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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 27th, 2014

Week in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Cost of Recalls and Lost Goodwill

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 7th, 2014

Economics 101

Manufacturers make a Point of not Killing their Customers because it’s just Bad for Business

There have been some costly recalls in the news lately.  From yoga pants that were see-through.  To cars with faulty ignition switches that can turn the engine off while driving.  Disabling the power steering and airbags.  Resulting in the loss of life.  These recalls have cost these companies a lot of trouble.  Including financial losses from the recalls and lawsuits.  Being called to testify before Congress.  And possible criminal charges.

No surprise, really.  As those who distrust corporations would say.  For they believe they constantly put their customers at risk to maximize their profits.  Even if it results in the death of their customers.  Which is why we need a vigilant government to keep these corporations honest.  So they can’t sell shoddy and dangerous goods that can kill their unsuspecting customers.  Which they will do if the government doesn’t have strong regulatory powers to stop them.  Or so says the left.

Of course, there is one problem with this line of thinking.  Dead customers can’t buy things.  And when word spreads that a corporation is killing their customers people don’t want to be their customers.  Because they don’t want to be killed.  Manufacturers know this.  And know the price they will pay if they kill their customers.  So manufacturers make a point of not killing their customers.  Because it’s just bad for business.

The Longer it takes to Recall a Defective Product the Greater the Company’s Losses

Manufacturing defects happen.  Because nothing is perfect.  And when they happen they are both costly and a public relations nightmare.  As no manufacturer wants to lose money.  And, worse, no manufacturer wants to lose the goodwill of their customers.  Because it’s not easy earning that back.  Which is why executive management wants to acknowledge and resolve these defects as soon as possible.  To limit their financial losses.  And limit the loss of their customers’ goodwill.

Let’s illustrate this with some numbers.  Let’s assume a company manufactures 5 product lines ranging from low price to high price.  The lowest priced product has the greatest unit sales.  And the lowest margin. The highest priced product has the fewest unit sales.  And the highest margin.  The other three items fall in between.  Rising in price.  And falling in margin.  Summarized here.

Cost of Recall - Gross Margin per Product Line R1

So each product line produces a sales revenue, a cost of sales and a gross margin (sales revenue less cost of sales).  Adding these departmentalized numbers together we can get total sales, cost of sales and gross margin.  And subtract from that overhead, interest expense and income taxes.  Summarized here.

Cost of Recall - Net Profit

So on approximately $5.8 million in sales this company earns $312,414.  A net profit of 5.4%.  Fictitiously, of course.  Not too bad.  That’s when everything is working well.  And they have nothing but satisfied customers.  But that’s not always the case.  Sometimes manufacturing defects happen.  Which can turn profits into losses quickly.  And the longer it takes to address the defects the greater those losses can be.

Losing the Goodwill of your Customers will end up Costing More than any Product Recall

Let’s say Product 3 suffers a manufacturing defect.  By the time they identify the defect and halt production of the defective product they’ve produced 20% of the total of that product for the year.  Which they must recall.  Limiting their losses to 20% of the total of that product run.  Which they will have to refund the sales revenue for.  But they will have to eat the cost of sales for those defective units.  And despite the company’s quick response to the defective product and providing a full refund to all customers their goodwill suffers from the bad press of the recall.  Summarized here.

Cost of Recall - Recall

Refunding customers for the 20% of the line that was defective reduced net profits from 5.4% to 0.7%.  And when they lose some customers to their defect-free competition they lose some customer goodwill.  Resulting in a 15% drop in sales.  Leaving manufactured product unsold that they have to sell with steep discounting.  Bringing their sales revenue further down while their cost of sales remains the same.  Turning that 0.7% annual profit into a 2.8% loss.  But as time passes they recover the lost goodwill of their customers.  Limiting these losses in this one year.  Now let’s look at what would probably happen if the company had a ‘screw you’ attitude to their customers.  Like many on the left fervently believe.  Summarized here.

