TIME Retail

People Are Buying More Fancy Toilet Paper Than Ever

And that could be a good sign for the economy

You may not be able to poop gold, but at least you can wipe with luxe toilet paper.

Luxury toilet paper sales reached $1.4 billion last year, outselling regular toilet paper for the first time in 10 years, reports the Washington Post, citing data from market research company Euromonitor International. Luxury toilet paper sales have grown more than 70% since 2000, and are expected to grow another 9% over the next five years.

Analysts say that while luxury toilet paper (the cushy, quilted, scented varieties) is more expensive than regular toilet paper, it doesn’t break the bank for most consumers—which means it’s a small luxury many Americans feel they can afford.

That’s why some experts say luxury toilet paper sales may even be a sign of economic strength. The last times the luxury brands outsold generic toilet paper were in 2005 and 2000, both boom years for consumer spending.

[Washington Post]

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 13

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Amid the rancor and theatrics in Washington, it’s easy to forget how remarkable it is that the U.S. and Iran are talking at all.

By George Perkovich at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

2. A critical step in drug research is understanding the impact on the heart. That’s why bioengineers built a beating heart on a silicone chip.

By Sarah Yang at the University of California at Berkeley

3. Americans are quitting their way to a stronger economy.

By Aaron Nathans in the Daily Economy

4. Just because we’re able to edit the DNA of tomorrow’s children, does that mean we should?

By Antonio Regalado in MIT Technology Review

5. America has its own ion collider, and its funding is in danger.

By Natalie Walchover in Quanta

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY Economy

Household Wealth Is the Highest Ever. Probably Not Your Household’s, Though

house sitting on stack of cash
Steven Puetzer—Getty Images

American households now have a total net worth of $83 trillion, but most families are still behind where they were in 2007.

Americans’ total wealth has reached a record. According to a Federal Reserve report released Thursday, the net worth of U.S. households and nonprofit organizations rose to $82.9 trillion at the end of 2014.

Much of that growth was driven by stocks, which grew in value by $742 billion during the final quarter of last year. The value of residential real estate also rose by $356 billion.

However, these aggregate numbers from the Fed provide only a partial view of Americans’ financial well-being. Since wealth is spread unevenly, so is the effect of gains in asset value. The median household—the one that’s richer than about half of households, but poorer than the other half—is likely still well behind where it was before the financial crisis.

The most recent solid data on this runs through 2013. As MONEY recently reported, an analysis by researchers at the University of Michigan last year found that the median wealth of a U.S. household, in inflation-adjusted dollars, dropped 36% from 2003 to 2013. In that same period, the richest 5% of households saw their median net worth increase by 12%.

In 2003, the wealthiest 5% of Americans had a net worth 13 times that of the median household. By 2013, that disparity had nearly doubled, with these households holding 24 times that of the median.

The main reason for this increasing wealth gap: not only do the rich have more assets, but they have more of the assets that have performed better. More than half of a typical household’s wealth is in real estate. But a median household in the top 5% keeps only 16% of wealth in home equity. More of their assets are in businesses (49%) and financial investments like stocks and bonds (25%). So these households have gained far more from the recent equity bull market.

TIME Economy

U.S. Attacks Britain Over Support For China-Backed Bank

A family photo shoot fir the APEC leaders' meeting at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake in Beijing
Kim Kyung Hoon—Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama gestures next to China's President Xi Jinping during the APEC leaders' meeting at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake in Beijing on Nov. 11, 2014.

In a rare public spat between the two allies, an Obama aide has criticized the U.K's stance toward Beijing

The U.S. government has expressed its disapproval of the U.K.’s application to become a founding member of the $50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the first G7 country to do so since the institution was launched last year to provide funds for infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region.

“We are wary about a trend toward constant accommodation of China, which is not the best way to engage a rising power,” a senior Obama administration official told the Financial Times on Thursday. The statement marks a rare breach in the “special relationship” that has long defined U.S. – U.K. relations.

Washington officials view the Beijing-led institution with suspicion, fearing it will not meet the standards of governance and safeguards set by the Washington-based World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Japanese-backed Asia Development Bank.

