Tag Archives: economy

The Six Percent


According to the last US census, around 6 percent of the population — that’s 20 million people — live in trailer parks. This is a startling and significant number, and it continues to grow; economic inequality and financial hardship hits those on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder the hardest. And, of course, this means that trailer park owners, typically people at the other end of the economic ladder, are salivating over increased share, higher rents, greater revenue and better profits.

From the Guardian:

The number one rule is stated twice, once in the classroom and once on the bus: “Don’t make fun of the residents.” Welcome to Mobile Home University, a three-day, $2,000 “boot camp” that teaches people from across the US how to make a fortune by buying up trailer parks.

Trailer parks are big and profitable business – particularly after hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their homes in the financial crisis created a huge demand for affordable housing. According to US Census figures, more than 20 million people, or 6% of the population, live in trailer parks.

It is a market that has not been lost on some of the country’s richest and most high-profile investors. Sam Zell’s Equity LifeStyle Properties (ELS) is the largest mobile home park owner in America, with controlling interests in nearly 140,000 parks. In 2014, ELS made $777m in revenue, helping boost Zell’s near-$5bn fortune.

Warren Buffett, the nation’s second-richest man with a $72bn fortune, owns the biggest mobile home manufacturer in the US, Clayton Homes, and the two biggest mobile home lenders, 21st Mortgage Corporation and Vanderbilt Mortgage and Finance Company. Buffett’s trailer park investments will feature heavily at his annual meeting this weekend, which will be attended by more than 40,000 shareholders in Omaha.

Such success is prompting ordinary people with little or no experience to try to follow in their footsteps.

On a bright Saturday morning, under the Floridian sun, Frank Rolfe, the multimillionaire co-founder of Mobile Home University who is the nation’s 10th-biggest trailer park owner, conducts a tour of parks around Orlando, Florida. A busload of hopefuls, ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s, hangs on his every word.

As the tour approaches its first stop, Rolfe repeats a warning which earlier flashed on to a screen in a conference room of the Orlando airport Hyatt hotel: “When we are on the property, don’t make fun of the residents, or say things that can get us in trouble or offend anyone. I once had a bank come to a mobile home park and say in front of my manager, ‘Only a white trash idiot would live in a trailer.’”

Then comes a second, more unexpected warning: “Now, guys, I’ve got to tell you this park, I believe, is a sex-offender park. Everyone in here is a sex offender. I could be wrong, we’re going to find out, but I think that’s the deal on this one. So stay together as a herd.”

He’s not wrong. Signs at the entrance to Lake Shore Village, on the north-eastern outskirts of Orlando, warn: “Adults only. No Children.” The park is described on the owner’s business cards as “sex offender housing” and a “habitat for offenders”.

On the forecourt the owner, Lori Lee, tells Rolfe’s students she dedicated the park to sex offenders 20 years ago – and hasn’t looked back.

“We were a family park when we first started. [But] about 20 years ago, I couldn’t get on the property because a drug dealer had separated from his girlfriend in the park across the street … and there was a long line of cars because she was undercutting her boyfriend.”

Lee, 70, says she was advised that if she took in sex offenders the drug dealers would leave. “So, I started taking in sex offenders, and I have a very clean property. Sex offenders are watched by the news media, the TV, the sheriff’s department, probation, the department of corrections … so when they are in there, the drug dealers and the other people don’t like to be around.”

Sex offenders have been good for Lee financially, with park occupancy running at “1,000%”. She rents trailer pad spots for about $325 a month. The trailers are either owned by the tenant or rented from a third party. Many trailers are divided into three bedrooms, for which tenants are charged $500 a month per room.

Lee claims she was once offered $5m for Lake Shore Park, which is home to about 50 trailers.

“Last year I bought a park down the street, got rid of all the families, the drug dealers, the prostitutes, and brought in convicted felons. And then I bought the property across the way,” she says. “Once you’re into it and you’re making money it’s easy to say, ‘One more, one more’.”

She has her eyes on a fourth park, “but then I’m through. I’m 70 years old and I don’t want to own any more”.

Asked by an eager investor how regularly tenants leave her parks, Lee says: “When they die. [They] stay forever, they have no place to go.”

Lee’s strategy impresses Rolfe’s students.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliant,” says Mitch Huhem, who is looking to buy a trailer park with his wife, Deborah. “These people need a place to live, and they don’t want to mess around.

