People chose Low-Cost over Comfort with Spirit Airlines

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 20th, 2014

Week in Review

Flying used to be reserved for the very rich.  But after deregulation ticket prices fell.  Allowing most anyone to afford flying.  Flying isn’t cheap, though.  Especially with high fuel costs.  Which has created a bunch of low-cost airlines to keep the price of flying as low as possible.  Something people like when buying their tickets.  Even if they end up complaining about the flight (see Spirit Airlines: nation’s highest complaint rate and highest profit margin by Hugo Martin posted 4/20/2014 on the Los Angeles Times).

It may be no surprise that the U.S.-based airline that has drawn the most complaints per passenger over the last five years is Spirit Airlines.

After all, the Florida-based carrier is known for super-tight seating and dozens of fees, including charges for soft drinks and carry-on bags.

But the executives at the ultra-low-cost carrier are probably not sweating the study results because another report released last week said that Spirit also had the highest profit margin of any U.S. carrier in 2013.

Most people want to get where they’re going and really don’t mind the getting there.  If they’re paying, at least.  If the company is picking up the tab, sure, business class all the way.  But most others are traveling somewhere.  And when they get ‘there’ they want to have as much money left over after getting ‘there’ to make their time ‘there’ as good as possible.  So they will put up with being cramped.  Go thirsty.  And pack light.  They may not enjoy this.  But that’s okay.  As long as they can enjoy their time when they get wherever they’re going.

And this is why Spirit Airlines is so profitable.  For as bad as people may find the flying portion of their travels they like having more money in their pockets when they get there.  So people willingly fill those cramped seats.  Because this airline is offering them exactly what they want.  How do we know this?  Because they are filling those cramped seats enough to make Spirit Airlines very profitable.  Which they couldn’t do if people weren’t filling those cramped seats.  So passengers may be saying they don’t like flying Spirit Airlines but their dollars say otherwise.

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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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High Fuel Costs makes Union Contracts too Costly on Qantas’ International Flights

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 26th, 2012

Week in Review

There is an inverse relation between gas prices and driving distance on your summer vacation.  The higher the gas price the shorter your drive.  When gas is cheap you can travel across the country in a recreational vehicle.  When gas prices are high you may limit your drive to a single day.  Perhaps even a single fill up.  Because driving adds up.  If you fill up twice a day you may pay $150 at the gas pump.  If you drive two days out and two days back that’s $600 in driving costs.  Which you could put towards a nice hotel or some fun.  Or into your gas tank.  Which isn’t really a whole lot of fun.  Especially when you have some bored kids fighting each other in the back seat.

Fuel costs can make the difference between a nice vacation and a bad one.  And between a profitable operation and an unprofitable operation (see Australia’s Qantas to Split Business into Two by Reuters posted 5/22/2012 on CNBC).

Qantas Airways, said it plans to split its loss-making international and profitable domestic businesses, though Australia’s top airline was viewed by analysts as unlikely to spin off or sell the international operations…

The changes are part of a five-year turnaround plan aimed at shrinking costs and getting the international operations into profit…

The airline…is emerging from a bruising industrial dispute with unions…

Weak demand and high fuel prices are taking a toll on airline profits, pushing airlines across the world to cut costs and delay capital expenditure. 

The reason companies go through these bruising disputes with their unions is because of the good times when all other costs aren’t so bad.  When fuel was cheap the airlines were making some decent profits.  And it was affordable to be generous to their unions.  When they had little choice but to be generous.  For a strike during busy times is not good to the bottom line.  So they enter into these agreements that just cripple a company when fuel costs soar.

The international business is losing money because it takes a lot more fuel on those international routes.  And when demand is low it is very difficult to raise ticket prices.  Because even though Qantas is a quality airline there are other quality airlines out there trying to make it in an industry suffering from low demand.  And they are all trying to keep their ticket prices as low as possible to get the few passengers out there still flying.  It’s gotten so bad that some airlines are charging for things they’ve never charged for before. 

Such as carryon bags.  Which helps revenue in two ways.  It helps pay for fuel costs.  And it discourages passengers from carrying on luggage.  Which reduces weight and saves on fuel costs.  For an airline only puts into their fuel tanks the amount they need to fly.  They don’t top them off.  They count everything going onto that airplane and calculate the weight to add to the weight of the airplane and the weight of the fuel they carry.  The less the weight on that plane the less fuel they have to burn.

The short routes tend to be the more profitable ones.  There are more of them (one plane can make 2-3 round trips in a day).  And they burn less fuel.  That adds up to profitability.  Which is why Qantas is profitable on their domestic routes.  But not on their international routes.  And why the domestic business can pay the high union contracts.  While the international business can’t.

