Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Real retail sales gains join industrial production in sharp deceleration

Real retail sales gains join industrial production in sharp deceleration

Two days ago we saw that gains in industrial production had decelerated sharply in August. This morning we saw the same thing with real retail sales, one of my favorite indicators.

Nominal retail sales were up +0.6% in August. Meanwhile, July’s reading was revised downward by -0.3%. Since in July and August consumer inflation was up +0.6% and +0.4%, respectively, that means revised *real* retail sales rose +0.3% in July and +0.2% in August. This means that the net result over two months was lower than previously thought for the month of July alone.

Nevertheless real retails sales did establish a new record high, above any reading from before the pandemic:

Historically consumption has led employment (/2) by several months (albeit with lots of noise), and has an even closer relationship with aggregate hours (all shown YoY below):

 

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Jones v USPS

In Jones v USPS, the Postal Service provided weekly service performance data since the beginning of the year. This is the most complete picture of on-time performance that we’ve seen since the mail delays became an issue earlier this summer. The data set is discussed in this post. There was also a hearing today in the Jones case. We hope to have more on that later.

In the Washington case, an amicus brief was filed by the County of Santa Clara, the City of Columbus, and Thirty-Eight Local and Tribal Governments. The brief argues that the operational changes made by the Postal Service impede delivery and receipt of vote-by-mail, absentee, replacement, emergency, military, and overseas ballots, voter registration material, and outreach and education efforts. They also create significant burdens for officials administering elections and interfere with tribal government functions.

In the Washington case, the Postal Service filed a brief in opposition to the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction. As noted on Law360,”Between arguing that the states’ concerns were overblown and pointing to regulations that say the Postal Regulatory Commission and the Washington D.C. Circuit Court have exclusive jurisdiction over such complaints, the USPS said the court should not grant the proposed injunction to undo changes that have already been made.”

“This case is now about plaintiffs’ attempts to have this court oversee the day-to-day operations of USPS, based on a claim that courts have analogized to a ‘Hail Mary,’ to right wrongs that do not exist,” the brief said. “Plaintiffs’ legally deficient claims, arising from unsupported fears about the potential actions of USPS, do not warrant the extraordinary relief it seeks.” See the Law360 article for more details.

Lawsuits against DeJoy, USPS & Trump over mail delays and election mail, Save The Post Office, Steve Hutkins, September 16, 2020

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Industrial production improves in August, but with sharp deceleration

Industrial production improves in August, but with sharp deceleration

If the jobs report is the Queen of Coincident Indicators, industrial production is the King. It, more than any other metric, is found at the turning points where recessions both begin and end.

This morning’s report of industrial production for August shows that the recovery from the bottom of the coronavirus recession has come close to stalling out.

Overall industrial production grew by 0.4%, while July was revised higher by 0.5%. Manufacturing production grew just under 1.0%.  July was likewise revised higher by 0.6%. Here are the overall totals:

The good news is that manufacturing production has gained back almost 70% of its decline from March. Overall production has gained a little over half of its decline.

 

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The Seven-Percent Solution: The Not-So-Secret Plan to Downsize the Postal Service

Steve Hutkins authors Save the Post Office on issues affecting the Post Office.

First, a disclaimer. The following analysis is largely speculative. It’s not based on insider information. The evidence comes from news articles, government reports, legal filings, and a few leaked internal USPS documents that were published on postal news sites. The analysis could be totally wrong.

The hypothesis is simply this: The Postal Service has embarked on a plan to reduce labor costs by about 7 percent. That represents approximately 67 million workhours, or the equivalent of about 33,000 jobs.

The analysis will also suggest that all the things we saw earlier this summer — the removal of blue collection boxes, the decommissioning of over 700 sorting machines, trucks leaving plants partially loaded or empty, letter carriers heading out on their routes with mail left behind, a presentation saying that overtime was being eliminated, post offices closing for lunch or earlier in the day, rumors of post offices closing completely — were not, as the Postal Service claimed, isolated incidents, business as usual, or the result of miscommunication between headquarters and local managers.