“They’ve got to live somewhere, so you combine them in a certain place. They don’t go out to hurt people. I think it’s a community service, because if not they will be in your neighbourhood. Now they’re all in one place, you can watch them all in one place. And they pay well and won’t mess things up. I mean, why would you not? I think it’s a brilliant idea.”

Rolfe, who with his business partner Dave Reynolds owns about 160 parks across the midwest, is unsure about taking in sex offenders. But he is certain Lee could make even more money if she raised the rent.

“She could definitely raise the rent,” he says, as the tour group gets back on the bus. “She’s got a definite niche, but she is definitely under the Orlando rent; she might be under by $100 a month, maybe.

“Raising the rent is typically part of the day one purchase, because often the ‘mom and pop’ [previous, family-run owner of a park] has not raised the rent in years so it’s far below market.

“[The rents] do not go down, that’s one thing that’s a safe bet in the trailer park world. Our rents do not go down.

“We traditionally raise our rents by an average of 10% a year or something like that, and it’s pretty much true for the industry. Our world record [rent increase] went from $125 to $275 in one month.”

Rolfe, who bought a pistol for personal security when he bought his first park, 20 years ago, says he sent a letter to every tenant at that park in Grapevine, Texas, telling them the rent was going to more than double but was still below the market rate of $325.

“If you don’t like this or you think you can do better, here’s a list of all the other parks in Grapevine and a list of the owners,” he said in the letter. “Go ahead, call them if you want to move. How many customers do you think we lost? Zero. Where were they going to go?”

Rolfe, who started Mobile Home University seven years ago and now runs boot camps every couple months in cities across the country, tells his students they can easily increase the rent even at parks that are already charging market rates, because there is so much demand for affordable housing and local authorities are very reluctant to grant permission for new parks.

He quotes US government statistics showing that in 2013, 39% of Americans earned less than $20,000 – less than the government’s poverty threshold incomeof $20,090 for a three-person household.

“That’s huge. No one believes that number – people say: ‘You’re crazy, this is America, everyone is rich.’ [Being on an income of $20,000 or less] means you have a budget of about $500 a month for your housing, but the average two-bedroom apartment is $1,109 a month. There’s not a lot you can do.”

Kenneth Staton, a 58-year-old, disabled tenant at a nearby (non-sex offender) trailer park, knows it.

“It’s a profitable investment, but raising the rent is what hurts because people like myself, we’re on a fixed income and we can only afford so much,” he says, on the dirt road outside his trailer. “I’m on disability, and I go around and collect aluminium cans to see myself through a little bit.”

Asked if he thinks he will see out his days in the trailer park, Staton says: “It kinda looks like it, unless I can find a house somewhere I can afford. I only get $830 a month; $500 goes for rent, about $95 goes for electric. It don’t leave much to live on. Luckily, I get food stamps.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

GDP of States Versus Countries

A niffty or neat (depending upon your location) map courtesy of Frank Jacobs over at Strange Maps. This one shows countries in place of U.S. States where the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is similar. For instance, Canada replaces Texas in the United States map since Canada’s entire GDP matches the economy of Texas. The map is based on data for 2007.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

Is It Good That Money Can Buy (Almost) Anything?

Money is a curious invention. It enables efficient and almost frictionless commerce and it allows us to assign tangible value to our time. Yet it poses enormous societal challenges and ethical dilemmas. For instance, should we bribe our children with money in return for better grades? Should we allow a chronically ill kidney patient to purchase a replacement organ from a donor?

Raghuram Rajan, professor of finance at the University of Chicago, reviews a fascinating new book that attempts to answer some of these questions. The book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Market” is written by noted Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel.

[div class=attrib]From Project Syndicate:[end-div]

In an interesting recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Market, the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel points to the range of things that money can buy in modern societies and gently tries to stoke our outrage at the market’s growing dominance. Is he right that we should be alarmed?

While Sandel worries about the corrupting nature of some monetized transactions (do kids really develop a love of reading if they are bribed to read books?), he is also concerned about unequal access to money, which makes trades using money inherently unequal. More generally, he fears that the expansion of anonymous monetary exchange erodes social cohesion, and argues for reducing money’s role in society.

Sandel’s concerns are not entirely new, but his examples are worth reflecting upon. In the United States, some companies pay the unemployed to stand in line for free public tickets to congressional hearings. They then sell the tickets to lobbyists and corporate lawyers who have a business interest in the hearing but are too busy to stand in line.

Clearly, public hearings are an important element of participatory democracy. All citizens should have equal access. So selling access seems to be a perversion of democratic principles.

