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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Restaurants and Franchises

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 5th, 2013

Economics 101

Changing a Restaurant Name can be Costly and hurt the Marketing of your Brand

What is the number one business most likely to fail?  Restaurants.  About half of all new restaurants fail within the first 5 years.  Why?  Because people who can cook typically open up restaurants.  And that’s all they know.  Cooking.  Sadly, cooking is the smallest part of owning a restaurant.  And it’s these other areas that people who can cook fail miserably.  Because when they open up a restaurant there’s no operating manual that comes with the building they buy or lease that clearly tells them everything they need to know or do.

Chefs in the finest restaurants are masters of their craft.  Because they study how to master the art of cooking.  They didn’t go to business school.  They went to culinary school.  But running a restaurant is more than cooking.  It’s a business.  A business that must produce revenue to cover all of its expenses.  Which is kind of hard to do when you don’t know how to market your restaurant to get people to walk through the doors.  Without which there is no revenue.  Or when you don’t know all of your expenses.  Which starts with the restaurant’s name.

A good name will not guarantee success.  But a bad name can hurt business.  It should not confuse people.  Such as ’57 Chevy, for example.  Which may be your favorite car.  But people will think cars instead of food when they hear it or see it.  And it shouldn’t discourage them from eating there.  Like Average Joe’s, for example.  Because people rarely go out to restaurants that have just received an average review.  So a name is important.  And if you start with a bad one it can be very costly to change.  There’s building signage.  There could be a pylon sign near the road.  Signage inside the restaurant.  Not to mention replacing all of your menus.  These things cost.  And cause confusion with the identity of the restaurant.  Which could hurt the marketing of your brand.

Getting Menu Prices just Right is often the Difference between Success and Bankruptcy

Choosing a good restaurant location is critical, too.  A nice building you may be able to easily afford will do you no good if it isn’t near people.  As people aren’t going to travel great distances to dine at an unknown restaurant.  Which means choosing a good location may require choosing a costly location.  The purchase price/lease price may be much higher than anticipated.  Property taxes may be higher.  Both real (the land) and personal (the equipment inside).  And may be a cost item that a person who can cook didn’t even know was required.  Like the additional expenses to get all the permits and licenses to open for business.

Once opened there’s payroll.  Which you have to pay even when you’re not doing much business.  And a sit-down restaurant requires a lot of people.  Kitchen help to cook, clean and prep food.  Someone to bus tables and wash dishes.  A hostess to seat customers.  And cash them out.  A wait staff to wait on customers.  A bartender (if you have a bar).  A restaurant needs a general manager, a front of house manager and a back of house manager.  And an executive chef.  If the owner is the executive chef he or she will have to hire others to manage those other areas.  Have a spouse split all management duties with the executive chef.  Stressing the marriage.  Or risk poor service that will prevent customers from returning.

Then there are the utility expenses.  Electric, gas, water and telephone.  A point-of-sale system to track sales and manage inventory.  Or longer hours to allow manual bookkeeping and inventory control.  Dishes, cutlery, napkins, toilet paper, light bulbs, dish soap, filters, grease disposal, etc.  And a pleasing interior design.  As people want to enjoy a good meal in a pleasant environment.  Things that cost.  And things revenue must pay.  Which brings us to the menu.  The thing that will make or break your restaurant.  If you have a 10-page menu to appeal to as many people as possible you will have too much of your money in your food inventory.  And you’ll end up throwing away a lot of slow moving product.  If it’s not unique enough people will have little reason to come into your restaurant.  As will menu prices that are too high will, too.  But if those prices are too low you won’t have enough money to pay for all of these expenses.  Getting these menu prices just right is often the difference between success and bankruptcy.

Buying a Franchise is like Buying a Restaurant that comes with a Complete and Detailed Operating Manual

A big reason why restaurants fail is because owners don’t understand their costs.  And because they don’t understand their costs they don’t know how to size their food portions.  Or how to price their menu items.  Portion sizes that are too large require a bigger inventory.  Which costs more.  Leads to more waste.  And that waste leads to more costs.  While prices too low won’t generate enough revenue to cover those portion sizes.  As well as labor and overhead costs.

In a restaurant the menu is everything.  A person highly skilled in cooking can populate a menu with some delicious dishes.  But a menu too large can confuse customers who don’t want to read a book before ordering.  It could expand the inventory to include a lot of frozen and canned items because they will last longer.  But are more costly than buying fresh.  Whereas a large inventory of fresh items will not last as long.  Leading to a lot of waste.  So a shorter menu allows a smaller inventory of fresh product.  Which increases the quality of the food served.  And keeps costs down.

The restaurant owner can get all of this right but if they can’t get people to walk through that door it’s all for naught.  And getting people to walk through your door can be the hardest part.  There are many options but they all require more time and more money.  And these are things a restaurant owner has little left to spare.  Which is why so few restaurants succeed.  But there is another way to own a restaurant.  One that has a much better chance of succeeding.  And you don’t even need culinary training to succeed.  You can do this by buying a restaurant franchise.

