Friday, April 9, 2010

This blog site has moved!

See to access the new blog site for Making Cents!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Weather Brings Retailers a GOLDEN Egg this Easter Weekend!

From Bill Kirk, Weather Trends International:

After three very disappointing Easter periods the past few years with record cold and snow, retailers are about to lay a golden egg this holiday weekend (the most important period in Q1).

The weather will be nothing short of exceptional with the NORTHEAST having the most ideal conditions – warmest and driest in 20+ years for the Easter weekend. The last time Easter weather was this ideal was in middle April 2006 when 1,543 record high temperatures were set across the country – this year is even better in the Northeast! In 2006, Easter weekend temperatures in the Northeast averaged 73°F, 2007 38°F, 2008 46°F, last year 57°F and this year near 80°F! This will result in strong double and even triple digit sales gains over last year for Spring seasonal items like Easter seasonal categories/candy, fans, garden items, grills, deck stains, car wash/wax, bug sprays, allergy medications, suncare, apparel, sandals, cold beer and beverages, outdoor BBQ grilling food categories, ice cream snacks and more.

Across the rest of the country the holiday weekend (Friday – Sunday) conditions are still favorable for the Eastern half of the U.S., but a bit colder/wetter in the West. Here’s the regional summary:

SOUTHEAST: Warmest in 4 years (average high temperatures 81°F) and 57% drier than last year.

SOUTH CENTRAL: Warmest in 4 years (average high temperatures 75°F) but on the damp side with the threat for widespread thunderstorms.

NORTH CENTRAL: Warmest in 4 years (average high temperatures 62F) with some rain South.

NORTH ROCKY MOUNTAINS: 11 degrees colder than last year but a little drier than last year – Sunday is the nicest day.

SOUTH ROCKY MOUNTAINS: Cold start but warmer finish by Sunday.

SOUTHWEST: Coldest in several years but a warm up by Sunday.

NORTHWEST: 6 degrees colder than last year and the wettest in 5 years so this is the least favorable region this weekend.

Nationally, the 5-week retail calendar March is on pace to be the warmest and driest in 3 years with the least snowfall in 20+ years (snowfall down 61% vs last year). Retailers are coming off the worst March ever last year when retail same-store-sales (SSS) were down 5.1% according to ICSC’s tally of retailers, so the combination of easy sales comparisons and exceptional Easter weather will bring a lot of golden eggs when retail sales are announced April 8th! Expectations on Wall Street are +3.0% to +3.5% while WTI expects retail industry SSS gains to be much stronger at +4.5% to +6%. The 4th straight better than expected month for retailers!

Seeley keynote discusses cap & trade

Dr. Robert Stavins, who is Director of Harvard's Environmental Economics program and the opening keynote speaker for this year's Seeley Conference (June 27-29 in Ithaca, NY) provides the following perspective on the future of cap & trade legislation:

In a recent article in the New York Times, John Broder asks “Why did cap-and-trade die?” and responds that “it was done in by the weak economy, the Wall Street meltdown, determined industry opposition and its own complexity.” Mr. Broder’s analysis is concise and insightful, and I recommend it to readers. But I think there’s one factor that is more important than all those mentioned above in causing cap-and-trade to have changed from politically correct to politically anathema in just nine months. Before turning to that, however, I would like to question the premise of my own essay.

Is Cap-and-Trade Really Dead?

Although cap-and-trade has fallen dramatically in political favor in Washington as the U.S. answer to climate change, this approach to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is by no means “dead.”

The evolving Kerry-Graham-Lieberman legislation has a cap-and-trade system at its heart for the electricity-generation sector, with other sectors to be phased in later (and it employs another market-based approach, a series of fuel taxes for the transportation sector linked to the market price for allowances). Of course, due to the evolving political climate, the three Senators will probably not call their system “cap-and-trade,” but will give it some other creative label.

The competitor proposal from Senators Cantwell and Collinsthe CLEAR Act — has been labeled by those Senators as a “cap-and-dividend” approach, but it is nothing more nor less than a cap-and-trade system with a particular allocation mechanism (100% auction) and a particular use of revenues (75% directly rebated to households) — and, it should be mentioned, some unfortunate and unnecessary restrictions on allowance trading.

And we should not forget that cap-and-trade continues to emerge as the preferred policy instrument to address climate change emissions throughout the industrialized world — in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan (as I wrote about in a recent post).

But back to the main story — the dramatic change in the political reception given in Washington to this cost-effective approach to environmental protection.

A Rapid Descent From Politically Correct to Politically Anathema

Among factors causing this change were: the economic recession; the financial crisis (linked, in part, with real and perceived abuses in financial markets) which thereby caused great suspicion about markets in general and in particular about trading in intangible assets such as emission allowances; and the complex nature of the Waxman-Markey legislation (which is mainly not about cap-and-trade, but various regulatory approaches).