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China Spending less on Unprofitable High-Speed Trains, wants Private Investors to Lose Money Instead

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 26th, 2012

Week in Review

Governments everywhere want to build high-speed trains.  They like them because they’re very high profile and can stand as memorials to the politicians that gave them to us.  They like them because they are so costly, both to run and to operate.  Requiring higher taxes and lots of government borrowing.  They like them because they are so labor intensive.  Both to build and to operate.  This creates a lot of jobs.  Yes, they are all of these things.  But one thing they are not is profitable (see Railways try to get investors on track by Wei Tian and Xin Dingding posted 5/21/2012 on China Daily).

Experts predict lukewarm response as sector seeks private capital…

Zhou, who is chairman of the Wenzhou Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Development Association, represents a group of wealthy industrialists in East China’s Zhejiang province.

The railway authority in Wenzhou, he said, has been negotiating with entrepreneurs but so far the government is offering just 8 percent of the profits.

“Eight percent is not attractive,” he said. Railway programs require huge investment, the sector has suffered losses and entrepreneurs are cautious, he said.

According to data released by the ministry, its debt reached 2.43 trillion yuan ($384 billion) by the end of March, with a debt ratio of 60.6 percent.

The ministry also reported a loss of 6.98 billion yuan in the first quarter.

Meanwhile, fixed investment in railways was 89.6 billion yuan, 48.3 percent less than the same period last year…

…private capital is already involved in railway construction, he said, explaining that a 624-kilometer coal transport line, partially funded by the privately owned Xinjiang Guanghui Industry Investment Group, had begun construction in late March.

However, he warned that it will not be easy to attract private investors into industries that are no longer profitable.

Building these railways gave the government a huge debt.  That debt ratio (total liabilities divided by total assets) means lenders are not all that happy.  With over half the total assets of the railway programs paid for by debt and an annualized loss of 27.9 billion Yuan (4 X 6.98 billion Yuan) investors see these railway programs for what they are.  Investment losers.  They rack up debt and can’t operate at a profit.  Even the government doesn’t want to pay for them anymore and is trying to find private investors to throw away their money.

Railroads are so costly because there is infrastructure everywhere a train travels.  And the revenue from the train has to pay for this infrastructure.  From the first survey to the first grading to the first ballast to the first track to the first switch to the first signal there are nothing but high capital costs.  Followed by high operating costs to make everything work.  From maintenance crews to engineers to conductors to train crews to dispatch centers to ticket sellers.  High-speed passenger rail is the most expensive rail of all.  Because they’re typically electric which requires even more infrastructure wherever that train travels.  And no grade crossings.  So that’s more tunnels and bridges.

Only two high-speed lines earn enough revenue to pay both their capital and operating costs.  One in Japan.  And one in France.  Governments subsidize all other passenger rail.  Only the freight railroads are profitable.  Which is why companies in the private sector still own the freight railroads.   Why freight?  Because there is no more cost effective way to move containers or bulk freight.  Like coal.  Which is where private capital is currently going to in China.  Because coal is never an investment loser.  And there is no better way to move coal overland than by train.

The bidding process has come in for harsh criticism by the public after a crash involving two high-speed trains in Zhejiang province killed at least 40 people and injured more than 200 others in July.

According to the findings of an investigation announced last December, malpractice and illegal contracts were found in the bidding process administered by the Ministry of Railways and its subordinate bureaus, which resulted in the failure of a train control system that had never undergone field tests before launch, Xinhua reported.

The national auditor said in March that it had uncovered evidence of fraud, waste, mismanagement and irregular accounting and procurement totaling billions of yuan at the ministry’s flagship high-speed Beijing-Shanghai railway.

And here’s the other reason why politicians love high-speed rail.  It is so much easier to conceal fraud, waste and irregular accounting and procurement practices when the money amounts are so large.  It’s a sad thing that government is not very good at building and running trains but is very good at the fraud.  We should remember this the next time government wants to spend a fortune on high-speed rail.

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Capital and Capitalism

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 7th, 2012

Economics 101

Entrepreneurs have an Insatiable Desire to Think and Create

It takes money to make money.  For it is money that buys the means of production.  The land, manufacturing plants, small shops, office space, machines, equipment and infrastructure that make things.  The trucks, barges, container ships, locomotives and rolling stock that transport raw material, work-in-progress and finished goods.  These physical assets are capital.  From assembly lines to inventory control systems to accounting software.  Things that let businesses conduct business.  And make profits.

This is the key to capitalism.  Profits.  It’s what allows businesses to make the things we need and enjoy.  Profits are what make an entrepreneur take a risk.  To spend their life savings.  To mortgage their home.  To borrow from a bank.  They do these things because they believe they will be able to earn enough profits to replenish their life savings.  To make their mortgage payments.  To repay their loans.  AND to earn a living in the process.  It is a risky endeavor.  And far more risky than working for someone and earning a steady paycheck.  But if entrepreneurs didn’t take these risks we wouldn’t have things like the iPhone or the automobile or the airplane.  All of which were brought to us because one person had an idea.  And then invested in the capital to bring that idea to market.

