It’s time for another visit to the world of survey results. As I wrote when I last visited, poll numbers are not my favorite kind of numbers, but they are way better than no numbers at all. Particularly on economic issues, poll numbers are less informative than how people and companies actually spend money, but they are way more useful than mere words put out by people like me. (Note I said "like me" not "me". My analysis is always first-rate.)
If you know the world through words from the media, some of the numbers the pollsters find may be jarring. For example, Gallup recently found that 45% of Americans think there is too much government regulation of business and industry and only 24% think there is too little. That’s a fairly wide margin in favor of less regulation, but what may be truly surprising is that in the past year that plurality has widened. In September 2008, just before it all hit the fan, too much beat too little by 38%-27%. In fact, 45% is the highest number in at least a decade.
You might have thought, and I will admit to having thought this, that the Great Recession had won over enough converts to the unbridled-capitalism-is-bad camp that there was now a broad consensus that we needed more regulation, with only the details of what and where to be worked out. Turns out the opposite is true. The GR seems to have, miraculously, won over more people to the less-government-is-better-government side. Go figure.
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Slate’s The Big Money had an amusing post the other day about some fake Treasury Bonds that were seized earlier this year. The post is mostly about the implausible conspiracy theories that were subsequently hatched, but what’s interesting to me is the implausible nature of the fake bonds themselves.
In two separate incidents, Italian authorities confiscated stacks of bonds with a total face value of $250 billion. A collection of US debt that large is itself pretty unlikely, but what really pushed it over the frontier of believability was the fact that these stacks weren’t all that tall. Denominations for single bonds, that is, single certificates, went as high as $1 billion.
To understand just how far beyond the realm of reasonable this is, you need to know that a) the government stopped printing paper certificates in 1986 and b) in the days in which it did print certificates the highest denomination was $100,000. The total amount of authentic paper bonds still in circulation is $105 million. That’s million with an M.
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Another last Tuesday, another positive report on the S&P Case-Shiller Home Price Index. The 20-city composite was up 1.2% in August, putting it 4.85% above its April low. That’s a long long way from the heights of 2006 (it’s now 29% below the July 2006 peak) but it’s increasingly looking like this is not just a blip in the data.
17 of the 20 cities recorded gains. Charlotte, Cleveland, and Las Vegas were the only unfortunates. Charlotte and Cleveland don’t have much to worry about, they were both up more in July than they were down in August, and overall they saw relatively modest declines in the bust.
Vegas, on the other hand, can’t seem to snap its losing streak. This makes three solid years of down months. The only consolation seems to be that Sin City was down only 0.3% in August, breaking up two years of monthly losses greater than 1%. It’s now down 55% from the peak. Yikes.
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Insider trading and other nefarious stock market operations seem to be on our minds lately. I guess this is natural. Despite eye-popping returns since March we are still living in the aftermath of disaster and periods of market stress have historically been periods of concern about an unequal playing field.
For example, the SEC was established in direct response to the 1929 crash in order to enforce a new set of rules that would make the stock market a fair game for all. I can’t believe that very many people thought that the crash was due to insider trading and its ilk, but I guess it seemed like a good time to clean up the the street.
One reason why we worry more about fairness when the market goes down may simply be that when the market is chugging along to new heights it is hard to see flaws in it of any kind. Everybody is fat, happy, and getting richer. It is only on the inevitable downswings that the scales fall from our eyes and we notice problems that were always there.
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Because it can.
This week the College Board (the SAT people) released their annual survey of college tuition and found what they always find. College got more expensive last year. This time ’round public colleges went up 6.5% and private ones 4.4%, both of which are pretty steep increases when compared to the 2.1% decline in the CPI over the same period.
This was a particularly bad year for the tuition vs. inflation comparison, but the overall trend is striking. According to the College Board, over the past thirty years the average tuition cost has tripled in real inflation-adjusted terms. It’s hard to think of anything else we buy that has gone up as much. It would be like paying $12 a gallon at the pump.
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