Buying a franchise is like buying a restaurant that comes with a complete and detailed operating manual.  That tells you everything you need to know and do.  It gives you your menu.  Your portion sizes.  Your menu pricing (or at least a starting point that can be adjusted for your geographic location).  And something even more valuable.  A built-in, extensive marketing program.  So that you can have a flow of people coming through your door the day you open for business.  Because people already know everything about your restaurant because it’s part of a great national (or international) chain.  And they may have just been waiting for one to open near them.  Something a chef opening his or own restaurant can only dream about.  But that franchisee can’t have the satisfaction of bringing their dream to life like that chef can.  As long as he or she is not in that half that fails in the first 5 years.

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Trend Analysis – Liquidity

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 7th, 2013

Economics 101

Liquidity can be More Important than Profitability to a Small Business Owner

Small business owners lose a lot of sleep worrying if they will have enough cash for tomorrow.  For next week.  For next month.  You can increase sales and add new customers but unless this creates cash those new sales and new customers may cause more problems than they help.  For a lot of businesses fail because they run out of cash.  Often times learning they have a cash problem only when they don’t have the cash to pay their bills.  So savvy business owners study their financial statements each quarter.  Even each month.  Looking for signs of trouble BEFORE they don’t have the cash to pay their bills.

Investors poor over corporations’ financial statements to make wise investment decisions.  Crunching a lot of numbers.  Analyzing a myriad of financial ratios.  Gleaning a lot of useful information buried in the raw numbers on the financial statements.  Small business owners analyze their financial statements, too.  But not quite to the extent of these investors.  They may look at some key numbers.  Focusing more on liquidity than profitability.  For profits are nice.  But profits aren’t cash.  As a lot of things have to happen before those profits turn into cash.  If they turn into cash.  The following are some balance sheet and income statement accounts.  Following these accounts are some calculations based on the values of these accounts.  With four quarters of data shown.

So what do these numbers say about this year of business activity?  Well, the business was profitable in all four quarters.  And rather profitable at that.  Which is good.  But what about that all important cash?  With each successive quarter the business had a lower cash balance.  That’s not as good as those profitability numbers.  And what about accounts receivable and inventory?  There seems to be some large changes in these accounts.  Are these changes good or bad?  What about accounts payable?  Accrued expenses?  Current portion of long-term debt?  These all went up.  What does this mean in the grand scheme of things?  Looking at these numbers individually doesn’t provide much information.  But when you do a little math with them you can get a little more information out of them.

In Trend Analysis a Downward sloping Current Ratio indicates a Potential Liquidity Problem

Current assets are cash or things that a business can convert into cash within the next 12 months.  Current liabilities are things a business has to pay within the next 12 months.  Current assets, then, are the resources you have to pay your current liabilities.  The relationship between current assets and current liabilities is a very important one.  Dividing current assets by current liabilities gives you the current ratio.  If it’s greater than one you are solvent.  You can meet your current financial obligations.  If it’s less than one you will simply run out of current resources before you met all of your current liabilities.  In our example this business has been solvent for all 4 quarters of the year.

Days’ sales in receivables is one way to see how your customers are paying their credit purchases.  The smaller this number the faster they are paying their bills.  The larger the number the slower they are paying their bills.  And the slower they pay their bills the longer it takes to convert your sales into cash.  Days’ sales in inventory tells you how many days of inventory you have based on your inventory balance and the cost of that inventory.  The smaller this number the faster things are moving out of inventory in new sales.  The larger this number is the slower things are moving out of inventory to reflect a decline in sales.  These individual numbers by themselves don’t provide a lot of information for the small business owner.  Big corporations can compare these numbers with similar businesses to see how they stack up against the competition.  Something not really available to small businesses.  But they can look at the trend of these numbers in their own business and gain very valuable information.

The above chart shows the 4-quarter trend in three important liquidity numbers.  Days’ sales in receivables increased after the second quarter upward for two consecutive quarters.  Indicating customers have paid their bills slower in each of the last two quarters.  Days’ sales in inventory showed a similar uptick in the last two quarters.  Indicating a slowdown in sales.  Both of these trends are concerning.  For it means accounts receivable are bringing in less cash to the business.  And inventory is consuming more of what cash there is.  Which are both red flags that a business may soon run short of cash.  Something the three quarters of falling current ratio confirm.  This business is in trouble.  Despite the good profitability numbers.  The downward sloping current ratio indicates a potential liquidity problem.  If things continue as they are now in another 2 quarters or so the business will become insolvent.  So a business owner knows to start taking action now to conserve cash before he or she runs out of it in another 2 quarters.

