Things are generally well in the economy (key word = generally). Still, many people are leaving stocks and buying bonds behind, which is what they do when they are nervous about economic prospects. Why?
"The thing which is the risk to bonds -- which is inflation -- doesn't seem like it's going to turn up anytime soon," says Fusion's Felix Salmon.
We have to consider the relationship with inflation to better understand the bonds market. Here's the second question we want to know the answer to: Why is there no inflation in this dragging economy?
"There's still so much slack in the labor market. People aren't getting hired. That's not pushing upward pressure on wages, the things people buy," Catherine Rampell from the Washington Post. "I think you really need to see a lot more activity in the economy before you really need to worry about inflation."
Inflation holding at low levels. People not getting hired. We've got that covered. We turn next to housing -- a key indicator of growth.
If you don't already know his name, Mr. Mel Watt is the director of the the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and this week, the oversight agency of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac said they are going to make it easier for people to make mortgages and take out loans to boost the housing market.
The third question on our minds at the end of this week: will the housing market ever recover, and how does that help the overall economy?
"I've always been suspicious about the U.S. government trying to boost the economy by making houses more expensive," says Salmon. "If you live in a country with 60-something percent home ownership, those policies always become very popular politically because people like to see the value of their houses go up."
But Watts wants to make Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac smaller: reform them, and maybe get rid of them.
"The administration has thrown its support behind a bill, that's kind of dead at this point, to wind down Fannie and Freddie. To replace them with something else. Hopefully something more permanent that would encourage more ownership. But it doesn't seem like that policy goal has turned around at all," says Rampell.
Are we stuck in the past? We ended our wrap with a callback to the past, as former Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner released a memoir on his role supervising President Barack Obama on the Great Recession. Something which we're very slowly recovering from.
There’s a new study out from eMarketer that measures how much profit stores squeeze out per square foot. Apple leads the pack, at $4,551 a foot. Most of the retailers at the top of the list sell expensive stuff.
“Clearly the high-end consumer has more discretionary dollars to spend, driving strong sales per square foot," says Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics. "You don’t see many discounters on here, or department stores.”
But you do see Murphy USA, which runs a chain of gas station convenience stores. It came in second. Weird, right? Maybe not, says Gary Rosenberger of EconoPlay, who follows these kinds of trends. We spoke while he was on a roadtrip and had, ironically enough, filled up at a Murphy location in Dillon, S.C.
Rosenberger says the place was packed, with about ten people in line ahead of him.
“And everybody there was in line basically either to buy lottery tickets or cigarettes,” he says.
Rosenberger says Murphy sells lots of people lots of stuff, but there’s another reason the retailers on this list are profitable: Most of them don’t have to worry about online competition, and they’re making their stores a destination. Take Restoration Hardware, for example.
“They’ve been fairly explicit about that saying we want people to come in, spend time here, hang out here,” says Nicole Perrin, the executive editor of eMarketer.
They’re adding restaurants and rooftop gardens to some stores. Anything to squeeze out one more dollar, per square foot.
The Food and Drug Administration's approval of a new drug for leishmaniasis came with a voucher that can be redeemed to speed up the approval of a much more lucrative drug in the future.
Red Lobster is getting tossed overboard. The parent company, Darden Restaurants, announced that it’s selling the seafood chain for $2.1 billion. Both Red Lobster and Darden’s other big chain, Olive Garden, have been losing customers for years.
Casual dining faces two problems, says David Henkes of the food-industry consultancy Technomic. “It’s certainly getting squeezed at the higher end by more of a ‘polished-casual’ as we would call it,” he says. Think Cheesecake Factory. “And then at the lower end, you’ve got an extremely high-quality fast-food segment that we call fast-casual. You think Panera, Chipotle.”
Panera and Chipotle give consumers two things, says Harry Balzer, who looks at food and drink for the consumer-research firm NPD. “It’s time and money,” he says. “Save me time, save me money. And this country has been under pressure, for its income, for a number of years now.”
Consumers have been eating out less often, he says, to save money. Minding the size of the bill counts, too: An average check at Red Lobster is about twice the average tab at Chipotle.
Increased global demand for seafood has made it harder to contain costs, says Andy Brennan, a restaurant analyst at IBIS World. "Seafood is one of the foods that you can't substitute out for cheaper products," he says.
That's the money side. With time, casual-dining restaurants like Red Lobster fare even worse, compared with their fast-casual competition, says Alex Susskind, a professor of food and beverage management at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration.
Compared with fast-casual, an average party spends more than twice as long at a Red Lobster: 45 minutes to an hour. Even for family dining, that’s a stretch. “When I go out with my family— I have two young kids,” he says, “And if we could get out in 35 minutes, that’s better.”
Olive Garden has all the same problems, but Susskind says Red Lobster has an additional burden: demographics. “It’s still perceived as a restaurant your grandma went to.”