The fundamental problem, though, is scarcity. We cannot accommodate everyone in the room who might have an interest in a particularly important hearing. So we have to “sell” entry. We can either allow people to use their time (standing in line) to bid for seats, or we can auction seats for money. The former seems fairer, because all citizens seemingly start with equal endowments of time. But is a single mother with a high-pressure job and three young children as equally endowed with spare time as a student on summer vacation? And is society better off if she, the chief legal counsel for a large corporation, spends much of her time standing in line?

Whether it is better to sell entry tickets for time or for money thus depends on what we hope to achieve. If we want to increase society’s productive efficiency, people’s willingness to pay with money is a reasonable indicator of how much they will gain if they have access to the hearing. Auctioning seats for money makes sense – the lawyer contributes more to society by preparing briefs than by standing in line.

On the other hand, if it is important that young, impressionable citizens see how their democracy works, and that we build social solidarity by making corporate executives stand in line with jobless teenagers, it makes sense to force people to bid with their time and to make entry tickets non-transferable. But if we think that both objectives – efficiency and solidarity – should play some role, perhaps we should turn a blind eye to hiring the unemployed to stand in line in lieu of busy lawyers, so long as they do not corner all of the seats.

What about the sale of human organs, another example Sandel worries about? Something seems wrong when a lung or a kidney is sold for money. Yet we celebrate the kindness of a stranger who donates a kidney to a young child. So, clearly, it is not the transfer of the organ that outrages us – we do not think that the donor is misinformed about the value of a kidney or is being fooled into parting with it. Nor, I think, do we have concerns about the scruples of the person selling the organ – after all, they are parting irreversibly with something that is dear to them for a price that few of us would accept.

I think part of our discomfort has to do with the circumstances in which the transaction takes place. What kind of society do we live in if people have to sell their organs to survive?

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Google.[end-div]

The Demise of Upward Mobility

Robert J. Samuelson paints a sobering picture of the once credible and seemingly attainable American Dream — the generational progress of upward mobility is no longer a given. He is the author of “The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence”.

[div class=attrib]From Wilson Quarterly:[end-div]

The future of affluence is not what it used to be. Americans have long believed—it’s part of our national character—that our economic well-being will constantly increase. We see ourselves as a striving, inventive, and pragmatic people destined for higher living standards. History is a continuum of progress, from Robert Fulton’s steamboat to Henry Ford’s assembly line to Bill Gates’ software. Every generation will live better than its predecessors.
Well, maybe not.

For millions of younger Americans—say, those 40 and under—living better than their parents is a pipe dream. They won’t. The threat to their hopes does not arise from an impending collapse of technological gains of the sort epitomized by the creations of Fulton, Ford, and Gates. These advances will almost certainly continue, and per capita income—the average for all Americans and a conventional indicator of living standards—will climb. Statistically, American progress will resume. The Great Recession will be a bump, not a dead end.

The trouble is that many of these gains will bypass the young. The increases that might have fattened their paychecks will be siphoned off to satisfy other groups and other needs. Today’s young workers will have to finance Social Security and Medicare for a rapidly growing cohort of older Americans. Through higher premiums for employer-provided health insurance, they will subsidize care for others. Through higher taxes and fees, they will pay to repair aging infrastructure (roads, bridges, water systems) and to support squeezed public services, from schools to police.

The hit to their disposable incomes would matter less if the young were major beneficiaries of the resultant spending. In some cases—outlays for infrastructure and local services—they may be. But these are exceptions. By 2025 Social Security and Medicare will simply reroute income from the nearly four-fifths of the population that will be under 65 to the older one-fifth. And health care spending at all age levels is notoriously skewed: Ten percent of patients account for 65 percent of medical costs, reports the Kaiser Family Foundation. Although insurance provides peace of mind, the money still goes from young to old: Average health spending for those 45 to 64 is triple that for those 18 to 24.

The living standards of younger Americans will almost certainly suffer in comparison to those of their parents in a second crucial way. Our notion of economic progress is tied to financial security, but the young will have less of it. What good are higher incomes if they’re abruptly revoked? Though it wasn’t a second Great Depression, the Great Recession was a close call, shattering faith that modern economic policies made broad collapses impossible. Except for the savage 1980-82 slump, post-World War II recessions had been modest. Only minorities of Americans had suffered. By contrast, the Great Recession hurt almost everyone, through high unemployment, widespread home foreclosures, huge wealth losses in stocks and real estate—and fears of worse. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans knew someone who had lost a job.