Some business ideas succeed.  Many more fail.  But people keep trying.  Because of that insatiable desire to think and create.  And the ability to earn profits to pay for their ideas.  To build on their ideas.  To expand their ideas.  From the first thoughts of it they kicked around in their head.  To the multinational corporations their ideas grew into.  All made possible by the profits they earned.  The more they earned the more they could do.  As they reinvested those earnings into their businesses.  To buy more capital.  That allowed them to build more things.  And use even more capital to bring these things to market.  Creating jobs all along the way.  Jobs that only came into being because of those profits that started as a single thought in someone’s head.

If you can’t Service your Debt your Creditors can and will Force you into Bankruptcy

This is where corporations come from.  From a single thought.  Profitable business operations grow that thought into the corporations they become.  For corporations are not the evil spawn of the damned.  Corporations come from people having a great idea.  Like Starbucks.  And Ben and Jerry’s.  Who are now everywhere so we can enjoy their products wherever we are.  All made possible by the profits of capitalism.

Who’s up for a little accounting?  You are?  Well, then, you came to the right place.  For we’re going to learn a little accounting.  Right here.  Right now.  Corporations determine their profits by closing their books at the end of an accounting period.  A series of accounting steps culminate in the trial balance.  Where the sum of all debits equal the sum of all credits.  Or eventually do after various adjusting entries.  Once they do the books are balanced.  And business at last can see if they were profitable.  By producing an income statement.  Which lists revenue at the top.  Then sums all costs (materials, production wages, payroll taxes & health insurance for that labor, etc.) that produced that revenue.  Subtracting these costs from revenue gives you gross profit.  Then comes overhead costs.  Fixed costs.  Like rent and utilities.  And overhead labor (corporate officers, management, accounting, human resources, etc.).  They sum these and subtract them from gross profit.  Which brings us to earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT).  A very important profitability number.  For if there is any money left by the time you reach EBIT your business operations were profitable.  Your business was able to pay all the due bills to produce your revenue.  Which leaves just two numbers.  Interest they owe on their loans.  And income taxes.

EBIT is a very important number.  For if it’s not large enough to service your debt everything above EBIT is for naught.  Because if you can’t service your debt your creditors can and will force you into bankruptcy.  Never a good thing.  And what follows is usually the opposite of growing your business.  Shrinking your business.  By seriously cutting costs (i.e., massive layoffs).  And eliminating unprofitable lines of revenue.  Downsizing and reorganizing as necessary so your cost structure can produce a profit at the given market price for your goods and/or services.  A price determined by your competition in the market.  If you cannot downsize and reorganize sufficiently to become profitable then you go out of business.  Or you sell the business to someone who can make a profit.  Because unless you can turn a profit your business will consume money.  And that money has to come from somewhere.  Typically it is the business owner until they run out of life savings and home to mortgage.  Because a bank can’t give you money to lose in your business.  For their depositors put their money into the bank to grow their savings.  Not to shrink them.  So a bank has to be profitable to please their depositors.  And if the bank is using their money to make bad loans they will remove their money.  As will other depositors.  Perhaps creating a run on the bank.  And causing the bank to fail.  So while operating at a loss will save employees jobs in the short term it will cause far greater harm in the long term.  Which isn’t good for anyone.

Capitalism works because with Risk there’s Reward

As you can see getting those accounting reports to fairly state the profitability of a business is crucial.  For it’s the only way a business knows if it can pay its bills.  And the way they pay their bills complicate matters.  Revenue and costs come in at different times.  To bring order to this chaos businesses use accrual accounting.  Which includes two very important rules.  To record accurately when revenue is revenue (for example, a down payment is not revenue.  It’s a liability a business owes the customer until the sale transaction is complete).  And to match costs to revenue.  Meaning that every cost a business incurred producing a sale is matched to that sale.  Even long-term fixed assets like buildings and machinery.  Which they depreciate over the life of the asset.  Charging a depreciation expense each accounting period until the asset is fully depreciated.

Because of these accounting reports that fairly state business operations a business knows if they are profitable.  That they can pay all of their bills.  Their suppliers AND their employees.  Their health insurance AND their payroll taxes.  The interest on their debt AND their income taxes.  They can pay all of these when they come due.  And not run out of money when other bills come due.  Which is why they can have confidence when they read their income statement.  Knowing that they paid all their costs due in that accounting period.  Including the interest on their debt.  And their income taxes.  Which takes them to the bottom line.  Net profit.  And if it’s positive they have money to reinvest into their business.  To expand operations.  To increase sales revenue.  Create more jobs.  And they can grow.  But not too much that they lose control.  So they can always pay their bills.  So they can keep doing what they love.  Thinking.  And bringing new ideas to market.