Keynesian Stimulus Spending can give a Business a Current Ratio trending towards Insolvency

In fact, this business was already having cash problems.  The outstanding balance in accounts payable increased over 100% in these four quarters.  Not having the cash to pay the bills the business paid their bills slower and the balance in outstanding accounts payable rose.  Substantially.  As the cash balance fell the business owner began borrowing money.  As indicated by the increasing amounts under current portion of long-term debt and interest expense.  Which would suggest substantial borrowings.  Putting all of these things together and you can get a picture of what happened at this business over the past year.  Which started out well.  Then experienced a burst of growth.  But that growth disappeared by the 3rd quarter.  When sales revenue began a 2-quarter decline.

Something happened to cause a surge in sales in the second quarter.  Something the owner apparently thought would last and made investments to increase production to meet that increased demand.  Perhaps hiring new people.  And/or buying new production equipment.  Explaining all of that borrowing.  And that inventory buildup.  But whatever caused that surge in sales did not last.  Leaving this business owner with excess production filling his or her inventory with unsold goods.  And the rise in days’ sales in receivables indicates that this business is not the only business dealing with a decline in sales.  Suggesting an economic recession as everyone is paying their bills slower.

So what could explain this?  A Keynesian stimulus.  Such as those checks sent out by George W. Bush to stimulate economic activity.  Which they did.  Explaining this sales surge.  But a Keynesian stimulus is only temporary.  Once that money is spent things go right back to where they were before the stimulus.  Unfortunately, this business owner thought the stimulus resulted in real economic activity and invested to expand the business.  Leaving this owner with excess production, bulging inventories, aging accounts receivable and a disappearing cash balance.  And a current ratio trending towards insolvency.  Which is why Keynesian stimulus spending does not work.  Most businesses know it is temporary and don’t hire or expand during this economic ‘pump priming’.  While those that do risk insolvency.  And bankruptcy.

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Statement of Cash Flows

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 18th, 2012

Economics 101

No Business will be able to Repay any Loan unless their Business Operations can Generate Cash

In business cash is king.  As it is in life.  We need cash to buy food to survive.  Just as a business needs cash to pay its bills to survive.  Cash is so important to a business that there is a special financial statement to summarize cash flows in a business.  It looks something like this.

The above are made up numbers that could be similar to any statement of cash flows.  It shows the three sources of cash for a business.  Operating activities.  Investing activities.  And financing activities.  Every last dollar a business has came from one of these three sources.  And we can determine the health of the business just by seeing where its cash came from.

Not all business owners use a statement of cash flows.  Most small business owners probably don’t.  Having some other method to see where their cash is coming from.  And going to.  But if they plan on borrowing money from a bank they’re going to need one.  As bankers want to see a business’ ability to generate cash from their business operations.  For no business will be able to repay any loan unless their business operations can generate cash.

An Increase in Accounts Receivable indicates a Business’ Customers are Paying them Slower

A business generates cash from operating activities.  Which comes from sales.  Of course business have to spend a lot of money to create those sales.  So the net cash generated is basically net income with a few adjustments.  In accrual accounting we expense a portion of what we spent on an asset as a depreciation expense each accounting period.  Because although we pay for an asset in one year we may use that asset for the next 5 years.  Or more.   So we expense a portion of that asset each accounting period.  But we don’t have to write a check to pay for depreciation.  It is a non-cash transaction.  So to adjust net income to show net cash generated we have to add back this depreciation expense.

An increase in accounts payable indicates a business is paying their bills slower.  And when you pay your bills slower you free up cash for other things.  Becoming a source of cash.  With each payroll a business has to withhold taxes from their employees’ paychecks.    Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, the employee’s federal and state withholding taxes.  With each payroll these liabilities accrue and are payable to the various government agencies.  You  can free up some cash by paying these taxes late.  But it is not recommended.  For the penalties for doing so can be severe.

An increase in accounts receivable indicates their customers are paying them slower.  An increase in inventory indicates they’re buying more into inventory than they’re selling from inventory.  Prepayments will conserve cash in the future by paying for things now.  But they will leave you with less cash now.  A decrease in accrued liabilities indicates they’re catching up on paying some of their accrued expenses.  Like those payroll taxes.  (In the ideal world if you add up the increase and decrease in accrued liabilities they should net out. Indicating you’re paying your accrued expenses on time.  In this example the business has a balance of $3,000 they’re paying late.)  Increases in all of these items consume cash, leaving the business with less cash for other things.

When the Owner has to put in More of their Own Cash into the Business Things are not going Well

Cash flows from investing activities can include financial investments a business buys and sells with the excess cash they have.  In this example the only investment activities is the buying and selling of some plant assets.  Perhaps selling some old equipment that is costly to maintain and replacing it with new equipment.  Even replacing a vital piece of production equipment that breaks down.  Putting a business out of business.  Thus requiring a cash purchase to replace it as quickly as possible.  Short-term borrowing may be advances on their credit line while the settlement on short-term debt may be the repaying of some of those advances.  Proceeds from long-term debt may be a new bank loan.  While payments to settle long-term debt may be repaying a previous loan.  Finally, paid-in capital is money from the business owner.  Such as cashing in a 401(k) or getting a second mortgage on their house so they can put it into their business to make up for a cash shortage.