The White House has been lobbying its allies not to join the AIIB, concerned that China is trying to extend its reach in the region and that the bank could end up being overly influenced by Beijing foreign policy if it has veto power over decisions.

Meanwhile British Chancellor George Osborne, the driving force behind the U.K.’s decision to join the bank, said in a statement that Britain should be involved early on to promote “closer political and economic engagement” with the Asia-Pacific region and encourage the two regions “to invest and grow together.”

[Financial Times]

TIME Economy

What Did We Learn From the Dotcom Stock Bubble of 2000?

Nasdaq board
Chris Hondros—Getty Images A passer-by looks over the prices on the Nasdaq board in Times Square in New York, April 3, 2000.

It was 15 years ago that the tech-stock bubble burst

Fifteen years can seem like a long time — and the year 2000 can seem like a different world. Back in those halcyon days of the early new millennium, America was enjoying a post-Lewinsky Scandal, pre-9/11 glow. The Yankees were winning World Series. Justin and Britney were America’s hottest couple. And the “dotcom” economy was chugging along, with new internet-based companies seeming to pop up every single week.

But in March of 2000, 15 years ago, one of those things came to a crashing halt. The dotcom bubble, which had been building up for the better part of three years, slowly began to pop. Stocks sunk. Companies folded. Fortunes were lost, and the American economy started to slip down a slow mudslide that would end up in full-on recession.

Today, in the middle of another boom in technology-based businesses, let’s look back at what happened to the early techno-tycoons — and what, if anything, we can learn from their mistakes.

The Buildup

The dotcom bubble started growing in the late ’90s, as access to the internet expanded and computing took on an increasingly important part in people’s daily lives. Online retailing was one of the biggest drivers of this growth, with sites like Pets.com — you know, the one with the cute sock-puppet mascot starring in the funny ads — getting big investors and gaining a place in American consumer culture.

With the investment and excitement, stock values grew. The value of the NASDAQ, home to many of the biggest tech stocks, grew from around 1,000 points in 1995 to more than 5,000 in 2000. Companies were going to market with IPOs and fetching huge prices, with stocks sometimes doubling on the first day. It was a seeming wonderland where anyone with an idea could start making money.

The Burst

In March of 2000, everything started to change. On March 10, the combined values of stocks on the NASDAQ was at $6.71 trillion; the crash began March 11. By March 30, the NASDAQ was valued at $6.02 trillion. On April 6, 2000, it was $5.78 trillion. In less than a month, nearly a trillion dollars worth of stock value had completely evaporated. One JP Morgan analyst told TIME in April of 2000 that a lot of companies were losing between $10 and $30 million a quarter — a rate that is obviously unsustainable, and was going to end with a lot of dead sites and lost investments.

Companies started folding. (Pets.com was one.) Magazines, including TIME, started running stories advising investors on how to limit their exposure to the tech sector, sensing that people were going to start taking a beating if their portfolios were too tied to e-tailers and other companies that were dropping like flies.

During the 2000 Super Bowl, 17 dotcom companies had paid $44 million for ad spots, according to a Bloomberg article from the following year. At the 2001 Super Bowl, just one year after that bonanza, only three dotcom companies ran ads during the game.

Does history repeat itself?

The shadow of 2000 dotcom bubble burst looms especially large now, as the economy is in another era of huge growth in the tech sector. Chinese e-tailer Alibaba had a history-making IPO last fall. Companies like Uber, Palantir and AirBnB are “Unicorns,” start-ups held privately and worth more than $1 billion — so-called because, for a long time, people thought they couldn’t really exist.

Are we in for another bubble burst?

Entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban thinks so, arguing recently on his blog that the difference between the 2000 bubble and today’s economy is that today’s bubble isn’t really about the stock market. It also includes private “angel” investments, which can’t just be sold off like stocks. And that, he says, is a problem:

So why is this bubble far worse than the tech bubble of 2000?

Because the only thing worse than a market with collapsing valuations is a market with no valuations and no liquidity.

If stock in a company is worth what somebody will pay for it, what is the stock of a company worth when there is no place to sell it?

Essentially, Cuban thinks that despite the huge investments many start-ups are getting, there just isn’t any real cash in those companies. Eventually, that will become apparent, but the investors will be stuck.

