Explaining Southern California's economy

Did Ben Bernanke just guarantee two more years of slow growth?

Well, that was a letdown!

A lot of observers expected Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to announce anther round of "quantitative easing" –QE3 – at the Fed's annual Jackson Hole conference. He didn't, and in combination with his previous indication that the Fed would keep interest rates at near-zero levels for the next two years, he passed the ball back to the politicians. 

Economist Jared Bernstein has a very good take:

While I’m not sure more Fed easing would help much right now, I think that if underlying demand were stronger, I could help a lot.  In other words, fiscal and monetary stimuli are partners right, but there’s a sequencing: first, fiscal needs to wake up the demand side of the economy, then easing could help amplify the impact of that demand.

Unfortunately, if the Fed is reluctant to ease now, they’d be even more so if some growth actually showed up on the scene.


Bank of America saved by Warren Buffett – for now

Bank of America’s stock price has dropped by 50 percent since the beginning of year, amid speculation that it was confronting additional write-offs related to subprime mortgages, wanted to unload investment back Merrill Lynch (no takers), might be merging with JP Morgan Chase, and was facing a capital crisis that caused investors to strongly suspect that the bank wasn’t muddling through the economy’s current soft patch but was in fact insolvent. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was prepping the bailout! Game over was just days or weeks away!

Three bloggers created a kind of tag-team to parse the meltdown of the country’s second-biggest bank. Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism (who had already started a B of A Death Watch) and Zero Hedge drilled into the numbers, while Henry Blodget at Business Insider summed it all up, was attacked by B of A for talking smack about the true value of the bank’s assets, and then proposed that the government closely monitor B of A’s slide, taking it over once it falls beneath a certain threshold and restructuring it to prevent a Lehman 2 event that would bring down the U.S. and probably world economy:


Maybe Apple won’t be fine after Steve Jobs

First off, it’s definitely sad that Steve Jobs is stepping down as the CEO of Apple. I shed a small tear when I read his resignation letter. So did Reuters' Felix Salmon. Harvard Business Review put up six separate post about Steve’s departure and what it means. This is Topic A right now in the global business conversation.

I’ve never owned anything except Apple computers (no iPhone, so far), but I have used plenty of PCs. No contest, really. Apple builds a nicer machine (I won’t say better, at the risk of discounting the many legitimate complaints John Dvorak has made over the years).

The consensus among the technorati and among observers of Apple’s business is that Jobs has done as much as he can to ready Tim Cook to take over. Plus, Apple has a good bench of senior leaders, and the company hasn’t even come close to extracting as much value as possible from the current product lineup (this is Henry Blodget’s take at Business Insider). So... no worries. In the midst of his justifiably misty recollections, Felix makes the Apple Forever case:

Does Apple still have an outsize personality who can slice away extraneous features on hardware, say no to the demands of the marketplace, and give us not what we think we want but what we never knew we wanted? I think it does: Jony Ive fits the bill quite nicely. And Apple’s amazing relations with its suppliers — the way that it can get chips and hardware into its devices that the rest of the world can’t get its hands on for any amount of money — is now baked in to the organization, rather than being reliant on a single man.

The formula, then, is clear. And with or without Jobs, Apple is, for the foreseeable future, going to coin simply astonishing amounts of money. It made $7.3 billion of profit just in the last quarter, on revenues of an almost unimaginable $28.6 billion. That makes Apple one of the most profitable companies the world has ever seen — and makes its stock look almost cheap, even at a market cap of $350 billion. 

No argument on the financials, but I don’t entirely buy that Apple’s future growth is guaranteed because the company re-Steved itself after the near-death experience of the late 1990s. Also, as much as I share Felix's admiration for Ive, being a great designer isn't the same as being a great American idea man. Apple’s lifeblood is innovation, and as we march toward iPhone 5 and iPad 3 -- and see the steady decline of the iPod -- it's clear that Apple needs to remake the user experience of an another business. So far, Apple TV has been disappointing. iAd hasn’t really transformed mobile advertising -- in any event it hasn't been able to command the premium that Apple wanted. Remember, this is the company that created desktop publishing, revolutionizing an industry that hadn’t really seen much meaningful change since Gutenberg.

Apple saved the music business. Apple made cell phones super-cool. Apple made tablets a reality, rather than something that had previously been seen only on Star Trek. Some tech pundits think gaming is next (with its Xbox, this is just about the only place where Microsoft has long-term leverage over Apple), although earlier this year Forbes argued that Apple already has a gaming platform, of an ad-hoc nature. Weirdly, for closed-down Apple, gaming has been a triumph of free-form open development. 

I wouldn’t put it past Apple. Angry Birds certainly has game-box makers and developers freaked out.

Still, something important has changed in Apple’s DNA since the iPhone and iPad became the key products, edging aside laptops and desktops. Apple has devoted itself to building devices that are dedicated to consumption rather than creation. Plus, you don’t really think different by buying an iPhone -- you think like 100 million other people who use iPhones worldwide.