So what does all of this mean?  Is this business doing well?  Or are they having problems?  Well, the good news is that they are meeting their cash needs.  The bad news is that it’s not because of their operating activities.  They’re meeting their cash needs by paying their vendors slower.  In fact, if they didn’t they may have had a net loss of cash for the year.  Which means had they not paid their bills late they may have gone bankrupt.  And their cash problems are evident elsewhere.   For not only are they paying their vendors slower their customers are paying them slower.  Making them wait longer to get the cash from their sales.  And with more money going into inventory than coming out of inventory it indicates that sales are down.  Leaving them with less revenue to convert into cash.  And what’s particularly troubling is that increase in accrued liabilities.  Which could mean they’re paying their payroll taxes slower.  Accessing their credit line also indicates a cash problem.  Also, having to borrow $50,000 to help repay a $100,000 loan coming due is another sign of cash problems.  Finally, when the owner has to put in more of their own cash into the business things are not going well.

These are things a business owner has to deal with.  And things a loan officer will note when reviewing the statement of cash flows.  Some people may think a net increase in cash of $18,000 is a good thing.  But it’s not that good.  Considering they had to get that cash by paying their vendors slower, paying the government slower, borrowing money as well as investing more of their personal savings into the business.  Worse, despite having all of these cash problems the government is taxing away of lot of their cash.  Because their net income passing through to their personal income tax return is $235,000.  Putting them in the top 5% of income earners.  And into the crosshairs of those looking to raise tax rates on those who can afford to pay a little more.  To make sure they pay their ‘fair’ share.

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The Creative Destruction of the Internet may put Best Buy Stores out of Business

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 11th, 2012

Week in Review

Best Buy and Circuit City were once fierce competitors in retail electronics.  Big box stores that carried an amazing range of consumer goods from televisions to car stereos to cameras to computers to refrigerators.  Their marketing plan?  Trade volume for margin.  They sold at low prices with low profit margins that mom and pop stores could not match and remain profitable.  But because of their high volume Best Buy and Circuit City could make a profit with those small margins.  Which they padded with those extended warranties.  It was a successful business model.  For awhile.  Circuit City is no longer with us.  And now Best Buy is struggling (see Best Buy founder proposes taking retailer private by Dhanya Skariachan and Nadia Damouni posted 8/6/2012 on Reuters).

Best Buy Co Inc (BBY.N) founder Richard Schulze on Monday made a bid to take the struggling U.S. electronics retailer private just months after being forced out as chairman.

If Schulze succeeds, it could result in the world’s biggest leveraged buyout of the year. But early reaction suggests he faces an uphill battle in taking his once wildly successful company in a new direction…

Best Buy has been closing stores, cutting jobs and trying out a new store format to improve business. It has faced criticism for being too slow to react to a changing retail world, where many use Best Buy as a “showroom” to try out gadgets and then buy them online or elsewhere for less.

It takes money to maintain inventory.  And every Best Buy store has inventory.  It’s a huge cost.  But it also gives them purchasing power.  This is why the mom and pop stores went bye-bye.  With their low sales volume they had small purchasing power.  So the little they bought came at higher unit costs than Best Buy’s.  Which meant they had to charge higher prices to cover those costs.  And now it’s happening again.  Only it’s online sales that are squeezing the profits out of Best Buy.  From suppliers that have no retail stores.  And a more consolidated inventory.  With no sales force or cashiers to pay.  They have high sales volume and low operating costs.  So now Best Buy is getting a taste of what it was like for the mom and pop stores.

We call this creative destruction.  And it’s a good thing in capitalism.  Everyone agrees.  Having a cell phone is better than having a pager that displays a phone number to call.  Then finding a public telephone to make that call from.  Cell phones have hurt the pager industry.  Just as digital cameras have hurt the instant camera industry.  Just like the MP3 player has hurt the compact disc industry.  Which hurt the cassette tape business.  Which hurt the 8-track tape business.  And now the Internet is hurting the big box retail industry.  We call this progress.  And it’s what the people want.  Because it’s the people driving this change.  They’re the ones buying the cell phones, digital cameras, MP3 players, compact discs and cassette tapes.  And it’s the people who are now shopping online.

New technology is always replacing old technology.  When it does it destroys a lot of jobs.  But it also creates a lot of new jobs.  Yes, it’s sad to see some of our favorite businesses go out of business.  But they only go out of business because there is something better out there attracting our business away from those old businesses.  And the day we stop wanting this is the day we give up our smartphones.  Or whatever will have replaced our smartphones in the future.

