MONEY The Economy

Thanksgiving Shopping: By the Numbers

More than 140 million Americans are expected to shop on Black Friday, while some plan to get great deals online on Cyber Monday.

MONEY facebook

Facebook Bus Drivers ‘Like’ The Teamsters, Vote to Unionize

Facebook bus drivers voted to join the Teamsters union to try to bridge the gap in wages between the drivers and their passengers.

MONEY The Economy

$3 Gas Makes Driving Cheaper, but Not Flying

A big drop in fuel prices — sparked by an oversupply of oil — means Americans have been enjoying the prices at the pump.

MONEY Shopping

Target Is Closing Another 11 Stores

woman with shopping cart and wallet
iStock

On Tuesday, Target announced it will be closing 11 U.S. stores, making a total of 19 closures in less than 12 months.

In the aftermath of last year’s monumental data breach of customer credit card information—not to mention years of underwhelming sales at some retail locations—Target decided to close eight stores in May, including two stores in the Las Vegas area and two stores in Ohio. This week, Target announced it will be closing 11 more stores in the U.S., including two Chicago-area locations and three Targets in Michigan.

The 11 stores will be shut down by February 1, 2015. “The decision to close a Target store is only made after careful consideration of the long-term financial performance of a particular location,” a company statement accompanying the announcement explained. “In most cases, a store is closed as a result of seeing several years of decreasing profitability,” a Target spokesperson added in an email to (Minneapolis) StarTribune.

There are roughly 1,800 Target stores in the U.S., and the number of planned closures pales in comparisons to the likes of troubled chains such as RadioShack and Sears. Yet it’s worth noting that that Target’s reputation among shoppers and the retail industry as a whole has declined greatly since the pre-recession years, when the cheap-chic darling was belovedly known as “Tarjhay.”

Over the summer, Target hired a new CEO, Brian Cornell, a former CEO at PepsiCO Americas Foods, with the hopes that new leadership could help the company rebound from its troubling slump, as well as the embarrassing and costly data breach that potentially compromised the information of well over 100 million customers. More recently, Target introduced its plans for the 2014 winter holiday season, which include a special offer of free shipping with no minimum purchase required on all orders placed at target.com through December 20.

Read next: It Doesn’t Matter if Alex From Target Is Real or Fake

MONEY Markets

Are the Media to Blame for Financial Bubbles?

Ritholtz Wealth Management CEO Josh Brown, a.k.a. the Reformed Broker, explains the relationship between media coverage and financial bubbles.

MONEY Gas

Gas Prices Will Dip Below $3 Nationally This Weekend

Woman filling gas tank
Image Source—Getty Images

It's been nearly four years since the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline started with a $2. But on Saturday, we'll drop below the $3 mark.

That’s according to AAA, which measured the national average at a flat $3 (actually $3.003) as of Friday, and forecasts that the run of 1,400+ days of $3+ gasoline will end as of Saturday, November 1, 2014. The last time the price of a gallon of regular gas was under $3 nationally was December 2010.

Gas prices have been dropping roughly 1¢ per day lately, and the national average right now is about 70¢ less than the high for 2014, reached in spring. AAA notes that after the steady autumn decline in prices at the pump, more than 6 out of 10 U.S. gas stations are already selling gasoline starting under the $3 mark.

Like the Dow hitting 17,000, the fact that gas prices are dropping below the $3 milestone may sound impressive, but when viewed clinically and dispassionately, it’s not that big of a deal—a tiny incremental shift that’s part of a larger trend, not some big and sudden change—and it probably shouldn’t cause you to alter your behavior in the slightest. Sure, there’s a subconscious mental bump consumers get when gas prices start with the number $2, and perhaps some dollar stores and discount chains will benefit during the holiday season because low-income consumers will be able to spend a little more freely because the cost of fueling up is down. And yes, retailers and the economy in general will fare better when gas prices are in the $3 vicinity rather than the $4 or $5 range.

Overall, however, the effect on the economy of decreasing gas prices—even gas prices dropping below $3—is expected to be minimal, due in part because few anticipate fuel costs staying at such depressed rates for long. “Paying less than $3.00 for gas is a welcome holiday gift that may not last nearly as long as many would hope,” Bob Darbelnet, CEO of AAA, said via press release. “It is possible that lower gas prices will soon be a faded memory, so enjoy it while you can. The days of paying more than $3.00 per gallon for gas have regrettably not gone away.”