This is capitalism.  Where people take risks.  In hopes of making profits.  They invest in capital to make those profits.  And then use those profits to invest in capital.  It works because there is a direct relationship between risk and profits.  It’s why people take risks.  Create jobs.  And provide the things we need and enjoy.  Because with risk there’s reward.  And accounting reports that fairly state business operations give a business’ management the tools to be profitable.  By matching costs to revenue.  Telling them when they are not using their capital efficiently.  Helping them to stay profitable.  (Unlike anything the government runs.  Because there is no matching of costs to revenue.  Taxes come into the treasury and the treasury pays for a multitude of things.  With no way to know if they are using those taxes efficiently).  And this is capitalism.  Risk and reward.  And accountability.  For when you’re risking your money you become very accountable.  Which is why capitalism works .  And government-run entities don’t.

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Marine Insurance, General Average, Mesopotamia, Genoa, Middle Class, Capitalism, London Coffeehouses and Lloyd’s of London

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 3rd, 2012

History 101

It was in Genoa that Marine Insurance became a Standalone Industry

Risk management dates back to the dawn of civilization.  Perhaps the earliest device we used was fire.  Fire lit up the caves we moved into.  And scared the predators out.  As we transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming we gathered and stored food surpluses to help us through less bountiful times.  To avoid famine.  As artisans rose up and created a prosperous middle class we also created defensive military forces.  To protect that prosperous middle class from outsiders looking to plunder it.

As we put valuable cargoes on ships and sent them long distances over the water we encountered a new kind of risk.  The risk that these cargoes wouldn’t make it to their destinations.  So we created marine insurance.  Including something called ‘general average’.  An agreement where the several shippers shared the cost of any loss of cargo.  If they had to jettison some cargo overboard to save the rest of the cargo or to save the ship.  Some of the proceeds from the cargo they delivered paid for the cargo they didn’t deliver.  Some merchants who borrowed money to finance a shipment paid a little extra.  A risk ‘premium’.  Should the shipment not reach its destination the lender would forgive the loan.

So how long has marine insurance been around?  A long time.  Some of these practices were noted in the Code of Hammurabi (circa 1755 B.C.).  For ancient Mesopotamia was a trading civilization.  That shipped on the Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries.  Out into the Arabian sea.  And beyond.  Following the coasts until advances in navigation and sail power took them farther from land.  The Greeks and Romans insured their valuable cargoes, too.  As did the Italian city-states that followed them.  Who ruled Mediterranean trade.  And it was in Genoa that marine insurance became a standalone industry.  No longer bundled with other contracts for an additional fee.

As the British Maritime Industry took off so did Lloyd’s of London

But the cargoes got larger.  And the voyages went farther.  Until they were crossing the great oceans.  Increasing the chances that this cargo wasn’t going to make it to its destination.  And when they didn’t the financial losses were larger than ever before.  Because the ships were larger than ever before.  So as the center of shipping moved from the Mediterranean to the ocean trade routes plied by the Europeans (Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands and England) the insurance industry followed.  And took the concept of risk management to new levels.

With trade came a prosperous middle class.  Where wealth was no longer the privilege of landholders.  Capitalism transferred that wealth to manufacturers, bankers, merchants, ship owners and, of course, insurers.  You didn’t have to own land anymore to be rich.  All you needed was skill, ability and drive.  It was a brave new world.  And these new capitalists gathered together in London coffeehouses to discuss business.  Including one owned by Edward Lloyd.  On Tower Street.  Where those particularly interested in shipping came to learn the latest in this industry.  And it was where shippers and merchants came to find underwriters to insure their ships and cargoes.

This was the birth of Lloyd’s of London.  And as the British maritime industry took off so did Lloyd’s of London.  As the British Empire spread across the globe international trade grew to new heights.  The Royal Navy protected the sea lanes for that trade.  The British Army protected their far-flung empire.  And Lloyd’s of London insured that valuable cargo.  It was a very symbiotic relationship.  All together they made the British Empire rich.  To show their appreciation of the Royal Navy making this possible Lloyd’s set up a fund to provide for those wounded in the service of their county following Lord Nelson’s victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar.  They continue to provide support for veterans today.  In short, Lloyd’s of London was the place to go to meet your global insurance needs.  From marine insurance they branched into providing ‘inland marine’ insurance needs.  Providing risk management to property beyond ships plying the world’s oceans. 

The Purpose of Insurance is to Let Life Go On after Unexpected and Catastrophic Events

Cuthbert Heath led Lloyd’s in the development of the non-marine insurance business.  Underwriting policies for among other things earthquake and hurricane insurance coverage.   And Lloyd’s helped to rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.  With Heath ordering that they pay all of their policies in full irrespective of their policy terms.  They could do that because they were profitable.  Which is a good thing.  Insurers need to be profitable to pay these large claims without being forced out of business.  Which is why when the Titanic sunk in 1912 they were able to pay all policies in full.  And to continue on insuring the shippers and merchants that followed Titanic.  To allow life to proceed after these great tragedies.  And they would do it time and again.  Following 9/11.  And Hurricane Katrina.