Even attempts to update the decor— like putting the bar front and center— haven’t helped with that. "It's just that older demographic— that is the bread-and-butter, I guess, of their existence— that prevents that younger demographic from moving in," he says. "In terms of problems, they probably saw that as something insurmountable, given the number of years they've been trying to adjust it."
DNA from a 12,000-year-old skeleton of a teenage girl found in a cave in the Yucatan Peninsula shows the same markers found in modern Native Americans.
Exec to bankers: stop being jerks
I always read All Staff emails. Especially the ones about a misplaced umbrella somewhere on the West Coast (I’m in NY) and definitely the ones about free cookies in the lunch room in Minnesota (I’m still in NY).
Some people ignore all staff emails. So Colin Fan, co-head of Deutsche Bank’s investment banking unit, made his into a video.
“This is an important message. You need to pay close attention,” he begins.
“You may not realize it, but right now, because of regulatory scrutiny, all your communications may be reviewed. This includes your emails, your conversations, and your conduct. All of this is open to scrutiny. Some of you are falling way short of our established standards. Let's be clear. Our reputation is everything. Being boastful, indiscreet and vulgar, is NOT OK. It will have serious consequences for your career. And, I have lost patience on this issue.”
Fan concludes ominously with “Think carefully about what you say, and how you say it. If not, it will have serious consequences for you personally.”
So why the... gentle reminder? Because a lot of financial firms have an enduring problem.
Text not lest ye be judged. And email not. And gchat not.
“We’ve seen time and time again these emails, which are meant to be private, don’t stay private,” says Kevin Roose, author of Young Money.
As investigation after investigation has turned up documents and texts and even recorded conversations, these communications have not been flattering. Some were illegal, others crass, plenty were both and ALL made the firms look terrible. You can see some juicy ones here.
“Not just during the financial crisis but also things like the LIBOR scandal last year,” says Roose. “Traders were emailing back and forth about fixing a key interest rate in exchange for bottles of champagne and calling each other nicknames.”
“What’s astounding,” says Roose, “is that people are still doing this kind of thing.”
In part, it’s the same mistake that anyone can make: what you put in writing can come back to haunt you. But it’s also cultural.
A culture of high stress and hyperbole?
Henry Blodget is currently the editor of Business Insider, but he spent a decade working on Wall Street
“On trading floors in particular, and among people on Wall Street in particular, there’s a lot of tension, a lot of jocular communication, yelling and screaming, gamesman ship. It lends itself to the very colorful emails and texts we have seen,” says Blodget. It’s akin to other hyper masculine cultures, like that of the military. “As an analogy, if you were to put a microphone on the side line of a football team, you would hear many things that in isolation would sound terrible – ‘our coach is an idiot!’ and ‘That’s the dumbest play ever’ – imagine that in a deposition. Imagine a prosecutor asking you on the stand ‘so clearly, you think your coach is an idiot?’ It’s hard to explain yourself later.”
And yet, says Blodget, in the case of the financial industry, the jocular, aggressive culture is increasingly subject to withering scrutiny: “Because even conversations are recorded on the trading floor, you can’t even engage in normal banter that you normally would. It’s hard because you want to talk to people who you want to be friends with, you want to talk the way people talk.”
...Or a culture that promotes recklessness?
That scrutiny is well deserved, says Karen Ho, an anthropologist at the University of Minnesota who has spent years studying, working, and socializing within the finance industry and on Wall Street in particular. “These folks have undue influence in our social economy, in our institutions, on interest rates.”
Moreover, the jocular culture is far from harmless, argues Ho. “The boasting and vulgarity help to create a perverse motivational environment where traders through their talk their texts their emails their yelling are egged on” to be more transgressive.
Transgression and aggression become “a sign of not just one-upmanship, but masculine achievement,” Ho says. Blaming Wall Street excesses on greed lets culture off the hook. Ho is basically saying that Wall Street culture as it stands reinforces an unholy marriage between masculinity and prowess, and aggression and transgression. “We need to delink these things, which I think the Deutsche Bank video begins to do,” says Ho.
“The good news is that if it’s cultural, and folks are socialized into it, then hopefully they can be socialized out of it,” she says. Canadian bankers don’t seem to have the same problems.
Cultural shift is easier said than done
“I think it’s extremely challenging to imagine that people closely working every day on the phone and instant messaging and email will ever be able to communicate in the boring stilted corporatese that sets lawyers at ease,” says Blodget, regarding the effort to reign in distasteful communication.
But some financial firms are nevertheless trying very hard to do a la DeutscheBank. Goldman Sachs installed a filter to prevent people from sending emails with cursewords. “You can’t even send ‘wtf’” says Roose. “They installed willpower via software.”
Roose says a shift in culture has to come from the top.
And to really make its mark, it will probably require people getting fired. From the tone of that Deutsche Bank all-staff memo - that sounds pretty likely.