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Friday, June 19, 2009


See the June RailTime report. Pdf.

This week's retail survey showed further marked declines. I'd say the drugstores are now getting hit as well.

It looks to me like all bets are off and crude is doomed to take one hell of a dive later this year. We are about two steps short of a depression.

This graph shows rail shipments of food products for 09 through May. It is the corollary to the horrible retail picture I have been seeing. Think about what this thing is saying. First, US population is probably at least stable even with an exodus of illegals. Second, food stamp allotments were increased, and over ten percent of the population is now receiving food stamps. Third, people who are very careful with their food budgets have seen about a ten percent drop in prices over the last year. Remember, this is a graph of volumes not value.

Therefore, this graph describes a massive and widely diffused shift in buying habits in grocery stores for food as well as probably poor food exports. The thing is, shipments had fallen so much in 08 that there shouldn't be much more room for declines.

Food products is a different category from grain, grain mill and farm ex grain.

Trucking continues its correlation with rail. In April, total volume of truck shipments was at 2001 levels:


OK, so let's think this through - this chart is of food; ex grain, milled grain, and other direct farm products. Basically, it's processed food and butchered meat. By volume, not by value, so it should be unaffected by substitution.

I don't get it--people gotta eat. Nobody's going hungry yet, so what gives? Have trucks picked up market share in this particular category? That seems likely to me, since processed food will often be time-sensitive shipments, sensitive to delays in loading, transit time and final delivery. It's the kind of thing where trucks have a competitive advantage over rail.

Perhaps this is more a function of truckers looking for a load, focusing their marketing efforts on areas where they have the advantage anyway.
Neil - quite a few people are going hungry.

The slide began last spring, and my guess we are seeing lower sales of processed, higher end and more expensive products. Those tend to add a lot of bulk to shipments.

Overall, trucks haven't picked up that much in loads from rail, and trucks showed a hefty fall this spring.
Didn't Burpee report that sales were up on gardening stuff - vegetable seeds, etc?

Anecdotally, it seems to me that I'm seeing more people buying from farmer's markets or signing up for CSA shares. I signed up myself this year for the first time - and, I've found it's worked out cheaper than the grocery store for my family. I'm definitely doing this again next year. Also, a new farmer's market just opened near us, to join others already in the area (one of which is only about 5 miles away from the new one), so I think demand for them must be growing, for that to happen.

These things will be too small to account for all of the drop, of course, but they may be minor contributors.
Anon - the cost of vegetables is dropping in a lot of stores. I have wondered if the seed sales don't have a lot to do with it. There also seem to be people selling produce at flea markets, stands, etc.

People who have access to coops generally find it is a considerable savings.

I also wonder if the big dropoff in sales at places like CostCo isn't related to this spring's freight figures. Maybe the volume stores are moving less.

WalMart is no longer releasing monthly figures, so it is somewhat hard to know the whole picture.
"Third, people who are very careful with their food budgets have seen about a ten percent drop in prices over the last year."

I am seeing this. I actually enjoy reading the grocery ads again. The CPI conspiracy theorists continue to say that the CPI "always" understates inflation though.

This isn't going to say much about my eating habits (lol), but 15 years ago I felt I was doing well if I could find a box of Hamburger Helper on sale for $1. That price stuck in my head. For a while last year I couldn't, but $1 is back in fashion. The regular price keeps going up, but the sale price hasn't. I wonder how many years it will be before it permanently breaks the buck. Longer so far than I would have ever imagined.

Dairy prices have really come down. Milk is much cheaper. Just bought over 30 Tillamook yogurts at 3 for a dollar.

Soda pop prices still seem to have some pricing power. I remember buying Coke on sale for $1 a six-pack 20 years ago. As recently as 2004 I still could. 5 12-packs for $10 anyway. Then it was $11, $12, $13, and $14. At $13, I'm a buyer these days. At $14, I'm not. That seems to be my sale price line in the sand.
"I also wonder if the big dropoff in sales at places like CostCo isn't related to this spring's freight figures. Maybe the volume stores are moving less."

