Following the Tragedy at Lac-Mégantic shipping Crude Oil by Train in Canada will be more Costly

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 27th, 2014

Week in Review

On July 6, 2013, a 4,701 ft-long train weighing 10,287 tons carrying crude oil stopped for the night at Nantes, Quebec.  She stopped on the mainline as the siding was occupied.  The crew of one parked the train, set the manual handbrakes on all 5 locomotives and 10 of the 72 freight cars and shut down 4 of the 5 locomotives.  Leaving one on to supply air pressure for the air brakes.  Then caught a taxi and headed for a motel.

The running locomotive had a broken piston.  Causing the engine to puff out black smoke and sparks as it sat there idling.  Later that night someone called 911 and reported that there was a fire on that locomotive.  The fire department arrived and per their protocol shut down the running locomotive before putting out the fire.  Otherwise the running locomotive would only continue to feed the fire by pumping more fuel into it.  After they put out the fire they called the railroad who sent some personnel out to make sure the train was okay.  After they did they left, too.  But ever since the fire department had shut down that locomotive air pressure had been dropping in the train line.  Eventually this loss of air pressure released the air brakes.  Leaving only the manual handbrakes to hold the train.  Which they couldn’t.  The train started to coast downhill.  Picking up speed.  Reaching about 60 mph as it hit a slow curve with a speed limit of 10 mph in Lac-Mégantic and jumped the track.  Derailing 63 of the 72 tank cars.  Subsequent tank car punctures, oil spills and explosions killed some 47 people and destroyed over 30 buildings.

This is the danger of shipping crude oil in rail cars.  There’s a lot of potential and kinetic energy to control.  Especially at these weights.  For that puts a lot of mass in motion that can become impossible to stop.  Of course, adding safety features to prevent things like this from happening, such as making these tank cars puncture-proof, can add a lot of non-revenue weight.  Which takes more fuel to move.  And that costs more money.  Which will raise the cost of delivering this crude oil to refineries.  And increase the cost of the refined products they make from it.  Unless the railroads find other ways to cut costs.  Say by shortening delivery times by traveling faster.  Allowing them an extra revenue-producing delivery or two per year to make up for the additional costs.  But thanks to the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic, though, not only will they be adding additional non-revenue weight they will be slowing their trains down, too (see Rail safety improvements announced by Lisa Raitt in wake of Lac-Mégantic posted 4/23/2014 on CBC News).

Changes to improve rail safety were announced Wednesday by federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt in response to recommendations made by the Transportation Safety Board in the aftermath of the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que.

The federal government wants a three-year phase-out or retrofit of older tank cars that are used to transport crude oil or ethanol by rail, but will not implement a key TSB recommendation that rail companies conduct route planning when transporting dangerous goods…

There are 65,000 of the more robust Dot-111 cars in North America that must be phased out or retrofitted within three years if used in Canada, Raitt said, adding, “Officials have advised us three years is doable.”  She said she couldn’t calculate the cost of the retrofits, but told reporters, “industry will be footing the bill…”

The transport minister also announced that mandatory emergency response plans will be required for all crude oil shipments in Canada…

Raitt also said railway companies will be required to reduce the speed of trains carrying dangerous goods. The speed limit will be 80 kilometres an hour [about 49 mph] for key trains, she said. She added that risk assessments will be conducted in certain areas of the country about further speed restrictions, a request that came from the Canadian Federation of Municipalities…

Brian Stevens head of UNIFOR, which represents thousands of unionized rail car inspectors at CN, CP and other Canadian rail companies, called today’s announcement a disappointment.

“This announcement really falls short, and lets Canadians down,” he told CBC News.

“These DOT-11 cars, they should be banned from carrying crude oil immediately. They can still be used to carry vegetable oil, or diesel fuel, but for carrying this dangerous crude there should be an immediate moratorium and that should have been easy enough for the minister to do and she failed to do that.

“There’s a lot of other tank cars in the system that can carry crude,” Stevens explained. “There doesn’t need to be this reliance on these antiquated cars that are prone to puncture.”

Industry will not be footing the bill.  That industry’s customers will be footing the bill.  As all businesses pass on their costs to their customers.  As it is the only way a business can stay in business.  Because they need to make money to pay all of their employees as well as all of their bills.  So if their costs increase they will have to raise their prices to ensure they can pay all of their employees and all of their bills.

What will the cost of this retrofit be?  To make these 65,000 tank cars puncture-proof?  Well, adding weight to these cars will take labor and material.  That additional weight may require modifications to the springs, brakes and bearings.  Perhaps even requiring another axel or two per car.  Let’s assume that it will take a crew of 6 three days to complete this retrofit per tank car (disassemble, reinforce and reassemble as well as completing other modifications required because of the additional weight).  Assuming a union labor cost (including taxes and benefits) of $125/hour and non-labor costs equaling labor costs would bring the retrofit for these 65,000 tanks cars to approximately $2.34 billion.  Which they will, of course, pass on to their customers.  Who will pass it on all the way to the gas station where we fill up our cars.  They will also pass down the additional fuel costs to pull all that additional nonrevenue weight.

Making these trains safer will be costly.  Of course, it begs this burning question: Why not just build pipelines?  Like the Keystone XL pipeline?  Which can deliver more crude oil faster and safer than any train can deliver it.  And with a smaller environmental impact.  As pipelines don’t crash or puncture.  So why not be safer and build the Keystone XL pipeline in lieu of using a more dangerous mode of transportation that results in tragedies like that at Lac-Mégantic?  Why?  Because of politics.  To shore up the Democrat base President Obama would rather risk Lac-Mégantic tragedies.  Instead of doing what’s best for the American economy.  And the American people.  Namely, building the Keystone XL pipeline.


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Cash Flow

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 24th, 2014

Economics 101

New Complex and Confusing Regulatory Policies require Additional Accounting and Legal Fees to Comply

There have been demonstrations  to raise the minimum wage.  President Obama even called for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.  He also wants employers to pay salaried people overtime.  There have been demands for paid family leave (paying people for not working).  Unions want to organize businesses.  To get employers to pay union wages.  Provide union health care packages.  And union pensions.  Obamacare has made costly health insurance mandatory for all employees working 30 hours or more a week.

Environmental regulations have increased energy costs for businesses.  Sexual harassment training, safety training, on-the-job training (even people leaving college have to be trained before they are useful to many employers), etc., raise costs for businesses.  New financial reporting requirements require additional accounting fees to sort through.  New complex and confusing regulatory policies require additional legal fees to sort through them and comply.

With each payroll an employer has to pay state unemployment tax.  Federal unemployment tax.  Social Security tax (half of it withheld from each employee’s paycheck and half out of their pocket).  Medicare tax.  And workers’ compensation insurance.  Then there’s health insurance.  Vehicle insurance.  Sales tax.  Use tax.  Real property tax.  Personal property tax.  Licenses.  Fees.  Dues.  Office supplies.  Utilities.  Postage.  High speed Internet.  Tech support to thwart Internet attacks.  Coffee.  Snow removal.  Landscaping.  Etc.  And, of course, the labor, material, equipment and direct expenses used to produce sales.