Cost of Recall - Loss of Goodwill R1

The company did not recall any of the defective products.  As word spread that this company was selling a defective product sales of that product soon fell to nothing after selling about 50% of the annual production run.  The other half sits unsold.  Even steep discounting won’t sell a defective product.  And seeing how they screwed their customers on the defective products sales fall on their other products (in this example by 30%).  As they don’t want to suffer the same fate as those other customers.  So what would have been only a $159,929 loss with a recall becomes a $1,494,344 loss.  Over nine times worse than what it could have been without a large loss of customer goodwill.  And this is why executive management moves fast to identify and resolve defects.  Because losing the goodwill of their customers will end up costing more than any product recall.  As it can take years to earn a customer’s trust again.

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Governments turn People into Addicts to generate Tax Revenue

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 4th, 2014

Week in Review

During the days of the British Empire Great Britain had a problem.  They loved Chinese tea.  But the British had nothing the Chinese wanted in trade.  Except for one thing.  Silver.  Hard money.  Which was a problem for Britain.  They were running out of hard money.  So they came up with an ingenious way to solve that problem.  By getting as many Chinese hooked on opium as possible.  So they could trade Indian grown opium for Chinese tea.  It worked out great for the British.  But the Chinese didn’t like it.  And fought two opium wars with the British.  Which did not end well for them.

North Korea has a hard money problem, too.  And they, too, turned to drugs.  Crystal meth.  Which North Korea manufactured in state-run labs.  Destined for China.  Where they tried to get as many people addicted to crystal meth as possible.  So they can sell it in exchange for Chinese currency.  Which they could use to buy Chinese food.  To help ward off famine in North Korea.  This worked pretty well for North Korea.  But only gave China another addiction problem.

In the United States the government found other ways to raise revenue.  The first two big sources of addiction-revenue were cigarette and alcohol taxes.  But it soon proved not enough.  They then got people addicted to playing the lottery.  When that revenue proved to be insufficient they then got people addicted to casino gambling.  But government spending had grown so great that this revenue was still not enough.  So the government is looking at other things to get people addicted to (see Why Legalizing Marijuana Is a Smart Fiscal Move by Bruce Bartlett, The Fiscal Times, posted 1/3/2014 on Yahoo! News).

Perhaps the dominant factor driving marijuana legalization is the desperate search for new revenue by cash-strapped state governments. The opportunity to tax marijuana is potentially a significant source of new revenue, as well as a way of cutting spending on prisons and law enforcement. The California Secretary of State’s office, for example, estimates savings in the hundreds of millions of dollars from both factors. The following summary is from a proposed state ballot initiative in California (No. 1617)…

It is not surprising that revenue considerations should be critical in the marijuana legalization movement. That was previously the reason why cigarettes were not banned until the 1920s despite a strong nationwide movement to do so. In the wake of Prohibition, governments simply needed cigarette tax revenue too badly. And when Prohibition ended, the need for new revenue after the Great Depression decimated government budgets was a driving force.

Indeed, according to author Daniel Okrent, expectations of the revenue from taxing legal liquor were so great in 1932 that some people thought it might permit the repeal of income taxes. It’s worth remembering that in 1900, taxes on alcohol and cigarettes constituted half of all federal revenues. Indeed, the only reason Prohibition was possible in the first place was that the income tax established in 1913, which was greatly expanded by World War I, would replace the revenue lost from the liquor tax after Prohibition.

There have been no great cuts to revenue like that following Prohibition.  Government spending has just grown so great that it far exceeds the nation’s ability to pay for it with current taxes and borrowing.  So they are looking to make people addicted to marijuana to help pay for their large public sectors.  As well as their vote-buying welfare state.  And when this proves insufficient they can turn to other sources of revenue.  Such as decriminalizing and taxing heroin.  Cocaine.  Crack.  Crystal meth.  Opium.  Even prostitution.  People are already doing these things.  So they can’t be any worse than marijuana.  As long as only responsible adults indulge in these activities.  Just as only responsible adults will smoke marijuana in Colorado.  For think of the tax revenue heroin, cocaine, crack, crystal meth and opium could generate.  For those drugs are really addictive.  And just think how much old rich men would enjoy 18 year old prostitutes.  Prostitution would be a booming business to tax.  These young women could generate great tax revenue for the government by just doing what consenting adults want to do.