But the most important factor — by far — which led to the change from politically correct to politically anathema was the simple fact that cap-and-trade was the approach that was receiving the most serious consideration, indeed the approach that had been passed by one of the houses of Congress. This brought not only great scrutiny of the approach, but — more important — it meant that all of the hostility to action on climate change, mainly but not exclusively from Republicans and coal-state Democrats, was targeted at the policy du jour — cap-and-trade.

The same fate would have befallen any front-running climate policy.

Does anyone really believe that if a carbon tax had been the major policy being considered in the House and Senate that it would have received a more favorable rating from climate-action skeptics on the right? If there’s any doubt about that, take note that Republicans in the Congress were unified and successful in demonizing cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax.”

Likewise, if a multi-faceted regulatory approach (that would have been vastly more costly for what would be achieved) had been the policy under consideration, would it have garnered greater political support? Of course not. If there is doubt about that, just observe the solid Republican Congressional hostility (and some announced Democratic opposition) to the CO2 regulatory pathway that EPA has announced under its endangerment finding in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts vs. EPA.

(There’s a minor caveat, namely, that environmental policy approaches that hide their costs frequently are politically favored over policies that make their costs visible, even if the former policy is actually more costly. A prime example is the broad political support for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, relative to the more effective and less costly option of gasoline taxes. Of course, cap-and-trade can be said to obscure its costs relative to a carbon tax, but that hardly made much difference once opponents succeeded in labeling it “cap-and-tax.”)

In general, any climate policy approach — if it was meaningful in its objectives and had any chance of being enacted — would have become the prime target of political skepticism and scorn. This has been the fate of cap-and-trade over the past nine months.

Why is Political Support for Climate Policy Action So Low in the United States?

If much of the political hostility directed at cap-and-trade proposals in Washington has largely been due to hostility towards climate policy in general, this raises a further question, namely, why has there been so little political support in Washington for climate policy in general. Several reasons can be identified.

For one thing, U.S. public support on this issue has decreased significantly, as has been validated by a number of reliable polls, including from the Gallup Organization. Indeed, in January of this year, a Pew Research Center poll found that “dealing with global warming” was ranked 21st among 21 possible priorities for the President and Congress. (It should be noted some polls are not consistent with these.) This drop in public support is itself at least partly due to the state of the national economy, as public enthusiasm about environmental action has — for many decades — been found to be inversely correlated with various measures of national economic well-being.

Although the lagging economy (and consequent unemployment) is likely the major factor explaining the fall in public support for climate policy action, other contributing factors have been the so-called Climategate episode of leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia and the damaged credibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) due to several errors in recent reports.

Furthermore, the nature of the climate change problem itself helps to explain the relative apathy among the U.S. public. Nearly all of our major environmental laws have been passed in the wake of highly-publicized environmental events or “disasters,” ranging from Love Canal to the Cuyahoga River.

But the day after Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969, no article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer commented that “the cause was uncertain, because rivers periodically catch on fire from natural causes.” On the contrary, it was immediately apparent that the cause was waste dumped into the river by adjacent industries. A direct consequence of the “disaster” was, of course, the Clean Water Act of 1972.

But climate change is distinctly different. Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable. You and I observe the weather, not the climate. Until there is an obvious and sudden event — such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a disastrous sea-level rise — it’s unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the bottom-up demand for action that has inspired previous Congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that the fiercely partisan political climate in Washington has completed the gradual erosion of the bi-partisan coalitions that had enacted key environmental laws over four decades. Add to this the commitment by the opposition party to deny the President any (more) political victories in this year of mid-term Congressional elections, and the possibility of progressive climate policy action appears unlikely in the short term.

An Open-Ended Question

There are probably other factors that help explain the fall in public and political support for climate policy action, as well as the changed politics of cap-and-trade. I suspect that readers will tell me about these.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Commercial Real Estate Bottoming?

Commercial real estate prices rose for the third straight month, bouncing from an epic collapse, on lower volume (less transactions), but higher dollar volume.

Before we jump into the details, as Calculated Risk notes:

Beware of the "Real" in the title - this index is not inflation adjusted. Moody's CRE price index is a repeat sales index like Case-Shiller - but there are far fewer commercial sales - and that can impact prices.
The below two charts (index level and year over year change), both show what appears to be a bottoming in the commercial real estate market.

Year over Year Change

So have we hit a bottom? For the time being... possibly. But longer term, I am not so sure in nominal terms and even less confident in real terms.

Lets put the current price level in perspective. We have come a LONG way (down 44% from peak to current trough), but price levels are now just slightly below the level seen in January 2001 (in real terms). What's different now than then?
  • Less demand (3,000,000 less people employed and office vacancy rates at 18% [up from 8%] in 2001)
  • Significantly more supply (anyone have a source for square footage?)
  • Less credit available for purchases
Source: MIT & EconomicPic Data

Columbian Cut Flower Industry Loses Leader

Bogotá, March 23rd, 2010. Asocolflores, its Board of Directors, member companies and employees deeply mourn the passing of Ernesto Velez, who served as the president of Asocolflores’ Board of Directors for the past seven years. Ernesto was known not only for the invaluable support he gave to Colombian floriculture in the areas of social responsibility and implementing environmentally friendly practices, but also for his drive, his business vision and the strength to endure through the toughest of times.