The Problem with Guaranteed Work Hours is that there is no such thing as Guaranteed Sales

The worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression has created a dearth of full-time jobs.  In large part due to Obamacare.  As some employers struggling in the worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression can’t afford to offer their full-time employees health insurance.  So they’re not hiring full-time employees.  And are pushing full-time employees to part-time.  Because they can’t afford to add anymore overhead costs.  Which is hurting a lot of people who are having their own problems trying to make ends meet in the worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression.  Especially part-time workers.

Now there is a new push by those on the left to make employers give a 21-day notice for work schedules for part time and ‘on call’ workers.  And to guarantee them at least 20 hours a week.  Things that are just impossible to do in many small retail businesses.  As anyone who has ever worked in a small retail business can attest to.  You can schedule people to week 3 weeks in advance but what do you do when they don’t show up for work?  Which happens.  A lot.  Especially when the weather is nice.  Or on a Saturday or Sunday morning.  As some people party so much on Friday and Saturday night that they are just too hung over to go to work.  Normally you call someone else to take their shift.  Then reschedule the rest of the week.  So you don’t give too many hours to the person who filled in.  In part to keep them under 30 hours to avoid the Obamacare penalty.  But also because the other workers will get mad if that person gets more hours than they did.

The problem with guaranteed work hours is that there is no such thing as guaranteed sales.  If you schedule 5 workers 3 weeks in advance and a blizzard paralyzes the city you may not have 5 workers worth of sales.  Because people are staying home.  And if no one is coming through your doors you’re not going to want to pay 5 people to stand around and do nothing.  For with no sales where is the money going to come from to pay these workers?  Either out of the business owner’s personal bank account.  Or they will have to borrow money.  It is easy to say we should guarantee workers a minimum number of work hours.  But should a business owner have to lose money so they can?  For contrary to popular belief, business owners are not all billionaires with money to burn.  Instead, they are people losing sleep over something called cash flow.

Cash Flow is everything to a Small Business Owner because it takes Cash to pay all of their Bills

To understand cash flow imagine a large bucket full of holes.  You pour water in it and it leaks right out.  That water leaking out is expenses.  The cost of doing business (see all of those costs above).  A business owner has to keep that bucket from running out of water.  And there is only one way to do it.  By pouring new water into the bucket to replace the water leaking out.  That new water is sales revenue.  What customers pay them for their products and/or services.  For a business to remain in business they must keep water in that bucket.  For if it runs out of water they can’t pay all of their expenses.  They’ll become insolvent.  And may have no choice but to file bankruptcy.  At which point they’ll have to get a job working for someone else.

Cash flow is everything to a small business owner.  Because it takes cash to pay all of their bills.  Payroll, insurance, taxes, etc.  None of which they can NOT pay.  For if they do NOT pay these bills their employees will quit.  Their insurers will cancel their policies.  And the taxman will pay them a visit.  Which will be very, very unpleasant.  So small business owners have to make sure that at least the same amount of water is going into the bucket that is draining out of the bucket to pay their bills.  And they have to make sure more water is entering the bucket than is draining out of the bucket to pay themselves.  And to grow their business.

This is why business owners don’t want to hire full-time people now.  Because full-time people require a lot of cash (wages/salary, payroll taxes, insurances, training, etc.).  They’re nervous.  For they don’t know what next will come out of the Obama administration that will require additional cash.  For every time they want to make life better for the workers (a higher minimum wage, overtime for salaried employees, guaranteed hours, etc.) it takes more cash.  Which comes from sales.  And if sales are down future cash flow into the business will also be down.  Leaving less available for all of those holes in the bucket.  So they guard their cash closely.  And are very wary of incurring any new cash obligations.  Lest they run out of cash.  And have to file bankruptcy.  Which is why they lose sleep over cash flow.  Especially now during the worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression.


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Health Care Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 20th, 2014

Economics 101

Because Obamacare Insurance pays for everything Under the Sun it is anything but Insurance

Do you know what the problem is with health care?  Insurance plans that give away free flu shots.  Not that flu shots are bad.  They’re not.  And it’s a good thing for everyone to get one every year at the onset of the flu season.  For it does seem to limit the spread of the flu virus.  It’s because we get a flu shot every year is why insurance shouldn’t pay for it.  Because we know about this expense.  And we can budget for it.  Just like we can budget for our monthly cellular bill.  Which is in most cases more than ten times the cost of one annual flu shot.

When Lloyds of London started selling marine insurance at that coffee shop they were selling insurance.  Not welfare.  Losing a ship at sea caused a huge financial loss.  And shippers wanted to mitigate that risk.  So every shipper paid a SMALL premium to protect against a LARGE loss.  A POTENTIAL sinking and loss of cargo.  Not every ship sank, though.  In fact, most ships did not.  Which is why that little bit from everyone was able to pay the financial loss of the few shippers that lost their ship and cargo.  But that’s all that Lloyd’s of London paid for.  They didn’t pay a dime to shippers whose ships didn’t sink.  No, those shippers paid every cent they incurred (crew, food, rum, etc.) to ship things across those perilous oceans.  Because they could expect those costs.  And they could budget for them.

This is how insurance works.  Which isn’t how our current health insurance system works.  No.  Today people don’t want to pay for anything out-of-pocket.  Not the unexpected catastrophic costs.  Or the EXPECTED small costs that everyone can budget for in their personal lives.  Like an annual flu shot.  Childhood vaccinations.  Annual checkups.  Childbirth.  Etc.  Even the unexpected things that aren’t that expensive.  Like the stitches required when a child falls off of a bike.  Things that would cost less than someone’s monthly cellular bill.  Or things that people can plan and save for.  Like a house.  A car.  Or a child.  Which is why Obamacare insurance is not insurance.  It pays for way too many expected costs that we can budget for.  And because it does it only increases the cost of our health insurance policies.  Which are now anything but insurance.

Free Market Forces and Insurance for Catastrophic Costs will Fix any Problems in our Health Care System

When we pay these things out-of-pocket there are market forces in play.  For a doctor is not going to charge someone they’ve been seeing for years as much as he will charge a faceless insurance company.  Even today some doctors will waive some fees to help some of their long-time patients during a time of financial hardship.  Because there is a relationship between doctor and patient.  And they want to help.  Which is why they sometimes overcharge insurance companies to recover costs they can’t recover in full from other patients.  (Which is why insurance companies are vigilant in denying overbillings).  Especially those things government pays for.  Medicaid.  And Medicare.  Which the government discounts.  Leaving health care providers little choice but to overbill others to pay for what the government does not.