We could do these things to find new sources of revenue.  Or we could NOT make people addicts.  Or NOT sell women into prostitution.  Instead we could cut the size of the public sector and the welfare state.  So we can cut spending.  Which would eliminate the need to produce new tax revenue in the first place.  Allowing people to keep their hard-earned money instead of handing it over to the government.  To pay for generous pensions and retiree health care for others.

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Black Friday

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 2nd, 2013

Economics 101

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

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

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

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

Accessories and Impulse Buying make for a Successful Black Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Poor Economic Model of Passenger Rail

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 25th, 2013

Economics 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Threat of Default on the Debt is from the Left not the Right

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 10th, 2013

Politics 101

We have a Debt and Spending Problem as we are Spending so much that we have to Raise the Debt Ceiling

Contrary to popular belief the government doesn’t just borrow money.  They also raise money by taxing us and charging us fees.  A lot of it.  In this past fiscal year (October 2012 to September 2013) they raised $2,450,200,000,000.  That’s $2.45 trillion dollars.  Sadly, they spent $3,537,100,000,000.  Or $3.5 trillion.  Giving us a deficit of $1,086,900,000,000.  Or $1.1 trillion.  Which is why we’re having a debt crisis.

Interestingly, the left does not believe that we have a debt problem.  Or a spending problem. For they see no problem with these numbers.  The only problem they have is with Republicans.  Who do believe we have a debt problem.  As well as a spending problem.  And they want to do something about it.  Before the debt grows so big that it threatens the full faith and credit of the United States.

Now the Democrats, who don’t think we have a debt or a spending problem, are saying the Republicans are threatening the full faith and credit of the United States.  With their shutting down of government.  And their demand for spending cuts before raising the debt ceiling.  Which proves the Republicans point.  We have a debt and a spending problem.  Because we are spending so much that we have to raise the debt limit.

The Interest on the Debt is only 11.75% of the Available Revenue so there is no Danger of Default

Of course, this explains the $1.1 trillion deficit.  Out of control spending.  That the government is funding with more and more borrowing.  Which threatens the full faith and credit of the United States.  Because the more debt we accumulate the less likely we’ll ever be able to pay it off.

But are we risking default on the debt now?  With this battle over the debt ceiling?  No.  Yes, the debt is huge.  Currently it is in excess of $16 trillion.  About six and a half times total federal revenue.  To get an idea what that means consider you have the median household income which is approximately $51,000.  If you carried the same amount of debt the federal government carries you would have approximately $331,500 in credit card debt.  Any household with a median income of $51,000 with credit card debt of $331,500 has a bleak future.  And unless they win the lottery they will not escape bankruptcy.

So $16 trillion in debt is recklessly high.  And impossible to pay off.  But as bad as that is the amount of revenue the federal government collects via taxes and fees greatly exceeds the interest on the debt.  The interest on the debt is $415.7 billion.  This is the amount the government has to pay to avoid defaulting on the debt.  Which is easy to do with $2.45 trillion in revenue.  The interest on the debt is only 11.75% of the available revenue.  So even if the Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling there is no way in hell the government will be unable to pay the interest on the debt.  Unless the government chooses NOT to pay the interest on the debt.  Even when they have the ability to pay the interest on the debt.

The Democrats become Chicken Little whenever anyone ever Threatens their Spending Authority

So why all the talk of defaulting on the debt?  And ruining the full faith and credit of the United States?  Simple.  Democrats are liars.  And what do liars do?  They lie.  The interest on the debt is in no danger of going unpaid.  It’s all that other government spending that is in danger of going unspent.  That spending that makes people dependent on government.  And buys votes.