The prospect of downward mobility is not just dispiriting. It assails the whole post–World War II faith in prosperity. Beginning in the 1950s, commentators celebrated the onrush of abundance as marking a new era in human progress. In his 1958 bestseller The Affluent Society, Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith announced the arrival of a “great and unprecedented affluence” that had eradicated the historical “poverty of the masses.”

Economic growth became a secular religion that was its own reward. Perhaps its chief virtue was that it dampened class conflict. In The Great Leap: The Past Twenty-Five Years in America (1966), John Brooks observed, “The middle class was enlarging itself and ever encroaching on the two extremes”—the very rich and the very poor. Business and labor could afford to reconcile because both could now share the fruits of expanding production. We could afford more spending on public services (education, health, environmental protection, culture) without depressing private incomes. Indeed, that was Galbraith’s main theme: Our prosperity could and should support both.

To be sure, there were crises of faith, moments when economic progress seemed delayed or doomed. The longest lapse occurred in the 1970s, when double-digit inflation spawned pessimism and frequent recessions, culminating in the 1980-82 downturn. Monthly unemployment peaked at 10.8 percent. But after Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and President Ronald Reagan took steps to suppress high inflation, faith returned.
Now, it’s again imperiled. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 55 percent of Americans didn’t think their children would live as well as they did, the highest rate ever. We may face a crimped and contentious future.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Ascending and Descending by M.C.Escher. Courtesy of M.C.Escher.[end-div]

Irrational Exuberance and Holiday Shopping

‘Tis the season to buy, give, receive and “re-gift” mostly useless and unwanted “stuff”. That’s how many economists would characterize these days of retail madness. Matthew Yglesias over a Slate ponders a more efficient way to re-distribute wealth.

[div class=attrib]From Slate:[end-div]

Christmas is not the most wonderful time of the year for economists. The holiday spirit is puzzlingly difficult to model: It plays havoc with the notion of rational utility-maximization. There’s so much waste! Price-insensitive travelers pack airports beyond capacity on Dec. 24 only to leave planes empty on Christmas Day. Even worse are the gifts, which represent an abandonment of our efficient system of monetary exchange in favor of a semi-barbaric form of bartering.

Still, even the most rational and Scroogey of economists must concede that gift-giving is clearly here to stay. What’s needed is a bit of advice: What can economics tell us about efficient gifting so that your loved ones get the most bang for your buck?

We need to start with the basic problem of gift-giving and barter in general: preference heterogeneity. Different people, in other words, want different stuff and they value it differently.

In a system of monetary exchange, everything has more or less one price. In that sense, we can say that a Lexus or a pile of coconuts is “worth” a certain amount: its market price. But I, personally, would have little use for a Lexus. I live in an apartment building near a Metro station and above a supermarket; I walk to work; and driving up to New York to visit my family is much less practical than taking a bus or a train. So while of course I won’t complain if you buy me a Lexus, its value to me will be low relative to its market price. Similarly, I don’t like coconuts and I’m not on the verge of starvation. If you dump a pile of coconuts in my living room, all you’re doing is creating a hassle for me. The market price of coconuts is low, but the utility I would derive from a gift of coconuts is actually negative.

In the case of the Lexus, the sensible thing for me to do would be to sell the car. But this would be a bit of a hassle and would doubtless leave me with less money in my pocket than you spent.

This gap between what something is worth to me and what it actually costs is “deadweight loss.” The deadweight loss can be thought of in monetary terms, or you might think of it as the hassle involved in returning something for store credit. It’s the gap in usefulness between a $20 gift certificate to the Olive Garden and a $20 bill that could, among other things, be used to buy $20 worth of food at Olive Garden. Research suggests that there’s quite a lot of deadweight loss during the holiday season. Joel Waldfogel’s classic paper (later expanded into a short book) suggests that gift exchange carries with it an average deadweight loss of 10 percent to a third of the value of the gifts. The National Retail Federation is projecting total holiday spending of more than $460 billion, implying $46-$152 billion worth of holiday wastage, potentially equivalent to an entire year’s worth of output from Iowa.

Partially rescuing Christmas is the reality that a lot of gift-giving isn’t exchange at all. Rather, it’s a kind of Robin Hood transfer in which we take resources from (relatively) rich parents and grandparents and give them to kids with little or no income. This is welfare enhancing for the same reason that redistributive taxation is welfare enhancing: People with less money need the stuff more.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]