When we pay out-of-pocket doctors can’t charge as much.  Because they need patients.  If they charge too much their patients may find another good doctor that charges a little less.  Perhaps a younger one trying to establish a practice.  These are market forces.  Just like there are everywhere else in the economy.  Even a cancer patient requiring an expensive miracle drug benefits from market forces.  If there was true insurance in our health care system, that is.  Cancer is an unexpected and catastrophic cost.  But not everyone gets cancer.  Just as every ship does not sink.  Everyone would pay a small fee to insure against a financial loss that can result from cancer.  Where that little bit from everyone buying a catastrophic health insurance policy was able to pay the financial loss of the unfortunate few that require cancer treatment.  Even one including a costly miracle drug.  Because only a few from a large pool would incur these financial losses insurers would compete against other insurers for this business.  Just like they do to insure houses.  And ships crossing perilous oceans.

Health care would work better in the free market.  It doesn’t today because government changed that.  Starting with FDR putting a ceiling on wages.  Which forced employers to offer generous benefits to get the best workers to work for them when they couldn’t offer them more pay.  This was the beginning.  Now the health insurance industry is so bastardized that it doesn’t even resemble insurance anymore.  It’s just a massive cost transfer from one group of people to another.  Instead of a pooling of money to insure against financial risk.  For the few unexpected and catastrophic costs we cannot afford or budget for to pay out-of-pocket.

Because our Health Care System is the Most Expensive in the World it is the Best in the World

The American health care system is the finest in the world.  When you have a serious health care issue and you have the wherewithal there’s only one place you’re going for your medical care.  The United States.  And the best costs.  And it’s because it is so costly that people enter into the health care industry to do wonderful things.  Such as pharmaceutical companies.  Who many rail against for charging so much for the miracle drugs only they produce.  It’s a free country.  Anyone could have created that miracle drug.  All they had to do was to spend a boatload of money for years on other drugs that were losers.  Until they finally found one that wasn’t a loser.  That’s all you had to do.  Yet few do it.  Why?

Because creating miracle drugs is an extremely expensive and often futile endeavor.  Which is why we award patents to the few who do.  Which is the only reason they pour hundreds of millions of dollars into research and development and pay massive liability insurance premiums for taking a huge risk to put a drug onto the market that may harm or kill people.  They do this on the CHANCE that they may develop at least one successful drug that will pay for all of the costs incurred to develop this one drug, the costs for the countless drugs that failed AND provide a profit for their investors.  Who took a huge risk in paying their employees over the many years it took to come up with at least one drug that wasn’t a loser.  Their investors do this only because of the CHANCE that this pharmaceutical will develop that miracle drug that everyone wants.  But most don’t.  And investors just lose their investment.  But it’s the only way miracle drugs become available to us.  Because of rich investors who were willing to risk losing huge amounts of money.

This is what the profit incentive gives us.  The best health care system in the world.  Why the countries based on free market capitalism have the finest health care systems in the world.  And why North Korea, Cuba, the former East Germany, the former Soviet Union, Venezuela, etc., have never given us miracle drugs.  There never was an economic incentive throughout the economy to do so.  Like there is in countries with free market capitalism.  Where everyone at every level pursues profits that result overall in a pharmaceutical industry that produces these miracle drugs.

There is an expression that says you get what you pay for.  Our health care system is the most expensive in the world.  And because it is it is the best in the world.  Trying to inhibit the profit incentive for research and development and forcing medical providers to work for less (steeper Medicaid, Medicare and now Obamacare discounts) will change that.  Because you do get what you pay for.  And those who live/have lived in North Korea, Cuba, the former East Germany, the former Soviet Union, Venezuela, etc., can attest to.


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Black Friday

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 2nd, 2013

Economics 101

Black Friday kicks off the Retailer Sprint at the Homestretch of the Retailing Year

The Thanksgiving weekend is over.  As is Black Friday.  It came.  We shopped.  And now it’s gone.  But have you ever wondered why we call it Black Friday?  Why do we call something so many people look forward to and enjoy ‘black’.  A color more associated with death and mourning?  Because of accounting.  That’s why.  Or so goes the myth.

Retailers survive on razor thin margins.  And many are lucky to break even through most of the year.  While occasionally their costs exceed their revenue.  And when that happens a business is in the ‘red’.  Which is a bad thing.  For if a business is in the ‘red’ too long it can go out of business.  Enter Black Friday.  Which kicks off the retailer sprint at the homestretch of the retailing year.  And the day retailers finally get well out of the red.  And comfortably into the black.

Retailers get most profitable in the last month of the year.  Because of Christmas.  As we celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth by buying Christmas presents for our loved ones.  A bit off message for the true meaning of Christmas.  But it’s now part of the American tradition.  Because we love giving and receiving presents.  Something retailers are grateful for.  For it allows them to become profitable (or much more profitable) based on one month’s worth of sales.  After treading water for the first 11 months.

Accessories and Impulse Buying make for a Successful Black Friday

So what is the secret for a successful Black Friday?  It’s a two-prong strategy.  Get people into the stores with deep discounting.  Things stores break even on or even lose money.  And try to get them to buy other things once they are in the stores.  Things that have little discounting.  And higher markups.  They accomplish this through two tactics.  Accessories.  And impulse buying.

Impulse buying is getting people to buy things they did NOT come into the store to buy.  Retailers will space the discounted items strategically throughout the store.  And place items with higher markups on the pathway to the discounted items.  Things that are so good that people say, “That looks like something I want.  And I’m in such good spirits because of the huge savings on that other thing I’ve always wanted that I’ll throw this into the cart, too.  Why not?  After all, ’tis the season to be jolly.”

Unlike impulse buying accessories are not things that we fall in love with when we see them.  Accessories are the things that allow us to enjoy those discounted things more.  Things that are a pretty good bet that we will buy them.  So they mark these items up a lot.  You may buy a discounted television and home theatre system but the cables that connect the pieces together are typically not included.  A laptop needs a bag to carry it in.  Electronic toys need batteries.  Video game systems need video games.  Smart phones need service contracts.  Printers need paper and extra ink cartridges.  Etc.  Things few people rush excitedly to the store to buy.  But often buy them because they increase the enjoyment of those steep discounted items.

It’s a Good Time to Buy and Sell Stocks but a Bad Time to buy Groceries and Christmas Presents

There is one other element needed for a successful Black Friday.  People must have disposable income.  Or they must be confident in their employment.  Such that they are willing to run up their credit cards because they are relatively certain that they’ll have a paycheck for the indefinite future.  If people don’t have this then all the discounting in the world won’t help make Black Friday a success.  So the prevailing economy matters.  As does the economic outlook.  In fact, the success of Black Friday can tell us the true state of the economy.  And how people feel about the economic outlook.

So what has this Black Friday told us about the state of the economy?  That it’s bad (see Black Friday Weekend Spending Drop Pressures U.S. Stores by Matt Townsend posted 12/2/2013 on Bloomberg).

The first spending decline on a Black Friday weekend since 2009 reinforced projections for a lackluster holiday, increasing chances retailers will extend the deep discounts already hurting their profit margins.