Some claim that we’re safe, though, that there’s more scrutiny from investors today. In response to Cuban, entrepreneur Amish Shah wrote on Business Insider that investors today aren’t looking for the type of quick return many were in 2000. Instead, they know that private investment is a long-term process, where earning a profit would likely take years. Plus, he adds, investors today are so wary of what happened 15 years ago that they’re careful. In other words, whether or not the world has learned anything else from the problems of the year 2000, one thing won’t be forgotten: it was bad, and nobody wants it to happen again.

Read next: How the Cheap Euro Is Hurting Your Investments

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Economy

How FDR’s Radio Voice Solved a Banking Crisis

A Fireside Chat
MPI / Getty Images Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivering one of his fireside chats to the nation, circa 1935

Mar. 12, 1933: FDR delivers the first of his 30 “fireside chats,” addressing America’s dire financial situation

March of 1933 was a terrifying month for Americans. A quarter of the nation’s workers were unemployed. Farmers and bankers alike suddenly lost their livelihood. Stocks were down 75% from 1929 — and in those four years the suicide rate had tripled.

In New Orleans, hundreds of tourists in town for Mardi Gras found themselves stranded on March 2, with no money to get home, after Louisiana shuttered its failing banks. By the next day, 21 more states had followed suit. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office on March 4 — the last such term of office before Inauguration Day moved to January — his first act was to declare a national bank holiday to stall the run on banks that was quickly liquidating the Federal Reserve.

It was under these grim circumstances that FDR broadcast the first of his 30 “fireside chats” on this day, March 12, in 1933. These speeches, and his frank, down-to-earth manner, may have been the most effective tactic used to soothe the panicked public since the beginning of the Great Depression.

His language was inclusive. “My friends,” he began, “I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking.”

And it was intentionally simple. “I recognize that the many proclamations … couched for the most part in banking and legal terms, ought to be explained for the benefit of the average citizen,” he went on. “I owe this in particular because of the fortitude and the good temper with which everybody has accepted the inconvenience and the hardships of the banking holiday.”

These fireside chats were not literally delivered by the fireside. As TIME noted in 1937, they were broadcast from the White House Diplomatic Room, which has no fireplace. But the speeches, which ran anywhere from 11 minutes to more than 40 — depending on the speech itself and the number of “persuasive pauses,” per TIME — gave Roosevelt a chance to explain and defend his New Deal policies. They were known for their comforting effect on an uneasy populace, as much during the Depression as they later were during World War II.

While future presidents followed FDR’s lead, using the technology of their times (Obama broadcasts his own addresses via YouTube and has reached out to millennials on Reddit, Instagram and Twitter), it would be difficult to name anyone who did it better than Roosevelt. After this first chat, he was inundated with fan mail from listeners who felt they now knew him intimately. Herbert Hoover had averaged 5,000 letters a week; FDR got 50,000, according to “FDR’s First 100 Days,” a publication by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum.

“The broadcast brought you so close to us, and you spoke in such clear concise terms, our confidence in the Bank Holiday was greatly strengthened,” wrote one California woman.

She was not alone. Sixty million people listened to Roosevelt’s first radio address; the next day, per the Roosevelt Library, “newspapers around the country reported long lines of people waiting to put their money back into the banks. The immediate crisis had passed.”

Read original 1933 coverage of the state of the economy at the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration, here in the TIME archives: The Presidency: Bottom

TIME Aviation

U.S. Airlines Expecting Highest Passenger Numbers in 7 Years

If numbers bear out, it would be most passengers since the financial crisis

The spring travel season could see U.S. airlines post their highest passenger numbers in seven years, bolstered by rising employment and personal incomes, says industry group Airlines for America.

Some 134.8 million passengers — or about 2.2 million people per day — are projected to fly in March and April, according to a press release.

If accurate, that would mean the most airline travelers since numbers peaked in 2007 — right before the financial crisis.

The 2015 projections are a 2% boost from the 132.2 million people who flew on U.S. airlines during the same period last year.

John Heimlich, Airlines for America vice president and chief economist, said high consumer sentiment and “the continued affordability of air travel” may contribute to a busy travel season ahead.

MONEY Economy

Most Americans Know Nothing About the Most Powerful Person in the Economy

Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen
Susan Walsh—AP Can you name this mystery woman?

