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Mark's Market Blog

1-13-09: A Simple Desultory Philippic

By Mark Lawrence

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No market analysis today, just a rambling sample of interesting news stories.

Cuba, being politically primitive, Fidel Castro yielded power to his brother. Caroline Kennedy, because she is a President's daughter, sought the gift of the Senate seat from New York that Hillary Clinton got because she married a President, but Andrew Cuomo, son of a New York governor, might get it, because this is a democracy. -- George Will

Four republican senators who would have been up for re-election in 2010 have announced their retirements. Subject to how the next two years play out, democrats could easily wind up with a filibuster- proof 60+ senate seats. Of course, that still leaves the possibility of democrats filibustering themselves: I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat. -- Will Rogers

"We're trending toward smaller homes," says Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research for the National Association of Home Builders. He says growth in the average size of new single-family homes, which went from 1,750 square feet in 1978 to 2,479 in 2007, peaked at 2,629 square feet in spring 2008, and in third quarter of 2008 averaged 2,438 square feet. Ahluwalia says there have been slight dips before, but the latest drop was much steeper and is likely to hold even after the economy recovers.

U.C.Davis researchers announced this week that the eight-fold increase in California children with autism and Asperger's cannot be explained by improved diagnosis and counting, nor by immigration of people with autistic kids. They also discount genetic explanations. "It's time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism in California." In the 80s I had thought that autism was genetic - at the time it was called "engineer's disease," as Asperger's types make good engineers and their kids have an increased probability of having it. About five years ago I learned that there were a lot of native Spanish speaking kids in LA elementary schools that have autism spectrum diseases. I found this really startling, as there are not many illegal Mexicans that work here as engineers. The incidence of autism has risen from 8 / 10,000 births in 1990 to 44 / 10,000 births in 2006. The researchers concluded "Right now, about 10 to 20 times more research dollars are spent on studies of the genetic causes of autism than on environmental ones. We need to even out the funding." Given the current California budget deficit, they're likely to get their wish as funding is cut to zero.

At the Detroit auto show, green cars were all the rage. Chevy pulled out their Volt again; Toyota announced their 3rd generation Prius which gets 50mpg; Chrysler showed electric concept cars. Ford showed more hybrids, even the Germans, who like to sell little diesels in Europe, showed a bunch of hybrids. The big question is, does anyone care? A year ago, Toyota dealers were offering the Prius at deep discounts, desperate to move them. Then came $4 gas and suddenly the Prius was the only thing selling. In December '08 auto sales were off about 30%, Prius sales were off 48%. In these days of $2 gas with $1 ethanol on the horizon (see, people are slowly moving back to big trucks and SUVs. The truth is, we Americans love our big cars with big V8s and dual exhausts. The democrats will no doubt force Detroit to build a bunch of tiny cars that get 40mpg, but will anyone buy them? There's already talk out of Michigan that they hope Washington puts in place tax incentives for buying green cars. Mike Jackson, chairman of AutoNation, says in order to sell electric cars there must be a gas tax. "I was turning down Priuses in March and Japan was sending them to other countries. I was taking Cadillac Escalades in trade on Priuses by July and now, today I can't give away a Prius."

J.D.Powers is predicting another 13% drop in auto sales to 11.5m total in 2009 on top of the dismal 2008 we had. This will be the fewest cars sold since 1981, when the US population was 230M, 75M less than today, and the US was in a deep recession. Chrysler is dead, dead, dead. A Chrysler bankruptcy would be incredibly disruptive to the auto industry, pulling many of the auto suppliers into bankruptcy with them, and the beloved UAW would permanently lose 75,000. We can expect that an alternative to bankruptcy will be found.

Arizona has put in new speed traps. These have sensors laid on the highway, there's no radar or laser to detect. Their goal is $120M in tickets in the first year, mostly to out-of-state drivers who don't know about this. The fix: the newest radar detectors have GPS units and an internal map of where the speed traps are, updated monthly. Or if you have a GPS / Internet cell phone, register at to get and help maintain the latest list of speed traps and red light cameras. Red light cameras, by the way, cause considerably more crashes than they prevent, but the cities like the revenue so they're here to stay.

War has entered the wireless communication era. Israel is now texting Palestinians, warning them that their building is about to be bombed and they should be somewhere else. Israel got the technology from telemarketers, who have huge databases of cell phone numbers. Not to be outdone, Hamas is sending texts to Israelis saying things like "Your home city was just hit by a missile."

I've had a terrific problem with ants since I moved into my new home. These ants apparently use cell phones and to communicate, they were completely unimpressed by three different brands of ant traps. I could actually hear them laughing at me. So I made my own formula, it's working great. For the first time in 8 months my kitchen is ant-free.

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