Purchases at stores and websites fell 2.9 percent to $57.4 billion during the four days beginning with the Nov. 28 Thanksgiving holiday, according to a survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation. While 141 million people shopped, about 2 million more than last year, the average consumer’s spending dropped 3.9 percent to $407.02, the survey showed…

For the fourth year in a row, disposable incomes in 2013 have only inched up and job growth remains inconsistent. As a result, low-income Americans will again have a less-merry season than affluent consumers, who are more flush thanks in part to surging U.S. stock markets, which have attained all-time highs. Consumer confidence declined in November to a seven-month low, according to the Conference Board.

“Consumers are generally not in a great mood, feeling very uneasy about the economy and their jobs, and are looking for value this year,” Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Pierpont Securities LLC in Stamford, Connecticut, wrote today in a note to clients. “They have their list and will check it twice, but they are not going to the mall and grabbing a bunch of random stuff because it is on sale or looks nice…”

This kind of so-called mission shopping, where a consumer buys one bargain-priced item and then leaves, will hurt profit margins, Goyal said. It may also explain why the number of shoppers increased and their spending fell, she said…

While traffic at the Mall of America was higher than last year, shoppers planned ahead of time where they were going and what they were buying, said Maureen Bausch, the mall’s executive vice president. There was “a lot of mission shopping, and you don’t normally see that until later in the season,” she said.

That’s bad news for retailers, who normally get about 20 percent of their holiday sales from impulse purchases, said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for NPD Group Inc.

More people shopped but each shopper spent less.  Resulting in an overall spending decline.  The first since 2009.  The last year of the Great Recession.  The worst recession since the Great Depression.  So these numbers are not good numbers.  And they’re not good because of the economy.  Disposable incomes are flat.  People are worried about the economy.  And worried about losing their jobs.  If they haven’t already.  So there is no impulse buying.  Only mission shopping.  Getting the one thing they came in for.  And then leaving the store without buying anything else.  Because they haven’t a dime to spare.  The economy and economic outlook are that bad.

Over 10 million people have left the labor force since President Obama assumed office.  Making for a bleak Christmas on Main Street.  But Wall Street is doing well under the Obama recovery.  While quantitative easing has raised grocery prices (or reduced portion sizes) that perpetual inflation has inflated stock prices.  And real estate prices.  Making it a good time to make money buying and selling expensive assets.  But a terrible time to buy groceries.  And Christmas presents.


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The Poor Economic Model of Passenger Rail

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 25th, 2013

Economics 101

The Amtrak Crescent is about a 1,300 Mile 30 Hour Trip between New Orleans and New York City

An Amtrak train derailed this morning west of Spartanburg, South Carolina.  Thankfully, the cars remained upright.  And no one was seriously injured (see Amtrak Crescent with 218 aboard derails in SC by AP posted 11/25/2013 on Yahoo! News).

There were no serious injuries, Amtrak said of the 207 passengers and 11 crew members aboard when the cars derailed shortly after midnight in the countryside on a frosty night with 20-degree readings from a cold front sweeping the Southeast.

This is the Amtrak Crescent.  About a 30 hour trip one way.  It runs between New Orleans and New York City.  Approximately 1,300 miles of track.  Not Amtrak track.  They just lease track rights from other railroads.  Freight railroads.  Railroads that can make a profit.  Which is hard to do on a train traveling 1,300 miles with only 207 revenue-paying passengers.

People may board and leave the train throughout this route.  But if we assume the average for this whole trip was 207 and they were onboard from New Orleans to New York City we can get some revenue numbers from the Amtrak website.   We’ll assume a roundtrip.  They each have to pay for a seat which runs approximately $294.  Being that this is a long trip we’ll assume 20 of these people also paid an additional $572 for a room with a bed and a private toilet.  Bringing the total revenue for this train to approximately $72,298.  Not too shabby.  Now let’s look at the costs of this train.

Diesel Trains consume about 3-4 Gallons of Fuel per Mile

If you search online for track costs you will find a few figures.  All of them very costly.  We’ll assume new track costs approximately $1.3 million per mile of track.  This includes land.  Rights of way.  Grading.  Bridges.  Ballast.  Ties.  Rail.  Switches.  Signals.  Etc.  So for 1,300 miles that comes to $1.69 billion.  Track and ties take a beating and have to be replaced often.  Let’s say they replace this track every 7 years.  So that’s an annual depreciation cost of $241 million.  Or $663,265 per day.  Assuming 12 trains travel this rail each day that comes to about $55,272 per train.

Once built they have to maintain it.  Which includes replacing worn out rail and ties.  Repairing washouts.  Repairing track, switches and signals vandalized or damaged in train derailments and accidents.  This work is ongoing every day.  For there are always sections of the road under repair.  It’s not as costly as building new track but it is costly.  And comes to approximately $300,000 per mile.  For the 1,300 miles of track between New Orleans and New York City the annual maintenance costs come to $390 million.  Or $1 million per day.  Assuming 12 trains travel this rail each day that comes to about $89,286 per train.

Diesel trains consume about 3-4 gallons of fuel per mile.  Because passenger trains are lighter than freight trains we’ll assume a fuel consumption of 3 gallons per mile.  For a 1,300 mile trip that comes to 3,900 gallons of diesel.  Assuming a diesel price of $3 per gallon the fuel costs for this trip comes to $11,700.  The train had a crew of 11.  Assuming an annual payroll for engineer, conductor, porter, food service, etc., the crew costs are approximately $705,000.  Or approximately $1,937 per day.  Finally, trains don’t have steering wheels.  They are carefully dispatched through blocks from New Orleans all the way to New York.  Safely keeping one train in one block at a time.  Assuming the annual payroll for all the people along the way that safely route traffic comes to about $1 million.  Adding another $2,967 per day.

Politicians love High-Speed Rail because it’s like National Health Care on Wheels

If you add all of this up the cost of the Amtrak Crescent one way is approximately $161,162.  If we subtract this from half of the roundtrip revenue (to match the one-way costs) we get a loss of $88,864.  So the losses are greater than the fare charged the travelling public.  And this with the freight railroads picking up the bulk of the overhead.  Which is why Amtrak cannot survive without government subsidies.  Too few trains are travelling with too few people aboard.  If Amtrak charged enough just to break even on the Crescent they would raise the single seat price from $294 to $723.  An increase of 146%.

Of course Amtrak can’t charge these prices.  Traveling by train is a great and unique experience.  But is it worth paying 80% more for a trip that takes over 7 times as long as flying?  That is a steep premium to pay.  And one only the most avid and rich train enthusiast will likely pay.  Which begs the question why are we subsidizing passenger rail when it’s such a poor economic model that there is no private passenger rail?  Because of all those costs.  Congress loves spending money.  And they love making a lot of costly jobs.  And that’s one thing railroads offer.  Lots of costly jobs.  For it takes a lot of people to build, maintain and operate a railroad.

Which is why all politicians want to build high-speed rail.  For it doesn’t get more costly than that.  These are dedicated roads.  And they’re electric.  Which makes the infrastructure the most costly of all rail.  Because of the high speeds there are no grade crossings.  Crossing traffic goes under.  Or over.  But never across.  And they don’t share the road with anyone.  There are no profitable freight trains running on high-speed lines to share the costs.  No.  Fewer trains must cover greater costs.  Making the losses greater.  And the subsidies higher.  Which is why politicians love high-speed rail.  It’s like national health care on wheels.