This is the purpose of insurance.  Risk management.  So unexpected and catastrophic events don’t end life as we know it.  But, instead, it allows us to carry on.  Even after some of the worst disasters.  Because life must go on.  And that’s what insurance does.  Even people who rely on a particular body part for their livelihood have gone to Lloyd’s to buy insurance.  Perhaps the most famous being Betty Grable.  Who insured her legs for $1 million in 1940.  Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu has a lucrative endorsement with a shampoo company.  And insured his long hair for $1 million.  Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards insured his hands for $1.6 million.  America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) has an endorsement deal with a toothpaste company.  And they insured her smile for $10 million.  Even ‘the Boss’ Bruce Springsteen insured his voice for $6 million. 

People hate insurance companies.  Because they don’t understand how insurance works.  For they only know that they pay a lot in premiums and never receive anything in return.  But this is the way risk management is supposed to work.  And we need risk management.  We need insurance companies.  And we need insurance companies to be profitable.  Meaning that most of us will never see anything in return for all of our premium payments.  So these companies can pay for the large losses of the few who sadly do see something in return for all of their payments.  For insurance companies protect our wealth.  And earning potential.  So life can go on.  Whether we’re raising a family and planning for our children’s future.  Or taking precautions for some unforeseen accident to one of our body parts that may limit our future earning potential.

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FT106: “You can’t have high paying jobs with generous benefits and low consumer prices.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 24th, 2012

Fundamental Truth

To give Workers High Wages and Generous Benefits a Business has to sell their Goods at High Prices 

The problem with politics is that voters don’t understand economics.  And they demonstrate this by demanding mutually exclusive things all of the time.  Where having one thing makes it impossible to have the other thing.  Like that old saying that goes like this.  You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.   You can have cake.  Or you can eat cake.  But you can’t have cake after eating it.  Because once you eat your cake it is gone.  And there is nothing to have.  These things, then, are mutually exclusive.  You can have one or the other.  But you can’t have both.

Now let’s transfer this train of thought to economics.  And to its most fundamental element.  The demand curve.  Which represents people in the economy.  Consumers.  And the stuff that they buy.  And at what prices they will buy the stuff that they buy.  Let’s take large flat-screen televisions.  The big ones.  Over 60 inches in size.  If they cost the price of a luxury car few consumers will buy them.  But if they only cost the price of a pack of gum consumers will buy them until they have one for every room in their house.  And consumers will buy various amounts at the prices in between.  But in general this one truth holds true.  People will buy more televisions as their prices fall.  And they will buy fewer televisions as their prices rise.  When we show this graphically by plotting how many televisions they sell at various prices we get a demand curve.

Well, you think, why can’t we just sell televisions at the price of a pack of gum?  More people will have televisions.  That’s good.  Because people just love watching television.  And television makers will make more televisions.  Creating more jobs.  And jobs are good.  Everyone says so.  So why not just sell televisions for the price of a pack of gum.  Well, I suppose if we pay the people who make these televisions a wage and benefit package closer to the price of a pack of gum, we could.  But who wants to work for a paycheck that can only buy a pack of gum?  Which brings us back to wanting mutually exclusive things.  To give workers high wages and generous benefits we have to sell goods at high prices.  Which is mutually exclusive to the low prices consumers demand.

Big Oil’s Exxon Mobil was not as profitable as GE and Apple in 2010

Yes, you can’t have low consumer prices and high pay and generous benefits.  Because, per the demand curve, higher prices mean fewer things sold.   And fewer things sold mean lower sales revenue.  And sales revenue pays for everything in a business.  Including wages and benefits.  Which means lower sales revenue means less money available to pay wages and benefits.  And any company that tries to pay high wages and provide generous benefits has to do one of two things.  Have a product they can sell a lot of at high prices.  Or go bankrupt.  Two of the Big Three Detroit automakers tried to do the former and failed.  So they went bankrupt.  And the government bailed them out.

So to pay employees well these companies need to be profitable.  Unlike the Big Three.  And to be profitable you have to have sales revenue large enough AND prices high enough to generate profits.  Profits so large that they can provide high wages and generous benefits.  Unlike the Big Three.  Because they couldn’t sell enough cars at high enough prices to pay those high union wages and generous union benefits.  But some companies have been profitable.  Including one corporation liberal Democrats love to hate.  Exxon Mobil (a member of a group liberal Democrats derisively call Big Oil).  One company that the current liberal Democrat administration loves and partners with in green energy technology.  General Electric.  And one corporation liberal Democrats just love period.  Until Steve Jobs died, at least.  Apple. 