MONEY Leisure

How Daylight Saving Time Costs You Money

two women looking in shop windows at dusk
Daylight saving: energy conservation measure or Chamber of Commerce conspiracy? Betsie Van Der Meer—Getty Images

The tradeoff for later sunsets during daylight saving time is that you're more likely to be out and about, dropping cash.

At 2 a.m. on Sunday, November 2, the observation of daylight saving time will end and the clocks will “fall back” to the standard time, 1 a.m. Despite the fact that the shift grants the vast majority of Americans a much-welcomed extra hour of sleep, many would prefer to do away with the twice-annual time change.

Arizona and Hawaii already don’t bother with daylight saving time, and it looks like Utah could be next. In an online survey that collected more than 27,000 responses, two-thirds of Utahns favored staying on Mountain Standard Time year-round, like Arizona does. “Convenience really stood out” as a major reason why folks want to get rid of daylight savings, the leader of a government committee studying the topic explained to the Salt Lake Tribune. “People don’t want to move their clocks forward, backward … They just want to set them and leave them.”

OK, so doing away with daylight savings would make life simpler—but only very slightly so, since our computers and smartphones and other gadgets change their clocks automatically. More important, what’s the argument to keep daylight saving observation in place?

Daylight saving time was first embraced during World War I, when the idea was that the spring shift would help conserve coal because people would need less light and heat since they had more daylight during their waking hours. The concept that daylight saving saved on energy costs persisted for decades but has recently been declared patently false. Later sunsets during the warm months mean a higher likelihood that Americans will spend their evenings driving around and doing stuff, meaning more need for gas and air-conditioning during waking hours.

The ability for Americans to be out and about enjoying the later sunset amounts to an economic stimulus, because odds are we’re spending more money when we’re out. Michael Downing, a Tufts University professor and author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Savings, explained to The Takeaway public radio program that the main beneficiaries of daylight saving include the golfing, tourism, and recreation industries—all of which attract more business when there’s more daylight after the traditional work day is done.

For that matter, all manner of shops and small businesses love what’s perceived to be a longer day, because it pushes consumers outside later into the night. “Since 1915, the principal supporter of daylight saving in the United States has been the Chamber of Commerce on behalf of small business and retailers,” said Downing. “The Chamber understood that if you give workers more sunlight at the end of the day they’ll stop and shop on their way home.”

A Tufts blog post noted that in 2005, daylight saving time was expanded from seven to eight months, including the key step of delaying the “fall back” until the first week of November—a move spurred on thanks to pressure from lobbyists supporting candy manufacturers and convenience stores. Why would they want such a change? Kids would get an extra hour of daylight for trick-or-treating, meaning more candy consumption and more candy purchases. Later sunsets for more of the year also mean more people out on the roads needing to swing by convenience stores to gas up or grab snacks.

As a result of these changes, we somewhat bizarrely now observe daylight saving for the vast majority of the year. “Today we have eight months of daylight saving and only four months of standard time,” Downing said. “Can you tell me which time is the standard?”

To some extent, the autumn return to standard time balances things out. With earlier sunsets, we’re out on the roads less, and therefore there’s less need to gas up the car. So there’s some savings there. Still, for much of the country, people wouldn’t be playing golf or having barbecues or visiting national parks anyway at that time of year because it’s just too cold.

And remember: Daylight saving is eight months of the year, versus only four months for “standard” time. Also: While daylight saving serves as an economic stimulus for two-thirds of the calendar year, standard time has its own epic consumer stimulus, in the form of Black Friday and the ever-expanding holiday shopping season.

MONEY The Economy

The Stock Market Loses a Big Crutch as the Fed Ends ‘Quantitative Easing’

The Fed has concluded its asset-purchasing program thanks to an improving labor market. Here's what QE3 has meant to investors and the economy.

After spending trillions of dollars on bond purchases since the end of the Great Recession — to keep interest rates low to boost spending, lending, and investments — the Federal Reserve ended its stimulus program known as quantitative easing.

The central bank’s decision to stop buying billions of dollars of Treasury and mortgage-related bonds each month comes as the U.S. economy has shown signs of recent improvement.

U.S. gross domestic product grew an impressive 4.6% last quarter. And while growth dropped at the start of this year, thanks to an unusually bad winter, the economy expanded at annual pace of 4.5% and 3.5% in the second half of 2013.

Meanwhile, employers have added an average of 227,000 jobs this year and the unemployment rate rests at a post-recession low of 5.9%. It was at 7.8% in September 2012, when this round of quantitative easing, known as QE3, began.

What this means for interest rates
Even with QE over, the Fed is unlikely to start raising short-term interest rates until next year, at the earliest.