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Inventory to Sales Ratio and Labor Force Participation Rate (1992-2013)

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 12th, 2013

History 101

Just-in-Time Delivery lowers Inventory Costs but risks Manufacturing Interruptions

Carrying a large inventory is costly.  And risky.  First of all you have to warehouse it.  In a secured heated (and sometimes cooled) building.  With a fire alarm system.  A fire suppression (i.e., sprinkler) system.  A security alarm system.  You need lighting.  And people.  Safety training.  Safety equipment.  Forklifts.  Loading docks.  Delivery trucks.  Insurances.  Property taxes (real and personal).  Utilities.  Telephone and Internet.  A computer inventory system.  Etc.  It adds up.  And the larger the inventory the larger the cost.

Then there are the risks.  Fire damage.  Theft.  Water damage (say from a fire suppression line that freezes during the winter because some kid broke a window to let freezing air in that froze the water inside the sprinkler line with the expanding ice breaking the pipe and allowing water to flow out of the pipe onto your inventory).  Shrinkage (things that disappear but weren’t sold).  Damaged goods (say a forklift operator accidentally backed into a shelve full of plasma displays).  Shifts in consumer demand (what was once hot may not be hot anymore which is a costly problem when you have a warehouse full of that stuff).  Etc.  And the larger the inventory the greater the risks.

In the latter half of the 20th century a new term entered the business lexicon.  Just-in-time delivery.  Or JIT for short.  Instead of warehousing material needed for manufacturing manufacturers turned to JIT.  And tight schedules.  They bought what they needed as they needed it.  Having it arrive just as it was needed in the manufacturing process.  JIT greatly cut costs.  But it allowed any interruption in those just-in-time deliveries shut down manufacturing.  As there was no inventory to feed manufacturing if a delivery did not arrive just in time.

A Rising Inventory to Sales Ratio means Inventory is Growing Larger or Sales are Falling

There are many financial ratios we use to judge how well a business is performing.  One of them is the inventory to sales ratio.  Which is the inventory on hand divided by the sales that inventory generated.  If this number equals ‘1’ then the inventory on hand for a given period is sold before that period is up.  Which would be very efficient inventory management.  Unless a lot of sales were lost because some things were out of stock because so few of them were in inventory.

Ideally managers would like this number to be ‘1’.  For that would have the lowest cost of carrying inventory.  If you sold one item 4 times a month you could add one to inventory each week to replace the one sold that week.  That would be very efficient.  Unless four people want to buy this item in the same week.  Which means instead of selling 4 of these items you will probably only sell one.  For the other three people may just go to a different store that does have it in stock.  So it is a judgment call.  You have to carry more than you may sell because people don’t come in at evenly spaced intervals to buy things.

We can look at the inventory to sales ratio for the general economy over time to note trends.  A falling ratio is generally good.  For it shows inventories growing as a lesser rate than sales.  Meaning that businesses are getting more sales out of reduced inventory levels.  Which means more profits.  A flat trend could mean that businesses are operating at peak efficiency.  Or they are treading water due to uncertainty in the business climate. Doing the minimum to meet their current demand.  But not growing because there is too much uncertainty in the air.  A rising ratio is not good.  For the only way for that to happen is if inventory is growing larger.  Sales are falling.  Or both.

The Labor Force Participation Rate has been in a Freefall since President Obama took Office

When inventories start rising it is typically because sales are falling.  Businesses are making their usually buys to restock inventory.  Only people aren’t buying as much as they once were.  So with people buying less sales fall and inventories grow.  Rising inventories are often an indicator of a recession.  As unemployment rises there are fewer people going to stores to buy things.  So sales fall.  After a period or two of this when businesses see that falling sales was not just an aberration for one period but a sign of worse economic times to come they cut back their buying.  Draw down their inventories.  And lay off some workers to adjust for the weaker demand.  As they do their suppliers see a fall in their sales and do likewise.  All the way up the stages of production to raw material extraction. 

Retailers typically carry larger inventories than wholesalers or manufacturers.  To try and accommodate their diverse customer base.  So when their sales fall and their inventories rise they are left with bulging inventories that are costly to store in a warehouse.  They may start cutting prices to move this inventory.  Or pray for some government help.  Such as low interest rates to get people to buy things even when it may not be in their best interest (for people tend to get laid off in a recession and having a new car payment while unemployed takes a lot of joy out of having a new car).  Or a government stimulus program.  Make-work for the unemployed.  Or even cash benefits the unemployed can spend.  Which will provide a surge in economic activity at the consumer level as retailers and wholesalers unload backed up inventory.  But it rarely creates any new jobs.  Because government stimulus eventually runs out.  And once it does the people will leave the stores again.  So retailers may benefit and to a certain degree wholesalers as they can clear out their inventories.  But manufacturers and raw material extractors adjust to the new reality.  As retail sales fall retailers and wholesalers will need less inventory.  Which means manufacturers and raw material extractors ramp down to adjust to the lower demand.  Cutting their costs so their reduced revenue can cover them.  Which means laying off workers.  We can see this when we look at inventory to sales ratio and the labor force participation rate over time.

(There appears to be a problem with the latest version of this blogging software that is preventing the insertion of this chart into this post.  Please click on this link to see the chart.)

(Sources: Inventories/Sales Ratio, Archived News Releases

Cheap money gave us irrational exuberance and the dot-com bubble in the Nineties.  And a recession in the early 2000s.   Note that the trend during the Nineties was a falling inventory to sales ratio as advanced computer inventory systems tied in over the Internet took inventory management to new heights.  But as the dot-com irrational exuberance came to a head we had a huge dot-com economy that had yet to start selling anything.  As their start-up capital ran out the dot-coms began to go belly-up.  And all those programmers who flooded our colleges in the Nineties to get their computer degrees lost their high paying jobs.  Stock prices fell out of the sky as companies went bankrupt.  Resulting in a bad recession.  The fall in spending can be seen in the uptick in the inventory to sales ratio.  This fall in spending (and rise in inventories) led to a lot of people losing their jobs.  As we can see in the falling labor force participation rate.  The ensuing recession was compounded by the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Things eventually stabilized but there was more irrational exuberance in the air.  Thanks to a housing policy that put people into houses they couldn’t afford with subprime mortgages.  Which lenders did under threat from the Clinton administration (see Bill Clinton created the Subprime Mortgage Crisis with his Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending posted 11/6/2011 on Pithocrates).  Note the huge spike in the inventory to sales ratio.  And the free-fall of the labor force participation rate.  Which hasn’t stopped falling since President Obama took office.  Even though the inventory to sales ratio returned to pre-Great Recession levels.  But there is so much uncertainty in the economic outlook that no one is hiring.  They’re just shedding jobs.  Making the Obama economic recovery the worst since that following the Great Depression.


