Saturday, 12 August 2017

Economics by walking around

You can read all the official data and reports you like, but I reckon nothing quite beats the insights you get from a spot of Economics By Walking Around - though an alternative interpretation is that I never quite switch out of my economics day job, even on holiday. Either way, and based on my first visit to the US in a long time, here in no particular order are what I found.

The US economy's doing fine - One of the things I always look out for in any country is the 'help wanted' signs in the windows: they're an excellent indicator. My trip wasn't a representative sample (San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Chicago) but the short answer is, 'Now Hiring' signs were all over the place. The official labour market data for July came out when I was there: 209K new jobs, a rise in the participation rate, and a drop in the US unemployment rate to 4.3%, lower than ours.

You ain't seen nuthin' yet - all that hype about Uber and Airbnb and all those other online disintermediary threats to the established order? Believe it. They've become the new way of doing things. At the Navy Pier tourist trap in Chicago, for example, there are now designated pick-up points for Uber and Lyft (a competitor, and one we happily used). I wouldn't necessarily assume, as I think some investors do, that all of these markets are going to be network-effects-driven 'winner takes all': we found Lyft at least as good as Uber, and HomeAway better than Airbnb, and coexistence may be more likely than one-firm domination, or alternatively, they might default to one winner, but it may not be the current front-runner. And while investors could well be somewhat overexuberant, I can now see a bit more clearly why the sharemarket is prepared to pay 18.3 times expected earnings for the US IT sector. It's on a roll.

We are not alone - go to Seattle and Portland and you'll hear exactly the same sentiments about the housing market as you'll hear about Auckland's: first homebuyers can't get a look in, outsiders are buying up what's available, lower and middle income people can't buy homes near where they work (it's far worse again in San Francisco and the wider Bay area, and has been for some time). So we oughtn't think Auckland is a problem entirely unto itself: it's an outcome, like the US markets are, of generationally low interest rates, overall economic growth, regional concentration of growth sectors, demographics (including internal and external migration), and assorted supply constraints (notably planning and NIMBYs).

Public transport can work - there are days when I throw up my hands at the mismanaged mess that is Auckland transport, including the day we got back and tried to get through the chaos that is Auckland's North Shore, on a rainy day, towards the end of rush hour, with the schools back. Yet there are cities in the States who have made the thing work. Import someone from San Francisco or Portland, give them plenipotentiary powers and $5 billion a year, and tell them to get on with it. Preferably including light rail.

Are we falling behind? 1 - we like to think we're a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to social policies, but we're just tiptoeing towards issues like cannabis when it's already completely legal in some US states: we saw highway billboards in Seattle, for example, plugging the Ganja Goddess brand ("Taking Seattle cannabis to a new high"). Similarly with the taxi over-regulation revealed by Uber: the US has got on with it, we're still working it through. And it would be an interesting question which country is now the more regulated overall. Random examples: you can buy melatonin (a jet lag/insomnia thing) in your US supermarket, it's more tightly controlled here; cigar stores haven't been hounded out of existence in the US; you can buy your spirits in a San Francisco supermarket, you can't here; and dogs are welcome everywhere (including supermarkets and craft breweries), and nobody dies.

Are we falling behind? 2 - America's now our biggest export wine market. Excellent: looks like we're making great headway. Only we're a one-trick pony (Sauvignon Blanc, 86% of all exports by volume) that may be peaking - in a supermarket I saw one of our Savvie brands pitched as "low price, high quality", not where you want to be - whereas the quality of the US product is rising by leaps and bounds (try some outstanding Oregon Pinot Gris sometime). Ditto their beer and (at long bleeding last) their coffee.

We're still ahead - we're not perfect, but we have a more effective safety net than the States does. Very public homelessness and untreated mental illnesses are everywhere, particularly in San Francisco. And we should make a takeover bid for Washington state, because we sure would work it harder than its current farmers do.

The pollies have lost the plot - are the US politicians addressing issues like the homelessness? No. On the wall at breakfast in our Chicago hotel were three huge TV screens, one each for CNN, Fox, MSNBC. All of them were broadcasting as their big story - welfare? growth? homelessness? - no, a nasty intra-conservative row about whether President Trump's National Security Advisor was conservative enough. At the same time the pols were trying to restrict ordinary families' insurance access to the world's most exorbitantly priced medical care. Everything you've read about the intensely partisan and deadlocked US political system falls short of the disgraceful reality.

One step forward, one step back - we did the tourist things, especially art galleries. On the plus side, US galleries no longer care whether you photograph the exhibits (other than ones that would be damaged by camera flashes), even the ones in special exhibitions (we did Munch and Gauguin). On the minus side, when are they going to install ticket-vending machines and get rid of the entrance queues? San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, that means you. The problem is, they're addicted to price discrimination (oldies/students, residents/nonresidents, members/nonmembers) but they've forgotten about the costs of running it. The ferry from West Seattle to downtown Seattle, for example, dispenses tickets on an ATM honesty basis (you can pick the 'senior' option if you want), and the sky doesn't fall.

A word of caution - I spend a lot of my time in front of a computer screen, so I've got a large 17.1" screen laptop. But taking it through US airport security currently makes you a marked man. As well as the whole body scanner that everyone goes through, twice I got picked out for the full pat-down search and the chemical swabbing. No dramas in the end, they let me through, and I understand what they're worried about. Just be aware, if you bring your own laptop, it'll be a bit of a performance.

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