In part due to the strengthening dollar and weakening foreign economies, inflation has failed to pick up despite the Fed’s unprecedented easy monetary policy.

And there remains a decent bit of slack in the labor market. For instance, there are still a large number of Americans who’ve been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer (almost 3 million), and the labor-force participation rate has continued its decade long decline. Even the participation rate of those between 25 to 54 is lower than it was pre-recession.

What this means for investors
For investors, this marks the end of a wild ride that saw equity prices rise, bond yields remain muted, and hand wringing over inflation expectations that never materialized.

S&P 500:
Equities enjoyed an impressive run up after then-Fed Chair Ben Bernanke announced the start of a third round of bond buying in September 2012. Of course the last two times the Fed ended quantitative easing, equities faced sell-offs. From the Wall Street Journal:

The S&P 500 rose 35% during QE1 (Dec. 2008 through March 2010), gained 10% during QE2 (Nov. 2010 through June 2011) and has gained about 30% during QE3 (from Sept. 2012 through this month), according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Three months after QE1 ended, the S&P 500 fell 12%. And three months after QE2 concluded, the S&P 500 was down 14%.

 

Stocks

10-year Treasury yields:

As has been the case for much of the post-recession recovery, U.S. borrowing costs have remained low thanks to a lack of strong consumer demand — and the Fed’s bond buying. Many investors paid dearly for betting incorrectly on Treasuries, including the Bill Gross who recently left his perch at Pimco for Janus.

Bonds

10-year breakeven inflation rate:

A sign that inflation failed to take hold despite unconventionally accommodative monetary policy is the so-called 10-year breakeven rate, which measures the difference between the yield on 10-year Treasuries and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS. The higher the gap, the higher the market’s expectation for inflation. As you can see, no such expectation really materialized.

BreakEven

Inflation:

Despite concern that the Fed’s policy would lead to run-away inflation, we remain mired in a low-inflation environment.

fredgraph

Unemployment Rate:

The falling unemployment rate has been a real a bright spot for the economy. If you look at a broader measure of employment, one which takes into account those who’ve just given up looking for a job and part-time workers who want to work full-time, unemployment is elevated, but declining.

unemployment rate

Compared to the economic plight of other developed economies, the U.S. looks to be in reasonable shape. That in part is thanks to bold monetary policy at a time of stagnant growth.

Indeed, many economists now argue that the European Central Bank, faced with an economy that’s teetering on another recession, ought to take a page from the Fed’s playbook and try its own brand of quantitative easing.

MONEY Gas

$3 Gas, and Its Impact on What’s Under the Christmas Tree

This week, the national average for a gallon of regular should hit $3, a low that hasn't been reached since 2010. That means consumers will have more money to spend during the holidays, right?

Not so fast.

Yes, gas prices have been plummeting in the U.S., bringing much-welcome relief to household budgets. Average prices around the country reached a new low for 2014 recently, and then just kept on falling, hitting a low not seen since 2010. As of Monday, according to AAA, the national average stood at $3.04 per gallon after falling 32 days in a row, making prices at the pump 25¢ cheaper compared to the same time one year ago. With prices falling roughly 1¢ per day (the average was down to $3.03 on Tuesday), we’re on pace to reach the all-important psychological mark of $3 per gallon by the end of this week.

But let’s step back. Is the $3 mark—and cheaper gas prices in general—really all that important for the economy as a whole?

A GasBuddy post crunched some numbers, and found that Americans are collectively saving $110 million per day on gas compared to what we spent a year ago. The timing of decreasing gas prices would seem to bode well for retailers, which are hoping that some of that money that’s not being spent on gas will be spent instead on holiday purchases in the weeks ahead. Data from the research firm Deloitte indicates that retail holiday sales will rise 4% to 5% this year, or perhaps even higher considering that the average household could spend $260 less on gas for 2014 as a whole.

Retail analyst Mary Epner told CNBC recently that cheaper gas prices could wind up giving a boost to a few categories of retail in particular:

“A drop in gas prices should be great for Ross Stores, Walmart, and dollar stores (for consumers who must live paycheck to paycheck),” she said. “This also helps low-cost teen retailers, as most teens have a finite amount of money and they will usually opt to put gas in their cars before buying other things.”

Overall, however, cheaper gas prices shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a holiday season savior for retail. As a recent Fortune post pointed out, gas prices had already begun their downward trajectory in September, but the month was basically a dud in terms of consumer spending. The effect of cheaper gas on holiday spending is expected to be minimal as well. At the higher end of the income spectrum, shoppers aren’t going to alter holiday spending based on gas prices shifting by 10% or even 20%. For middle- and low-income earners, stagnant wages, weak hiring, and higher costs for housing and health care are likely to far outweigh any “savings” that come via cheaper gas prices.