Including her name

Does the name Janet Yellen mean anything to you? If so, that puts you ahead of most Americans.

To recap for the majority, Yellen is the chair of the Federal Reserve. As the central bank of the United States, the Fed sets monetary policy for the largest economy on earth. That includes things like keeping the dollar’s value stable and instituting policies to stimulate the economy, such as low interest rates and the now-completed quantitative easing program, during which the Federal Reserve bought $4.5 trillion worth of bonds.

So Yellen is kind of a big deal.

But most Americans don’t even know the chairwoman’s name. According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 70% of the nation has no idea who Janet Yellen is. However, 92% of respondents said they were familiar with the Federal Reserve. That’s kind of like the vast majority of Americans saying they’d heard of the presidency, but couldn’t name the guy in office.

Too be fair, it’s understandable that Yellen would be less known than, say, Barack Obama, considering the policy-wonk nature of her work. After all, listening to someone talk about the finer points of macroeconomics isn’t most people’s idea of a good time.

And while most Americans may not know who Yellen is or what, exactly, the Fed does, they are clear on one thing: they want elected officials to keep out of its business.

TIME Oil

The Real (and Troubling) Reason Behind Lower Oil Prices

green-gasoline-pump
Getty Images

It isn't supply and demand, as most people believe

I am obsessed with how the top tier of finance has undermined, rather than fueled, the real economy. In part, that’s because of I’m writing a book about the topic, but also because so many market stories I come across seem to support this notion. The other day, I had lunch with Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management and chief of macroeconomics for the bank, who posited a fascinating idea: the major fall in oil prices since this summer may be about a shift in trading, rather than a change in the fundamental supply and demand equation. Oil, he says, is now a financial asset as much as a commodity.

The conventional wisdom about the fall in oil prices has been that it’s a result of both slower demand in China, which is in the midst of a slowdown and debt crisis, but also the increase in US shale production and the unwillingness of the Saudis to stop pumping so much oil. The Saudis often cut production in periods of slowing demand, but this time around they have not. This is in part because they are quite happy to put pressure on the Iranians, their sectarian rivals who need a much higher oil price to meet their budgets, as well as the Russians, who likewise are on the wrong side of the sectarian conflict in the Middle East via their support for the Syrian regime.

Sharma rightly points out, though, that supply and demand haven’t changed enough to create a 50% plunge in prices. Meanwhile, the price decline began not on the news of slower Chinese growth or Saudi announcements about supply, but last summer when the Fed announced that it planned to stop its quantitative easing program. Sharma and many others believe this program fueled a run up in asset buying in both emerging markets and commodities markets. “Easy money had kept oil prices artificially high for much longer than fundamentals warranted, as Chinese demand and oil supply had started to turn back in 2011, and oil prices have now merely returned to their long-term average,” says Sharma. “The end of the Fed’s quantitative easing has finally pricked the oil bubble.”

If this is the case, the fact that hot money could have such an effect on such a crucial everyday resource is worrisome. And the fact that the Fed’s QE, which was designed to buoy the real economy, has instead had the unintended and perverse effect of inflating asset prices is particularly disturbing. I think that regulatory attention on the financialization of the commodities markets will undoubtedly grow; for more on how it all works, check out this New York Times story on Goldman’s control of the aluminum markets. Amazing stuff.

Correction: The original version of this story misidentified Ruchir Sharma. He is the head of emerging markets for Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

Read next: The U.S. Will Spend $5 Billion on Energy Research in 2015 – Where Is It Going?

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

MONEY Religion

Monks: The Original Hipster Entrepreneurs

In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo, Father Damion, abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey, left, and Spencer Brewery director Father Isaac walk through their new, state-of-the-art facility in Spencer, Mass. The Spencer Brewery began brewing Spencer Trappist Ale recently becoming only the ninth certified brewery of Trappist beers in the world and the only one outside of Europe.
Stephan Savoia—AP Father Damion, abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey, left, and Spencer Brewery director Father Isaac, tour the monastery's brewery.

To keep monasteries operational, monks have started artisanal side businesses more often associated with another, trendier and more hedonistic counter-culture group.