The left tries to frighten the people so they can keep spending.  And keep buying votes.  They try to scare Social Security and Medicare recipients.  Telling them they will lose their benefits if the Republicans don’t stop what they’re doing.  Even though they won’t.  First of all we pay into our own retirement account. At least that’s what the government tells us.  And there is a Social Security Trust Fund.  Full of our money just waiting to pay our benefits.  Or so they say.  But the Trust Fund doesn’t have money in it.  It has government IOUs.  Because the government spent that money.

So that’s why Democrats lie.  So they can keep spending and buying votes.  Which they won’t be able to do if they can’t borrow more money to spend.  And they’re spending so much that they can’t afford to lose their charging privileges.  This is why they warned the sky would fall if the sequestration spending cuts went into effect.  But as we all witnessed the sky did NOT fall with those spending cuts.  There was some discomfort.  But nowhere near the calamity the Democrats warned would befall us if they didn’t get their way.  Bringing us to their greatest fear.  That life can go on with a large spending cut.  And telling us that the government can cut spending even more.  Far more.  Which is a threat to their ability to buy votes.  And to their power.  Which is why they become Chicken Little whenever anyone ever threatens their spending authority.

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Cost-Benefit Analysis and Health Insurance

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 19th, 2013

Economics 101

We do a Cost-Benefit Analysis before making a Buying Decision

We make decisions everyday comparing costs to benefits.  Any time we go to a store.  Any time we make a buying decision.  We ask ourselves how much are we willing to pay to enjoy the benefit of the thing we’re thinking about buying.

For example, people love boats.  For there is nothing like being on a boat on a beautiful summer’s day.  Especially if you’re a guy.  Because bikini-clad women love sunning themselves on boats.  You could even say that a boat is a magnet for beautiful, bikini-clad women.  But how much are you willing to spend to enjoy that benefit?  Being around beautiful, bikini-clad women?  For owning a boat is very costly.  Especially if you live in a northern clime with a short boating season.

First of all, buying a boat is very costly.  It could determine the size of your house or where you live if you’re making a boat payment.  Then there’s insurance.  Fuel costs.  Transportation costs.  And inconvenience.  Of the time, effort and wear & tear on your vehicle to haul your boat to and from the water.  Or you can spend even more money to dock your boat at a marina.  And dry-store it over the winter.

Young, Healthy People do not buy Health Insurance because it has no Immediate Benefit for the High Cost

It takes a pretty healthy income to enjoy the benefit of boat ownership.  Something business owners can afford.  Because they earn a decent income.  But they earn that income because they put in a lot of hours.  So many that their boat may sit in their yard for most of the summer.  Or in storage.  So while a boat owner continues to pay the costs for the benefits of boat ownership he or she rarely enjoys those benefits.  Especially if they get married.  And the spouse gets seasick.

In an honest cost-benefit analysis few would buy a boat other than a business that needs a boat to do their business.  Like a fishing boat.  Or a harbor tug.  For these people there is a financial benefit that comes from boat ownership.  Income.  Unlike earning enough money to be able to afford a boat these people use their boat to provide an income.  Making the cost-benefit analysis completely different.  Instead of rationalizing the value of having fun they look at the revenue their boat will be able to provide.  And if it’s greater than the costs of owning that boat they will go ahead and buy that boat.

Sometimes we make these decisions based on impulse or desire instead of objective analysis.  Buying a more costly car when a less costly one would do.  But there are times when some go too far in the other direction.  Deciding not to buy something because they can’t see or enjoy the benefit.  Such as car insurance.  Or health insurance.  Things that have no benefit unless something bad happens.  And a lot of those going happily through life see no reason to spend a lot of money for something that brings them nothing good now.

Obamacare and the Individual Mandate make Generational Theft Law

This is why health insurance is so expensive.  Because FDR broke the health care system.  At least, the money-side of it.  When the FDR administration put in wage caps General Motors started offering a health insurance benefit.  This got around FDR’s wage cap and allowed them to offer more to the best workers to get them to come and work at General Motors.  And ever since we looked at health insurance as an employer benefit now instead of another cost in our everyday life.  Like food and housing.