True innovation in business is exceptionally rare. Jobs picked his spots: Apple didn’t invent the PC, it made it better; Apple didn’t invent the mobile phone, it made it better. His genius was to look at things that were deemed important to the future and make them accessible, effortless, easy. Jobs didn’t just do this in tech -- at Pixar, he took animated movies and made them broadly relevant again, a move that shook up Disney so much that it bought the company.

But jobs hasn’t preserved anything. He’s always looking to disrupt, albeit with an esthetic differentiator (which is itself a type of disruption -- BlackBerrys and ThinkPads were effective, but hardly beautiful). That’s why new CEO Tim Cook’s first message to Apple isn’t necessarily reassuring. This is from the email he sent out today:

I want you to be confident that Apple is not going to change. I cherish and celebrate Apple's unique principles and values. Steve built a company and culture that is unlike any other in the world and we are going to stay true to that—it is in our DNA. We are going to continue to make the best products in the world that delight our customers and make our employees incredibly proud of what they do.

But Apple needs to change. In fact, as the Jobs Era ends, it needs to change more than ever. Nobody wants to see the now most-valuable tech company -- and almost most valuable company company -- in the world replay its previous decline, when merciless price competition and a disorganized product lineup nearly bankrupted it. The temptation for Cook will the preserve, preserve. And that would be a big mistake. Apple needs to spend its money on the next big thing, not on staying Apple.

Photo: Apple





What will Latinos do if Social Security is revamped?


My colleague Leslie Berenstein Rojas wrote a great post today about Latinos and their impending retirement struggles. This part jumped out at me:

Latinos rely heavily on Social Security for retirement income. Many, especially first-generation immigrants, work in jobs that don’t provide retirement plans. And among those who do, there is a tendency not to invest in these plans, for fear of lacking day-to-day cash flow and other factors.

Several studies have addressed Latinos’ retirement quandary, but I’d like to resurrect a particularly exhaustive one from three years ago that took into account not just the prospective retirees, but their children who are one day expected to help support them.

She went on the delve into a 2008 report from the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. But it’s the Social Security factor that’s important -- especially since Latinos are statistically more likely to live longer than several other ethnic groups. 


HP inadvertently discovers a 'good enough' tablet computer in the killed TouchPad

I had a chance on the way to the office yesterday to take stock of the great HP TouchPad sell-off. After HP announced that it’s getting out of the computer, phone, and tablet business, it dropped the price of its mostly unloved TouchPad tablet to $100. According to the radio report I heard, the result was that HP's servers couldn't keep up with interest.

The TouchPad buying frenzy revealed a clear dichotomy in the tablet market: people will pay handsomely for an iPad, but they have no interest in paying anything more than rock-bottom for other tablet devices.

I don’t know why HP needed to make such a drastic move for people to figure this out. Back in July, at BGR.com, my favorite tech writer, Zach Epstein, outlined why iPads are succeeding wildly while all other tablets are turning in meh numbers. It’s simple, he writes: 

Apple’s iPad is a gorgeous, elegant device that gives consumers the opportunity to purchase a large-form Apple product for a mere $499, and that in itself plays a huge role in the tablet’s popularity. Other vendors do not carry the same hype and allure that Apple is enjoying at the moment, and that is a big reason their tablet sales are barely a blip on the radar; of course there are other equally important reasons such as the lack of intuitive and distinguished user experiences, but in the end, these vendors are building products that consumers simply aren’t asking for just yet. I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: Consumers don’t want tablets, they want iPads.

Hear hear! But I would amend this, in light of the TouchPad event, to say that consumers don’t want tablets, they want iPads -- unless they can get a much, much cheaper tablet than the iPad. Now, obviously, the run on TouchPads was all about consumers getting a Porsche for the price of a Chevy. In fact, Zach himself had many good things -- and a few not-so-good things -- to say about the TouchPad when it came out: 

Looking past the device’s deficiencies, I found the TouchPad a pleasure to use during my testing. Even with the occasional bogging, the UI is gorgeous and webOS is a pleasure to use on a slate form factor. As sad as this statement may be considering the downsides I’ve listed, I definitely prefer the TouchPad over almost every tablet I’ve tested to date.

Clearly, there’s a market for a tablet that serves up some kind of rudimentary tablet experience at a super-low price. A “good enough” tablet that isn’t trying to be an iPad, but that does a lot more than a Kindle or other e-reader. The lesson here is that consumers will always respond to price -- even if manufacturers believe that they’re obsessed with features. 

The TouchPad was a full-on iPad competitor, so at $100 it was far more than good enough -- it was a steal. Figure out how to cover that gap, however, and you could bring to market the iPad’s first serious rival. 

Photo: Flickr/Tom Raftery