It makes sense. I packed my freezer last year as oil rose. My pantry is also packed. For the most part, I'm done. I simply can't hoard much more without risking it expiring before I can eat it. I doubt I was the only one stocking up.

For a while, if I am any indicator, savers were spenders. Perhaps the pendulum has swung the other way.

Are we to the point where the savers have hoarded as much as they are willing and/or able to "spend" and are we also to the point where the spenders are no longer willing and/or able to "spend"?
Mark, that's very interesting. Consumers have little incentive to "stock up" when prices are declining.

I think you might have hit on something.

As for hamburger helper, the box size is probably declining. That is one big change I have noticed - a lot of consumers seem to have a price point in mind, so the packagers are hitting that price point by cutting package size.

Soda prices seem to be varying wildly. It's amazing the difference I see on those prices in different stores.
...quite a few people are going hungry.

MOM, is this true, more than usual? Is there data? I'm asking because I would have expected the increase in unemployment benefits, etc., to still be mitigating a serious increase in real water-the-soup-down poverty. Give it a couple of years, maybe, but not yet.

I know the soup kitchens are busier now, but that doesn't necessarily mean they've run dry yet.
Let them eat cake.

Nice to know the Pres after making all the fuss about waste had time to fly up from Washington to take his wife out on a date. Reports were it required 3 jets to bring him, security and the press core.

As my wife (who voted for him) points out, last year I earned more money than that guy's made in his entire life. When we need a break from the kids we go grab a pizza.

This is why we rarely elect Senators as Presidents.
Neil - if that graph isn't data, I don't know what you consider data.

There is extensive hunger among the older folks and the younger working poor. Real wages and SS benefits have dropped over the last 4 years, and utilities, insurance, gas, and food have increased. Many people have seen their real incomes drop by 20% or so. That is an improvement over last year. Three years ago it got rough in some areas. Two years ago gas prices started causing sandwich places to go out of business.

The reason I have become so depressed is in part the retail survey. I get data from other people, but I also do some extensive surveys myself.

So as I am wandering in the stores, I see people walking down the meat counter, and walking away with nothing. I see people walking down the canned vegetables, and walking away with the cheapest items. I see the collapsing market for frozen foods.

Yeah, people are hungry.

I spent about an hour talking to an NE oil distributor this spring. He owns the business. He and his wife are going to sell out as soon as they can get on Medicare. He said it is just about as bad for the older people as it was in the 70s, and he called in family several times this year on old farts because he didn't think they were eating.

He wasn't a very happy guy. He described walking into an old lady's cold house, seeing a can of cat food on the table, and checking the refrigerator and finding nothing there.
CF - I am glad to see someone can digest this.

The Chief voted for Obama. He's not a very happy camper. He went to a Goodwill store last time he was up in the NE for his medical checkup, and he ended up paying for the checkout person to go to the doctor. She was a Detroit escapee, and the only job she could find was Goodwill.

As for Obama and his confused relationship with numbers - the only people who understand the value of money are those who have made it themselves.
Btw - this last week I went to two of the top 100 income counties in the country.

That's where I am now seeing the huge dropoff in grocery spending. Also old people who clearly are watching not dollars, but pennies.

I could not believe the difference in one relatively high end store with a lot of imported goods from six weeks ago.

"As for hamburger helper, the box size is probably declining. That is one big change I have noticed - a lot of consumers seem to have a price point in mind, so the packagers are hitting that price point by cutting package size."

While what you say is true in general, the box size isn't declining much, if any, on Hamburger Helper. I know because I counted calories back then from time to time. One box prepared was ~1500 calories (5 servings x 300 calories each). It still is.

The same cannot be said of Banquet frozen chicken dinners. A year or two ago the two pieces of chicken were relaced with one thigh, much to the dismay of my "dark meat is too gamey" girlfriend. The resulting meal has roughly 20% fewer calories too. Used to sell for $1 on sale. Can find the new one for 88 cents, not that we eat them any longer.

12 ounce soda is 12 ounce soda though. That sale price was stable for more than a decade, but as of about 2004, 16.7 cents a can is history.
MOM - Thanks for fleshing out the details for me.