In the fourth quarter of 2010, the profits for Exxon Mobil, GE and Apple were, respectively, $9.25 billion, $4.46 billion and $4.31 billion.  The first thing that jumps out at you is that Big Oil is making twice as much money as the corporations liberal Democrats love.  Which is why they hate them.  And why they love to bitch about high prices at the gas pump.  While at the same time they are rejoicing about those high prices.  Because those high gasoline prices help push their green energy agenda.  But these profit numbers are misleading.  Because they don’t factor in the cost of producing those profits.  And the most common way we do that is by dividing these profits by the sales revenue that generated them.  Giving us net profit margin.  When we do this for Exxon Mobil, GE and Apple we find their net profit margins on those profits were, respectively, 8.79%, 10.8% and 21.2%.  Of the three Big Oil is the least profitable.  And Apple is the most profitable.  In fact, nearly 2.5 times more profitable than Exxon Mobil.  But no one is demanding that the government step in and lower the price of Apple’s products.  Unlike they do with Big Oil.

The Government’s Regulatory and Compliance Costs increase the Price of Gasoline at the Pump

So why is Big Oil less profitable than those other businesses?  Well, for one, you can’t drill for American oil in China.  Like GE and Apple can build products in China.  And by working in the United States Big Oil is subject to massive regulatory and compliance costs.  And government regulates few things more than the oil industry.  The permitting process alone just to drill an exploratory well can take years for approval.  And millions of dollars.  It wasn’t like this when gas was cheap in America.  Before all of this regulation.  In the days when John D. Rockefeller was refining petroleum no one was complaining about high prices.  In fact, his competition complained about his low prices.  Prices they couldn’t match.  Asking for the government to investigate them for antitrust violations.  Which they did.  And busted up Standard Oil.  So they could sell their products at higher prices.  But when you can manufacture goods in China you can escape all of these regulatory and compliance costs.  And governmental insanity of protecting consumers by raising consumer prices.

Some may counter that the net profit percentage isn’t the important number.  But the dollar amount of their profits.  The same people who say we shouldn’t look at the dollar amount rich people pay in taxes.  But what they pay as a percentage of their income.  Which is an example of a double standard.  Determining how much profit is too much by one standard for Big Oil (dollars).  But determining by another standard how much rich people should pay in taxes (percentage).  It doesn’t make good sense.  But it makes good politics.  Especially when you have nothing but class warfare to rely on to win an election.

The attack on Big Oil is also irrational.  For Big Oil can do one thing that even GE and Apple can’t do.  Provide high wages and generous benefits to American workers.  Because American oil deposits can only be extracted in America.  By American workers.  If only government will cease their attack on Big Oil.  And allow people to drive gas guzzlers if they want to.  Let them fill up those tanks.  Increase the demand for gasoline.  If they did and we got rid of the anti-gasoline policies Big Oil will go after that oil and bring it to market to meet that demand.  Making it inexpensive and plentiful just like John D. Rockefeller did.  Before government stepped in to ‘protect’ consumers.  And added so many regulatory and compliance costs that has since jacked up the price at the pump so much that it is eating away an ever larger share of a family’s budget.  And ultimately reducing their standard of living.  Without even getting any high paying jobs with generous benefits in the bargain.  And if you ask me that’s a pretty sad job of protecting consumers.

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The Space Shuttle versus the Airbus A380, an Economics Lesson

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 29th, 2011

The Space Shuttle, a Public Sector Failure

People like to point to the Apollo Program as the ultimate example of the American ‘can do’ attitude.  Apollo put men on the moon and retuned them safely.  If we can do that we should be able to do anything.  Even cure the common cold.  If only we attacked our greatest problems today the same way we solved the moon problem.  With a great big government program.  That marshaled a vast network of private contractors.  Where cost was no object.

But that was the problem with Apollo.  Cost.  It cost in excess of $20 billion dollars in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Today that would exceed $130 billion.  At the peak of the program spending consumed nearly 5% of all federal spending.  We’ve come close to shutting down government over lesser amounts in budget disputes.  The numbers are huge.  In comparison, the big three of federal outlays are Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and Defense, each consuming about 20% of all federal spending.  Imagine the fireworks if any of these were reduced to 15% (a 25% reduction in spending) to pay for another Apollo Program.  Suffice it to say it’s not going to happen.

This is why we don’t have more ‘Apollo’ programs to solve our problems.  We simply can’t afford to.  And in case you hadn’t noticed, NASA discontinued the Apollo Program, cancelling three moon landings.  Because of costs.  These cost savings help fund Skylab and the next big project.  The Space Shuttle.  Which was going to fix the cost problem.  By paying for itself.  Based on the private sector model.  The reusable vehicle was going to shuttle payload to space for paying customers and earn a profit.  The program, then, would pay for itself once launched.  And consume no tax dollars.  That was the plan, at least. 