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Inventories

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 23rd, 2012

Economics 101

Before a Business Earns any Sales Revenue they have to Spend Cash to Build an Inventory

To sell something a business needs to have it on hand first.  Because when it comes to manufactured goods we rarely custom manufacture things.  No.  When businesses sell something it’s something they already have in their inventories.  So how do they get things into inventory?  With cash.  Businesses buy goods and place them in their inventories.  They exchange some of their cash for the goods they hope to sell at a later date.  And the bigger the inventory they maintain the more cash it will take.  Cash they have to spend before they sell these goods.  Which requires financing.  Each large business, in fact, has a finance department.  That works to raise cash.  So the businesses can buy inventory (and pay their operating and overhead expenses) before they start selling anything.

This is how the retail stores work.  For manufacturers it’s a little different.  They make things.  Out of other things.  Things that go through various stages of production before becoming a finished good.  So to make these things requires different types of inventories.  Raw goods.  Work in process.  And finished goods.  When they pull raw goods out of inventory and begin working with them they become work in process inventory.  When finished goods come off the final production line they enter finished goods inventory.  The finance department secures the cash to buy the raw materials.  And for the equipment and labor used through the stages of production to produce a finished good.  Which enters finished goods inventory until they sell and ship these goods.

Before a business earns any sales revenue they have to spend huge amounts of cash first to move material through these inventories.  Cash they can’t use for anything else.  Like paying their overhead expenses.  Or servicing their debt.  So it’s a delicate balancing act.  You need inventory to produce revenue.  But if you run out of cash you can’t produce any inventory.  Or pay your bills.  A large inventory creates a large variety of things for customers to buy.  But if customers aren’t buying that large inventory will consume cash leaving a business struggling to pay its bills.  If they become so cash-strapped they will cut their prices to unload slow moving inventory.  Cut back on production rates.  Even cut back on expenses.  As in cost-cutting.  And lay-offs.

Good Inventory Management is Crucial for the Financial Health of a Business

A business doesn’t start generating cash until they start selling their finished goods.  Sales numbers may sound high but most sales revenue goes to pay for the costs of producing inventory.  A firm’s accounting department records these revenues.  And matches them to the cost of goods sold.  Which in a retailer is what they paid to bring those goods into inventory.  A manufacturer may use a term like cost of sales.  Which would include all the costs they incurred throughout the stages of production from bringing raw material into the plant.  To the labor to process that material.  To the energy consumed.  Etc.  Everything that was an input in the production process to place a finished good into inventory.  So from their sales revenue they subtract their costs of goods sold (or cost of sales).  The number they arrive at is gross profit.  Which has to pay for everything else.  Rent, utilities, marketing and advertising, non-production salaries and benefits, insurances, taxes, etc.  And, of course, interest on the cash their finance department borrowed to start everything off.

There is a unique relationship between inventories and sales.  There are countless things that happen in a business but what happens between inventories and sales receives particular attention.  A business’ greatest cost is the cost of goods sold.  Or cost of sales.  Everything that falls above gross profit on their income statement (the financial statement that shows a firm’s profitability).  This cost is a function of inventory.  The bigger the inventory the bigger the cost.  The smaller the inventory the smaller the cost.  This is a direct relationship.  You move one the other follows.  Whereas the relationship between sales and inventory is a little different.  The higher the sales revenue the bigger the inventory cost.  Because you have to have inventory to sell inventory.  However, there is no such corresponding relationship for falling sales.  As sales can fall for a variety of reasons.  And they can fall with a falling inventory level.  They can fall with a steady inventory level.  And they can fall with a rising inventory level.

In business sales are everything.  There are few problems healthy sales can’t solve.  It can even overcome some of the worst cost management.  So rising sales revenue is good.  While falling sales revenue is not.  There are many reasons why sales fall.  But the reason that most affects inventories is typically a bad economy.  When people scale back their purchases in response to a bad economy a firm’s sales fall.  And when their sales fall their inventories, of course, rise.  Until management scales back production to reflect the weaker demand.  Because there is no point building things when people aren’t buying.  Those who don’t scale back production will see their sales fall and their inventories rise.  Creating cash problems.  Because sales aren’t creating cash.  And a growing inventory consumes cash.  Making it difficult to meet their daily expenses.  Such as payroll and benefits.  As well as paying interest on their debt.  Which can lead to insolvency.  And bankruptcy.  So good inventory management is crucial for the financial health of a business.

If Retail Sales are Falling and Inventories are Rising Bad Times are Coming

Businesses target specific inventory levels.  During good economic times they increase inventory levels because people are buying more.  During bad economic times they decrease inventory levels because people are buying less.  And they monitor changes in the actual sales and inventory levels continuously.  Adjusting inventory levels to match changes in sales.  To balance the need to have an inventory flush with goods to sell.  While keeping the cost of that inventory to the lowest level possible.  All businesses do this.  And if you track the aggregate of the inventory levels of all businesses you can get a good idea about what’s happening in the economy.