It would seem, as always, the solution is cheap energy and lots of it.

"As for Obama and his confused relationship with numbers - the only people who understand the value of money are those who have made it themselves."

There's a reason many lottery winners eventually go bankrupt. Anyone who thinks that they can quit their job and live like a millionaire just doesn't understand that...

One million dollars divided by 40 years is just $25,000 per year.
Neil - in part, what we see here in this graph is a literal on-going tragedy for poorer people around the world.

In India last year, the prices of staples had risen enough to jeopardize a lot of people.

How anyone can think that this is not a huge threat to humans and peace is beyond me.

On the other hand, CA, which is bust, is now contemplating a "green" energy package which will call for over 100 billion in new spending over ten years. Just a touch of psychosis, I'd say.
Mark - just so. Whatever your income is, you have to live under it until you get old enough to be in the last decade. People who have never had capital don't know how to manage it. People who can't do percents in their heads generally cannot learn to manage capital, or debt.

As for CPI, I have been cracking up over your quotes. There are two things about CPI. The first is that it is an average number, so it rarely fits the experience of most people. The second is that it is always created from very dated information, so it is always out of step. In times of price shocks, obviously that will be much more of a factor.

But realistically, it is utterly possible for people living on, say, 35K a year to have a completely different experience of inflation than people living on 60K a year, even more so if one household is urban and one is rural.

The percentage of income paid for various basics of living varies so hugely between households that CPI is always going to diverge from the experiences of at least 30% of the population.
The rail/food numbers for Jan 09 are sharply higher than those for Dec 08...this doesn't look like a normal seasonal pattern based on the other years in the graph...any thoughts about what this might be about/

"As for CPI, I have been cracking up over your quotes. There are two things about CPI. The first is that it is an average number, so it rarely fits the experience of most people."

Indeed! Makes for a really good CPI conspiracy theory breeding ground, doesn't it? It's especially well suited for college students (tuition) with long commutes (gas prices) and ongoing health issues (healthcare costs).

And it isn't just the CPI.

I picture Bernanke staring at the "average number" reports while thinking that it exactly fits the experience of most people. How else can his "there is no housing bubble to go bust" comment at the very peak of the bubble be explained?

The averages can show all is well in debt land. However, if the particulars show that half the people have most of the savings and most of the income and the other half have most of the debt and the lower paying jobs then...

Oh oh!

Income inequality won't show up in "average numbers". I would argue that growing income inequality was at least partially the silent killer of our seemingly healthy economy.
It's possible that we are seeing a return to shopping frugally and cooking at home. I reintroduced the boyfriend to the joys of the Orowheat outlet store this weekend. Pricey cookies at 99 cents a box and they gave us free donuts too. That got his attention ;) We did a pretty major shop at Costco, buying lot of spaghetti sauce to go with that 10 pounds of spaghetti I bring to the relationship. I think if we can break the junk food habit, we'll start to see some real savings. I am still seeing a lot of downsizing. If the young person can find a job, they may be making close to what older workers are making. The boyfriend's son makes a dollar an hour less than me. I've seen that same phenomena with other people too. I suspect you will also see more folks buying bulk grains and beans, even if it's just 25 pound bags at Costco.

If gas prices continue to climb, it's going to get grim.
Almost one trillion dollars in consumer credit card debt that is being "taxed", ahem, charged interest anywhere from 15% to 30% is not what I call a recipe for growth.

The value of money is in the circulation of money. The FDIC telling banks to have at least 5% cash on hand has ironically discouraged the banks from offering incentives to consumers wanting to pay down their credit card debt.

The net effect is that the 5% in house assets mandate has in effect reduced its own value to much lower than 5% because the banks have successfully starved the consumers wallet via the almost one trillion in credit card debt that acts as a trailing boat anchor to the economy moving forward.

Alessandro - I do believe that the hikes in credit card interest rates account for much of this spring's disappointing retail figures.

