Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Times They Are A'Changin'

House sizes, once perpetually increasing, are now shrinking back to semi-reasonable size:
After many years of dramatically increasing home size in America - from an average of 983 square feet in the 1950s up to 2300 square feet in the 2000s, despite declining household sizes - the trend appears finally to be going in the other direction. The real estate research firm Trulia found in 2010, for example, that the median "ideal home size" for Americans had declined to around 2100 square feet. More than one-third of survey respondents reported that their ideal preference was lower than 2000 square feet.

Meanwhile, new home size in the U.S. is decidedly extravagant compared to that in other countries. A survey and data comparison conducted by the (now-defunct, unfortunately) British Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment found the size of an average new American home built in the 2000s to be approximately twice as large in floor space as one in Spain or France, and nearly three times as large as the average in the U.K.
Have Americans Given Up On McMansions? (The Atlantic)

Meanwhile, gasoline consumption appears to be tanking:

Retail gasoline deliveries, already well below 1980 levels, have absolutely fallen off a cliff. Is the plunge inventory-related, i.e. are storage facilities so full that retailers are simply putting off deliveries?

Though I don't have data on hand to support this, I know from one of my correspondents who is in the gasoline distribution/delivery business that gasoline is very much a "just in time" commodity: gas stations are often close to running out of fuel when they get a delivery. Stations aren't holding huge quantities of surplus gasoline; that's not how the business works.

Given the absence of "extra storage" in gas stations (and the fact that the number of gas stations has fallen dramatically since 1980), it is reasonable to conclude that retail delivery is largely a function of demand, i.e. gasoline consumption.

Even if you dismiss the recent plunge as an outlier, the declines in retail gasoline deliveries are mind-boggling. If you look at the data from 1983 to 2011 on the link above, you will note that delivery declines align with recessions.

What other plausible explanation is there for the decline from 42.4 MGD in July 2011 to 30.9 MGD in November 2011 other than a dramatic decline in discretionary driving? That 27% drop in a few months in unprecedented, except in times of war or sharp economic contraction, i.e. recession.

If we stipulate that vehicles and fuel consumption are essential proxies for the U.S. economy, then we can expect a steep decline in economic activity to register in other metrics within the next few months.
Why Is Gasoline Consumption Tanking? (Of Two Minds)

Efficiency isn't the cause - Charles missed the fact that the age of the average automobile on the road has now reached an all-time high of almost 11 years. Remember, this is an average (my car is 12 years old):
American drivers are holding on to their cars and trucks longer, new data suggest, as they put off buying new vehicles in the face of high unemployment and a struggling economy.

The average age of a vehicle on the road has climbed to a record 10.8 years, according to automotive research firm Polk. Last year the average vehicle on U.S. roads was 10.6 years old, up from 10 years in 2008, Polk said.

While the average age of passenger cars has shown a modest increase since 2010, rising from 11 years to just 11.1 years at the end of June 2011, light trucks (including pickups and SUVs) have seen a more sizeable gain, rising from 10.1 years to 10.4 years in the same timeframe. Overall, average vehicle age has risen quickly over the past five years, Polk said. The firm uses national vehicle registration data in its analysis.
Americans Keeping Their Cars Longer Than Ever (MSNBC)

Even Hollywood's popularity is decreasing:
The numbers are in, and they show what studio execs likely feared and movie-goers likely suspected all along: Not a lot of people went to the movies this year. Box-office tracker says that "an estimated 1.275 billion tickets sold" in 2011, a 4.8 percent decrease from 2010 making for "the smallest movie audience since 1995," reports the AP. A hodgepodge of reasons for the sour showing were cited in the AP and ABC News reports. Among them: Too many sequels, too many kids movies, too many distracting gadgets, the bad economy, high ticket prices, and, something being called an "'Avatar' hangover" from 2010.
Harry Potter Magic Doesn't Cure What Ailed Hollywood in 2011 (Atlantic Wire)

And even sports may have passed peak (incidentally, the Packers are raising ticket prices for the third year in a row):
In the stadium’s first year, the team drew an average of 89,700 fans. Even last year’s 6-10 team managed to attract 87,000 fans. But this year, the fan attendance number dropped to just 85,000 fans – despite the fact that Cowboys have a chance to win their division this weekend.
Peak NFL: Dallas Cowboys' Attendance Steadily Dropping (The Downward Spiral)

And it seems we may have stopped increasing life expectancy in the United States:
Life expectancy has peaked in some US States according to recent research. This follows research published in 2005 that suggests current living children may not outlive their parents, and that peak life expectancy in the US may be reached between 2030 and 2040. Mostly, this is attributed to the massive spike in childhood obesity which typically results in lifelong obesity and associated health problems.

Peak Life Expectancy? (Naked Capitalism)

Concluding thoughts: Many people still expect some sort of "crash" or a clear wake-up call as the economy craters and fossil fuels become more scarce. But that's not what happens. Little trends start happening, almost under the radar, and change just a little bit each year, like a supertanker that changer course by deviating just a few degrees each minute. Many times, people won't even see the big picture - some trends will be up, others down (job creation is up this month! Recession over!). But the long-term trend is clear. The information above is exactly what we expect to see in a catabolic collapse.

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