John Maynard Keynes used inventory levels in his macroeconomics formulas.  The ‘big picture’ of the economy.  Looking at inventories tied right into jobs.  If sales are outpacing inventory levels then businesses hire new workers to increase inventory levels.  So sales growing at a greater rate than inventory levels suggest that businesses will be creating new jobs and hiring new workers.  A good thing.  If inventory levels are growing greater than sales it’s a sign of an economic slowdown.  Suggesting businesses will be reducing production and laying off workers.  Not a good thing.

Because of the stages of production changes in finished goods inventories can create or destroy a lot of jobs.  For if the major retailers are cutting back on inventory levels due to weak demand that will ripple all the way through the stages of production back to the extraction of raw materials out of the ground.  Which makes inventory levels a key economic indicator.  And when we combine it with sales you can pretty much learn everything you need to know about the economy.  For if retail sales are falling and inventories are rising bad times are coming.  And a lot of people will probably soon be losing their jobs.  As the economy falls into a recession.  Which won’t end until these economic indicators turn around.  And sales grow faster than inventories.  Which indicates a recovery.  And jobs.  As they ramp up production to increase inventory levels to meet the new growing demand.

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When Sales Fall and Inventories Rise the Unemployment Rate Typically Rises

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 21st, 2012

Week in Review

Inventory is the stuff businesses have made but haven’t sold yet.  Factories make things that go into inventory.  When retailers sell things they sell them from inventory.  So there is an inverse relationship between inventory and sales.  When one goes up the other goes down.  When one goes down the other goes up (see May business inventories climb 0.3 percent; sales drop by Jason Lange posted 7/16/2012 on Reuters).

Inventories are a key component of gross domestic product changes. Retail inventories outside of autos – a measure which goes into the calculation of gross domestic product – rose 0.6 percent…

Business sales edged 0.1 percent lower to $1.25 trillion in May, matching the prior month’s decline.

Sales fell 0.1% while inventories rose 0.6%.  Which means inventories have grown larger than the corresponding fall in sales.  Not good news for the people who make the things that go into inventory.  For there are apparently more of them than the current level of sales requires.  This typically portends a rise in the unemployment rate.  Which did happen.  The unemployment rate increased from 8.1% in April to 8.2% in May.

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Competition, Mom and Pop Store, Big Box Store, Cooperative, Internet Sales, POS System, Inventory Control System and Wal-Mart

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 3rd, 2012

History 101

Big Box Stores offered More Choice and Lower Prices putting Mom and Pop Stores our of Business

Competition makes everything better for consumers.  Consumers love competition.  Because it gives them so much to choose from.  And choice is good.  Especially when that choice lowers prices.  And raises quality.  Which is why we love competition.  But it’s not very popular with businesses.  Especially the older ones.  Used to doing things the old way.  Who got into a comfortable rut.  Doing things the way they always did them.  Enjoying their comfortable incomes.  Until something arrived that shattered their world. 

America became the innovative capital of the world.  Thanks to their entrepreneurs.  In the land of liberty they were free to do great things.  Invent great things.  And go into business.  In cities and small towns everywhere moms and pops opened up shops.  Mom and pop stores.  Family affairs.  Serving their communities with quality goods and services.  At reasonable prices.  At least what people thought were reasonable prices.  Often times there was little competition for these mom and pop stores.  Apart from other mom and pop stores.

Mom and pop stores don’t have large sales.  Or large purchasing power.  So their prices are higher than a competitor who has large sales and large purchasing power.  Mom and pop office supply stores learned this lesson quickly when Office Max opened in town.  And Office Depot.  And Staples.  Big box stores that offered more choice and lower prices.  And no matter how much we loved our mom and pop stores when we had a chance to get more for less we chose to get more for less.  And these big box office supply stores put the mom and pop office supply stores out of business.

Advanced POS and Inventory Control Systems allow a Large Variety of Items at Low Prices

The mom and pop hardware stores suffered the same fate.  When the big box home improvement stores moved in.  Builders Square.  Home Quarters.  Home Depot.  Lowes.  Who served both consumers and contractors.  Giving them huge economies of scale.  Moving such a wide variety of material at low prices the small mom and pop hardware stores could never match.  Some survived.  Offering services like they did in the old days (like fixing a broken window).  And joining a cooperative (such as True Value or ACE Hardware) to match the purchasing power of the big box stores.  To get some economies of scale.  But more have gone out of business than stayed in business.

During the Eighties a lot of computer stores opened as the personal computer industry took off.  A lot of small stores custom built PCs.  Sold dot-matrix printers.  Fanfold printer paper.  Printer ribbons.  Floppy disks.  Cables.  External storage devices.  With the advent of the Internet they added dial-up modems.  As the industry grew the big box stores came in.  CompUSA.  Computer City.  The big box office supply stores.  Best Buy.  And Circuit City.  Put the small computer stores out of business.  By providing a huge variety at low prices.  They added software.  Games.  Uninterruptible power supplies.  And other electronic devices (PDAs, digital cameras, game boxes, game controllers, etc.).  Then Internet sales took off putting pressure on the big box stores.  Putting some of them out of business.