Ernesto Velez was also prominent for assuming the role of representing Colombian floriculture in a variety of national and international arenas. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Society of American Florists (SAF), the American Floral Endowment (AFE), the Flower Promotion Organization (FPO), and the Colombian Society of Farmers (SAC), just to mention a few.

Last year at Proflora 2009, the “Life and Endeavors of a Flower Grower” distinction was bestowed upon Ernesto and his wife Lucie de Velez for being an exemplary floriculturist; the prototypical affiliate all trade associations would like to be able to count on - a true role model for current and future generations. This past January 2010, he was also awarded the IFAS Scholar Award from the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences during the Asocolflores Board of Directors meeting for being an outstanding alumnus. Terril Nell, professor and president of the University of Florida’s Environmental Horticulture Department, granted the award.

A graduate of the University of California-Davis with a BS in Agronomy and a post-graduate degree from the University of Florida in Farm Agriculture, Ernesto Velez has held many board of director positions over the past ten years with both US and Colombian farming entities. He also served as a consultant for the World Bank and the Inter-American Bank on farming development projects in Brazil, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic. Together with his wife Lucie de Velez in 1980, he founded the Suasuque S.A. company and was its manager for 30 years.

“Ernesto’s passing represents an irreparable loss, not only for his family, but also for Asocolflores and Colombian floriculture. Ernesto dedicated most of his time to Asocolflores, being proactive by fueling ideas and putting forth proposals. He represented Asocolflores with great dignity at both national and international levels”, said Augusto Solano, President of Asocolflores.

Special National Geographic Water Issue

This single-topic issue of National Geographic magazine highlights the challenges facing our most essential natural resource. "Water: Our Thirsty World" is available for free download starting on World Water Day, March 22, and extending through April 2, 2010. This interactive edition of National Geographic magazine presents complete content from the print edition, plus extra photo galleries, rollover graphics that animate features like maps and time lines, video profiles of photographers who contributed to the issue, and other interactive features. National Geographic's water issue is available in print on newsstands everywhere beginning March 30.

Click here to get your free issue.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Keynote Speakers Set for Seeley Conference

Here is the latest Seeley Conference press release:

The 25th annual Seeley Conference topic, Floriculture's Environmental Footprint: An Inconvenient Truth or Consumer Opportunity?, has been announced and conference coordinator, Dr. Charlie Hall, and the Seeley Conference Board of Directors are excited to announce the line-up of keynote speakers. The conference will be held June 26-29, 2010 in Ithaca, NY.

Dr. Hall, holder of the Ellison Chair in International Floriculture at Texas A&M University, is particularly excited about the slate of keynote speakers for this year’s conference. “We have a lineup of keynote speakers who are not only noted in their respective fields, but are experts in the environmental arena,” Hall noted.

Kicking off the conference is Dr. Ron Stavins who is Director of the Harvard University’s Environmental Economics Program. Professor Stavins’ research has focused on diverse areas of environmental economics and policy, including studies of market-based policy instruments; regulatory impact analysis; environmental benefit valuation; competitiveness effects of regulation; and costs of carbon sequestration. Professor Stavins directed Project 88, a bi-partisan effort co-chaired by former Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Senator John Heinz, to develop innovative approaches to environmental and resource problems. He continues to work closely with public officials on matters of national and international environmental policy. Dr. Stavins’ opening keynote will set the stage for the entire conference by providing an overview of the water and carbon-related issues facing the U.S. and the driving forces underlying these issues.

A second keynote will be delivered by Joel Makower, Executive Editor of, which is produced by Greener World Media, of which he is co-founder and chairman. Previously, he was editor of The Green Business Letter, an acclaimed monthly newsletter on corporate environmental practices, which he founded in 1991. He is author of more than a dozen books; his newest, “Strategies for the Green Economy,” has been called “a clear and compelling vision of what's possible when companies harness environmental thinking” by Stonyfield Farm founder Gary Hirshberg. Noted green architect William McDonough called the book a “hopeful vision of companies transforming challenges into opportunities, re-imagining not just their products and processes, but themselves.” The Associated Press has called him “The guru of green business practices.”

The conference’s closing address will be given by Robert Dolibois, Executive Vice President of the American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA). Dolibois serves on the board of directors of the Washington Youth Garden Council and the advisory council of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, one of the partners in the Sustainability Sites Initiative, which recently released the first rating system for sustainable landscapes. This keynote will highlight the responses made by green industry participants in addressing environmental issues, the importance of consumer and legislator perceptions about our products and services, and what is being done in the industry to convey our value proposition of enhancing the lives of consumers through ecosystems services and other benefits (health, aesthetics, economic, etc).

As always, the think-tank atmosphere of the Seeley Conference will allow for plenty of interaction with fellow industry leaders regarding these timely issues. For more information regarding the Seeley Conference and this year’s program, please visit the conference website at, or Facebook users can refer to the Seeley Conference fan page.