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FT161: “Only in government can rank amateurs be put in charge of industries.” —Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 15th, 2013

Fundamental Truth

Politicians love Keynesian Economics because it’s a Pathway to European Social Democracy

For years now we’ve been hearing about President Obama’s efforts to create jobs.  Going all the way back to that laser-like focus he was putting on job creation.  And there was that $800 billion stimulus bill.  That stimulated little but Democrat campaign contributors.  The president has been talking about job creation for a long time.  Yes, he can talk the talk.  But he sure can’t walk the walk.

A big reason why the economy is still so anemic is in large part due to Obamacare.  The onerous requirements of the new health care law have frozen new hiring.  And dampened business growth.  For all those small businesses that are just starting up and trying to gain some traction see massive new costs coming their way.  On top of the massive costs they’re paying already.  From taxes.  To regulatory costs.  Increasing the cost of doing business.  And leaving less and less to reinvest into their business.  So they can grow and hire new people.  Creating jobs.  Which is something the president claims he’s all for.  Yet it is his policies that are preventing these job creators from creating jobs.  And there is a reason for that.

The president and the Democrat Party (and many in the Old Guard of the Republican Party) are Keynesians.  And they believe in the economic policies of John Maynard Keynes.  Which ushered in the era of Big Government.  And massive interventions into the private economy.  A substitution for socialism.  Providing a pathway to socialism.  As in the European variety.  Those social democracies that are all wallowing in the European sovereign debt crisis.  Because their governments grew too large.  Intervened too much into the private economy.  And spent far too much money they didn’t have.

Nixon, Ford and Carter tried Keynesian Economics on a Grand Scale once Nixon Decoupled the Dollar from Gold

All government economists are Keynesian economists.  The Keynesians tell their friends in government to keep interest rates artificially low to stimulate the economy.  Because they believe that even though consumer demand isn’t there businesses will borrow this cheap money and expand production.  And hire more people.  Also, if the economy is not performing as it should be the government needs to spend money.  With make-work programs. Paying people to do things like dig ditches.  And fill them back in.  Because they will take their earnings and spend it.  Creating economic activity.  And the government should do this with deficit spending.  Spending money they don’t have.  Either by printing it.  Or borrowing it.

They have been trying this since World War I or so.  In fact, Keynes met with FDR.  Telling him about his economic theories.  Some of which FDR took to heart.  For he did increase the size of government.  And he spent money on a lot of make-work programs.  None of which pulled the economy out of the Great Depression.  And he tried for over ten years.  Nixon, Ford and Carter tried Keynesian economics on a grand scale.  Once Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold.  Stopping the gold flow out of the country due to Nixon’s inflationary policies (foreign governments said if you want to make the U.S. dollar worthless we’ll take the gold instead at the promised exchange rate of $35/ounce).  Once they no longer had to honor that promise they were able to print even more money. Unleashing an inflation that reached double digits in the Seventies.  And caused massive unemployment and stagnant economic growth.  Stagflation.

This was a failure of Keynesian economics.  For the theory went if you have a recession you used inflation to end it.  And you did that by printing money.  But instead of an improved economy all they got was inflation (and higher prices) to go with an already bad economy.  Which just made everything worse.  Had they continued the classical economic policies that made America the number one economic power in the world (thrift, low taxes, low regulations, the gold standard, savings, etc.) there would have been no inflation.  And there would have been a lot of new economic activity.  Because this is what happened in the past with these policies.  While every time Keynesians tried to spend their way out of a recession it has never worked.  As the historical record clearly documents.

Obamacare will do to Health Care what Government has done to Businesses in our Big Metropolitan Cities

Now either those in government don’t understand this.  Or they do.  And just don’t care about the economic damage they cause as they are more interested in expanding their control over the private economy than they are about the American people.  Which means they’re either not very smart.  Or they’re devious.  Lying to the American people just to advance their agenda.  A larger and more powerful federal government.  Compounding this problem is that most of our politicians don’t understand the first thing about business.  Most are lawyers who think businesses are little more than cash piñatas.  Good for suing.  Or taxing.  But they have no idea how they work.  Which builds the case for our politicians not being very smart.  As well as being devious.

Worse, it’s these same people who are regulating the hell out of our businesses.  These people who don’t understand the first thing about running a business.  But are killing small businesses with costly regulations.  Especially in the big cities.  Where there is so much costly red tape to cut through to open a business.  And to run a business.  Especially if you want to hire employees.  A regulatory nightmare few business owners ever expected.  And so complex and costly that a lot of businesses fail because they don’t charge enough to cover all of their costs.  But these politicians don’t care.  As evidenced by the amount of business they drive out of large metropolitan cities.  Detroit once was the automotive capital of the world.  But the city government grew so large and costly that the costs of doing business in Detroit soared to pay for it.  Making it just too costly to do business in Detroit.  So businesses left.  First the jobs left.  Then the people.  The two greatest employers in Detroit these days are the City of Detroit.  And the Detroit Public Schools.  Both paid with tax dollars.  Generated by businesses.  That are no longer there.  So facing bankruptcy due to the crushing costs of government (primarily pensions and health care benefits), the governor declared an emergency.  And assigned an emergency manager to fix Detroit’s finances.

Now the people who destroyed the business environment in our big metropolitan cities are taking over health care.  Who know even less about health care than they do about running a business.  There are some doctors in Congress.  But only approximately 3.7% are doctors.  And only 16 of the 20 are Republicans.  So they will have little say with the Democrat-passed Obamacare.  While Obamacare will do to health care what government has done to businesses in our big metropolitan cities.  It will destroy it.  Because health care is very complex.  Doctors spent some 8 years of schooling to become a doctor.  And spend their career in continuing education to stay current in their fields.  But who will be managing these professionals now?  Rank amateurs.  For only in government can rank amateurs be put in charge of industries.


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Economies of Scale

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 31st, 2012

Economics 101

Employers are very Reluctant to hire Additional Employees because Labor Costs are their Greatest Costs

When it comes to running a business there is nothing more costly than people.  Employee salaries and wages.  Payroll taxes.  And benefits.  People need a large paycheck to live on and will go to the employer that offers the highest pay.  Government has imposed costly taxes and regulatory costs.  And to further entice good workers employers have to sweeten the deal with some fringe benefits like health insurance, paid vacation time, holiday pay, paid sick days and retirement plans.  It adds up.  Something like this:

As you can see the amount of pay employees are familiar with (the working pay above) is far less than the total cost to the employer.  The employee doesn’t see the 63.1% markup on their working pay that their employer has to pay in addition to paying the employee.  As a business hires more employees these costs add up.  A small factory with 15 workers on the factory floor can cost the employer $1.6 million.  Which is why labor costs are the greatest costs of most businesses.  And why employers are very reluctant to add additional employees.

The more Productive you are the Lower your Unit Cost and the Lower the Selling Price in a Store

Besides labor costs a business like a factory will have material costs, too.  These are variable costs.  They’re variable because they vary with varying levels of production.  The more production there is the more variable costs there are.  In addition to variable costs businesses have fixed costs.  Often simply called overhead.