After this our employment decisions changed.  People chose a job not based on what they would enjoy doing in life but by the size of their health care benefit.  The owner-provided health insurance.  At first the sky was the limit.  Because the U.S. automotive industry could charge whatever they wanted for a car.  And the price of cars began to climb to cover those very generous benefit packages.  Undoing what Henry Ford had done.  As the benefits pushed the cost of a car higher and higher it soon was not available to the average working man.  As they could only be afforded by the upper middle class and above.  Until competition entered and provided a lower-cost car that the less wealthy could afford.  As the U.S. automotive industry lost market share their sales declined.  So a smaller revenue had to pay for a growing number of pension and health care expenses of retired GM workers agreed to during the glory years.  Who were living longer into retirement than originally assumed.  And consuming a lot of medical services in those later years.  All paid for by the health insurance companies.  Causing health insurance costs to soar.

Young people are healthy people.  They rarely go to the doctor.  So when it comes to buying very expensive health insurance (to pay for the older generation consuming the bulk of health care services) they choose not to.  Because of an objective cost-benefit analysis.  Young, healthy people, today, are getting little benefit from paying an enormous amount of money for a health insurance policy.  Their parent’s generation (or their grandparent’s) is getting the benefit.  So they make a rational decision and NOT buy health insurance.  Which raises the cost of health insurance for those who do.  For today health insurance is not insurance.  It’s generational theft.  Stealing from the young to pay for the old because of FDR’s decision that made health care an employee benefit.  And an aging population makes it worse.  Enter Obamacare and the individual mandate.  Which made this generational theft law.  Forcing the young to pay for the old against their will.  Leaving little for them on their meager incomes to support or start a family of their own.  Preventing them from buying a new car.  While the thought of owning a boat is now a distant dream.

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To avoid Detroit’s Fate Chicago looks at Revenue Generation from Speed Cameras

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 11th, 2013

Week in Review

The City of Detroit bankruptcy shows how the massive costs of a city’s public sector are strangling these cities.  Promises of generous pensions for a long retirement and free health insurance up until you die are just promises these cities can’t pay for.  So some (like Detroit) raised their tax rates so high that people left the city in droves.  Further reducing the tax base.  While other cities turn to other revenue generating schemes (see Speeders were plentiful in camera test run by David Kidwell and Bill Ruthhart posted 8/12/2013 on the Chicago Tribune).

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel rolls out his long-delayed speed camera plan, new numbers his office released suggest that drivers who speed in Chicago could rack up way more in fines than a cash-starved City Hall initially projected.

The mayor had hoped to bring in $30 million this year. But results from a monthlong test of the automated camera system indicate the city could reap well into the hundreds of millions of dollars in the program’s first year.

City transportation officials argue that estimate is overblown, but the test period statistics the mayor’s office released Friday reinvigorated critics who argue that the program is more of a cash grab than the child safety measure Emanuel sold it as…

City transportation officials put estimated first-year revenues at $40 million to $60 million, arguing that several factors will cut down on the number of tickets actually issued.

For starters, they argue that it’s incorrect to estimate revenues based on the test program. They suggest the money will never reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars because of a number of factors. The most important: the fast learning curve of Chicago drivers…

Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th, who voted against the speed camera program, said the number of speeders captured on the test cameras supports her insistence that the main motivation is to generate more city revenue.

“I guess this is just going to be a city for wealthy people, that’s where we’re headed,” she said…

The speed camera rollout was scheduled for closer to the start of the year, but it was delayed after City Hall came under scrutiny following Tribune reports of an alleged bribery scandal involving its 10-year-old red light camera program.

Making the streets safer for children is a noble goal.  But like their red light camera program it’s all about the Benjamins.  The money.  And they love cameras because they can rake in the money without having to put more costly public sector workers (i.e., cops) onto the streets.  That is, they’re outsourcing these costly union jobs to machines.  To minimize their labor costs.  Just like corporations try to minimize their labor costs.  Because union workers are very, very expensive.