Rather, they were part of a comprehensive plan to eliminate tens of millions of workhours and downsize the Postal Service in significant ways.

The Seven-Percent Solution

According to its 10-K financial report, in FY 2019 the Postal Service experienced a total “controllable” loss of $3.4 billion. That doesn’t include another $5 billion or so in losses related to pension and retiree health care costs that the Postal Service didn’t pay.

To balance the books, the Postal Service can increase revenues, raise prices or cut costs. Revenue increases are difficult, since First Class letter volumes are falling and Congress has limited what new forms of business the Postal Service can expand into.

The Postal Service has already introduced a temporary rate increase on commercial parcels through the holidays, and it will raise rates again next year. But price increases on letters and flats are limited by law and increases on parcels are constrained by competition in the marketplace. In the past, increasing rates has basically helped the Postal Service keep up with rising costs but done little to reduce the losses.

That leaves cutting costs as the only way to make significant inroads. Given that nearly 80 percent of the Postal Service’s expenses are related to labor, cost cutting means one thing, reducing workhours.

In FY 2019, compensation and benefits costs totaled $47.5 billion. To offset a loss of $3.4 billion, the Postal Service would need to reduce these costs by about 7 percent.

Back in July, District Managers and Plant Managers around the country began sharing Standup Talks in which they outlined the downsizing plan to employees. The talks identify exactly how many workhours need to be eliminated in each district in the three areas of postal operations: mail processing, delivery, and post offices.

The talks indicate that there is a comprehensive plan to reduce workhours across the board by about 7 percent. Even though it hasn’t been stated outright, that goal appears to be a key element of the Postmaster General’s transformative plan for the Postal Service.

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Is Mail Delivery Taking Longer?

Is U.S. mail delivery becoming slower for First Class mail? A New York Times analysis of more than 28 million pieces of mail found that on-time delivery declined noticeably in July and August. This comes after PMG Louis DeJoy put cost-cutting measures in place. Delivery has sped up slightly since the summer but remains slower than earlier this year. Twenty-eight million pieces of first-class letters were tracked by SnailWorks. The results of the analysis shows how on-time delivery declined noticeably in July after the arrival of the new and politically aligned PMG Louis DeJoy and the start of his mandated policies to trim transportation costs.

It appears mail delivery did slow down in July and August.

As you already know, timely mail delivery has become a key part of the 2020 election outcome due to an unprecedented number of Americans who are likely to vote by mail to avoid visiting a polling place during the pandemic.

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Coronavirus dashboard for September 14: cases in the Midwest surge; the Northeast still lags Canada

Coronavirus dashboard for September 14: cases in the Midwest surge; the Northeast still lags Canada

 

Total US cases: 6,519,573
Average cases last 7 days: 34,744
Total US deaths: 194,071
Average deaths last 7 days: 733

 Source: COVID Tracking Project

I continue to expect the pandemic to wax and wane in relative terms at least until next January 20, as the public reaction in various States varies between panic and complacency.

Let’s start by comparing the rates of cases and deaths in the US with the North American standard – Canada:

In contrast with the US, Canada averaged 18 cases per day per million people in the last 7 days (vs. 105 for the US), and 0.1 deaths (vs. 2.2 for the US). That is what we could have as well if there were competent Federal leadership.

 

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The 2020 Presidential and Senate nowcast: the races congeal

The 2020 Presidential and Senate nowcast: the races congeal

 

Here is my weekly update on the 2020 elections, based on State rather than national polling in the past 30 days, since that directly reflects what is likely to happen in the Electoral College. Remember that polls are really only nowcasts, not forecasts. They are snapshots of the present; there is no guarantee they will be identical or nearly identical in early November.