Factories make things.  Like things you can pick up off a store’s shelf.  Things with low prices on their price tags.  But when it can cost a small manufacturer $1.6 million JUST for its labor costs how can they sell things with such low prices?  By making a lot of those things to sell.  As much as they possibly can with their variable and fixed costs.  What we call economies of scale.  And the more they can make for their given costs the lower the unit cost is for each thing you can buy off a shelf at a store.   As you can see here:

Assuming a factory can produce anywhere from 1,250,000 to 2,750,000 units with a given labor force operating the same production equipment in a factory you can see how the unit cost falls the more they produce.  Which is why there is so much talk about productivity.  The more productive you are (the more you can produce for a given cost) the lower your unit cost.  And the lower the selling price in a store.  Increasing productivity could mean moving an assembly line a little faster.  Or replacing some people with machines.  Things that workers don’t like.  But things consumers love.  For they like low prices when they go shopping.

Employers are very Reluctant to Hire New Employees and Prefer Increasing Productivity with Automation

If you crunch these numbers for the labor costs of 16 and 17 workers you can see how unit costs rise as an employee or two is added to the production floor.  At an annual production of 2,000,000 units the unit cost increases $0.05 (4.6%) going from 15 to 16 workers.  Adding two workers increases the unit cost $0.11 (10.1%).  Doesn’t seem like a lot.  But we notice when something we once bought for $0.99 now costs $1.04.  And we don’t like it.  But business owners like it even less.  Here’s why.

Business may be booming.  Those on the factory floor may be working a lot of overtime to produce at a rate of 2,000,000 units per year.  And are growing unhappy with all of that overtime.  They keep demanding that the owner hire another person.  The owner does.  Increasing unit costs by $0.05.  But the owner hopes the booming economy will continue.  And that they can even increase the production rate.  For if they can sell an additional 250,000 units the unit cost can actually fall $0.07 to $1.02.  Making the addition of a new worker on the factory floor not increase costs.  As the increase in production will make costs fall greater than that increase in labor costs.

But it doesn’t always work like that.  Economic booms don’t always last.  When too many factories increase production to meet booming demand they bring too much supply to market.  Causing prices to fall.  And forcing factories to cut back on production rates.  So instead of increasing the production rate they may find themselves cutting back.  Perhaps going from 2,000,000 to 1,750,000.  A fall of 250,000 units.  Increasing the unit cost $0.21 (19.3%).  Which could very well raise the unit cost above the prevailing market price.  Requiring layoffs.  To get the unit cost back down to $1.09.  Allowing them to sell at the prevailing market price.  And at a production rate of 1,750,000 units that may require letting go more than just one worker.  Maybe even more than two.  Which is why employers are very reluctant to hire new employees.  And prefer increasing productivity with automation.  For it is far easier to make machines increase or decrease production rates than it is to hire and lay off people.  Making it easier and less costly to reach great economies of scale.  Which makes low prices.  And happy consumers.


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Product Pricing

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 10th, 2012

Economics 101

The First Thing a Business has to do to Determine their Selling Price is Determining their Costs

Did you ever think about how businesses price their products?  Do they just pull numbers out of the air?  Do they just charge as much as they want?  No, they don’t.  Because they can’t.  For if one gas station charges $12 for a gallon of gasoline while the station across the street is only charging $3.50 guess where people are going to buy their gas from.  So free market competition prevents businesses from charging whatever they want.  So how do they determine what to charge?

Well, some look at what their competitors are charging and match it.  Or charge a little less.  To steal customers away from the competition.  Which can work.  But it can also bankrupt a business.  For if a business owner doesn’t know his or her costs selling at the market price could fail to recover all of their costs.  The market price limits what they can charge.  But if their costs are too great to stay in business selling at the prevailing market price they have to do something about reducing their costs.  Which they can’t do if they don’t know their costs.  So the first thing a business has to do to determine their selling price is determining their costs.  Like this.

This is an abbreviated fictional income statement showing last year’s results.  And forecasting next year’s results.  EBT stands for earnings before taxes.  Income taxes for this year are based on the 2011 federal tax tables.  Income taxes for next year are based on the proposed Obama tax rates (increasing the top marginal rate from 33% to 39.6%).  The business is a subchapter-S where the business earnings pass through to the owners’ personal income tax returns.  The owner does not draw a salary but draws $125,000 from retained earnings to support him or herself, his or her stay-at-home spouse and their 3 children. The percentages show each number as a percentage of revenue.

You need to Sell at the Right Price and at the Right Volume to Pay all of the Bills

The difference between this year and next year is the rise in costs.  Obamacare and other business regulations increase the cost of sales (direct labor, benefits, direct supplies, etc.) by 2%.  And they increase fixed overhead (rent, utilities, administrative labor, benefits, etc.) by 2%.  They will have to recover these higher costs in higher prices.  Which will likely reduce unit sales.  But because each unit will sell for more we assume sales revenue remains the same.

The higher costs cause EBT to fall.  A lower EBT means lower federal income taxes.  But it also means less retained earnings to invest back into the business.  The reduction in retained earnings is $36,604.28.  Which limits investments to grow the business.  And leaves a much smaller cash cushion after some of those retained earnings are reinvested into the business.  To pay for the unexpected.  Like a new piece of equipment that fails and halts production.  Things worked well in the current year.  The business owner would like to have things work as well in the following year.  Which means not exposing themselves to such a dangerous cash position.  And how do they do that?  By raising their prices to make next year’s retained earnings as large as this year’s.  By recovering those retained earnings in higher prices.  Like this.

Let’s assume these numbers are for a coffee shop that sells only one type and size of drink (say a large espresso-based drink) to simplify this discussion.  If we subtract this year’s cost of sales from revenue we arrive with the markup on our direct costs.  Dividing this number into cost of sales we get a markup percentage.  For this year it was 72%.  In the current year let’s assume they sold 302,406 cups of coffee.  Which comes to about one cup a minute.  Dividing the costs of sales by the number of cups of coffee sold gives a unit cost of $2.58 for a cup of coffee.  Adding the 72% markup to this cost brings the selling price to $4.45.  Coffee sold at this price and at this volume produced enough revenue to pay all the bills, provided an income for the owner and his or her family while leaving enough left over to invest back into the business.  And provide a cash cushion for the unexpected.  As well as paying state income taxes, city income taxes, etc.

A Business must bring their Cost Structure in Line to be able to Sell at the Prevailing Market Price

To arrive at the new selling price we added the loss of retained earnings to next year’s revenue.  And re-crunched all of these numbers.  Because we are raising the price we can expect a small fall in revenue as customers buy less.  The higher costs and lower unit sales volume raised the unit cost.  The markup percentage is 1 percentage point lower but because the unit cost is higher so is the markup amount in dollars.  Which raises the selling price by $0.32.  Increasing the price of a cup of coffee to $4.77.  But is it enough?  As it turns out, no.  Because the new price raises revenue enough to push the business into a higher tax bracket.  Taking the business owner back to the numbers.