They have a strong disdain for corporate greed and take great pride in running independent operations focused on high-quality, small-batch products like handmade coffins, craft beer, and gourmet coffee. Many have beards, and they all dress alike. This description could apply to hipsters in Brooklyn or San Francisco’s Mission District. Instead, we’re talking about monks.

Monks dedicate their lives to prayer, simplicity, and good works. Yet the monasteries they live in aren’t going to pay for themselves. Monks must make some money to cover their lifestyles, bare-bones and unflashy though they may be. What’s the plan?

For the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Cistercian (commonly known as Trappist) monastery in Spencer, Mass., the plan is to make beer. Inside the monastery grounds lies a 36,000 square-foot brewery—an award-winning one, no less—that produces thousands of barrels of Spencer Trappist Ale per year.

Strange as it may sound, St. Joseph’s is far from the only monastery to have a significant artisanal side business. Keeping a religious community fed, clothed, and operational is costly, and it’s common to find American monks running enterprises in a variety of industries.

In addition to monastic beer, there’s also Mystic Monk Coffee, made by Carmelite monks in Wyoming; coffins, manufactured by monks from a different St. Joseph’s Abbey in Louisiana; a greeting card business, run by the Benedictine monks of Conception Abbey in Missouri, and Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, which sells high-quality dried mushrooms to fancy restaurants and local connoisseurs, just to name a few.

The thing about doing business as a monk is you generally can’t operate like a regular corporation. The goal of your average company is to make as much money as possible, generally through expansion and destruction of competing players. But monks are theologically restricted from doing any of those things.

In fact, the International Trappist Association requires all official Trappist operations to follow a strict set of rules that place a harsh limit on revenue. All commercial production is to be under the direct control and operation of monks, and all income must be proportionate to the needs of the monastery and its charities.

That means if Spencer Trappist Ale started flying off the shelves, St. Joseph’s couldn’t manufacture more beer unless it first recruited a bunch of new monks to work at the brewery—monks are the only people allowed to oversee operations—and vastly expanded its charitable activities in proportion to the increase in revenue. Even if none of those restrictions existed, production would still be constrained by the monastic schedule, which significantly limits the workday.

The monks realizes this, and have already planned to cap the brewery’s output at about 10,000 barrels a year. “If we can reach that goal, we should be able to provide most of the financial support to this monastery,” says Father Isaac, St. Joseph’s brewery director. Any expansion beyond that would be minuscule, and merely to keep up with the cost of living.

So how does one run the least capitalistic business in the world? Do what the hipsters in Williamsburg do. Sell a high-margin, high-quality artisanal product that doesn’t compete with mainstream alternatives. Isaac notes St. Joseph’s has changed businesses multiple times as big competitors moved in or their product became commoditized.

“Traditionally we were dairy farmers,” he explains. “When dairy farmers morphed into agribusiness, we moved to another agricultural product and began a company that produced jams and jellies.” Soon that field became too competitive as well. “We first looked at extending our jams and jellies operation” before moving on to ale, Isaac adds, “but we were a niche player in a saturated market.”

For now, craft beer is the perfect business for St. Joseph’s. It’s a fast-growing market with huge demand for unique, premium beers like Spencer Trappist Ale. And by selling their beer at a higher price—a four-pack can cost as much as $16.99—the monks can avoid fighting with larger brewers who target a more mass-market audience.

Other monasteries have also found this kind of upscale artisanal space to be a sweet spot for business. A spokesperson for Mepkin Abbey, the mushroom farming monastery, says the abbey’s monks are the only producers of oyster mushrooms in the area. The monks behind Mystic Monk Coffee can charge Starbucks-level prices because many coffee drinkers will pay more for boutique brands.

Some monasteries have taken a different route, essentially becoming gift shops for religious products that are often made elsewhere. A report on the monastic economy, released by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, shows 52% of U.S. Orthodox monasteries list the sale of religious items that are not produced by monastery as a primary source of income. (That number doesn’t include candle sales, which are themselves a major money maker.)

St. Joseph’s is happy to make money on merchandise as well. Anyone calling the abbey’s phone line will quickly learn this monastery is open for business. “Dial 1 for for a directory by name,” says a recording. “For the gift shop, dial 2.”

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