But the Space Shuttle had its problems.  For one it was very dangerous.  And it turns out that the first manned mission was likely to be a disaster (see Shuttle Debuted Amid Unknown Dangers by Irene Klotz posted 6/29/2011 on Discovery News).

What NASA didn’t know at the time was that there was only a 1-in-9 chance the astronauts would make it back alive. Managers put the odds of losing the shuttle and its crew at 1-in-100,000.

Safety upgrades, including those initiated after two fatal accidents, have made the shuttle 10 times safer than it was in its early years, but the odds of a catastrophic accident are still high — about 1 in 90.

That is the largely unspoken part about why NASA is retiring its shuttle fleet after a final cargo run to the space station next month.

The Space Shuttle was just too complex a machine to meet any of its original goals.  Two shuttles were lost.  And the Space Shuttle Program never turned a profit.  The program that was going to pay for itself along the private sector model didn’t.  It required tax dollars.  A lot of them.

… preparing the shuttles for flight is extremely labor-intensive, which drives its $4 billion-a-year operating expense.

This is why we shouldn’t ask for any more great big government programs.  Because they’re typically abject failures.  Few companies in the private sector can fail as grandly.  Missing their profitability goal in excess of $4 billion dollars?  Year after year?  Only government can do this.  For only in government can a failed business model survive.  Because only government can tax, borrow and print money.

The Airbus A380, a Private Sector Success Story

This doesn’t happen in the private sector.  Where such gross mismanagement would put companies out of business.  Because they can’t tax, borrow or print.  Well, they can borrow.  But not at the low rates the government can.  Such failure would force them into junk territory.  And with a proven track record of losing billions year after year, even that wouldn’t be an option.  No, the private sector has to do it the old fashioned way.  They have to earn it.  You don’t have to be perfect.  You just have to be profitable (see Damaged Qantas A380 Refurbishment Underway by Guy Norris posted 6/29/2011 on Aviation Week).

Work to return to service the Qantas Airbus A380 damaged in last November’s uncontained engine failure is underway in Singapore.

The aircraft, which was substantially damaged when the number two Rolls-Royce Trent 900 shed a turbine disc, is about to be placed on stress jacks for major repairs to the wing and fuselage. Work will likely include replacement or repairs to the number one engine nacelle adjacent to the number two engine which was destroyed. The number two engine and nacelle is also being replaced…

The start of repair work, covered under an Aus $135 million insurance claim, puts a final end to speculation that the A380 would be written off. Airbus meanwhile declines to comment on the implications for possible longer term redesign as a result of lessons learned from the incident.

The Airbus A380 is a complex machine.  It’s expensive to build.  And to operate.  But it packs in a lot of people.  So the airlines can recover their costs through normal passenger service.  By offering passengers tickets at affordable prices.  With a little left over.  So Airbus can afford to sell these expensive airplanes at affordable prices, covering their costs with a little left over.  So their suppliers can sell components at affordable prices, covering their costs with a little left over.  Companies make profits everywhere in the process.  To return to their investors.  To reinvest in their operations.  Or to cover large, unexpected cost hits.  Like Airbus and Rolls Royce did to keep Qantas a satisfied customer.

A380 product marketing director Richard Carcaillet says “the two preliminary reports so far have focused on the engine event. However if there are any lessons for systems and procedures then we will take action. But with the co-operation of Rolls-Royce we have put a line of defense into the Fadec (full authority digital engine control), so that in the event of detecting a similar condition it will shut down quickly,” he adds.

Rolls has “now inspected and modified the whole fleet,” says Carcallet. For the moment the fix is the revised Fadec software, though longer term design changes are also underway to the engine, he adds.

The updated software commands an engine shut down if it detects the threat of an intermediate high pressure turbine overspeed occurring. Rolls is meanwhile working on a longer-term redesign of the Trent 900 oil system, a fire in which triggered the event.

Rolls-Royce has also agreed to pay (US) $100.5 million compensation to Qantas.

This is how the private sector works.  The profit incentive makes everyone do what is necessary to please and retain customers.  And improve safety.  Because airplanes falling apart in flight do not encourage anyone to buy a ticket.

Bigger Programs only mean Bigger Failures

There’s a reason that the Shuttle Program is no more but there are A380s flying and making money.  The difference between the Shuttle Program and the A380 is that one was in the public sector and the other is in the private sector.  And guess which one is the success story?  The one in the private sector.  Of course.  This despite the A380 having far more competition in Boeing (in particular the Boeing 747-400 and 747-8) than the Space Shuttle ever had.

Moral of the story?  Keep government programs small.  Because bigger programs only mean bigger failures.  And more tax dollars pulled from the private sector to pay for these failures.