Let’s begin with Trump’s approval. After several weeks of improvement, this week Trump’s approval eroded very slightly – but remains right in its normal range for the past 3 1/2 years:

 

It is safe to say that Trump’s post-convention, “law and order” bounce has plateaued (note there have not been any big BLM demonstrations in the past week that have produced pictures of burned-out businesses).

In any event, here is the updated map through September 5. To refresh, here is how  it works:

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To Do I, II, & III

The COVID-19 Pandemic, the inadequate response thereto, and the incompetency of the Trump Presidency in general, combined, have exposed our nation’s weaknesses and failings to an extent unknown since at least the Great Depression. This is likely a do or die moment for America. Recovery will be difficult. Improbable unless we are careful in our choice of goals and daring in our efforts to achieve them. The margins for error do not allow for dawdling. Attempting to just return to a time before Trump and The Pandemic would be disastrous. A time like this should also be seen as a time of opportunity.

First, we must rid ourselves of denominational economics such as Capitalism, Socialism, Hayekism, Free Marketism, … These, but ideologies, dogmas, that some would impose on economics, on the rest of us; have done the Nation great harm. They are, at their very best, reasonings of a time past. As likely to be the answer to today’s problems as Adam Smith is to rise from his grave.

As a first step toward becoming again competitive in today’s world; we must stop blindly paying twice as much for inferior healthcare, internet, and cellphone service,… as is being paid in other developed nations; and while we are at it, we need to solve our homeless problem. These are all essential services that should be provided to all. In the grand competition of things; we’re losing. Have been for a while. Were before the pandemic. Ideology is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Let’s pay for these things that need to be done, and help with our wealth distribution problem, too, by taxing the piss out of the too rich and too profitable. Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Sheldon, Warren, …; fun and games are over guys, time for you to pay up.

Let’s pay for these things that need to be done by cutting the ‘Defense’ Budget in half. Halve the number of Generals, the number of Admirals, the number of Aircraft Carriers, the number of Missiles, …; and full-stop attacking other nations. Half of $720+Billion is $360+Billion; $360+Billion is aplenty for Defense, nothing for Attack, and about right for expanding Medicare to Medicare For All. Ike was right about that and Harry was right about health care.

I. Internet Access and Cellular Networks

All those fireman who died because of poor communication on 9/11/2001 should have taught us the need for an ubiquitous cellular network. Mobile radio networks separate cellular networks should have shown us the need for one network. A police car with a half dozen radio antennas on the roof is ridiculous.

So, too, the fact that our cell phone uses a cellular network, our computers use a cable based internet service, and that we need a WIFI router to use our laptops. What’s now the cellular network should be the WIFI router and these routers should be all over our homes, all over every floor in every building, everywhere on our streets, and all across and over rural America. Ubiquitous. Today, thousands and thousands of teachers across America are trying to remotely teach kids, many of whom have very limited internet access, over an internet system that is not reliable. When the fires struck Santa Rosa, the cell towers went down. The internet w/ phones must work at all times during normal times and during times of emergency; needs to be bullet proof. This new inclusive internet is too critical to be trusted to the ‘Market’. Cell phone and Internet should be one and that one should be regulated as a public utility; a service, as a service application, and, as always, the application dictates. Not the ‘Market’.

As a Post Office service, maybe?

In order to fully utilize our Nation’s productivity, better fulfill our personal lives, and assist in times of emergency, the Internet needs be ubiquitous and bulletproof. We should be able to access the internet from our backyards, on a hike, in the mountains, in transit, …; from anywhere we are or can be. It was a big mistake letting cable companies have the internet and the cell phone companies the phone towers. Let the cable companies have Cable TV. Internet and cell phone transmission should be one and the same; should be a Public Utility. It isn’t about ideology, it’s about how it should be; what should be. Half-arsed won’t get it. If we continue to stick with ideology and dogma, China, Japan, and the EU will continue to eat our lunch.

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