in a downward spiral: median household income, adjusted for inflation, has dropped 7.8% since 2000. The lower end got hit the hardest. For these folks, tissue makers have a special strategy: desheeting.