Realistically, most people who are carrying significant amounts of credit card debt are being forced to pay it off - if they can. And if they are in the job-loser contingent that was getting by on CCs, they are most likely to have had their limits sharply reduced.
Teri - I think you are right. Judging by the brand and product shifting I am seeing in the stores, people are stretching their food dollars by cooking.

I remember we were talking about this last year, and I'd say the shift is well underway.
David - there was an utter collapse in the last quarter, and some of that was remedied in the first quarter. But we never shifted into a return-to-normal pattern - instead, we are just continuing the slide.

Such a pattern would be grossly inconsistent with a significant hike in consumer spending later this year. When people do this, they are settling in for the long haul.
"When people do this, they are settling in for the long haul."

Just thought I'd describe some of the effect first hand. Turned bearish in 2004. When oil started rising at a faster pace I started hoarding basic goods.

I bought 40 small rectangular pyrex pans with lids (at $3.34 each at Wal-Mart back then). I make my own "TV dinners" now. This is a permanent change in my behavior. I can make bigger, tastier, healthier, and cheaper meals. There's just no going back. The initial pyrex investment paid itself off long ago.

Rice and beans are especially freezer friendly. (As Teri said, Costco sells large cost effective bags of both rice and beans).

Another favorite is chicken (frozen chicken breasts), basmati rice, Costco's stir fry vegies (comes in a giant bag), and Soy Vay's Veri Veri Teryaki sauce. Cook it separately, cut up the chicken, then combine it. Yum!

As a side note, looks like your "Panicking" headline is holding up pretty well today if the stock market is any indicator. CNBC's Pisani said, and I paraphrase from memory, that you'd think that falling oil would help the airlines today but they are getting hurt the worst. Good grief. Not a thought that perhaps it works in reverse. If airlines struggle then less oil may be needed. Less oil needed isn't exactly bullish for oil.

I'm not preaching to the choir about oil here though. At best, I'm preaching to the preacher! (Since you've been "preaching" that oil's price would probably fall.)
MOM - Have you been watching the stock market? Now I'm panicking, too.

I've been tracking correlations between the current market and other important turning points in the market. I know it's kind of alchemic, but there's no better tool available to get an idea of what market participants are thinking.

Anyway, it was looking like we might escape the worst-case envelope, but today's drop puts us pretty squarely back into 1930 territory.

I keep hoping somebody will tell my I'm being silly, and why. But so far, no dice.

On a related "man-on-the-street" note, I had a conversation with my mother in which she told me that she and my father had talked it over, and agreed that there would not be another Great Depression because of all the government programs we have now. My parents were both born just at the beginning of WWII, and have spent their entire lives believing that the Depression happened because there was no FDIC or welfare programs. I think their beliefs are fairly common.

I wonder what will happen if people are suddenly disabused of the notion that government programs keep away the bad times?
Neil - As to the stock market, I think reality is beginning to settle in. I was reading Cargonews Asia and the major carriers are worried half to death. They have heavily cut capacity and have slapped on fuel surcharges, but they haven't been able to get the fuel surcharges. They are very concerned about what will happen this summer.

Things are at the breaking point already with the fuel costs now.

China's about to stop buying metals, and is taking export taxes off various commodities (including wheat) this July.

There's another synchronized drop in asset values coming.
The market runup from March to June was a dead cat bounce -- a big one, to be sure, but not sustainable.
I am in the the North Sf Bay area and a couple things struck me this year that are different.Less Road Kill,a lot less being eaten by vultures anyway.Traffic is down some but the number of deer carcasses left by the roadside is much less,and our deer population is still very high.Mowing weeds is not optional,fire danger here is very real and we rely on a volunteer fire department.I see a lot more properties gone to weeds and grass.We got little water but late rains and the growth is 5 ft high or more in many places.Properties are selling if priced appropriately for today's market,down about a third from last year (now $605k for an immaculate 3/2,1665 sq ft home on 1.5 acres,good school district,quiet road,close to but outside city limits.Oh,and our local Food Bank is desperate.
Tom - I was visiting in the NE, and I noticed that the deer population in some woods I like to walk has fallen dramatically. I wonder.

It's good meat.
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