But like every government revenue policy they’ve overstated the expected revenue from these cameras.  Just like a higher cigarette tax rate reduces cigarette tax revenue.  Taxes, and these revenue cameras, change human behavior.  Actually achieving the stated purpose for them (better health if people don’t smoke and safer streets if speeders are punished).  Which means though they have a burst of revenue in the beginning it will eventually taper away.  Requiring a new revenue generating scheme.  And then another one to replace that one.  And so on.  On and on.  Forever and forever.  Instead of doing the simpler thing.  And the thing that would work best.  Forever and forever.  Just stop spending so much.

If the public sector union enjoyed pensions and health care benefits like they do in the private sector there would be no Detroits going bankrupt.  Because there would be no generational theft.  These workers would provide their own pensions—401(k)s—and pay a much larger portion of their health care expense.  And they would work into their Sixties (or more) like the rest of America.  Instead of retiring in their 40s or 50s.  To enjoy a retirement that in some cases lasts longer than their working career.  This would solve the budget problems of the big cities.  Instead of passing it on to future taxpayers who were not included in those generous contract negotiations that they find themselves stuck paying for.

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McDonald’s 2012 Annual Report

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 6th, 2013

History 101

The Benefit of a McDonald’s Franchise is getting the Benefit of their Years of Building their Brand

Recently a late-night comedy show attacked McDonald’s for being greedy.  Because they don’t pay their minimum wage workers a living wage.  Because what were once entry level jobs are now the primary support for some families.  And why have entry level jobs come to support families?  Because the anti-business policies of the current administration have destroyed better-paying jobs.  But they don’t attack that on late-night television.  They attack a company actually providing jobs in a jobless economy.

Today McDonald’s is huge.  You can find them pretty much anywhere in the world.  Which can be a welcome site for a weary traveler.  For they know they can walk into a McDonald’s wherever they are and have the comfort of a meal exactly like that at home.  Which is pretty amazing if you think about it.  And why McDonald’s is so successful.  The sight of those Golden Arches can attract a foreigner in a strange land or a construction worker on a new project in a distant city.  They know exactly what they can get at that McDonald’s.  What it will taste like.  And what it will cost.  Even if they’ve never been in that McDonald’s before.

This is because McDonald’s has very successfully built their brand.  Which is one of those intangible things.  It has great value.  But you can’t physically touch it.  Those who own a McDonald’s franchise can enjoy a thriving business.  From day one.  Without doing any marketing to get people to walk into their restaurant.  They don’t have to.  Because McDonald’s has already done it.  And continues to do it.  This is the benefit of the franchise.  You get the benefit of all those years of hard work McDonald’s did to build their brand by simply paying a franchise fee (see Restaurants and Franchises posted 8/5/2013 on Pithocrates).  It’s not cheap.   But it’s such a fair deal for both franchiser and franchisee that McDonald’s had 27,882 franchised stores in 2012 (see McDonald’s 2012 Annual Report, page 11).

Owning a McDonald’s Franchise allows you to own a Restaurant that has been Successfully in Business for 72 Years

In addition to the intangible value of the brand the franchise fee also includes rent.  For McDonald’s “owns the land and building or secures long-term leases” for the franchisee’s store (see McDonald’s 2012 Annual Report, page 11).  While the franchise needs to foot the bill for the “equipment, signs, seating and décor.”  This makes sure all stores are modern and up to date and uniform.  Helping to maintain that comfortable familiarity for the customers.  While splitting the capital costs between the franchisee and franchiser.  So both parties have a major investment in the business.  And each shares in the profits of the business.  Perhaps the best of the deal for the franchisee is getting a mentor.  And a detailed operating manual telling them everything they need to know and do.

Owning a McDonald’s franchise is costly.  But you get to step into a restaurant that has been successfully in business for 72 years.  Give or take.  Considering that half of all restaurants fail within the first five years of business this is a HUGE benefit for the franchisee.  And something well worth the franchise fee.  As evidenced by 27,882 franchised stores in 2012.  So what is that franchise fee?  And how much money does the franchisee get to keep after paying the franchise fee?