What’s more, as a Bloomberg News story noted, today’s shoppers have grown so accustomed to huge discounts that they’re programmed to ignore all but the most dramatic price slashings and promotions. Add in that over the past few years, drivers have seen gas prices retreat, rise, then retreat and rise again, so there’s an appropriate level of skepticism concerning the idea that we could be paying less for gas for the long haul.

Few people will head promptly to the mall and splurge because the price of a gallon of gas drops by a few pennies. Nor should they.

MONEY The Economy

Why the Fed Should Stop Talking About Raising Interest Rates

Some central bankers have called for raising rates sooner rather than later. Recent economic data — and the huge stock market sell-off — should dampen those calls.

There have been two presidential inaugurations and six Super Bowl champions since interest rates were effectively lowered to 0%. Recently, some Federal Reserve officials have said they expect to raise rates by the middle of next year thanks to a decently expanding economy and stronger job growth.

Some central bankers, though, think the middle of 2015 is too late and have been pushing to increase borrowing costs sooner. Esther George, President of the Kansas City Fed, said as much in a speech earlier this month, and two members of the Federal Open Market Committee voted bristled against easy monetary policy in their most recent meeting.

But with developed economies around the world showing dismal growth and less-than-stellar economic metrics here at home — punctuated by a rapidly declining stock prices (the stock market is, after all, a reflection of the market’s forecast for the economy six to nine months down the road) — it might be time for these inflation hawks to quiet down.

“Until we see wages expanding faster than the rate of inflation, and significantly so, we won’t see much in the way of inflation pressure,” says Mike Schenk, Vice President of Economics & Statistics for the Credit Union National Association. “Why raise rates if you don’t have inflation?”

Inflation Hawks

Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher voted against the most recent monetary action policy, according to minutes of the meeting, due to, among other factors, the “continued strength of the real economy” and “the improved outlook for labor utilization.”

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser said that he’s “not too concerned” about inflation growth below the Fed’s 2% target and joined Fisher in voting against the Fed policy because he disagreed with the guidance that said rates will stay at zero for “a considerable time after” the Fed ends its unconventional bond-buying program later this month.

George, meanwhile in a speech earlier this month, said Fed officials should begin talking seriously about raising rates since “starting this process sooner rather than later is important. If we continue to wait — if we continue to wait to see full employment, to see inflation running beyond the 2% target — then we risk having to move faster and steeper with interest rates in a way that is destabilizing to the economy in the long term,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Jobs

The jobs environment has been improving in recent months. The economy added almost 250,000 jobs in September and the unemployment number fell to a post-recession low of 5.9%. But the unemployment number doesn’t tell the whole story.

If you look at another metric that takes into account workers who only recently gave up looking for a job and part-time employees who want to work 40 hours a week, the situation is much worse. Before the recession, this broader unemployment rate sat at around 8%. It’s now at almost 12%. There are still about three million workers who’ve been unemployed for longer than 27 weeks, up from around 1.3 million at the end of 2007.

Inflation

Right now, and for some time, there has been very little inflation. Prices grew 1.7% over the past year in August, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Consumer Price Index. Even the Fed’s preferred inflation tracker, the PCE deflator, showed prices gain 1.5% compared to 12 months ago.

Wage growth is likewise stalled. Taking into account wages and benefits, workers have only seen a 1.8% raise. It’s just difficult to have inflation in a low interest rate environment without wage growth.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard recently said that the Fed should consider postponing the end of its bond-buying program. “Inflation expectations are declining in the U.S.,” he said in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg News. “That’s an important consideration for a central bank. And for that reason I think that a logical policy response at this juncture may be to delay the end of the QE.”

Europe

European economic woes aren’t helping. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, recently cut it’s growth forecast, now only expects to grow by 1.2% in 2014 and 2015. Sweden and Spain saw prices actually decline in August, and now there’s fear that the euro zone will endure a so-called triple-dip recession. The relative prowess of the American economy compared to Europe’s has strengthened the U.S. dollar, thus making our exports less competitive.

Look, the U.S. economy isn’t about to go off a cliff. Not only did we see growth of 4.6% last quarter, but employers are adding jobs at a decent clip and the number of workers filing first-time jobless claims fell to the lowest level since 2000, per the Labor Department.

But with low inflation and European struggles to achieve anything close to robust growth, raising interest rates anytime soon doesn’t appear likely.

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