A big driver in the move away from the mom and pop stores to the big box stores is technology.  In particular inventory control systems.  Tied into their point of sale (POS) systems.  Buying a lot of goods and storing them in large warehouses is costly.  Because inventory doesn’t earn any revenue.  It costs to warehouse items.  And it takes cash to place things into inventory.  Businesses buy these things to sell them later.  If they buy too much of the wrong things they may sit in those warehouses.  Becoming less valuable as people’s interests change.  Requiring deep discounting to move these unwanted items out of inventory.  On the other hand, if you don’t carry a large inventory there is a chance you may run out of something that is popular and is selling.  This is where technology comes in.  When a cashier completes a sales transaction a lot of things happen automatically.   As people receive their change from the cashier the POS system automatically interfaces with the inventory control system.  It updates the system to show the reduction in inventory.  And the inventory control system places an automatic order to replenish the inventory.  The successful big box stores carry smaller inventories of each individual item.  Allowing them to carry a larger variety of items.  Which is how they can offer a larger variety at lower prices.

Stores like Wal-Mart are the People’s Hedge against Bad Fiscal and Monetary Policy 

The king of retail, Wall-Mart, got to be king with technology.  The ultimate big box store that sells just about everything under the sun (groceries, clothes, hardware, gardening supplies, electronics, prescription drugs, you name it).  They have taken inventory control systems to an art.  They combine economies of scale and efficiency that few can match.  They sell so much that they get to buy at the best prices.  And their sophisticated POS and inventory control systems keep the shelves stocked with the things people want to buy while keeping their inventories lean.  Few stores please consumers more by their wide variety and low prices.  Allowing them to fill their shopping carts without having to sacrifice other family needs.

Competition created Wal-Mart.  Because people wanted more choice and lower prices.  And Wal-Mart figured out how to do that.  Something the mom and pop stores just couldn’t do.  Which is why Wal-Mart stores are opening everywhere.  The people love them.  And the people want them.  Or they want the store that puts Wal-Mart out of business by offering even more choice at even lower prices.

Of course this begs the question why do people want more choice at lower prices?  Are they greedy?  Materialistic?  No.  They’re just not rich.  More and more of their income is taxed away at the local, state and federal level.  And prices keep rising thanks to Keynesian monetary policy.  Which continuously expands the money supply to ‘stimulate’ the economy.  Higher taxes and permanent inflation is why two-income households have become the norm and not the exception today.  And why shoppers love stores like Wal-Mart.  Because stores like Wal-Mart are the people’s hedge against bad fiscal and monetary policy.  Which is the true destroyer of mom and pop stores everywhere.

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Business Cycle

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 13th, 2012

Economics 101

When you have a Captive Audience you can Charge whatever Prices you Want

Go to a football game lately?  Hockey?  Basketball?  Baseball?  It’s a pretty expensive day out.  Especially if you eat while in the stadium.  Those concession prices are pretty steep.  In fact, people say that stadium food is some of the most expensive food anywhere.  I don’t.  I say it is some of the highest quality and some the most fairly priced food you’ll find anywhere…in the stadium.

Stadium food is convenient food.  And that’s what you’re paying for.  Convenience.  Because it’s too great of an inconvenience to leave the stadium to buy a more reasonably priced hotdog someplace else.  And despite what the critics say of concession pricing, those concessions have long lines.  Because people may say the prices are too high.  But deep down they know what a bargain they are.  Delicious food cooked and sold only steps away from their seat.  It’s better than at home.  And there’s no cleanup.

When you have a captive audience you can pretty much charge what you want.  Because the market is fixed.  Stadiums charge a fortune for those concession spaces.  Because running a big stadium is expensive.  And it’s not really used all that often.  I mean, there are only 8 home games in the regular season in football.  Doesn’t give the stadiums much time to earn revenue to pay for these expensive things.  So they charge high fees wherever they can.  So the concessioners have to pass that cost on to the customer.  As all businesses do.  And when you have a captive audience it’s a whole lot easier to do this.  Because, where else are the people going to go?

Competition Increases Quality and Lowers Prices for Consumers

Let’s look at this in another way.  Say you have a friend who works for a catering company.  He drives a ‘roach coach’.  He stops at the factories and local construction site to sell food to hungry workers.  He sees the money these trucks make.  Considers his paycheck.  And thinks he’s tired of making his boss rich.  So he buys a truck for himself.  And looks for his own territory.