Well, if you do a little number crunching with the financials included in the 2012 annual report you can get an approximate number.  McDonald’s also has stores they own and operate.  In 2012 they had 6,598 company-owned stores.  The average per store revenue was $1,358,594 (calculated by dividing the total revenue from the company-owned stores by the number of company-owned stores).  A similar calculation gives an approximate $667,205 franchise fee per franchised store.  Subtracting the typical franchisee fee from the typical store revenue (assuming all stores have the same average revenue as the company-owned stores) gives the franchisee an annual income of $691,389.  From this income the franchisee has to pay for food, labor and overhead.  And whatever is left over is profit.

High School Kids and College Students work at McDonald’s because they need no prior Restaurant Experience

The rule of thumb in restaurants is that costs are broken down into thirds.  One third is food cost.  One third is labor cost.  And one third is overhead and profit.  So if we divide that $691,389 by 3 we get an annual food cost per franchised store of $230,463.  Ditto for labor.  And overhead (gas, electric, water, insurances, taxes, licenses, fees, waste disposal, light bulbs, toilet paper, soap, garbage bags, etc.) and profit.  Let’s look at the labor cost more closely.  To see if McDonald’s is greedy when it comes to paying their employees.

The benefit of owning a franchise is that it comes with very explicit instructions.  A McDonald’s distributor delivers prepared food ready for the grill and fryer.  As delicious as it is, though, it doesn’t take a highly skilled chef to prepare it.  As the franchisee operating manual has it down to a science.  Which is why high school kids and college students work at McDonald’s.  They need no prior restaurant experience as it is an entry level job.  Typically their first job.  Where they learn what it’s like entering the workforce.  The importance of being on time.  Following instructions.  Being responsible.  Skills that they will use in later jobs.  Which most do.  As there is a high turnover of employees at McDonald’s as there is for all fast food.  Because these are entry level jobs for unskilled workers.  Who learn the skills they need on the job.  So let’s assume a restaurant that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Assuming an hourly rate of $8.50 and an overhead of 40% for direct labor costs (workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment taxes, health insurance, uniforms, training, etc.) the average hourly labor cost comes to $11.90.  Dividing the labor cost of $230,463 by this hourly cost gives us 15,758 annual labor hours.  Or about 53.06 hours per day.  Or 17.69 hours per 8-hour shift.  Giving us an average of 2.21 workers per 8-hour shift.

During the breakfast and lunch rush a typical McDonald’s may have between 5-8 people working.  With fewer working in the evening.  And a skeleton crew over night working the drive-thru.  So the labor fluctuates during the day to correspond to the amount of business.  Which is why there are a lot of part-time workers at McDonald’s.  Ideal for high school and college kids.  In addition the owner typically works during those busy periods to help with the rush.  And works on paperwork during the slower times.  Putting in about 12 hours a day.  If you assume an overhead rate of 18% and multiply that to the franchisee annual income of $691,389 we get an overhead expense of $124,450.  Subtracting that from the $230,463 (overhead & profit) leaves an annual owner income of $106,013.  Or, based on a work week of 84 hours (12 hours a day X 7 days a week), the owner earns about $24.27 an hour.  A rate a lot of people can earn working for someone else without the headaches of owning a business.

That late-night comedy show attacked McDonald’s for being greedy.  Saying they should increase their pay rate to a living rate.  Like picketers were asking for.  $15/hour.  A labor cost increase of 82.6%.  Or an additional $190,382 each year.  Which would bring the franchisee’s annual income from $106,013 to an annual loss of $84,369.  So are these McDonald’s franchisees greedy because they refuse to pay a living wage?  No.  They simply can’t afford to pay more than the minimum wage for these minimum wage jobs.  Unless they can get people to spend $6-$7 for a Big Mac.  They are delicious.  But are they $6-$7 delicious?  And can a low-income family afford to take the family to McDonald’s when they are charging $6-$7 per burger?  Probably not.  No.  McDonald’s is just fine.  What we need to do is to un-do the anti-business policies of this administration that is killing those higher-paying jobs.  And forcing the primary earner in some families to work a minimum wage job.  Because that’s all that is available in this jobless economy.

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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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