Because of the higher tax bracket, and the higher top marginal tax rate, this higher price still results in a loss of retained earnings.  About another $30,000.  So going through the whole process again brings the selling price up to $4.87.  Adding a total of $0.43 to this year’s price.  As long as the prevailing market price is around $4.87 for a large espresso-based drink this business owner should be able to keep his or her cost structure in place and stay in business.  However, if this exceeds the prevailing market price the business owner will have to make some spending cuts to bring his or her cost structure in line to sell coffee at the prevailing market price.  Make some assumptions.  And some adjustments.  Then crunch these numbers again.  And again.  For getting this price right is very important.  Too high and people will go elsewhere to buy their coffee.  To low and they won’t be able to pay all of their bills.

This may not be how all businesses determine their selling price.  But however they do it they have to bring their cost structure in line to be able to sell at the prevailing market price.   Because if their price is too high no one will buy from them.  If it’s too low everyone will buy from them.  Making them happy.  Until they realize they can’t pay all of their bills because their prices are too low.  The above example was complicated.  And that was with only one product.  Imagine a store full of products to sell.  And trying to calculate new prices on numerous products to cover the costs of new taxes and new regulations.  It’s not easy.  Which is why business owners don’t like big change coming from Washington.  For this change requires important decisions to make.  And if they get these decisions wrong and don’t find out until 6 months or so later they may dig themselves into a hole they won’t be able to get out of.  Putting them out of business.


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Nikola Tesla, Sheldon Cooper, Inventors & Entrepreneurs, Compromise & Tradeoff, Theoretical & the Practical, GM and Hostess

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 4th, 2012

History 101

Geniuses strive for Theoretical Perfection which often doesn’t work in the Market Place

There have been a lot of brilliant inventors that gave the world incredible things.  Nikola Tesla gave us the modern world thanks to his work in electromagnetic fields.  Giving us the AC power we take for granted today.  Electric motors.  The wireless radio.  Etc.  But as brilliant as Tesla was he was not brilliant in making money from his inventions.  He died broke and in debt.  And, some say, insane.  Though he was probably more like Sheldon Cooper on The Big bang Theory.  As one character on the show called him, “The skinny weirdo.”  Tesla had an eidetic memory (often called a photographic memory).  And probably suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  Which when added to genius can be mistaken for crazy genius.

So Tesla and the fictional Sheldon Cooper have some things in common.  Genius.  And some odd behavioral traits.  As well as something else.  Neither was rich.  Their genius did not make them rich.  Which is a common trait of all brilliant inventors.  Their genius gets in the way of practicality.  They strive for theoretical perfection.  Which often doesn’t work in the market place.  Because perfection is costly.  And this is what separates the theoretical geniuses from practical engineers.  And entrepreneurs.

The internal combustion engine is a technological marvel.  It has changed the world.  Modernized the world.  It gave us inexpensive modes of transportation like cars, trucks, ships, trains and airplanes.  But the engine is not theoretically perfect.  It is a study of compromise and tradeoff.  Providing a final product that isn’t perfect.  But one that is economically viable.  For example, pistons need to compress an air-fuel mixture for combustion.  However, the piston can’t make such a tight seal that it can’t move up and down in the cylinder.  So the piston is smaller than the cylinder opening.  This allows it to move.  But it doesn’t contain the air-fuel mixture for compression and combustion.  So they add a piston ring.  Which contains the air-fuel mixture but restricts the movement of the piston.  So they add another piston ring that takes oil that splashes up from crank case and passes it through the ring to the cylinder wall.  The heat of combustion, though, can leave deposits from the oil on the cylinder wall.  So they add another piston ring to scrape the cylinder wall.

Selling a ‘Low Price’ is a Dangerous Game to Play Especially if you don’t Know your Costs

Every part of the internal combustion engine is a compromise and tradeoff.  Each part by itself is not the best it can be.  But the assembled whole is.  A theoretical genius may look at the assembled whole and want to add improvements to make it better.  Adding great costs to take it from 97% good to 99% good.  While that 2% improvement may result with a better product no one driving the car would notice any difference.  Other than the much higher price the car carried for that additional 2% improvement.

This is the difference between the theoretical and the practical.  Between brilliant inventor and entrepreneur.  Between successful business owner and someone with a great idea but who can’t bring it to market.  The entrepreneur sees both the little picture (the brilliant idea) and the big picture (bringing it to market).  Something that a lot of people can’t see when they go into business.  The number one and number two business that fail are restaurants and construction.  Why?  Because these are often little picture people.  They may be a great chef or a great carpenter but they often haven’t a clue about business.

They don’t understand their costs.  And because they don’t they often don’t charge enough.  A lot of new business owners often think they need to charge less to lure business away from their competition.  And sometimes that’s true.  But selling a ‘low price’ instead of quality or value is a dangerous game to play.  Especially if you don’t know your costs.  Because as you sell you incur costs.  And have bills to pay.  Bills you need to pay with your sales revenue.  Which you won’t be able to do if you’re not charging enough.

If Business Operations can’t Produce Cash a Business Owner will have to Borrow Money to Pay the Bills

The successful small business owners understand both their long-term financing needs.  And their short-term financing needs.  They incur long-term debt to establish their business.  Debt they need to service.  And pay back.  To do that they need a source of money.  This must come from profitable business operations.  Which means that their sales revenue must make their current assets greater than their current liabilities.  The sum total of cash, accounts receivables and other current assets must be greater than their accounts payable, accrued payroll, accrued taxes, current portion of long-term debt, etc.  And there is only one thing that will do that.  Having sales revenue that covers all a business’s costs.

The successful business owner knows how much to charge.  They know how much their revenue can buy.  And what it can’t buy. They make the tough decisions.  These business owners stay in business.  They see the big picture.  How all the pieces of business fit together.  And how it is imperative to keep their current assets greater than their current liabilities.  For the difference between the two gives a business its working capital.  Which must be positive if they have any hope of servicing their debt.  And repaying it.  As well as growing their business.  Whereas if their working capital is negative the future is bleak.  For they won’t be able to pay their bills.  Grow their business.  Or service their debt.  Worse, because they can’t pay their bills they incur more debt.  As they will have to borrow more money to pay their bills.  Because their business isn’t producing the necessary cash.

Those restaurants and construction companies fail because their owners didn’t know any better.  Others fail despite knowing better.  Like GM, Chrysler, Hostess, just about any airline, Bethlehem Steel, most print newspapers, etc.  Who all entered costly union contracts during good economic times.  Costs their revenues couldn’t pay for in bad economic times.  Which was most of the time.  As they struggled to pay union labor and benefits they run out of money before they could pay their other bills.  As their current liabilities exceeded their current assets.  So instead of producing working capital they ran a deficit.  Forcing them to incur more debt to finance this shortfall.  Again and again.  Until their debt grew so great that it required an interest payment they couldn’t pay.  And now they are no longer with us today.  Having had no choice but to file bankruptcy.


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