Now let’s say you go on an evening bike ride on weekends.  And you come across your friend.  He’s found some prime real estate to park his roach coach on.  In the median of a boulevard across from an automobile assembly plant gate.  Where he has a captive audience.  Hungry workers working the midnight shift with no place else to buy delicious food.  Business is good.  You stop by on your bike ride and buy a snack and chat.  Then one night you noticed a beat up Ford Pinto pull up in the median not far from your friend’s truck.  He pops the hatch.  And you start smelling something.  Something good.  Fresh pizzas.  And hot fresh subs.  This guy owns a pizzeria.  And just closed for the night.  After filling his car with fresh pizzas, hot fresh subs and soda.  And just like that business wasn’t so good for your friend anymore.  For fresh pizza and hot fresh subs are more delicious than the sandwiches and cans of stew your friend was selling.  But one thing the Pinto didn’t have that your friend did.  Ice.  He was selling warm soda.  Or trying to.  Your friend had cold soda.  And that was just what the doctor ordered on a hot, humid, summer night.  Your friend was now sharing his captive audience.  Selling less than he was.  And at lower prices because of this new competition.  But he was still able to turn a profit and make his truck payment.

Then the Pinto guy took it up a notch.  One night, as the workers headed out into the median on break, he pulled out a tub filled with ice.  And soda.  “Cold soda,” he barked.  “Ice cold soda.”  This squeezed your friend’s sales even more.  He had nothing left to compete with but price.  So he lowered his prices even further.  Barely breaking even.  Then one night someone else pulled up on the median.  A beat up AMC Gremlin.  Some kid just out of high school got out.  Popped the hatch.  And started barking, “Fresh McDonald Big Macs.  French fries.”  And, of course, ice cold soda.  The kid didn’t have a lot.  But what he had he was selling at a nice markup.  Which was enough for him.  Because he had no overhead.  And made enough to by some beer later that night.  A very modest sales goal.  But it split that captive audience three ways.  Soon your friend was losing money.  Then the economy went into recession.  And they discontinued the midnight shift.  Your friend lost his truck.  And went back to driving a truck for his former boss.  The Pinto guy increased his pizzeria’s delivery radius to make up for the loss business.  And hired the Gremlin kid to help with those deliveries.

The Business Cycle is a Natural and Necessary Part of the Economy and is the Only Way Supply adjusts to Demand 

From the perspective of the workers increasing competition made things better.  Competition gave them more variety.  Higher quality.  And lower prices.  Over time that competition gave them more value for their money.  This microcosm of the economy was booming for awhile.  Others jumped in.  Making investments.  Increasing their inventories.  But eventually they expanded too much.  Supply exceeded demand.  Some inventory went unsold.  Prepared food not being something you can return these people had no choice but to cut their prices.  To reduce those burgeoning inventories.  The guy with the highest overhead, your friend with the catering truck, was the first to fail.  Then the market collapsed completely with the elimination of the midnight shift.  So the other two had to shutter their operations there.

We call this the business cycle.  It’s the boom-bust cycle of the economy.  From good economic times (boom) to recessions (bust).  It’s the natural ebb and flow of economic exchange.  When the market presents a demand to be met supply flows into it.  At first prices and profits are high.  Like at a stadium with a captive audience.  Then competition moves in.  Unlike at a stadium.  That demand is now split between the competition.  Each sells less.  And profits less.  To try and increase sales they try to offer better value for the money.  Tastier food.  Colder soda.  Etc.  When that doesn’t work any longer they start lowering prices.  But because supply built up so much as eager competitors joined in get a piece of that action supply grew so much it exceeded demand.  And no amount of price cutting can fix that.  Only a recession.  To reset prices and supply to meet market demand.  Which means some businesses fail.  Those who don’t lay off employees.  To reset their prices and production to levels that meets demand.

Monetary and fiscal policy tries to massage this business cycle.  By softening the recession part of it.  By lowering interest rates.  To encourage businesses to invest and expand production.  And hire more employees.  Or by increasing government spending.  Creating jobs by building roads and bridges.  Or by simply giving more money to consumers (via tax cuts or stimulus checks) to encourage them to buy more.  Thus encouraging businesses to hire more workers.  To meet this ‘higher’ demand.  Of course, in our example, this wouldn’t have helped our three businesses.  None of them would have borrowed cheap money to increase supply.  Not when supply already exceeded demand.  In fact no amount of monetary or fiscal policy action would have helped.  It certainly wouldn’t have added back that midnight shift.  Unless the government started buying cars for people.  Which might have put people back to work on that midnight shift.  But such an expansion of government spending would have increased taxes.  So high that it would have reduced economic activity elsewhere.  As it transferred this money out of the private sector and into the public sector.  Saving a few jobs at the cost of consumers everywhere paying higher taxes.

The business cycle is a natural and necessary part of the economy.  It’s how supply adjusts to demand.  And the only way supply adjusts to demand.  Thanks to prices.  That automatic mechanism that tells businesses exactly where supply should be.  And by interfering with this you make markets operate blindly.  Unable to know when supply exceeds demand.  So supply keeps increasing even after it already exceeds demand.  Creating bubbles.  And when the bubble bursts prices plummet.  To unload those burgeoning inventories.  Making recessions longer and more painful than they need be.

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