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Obamacare and the United States Postal Service to have a lot in Common

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 29th, 2011

Obama Slams the United States Postal Service (USPS)

Back during the Obamacare debates, way back in 2009, the public option was still on the table.  President Obama tried to soothe people’s worry about the public option putting private insurance out of business.  He said it was ridiculous to worry about such a thing.  Because federal monopolies can’t do anything well.  And that private business will always provide a more superior service than a government provided service.  Strange way to advance his case for more government involvement in health care.  But he said it.  And gave an example of a poorly run government monopoly providing no threat whatsoever to its private counterparts.  The United States Postal Service (see The President and the Postal Service by Ed O’Keefe posted 8/11/2009 on The Washington Post).

“I mean, if you think about it, UPS and FedEx are doing just fine, right? No, they are. It’s the post office that’s always having problems.”

President Obama is right.  FedEx and UPS are doing just fine.  And, just as he said, it is the USPS that is having the problems.  As always.  To quote Obama.

FedEx is Profitable

FedEx’s shipping volume in their fiscal third quarter set a record.  And their revenue and margins are looking pretty good, too (see FedEx offers strong outlook for this quarter and beyond by Lynn Adler, Reuters, posted 3/17/2011 on msnbc).

FedEx Express volumes were at an all-time fiscal third-quarter high, and “Ground is knocking the cover off of the ball with both volume and yield gains,” [John Koczara, portfolio manager at AMBS Investment Counsel] said.

“We expect continued positive yield trends to improve revenues and margins in the fourth quarter and in fiscal 2012,” said Alan Graf, [FedEx] chief financial officer.

One thing for sure, it doesn’t look like the public option, the USPS, is giving FedEx any problems.  Confirming what Obama said.  FedEx is doing just fine.  Score one for the private company.

UPS is Profitable

Now, FedEx is good, but there is someone even better.  And it isn’t the USPS (see UPS Profit Tops Estimates, Sees Record in 2011 by Reuters posted 2/1/2011 on CNBC).

United Parcel Service, the world’s largest package delivery company, reported a quarterly profit that beat estimates and forecast record-high profits in 2011, sending its shares up 4 percent.

Doesn’t look like the public option, the USPS, is causing any heartburn for UPS.  Unless they consume too much champagne and caviar courtesy of their record profits.  Score another one for the private company.

The USPS is Sucking Air

With FedEx and UPS booming you’d think that the USPS would be booming, too.  So are they?  Are they posting record profits in the latest quarter?  Not quite (see Sun is setting on rural post offices by Kevin Murphy posted 5/28/2011 on Reuters).

The postal service is losing $23 million a day and is $15 billion in debt, its allowed limit, said Rich Watkins, spokesman for its Mid-America District. The service has cut about 100,000 positions through attrition in the past three years and consolidated sorting and other operations, he said.

The postal service is in such bad financial condition that it may not be able to make a $5.5 billion prepayment for future retiree health benefits due September 30, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told a Senate subcommittee last week.

Unlike the private companies, FedEx and UPS, who are doing very well, the USPS is sucking air.  That’s private company: 3; government monopoly: 0.  Which is pretty amazing considering that they have a legal monopoly enforced by the federal government.  Only they can deliver letters.  Unfortunately, they do that so inefficiently that postal customers have found alternatives.

The U.S. agency has lost business to electronic mail and to private sector competitors like FedEx and the United Parcel Service.

That’s the problem with a monopoly.  Always trying to do something the way they did it a generation ago.  Meanwhile, people have turned to email and text messaging.  And paying their bills on line.  Because it’s cheaper.  And easier.  No postage required.  No envelopes.  No trips to the post office.  No muss.  No fuss.  And you can send pictures and video in today’s digital world.  You can’t do that with first class mail.  At least, not with a lot of additional cost.

Of course, they can compete with FedEx and UPS.  Because you can’t send packages electronically.  But the one thing the USPS can do well they still can’t do as well as FedEx and UPS.  We need to fix the USPS.  It needs to be reformed.  To meet the needs of today’s generation.  And tomorrow’s.  But that’s one thing that a government monopoly just can’t do well.  Change.  Or be efficient.  Or provide a service that people demand.

The Public Option will be a lot like the USPS

President Obama was right in 2009.  The government can’t do anything well.  And when they compete against private industry they fail miserably.  In fact, these government run enterprises are so bad that only government intervention can maintain their monopoly.  For awhile.  Because when something is that bad, even government intervention can’t prevent the inevitable.

Which begs the question why did Obama use the USPS-FedEx/UPS analogy to promote the expansion of government into the private health insurance industry?  What’s his argument?  Don’t worry about the public option.  It’ll be as horrible as the USPS that it won’t harm the private insurance market.  But we will pattern the public option after the USPS.  Because only the public option will provide affordable, quality health care.

Yes, the public option will be that remarkable.  It’ll be both horrible and the best thing since sliced bread.  Depending on who the government is talking to at the time.

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