Arbritage and the Forever Stamp

Today the US Postal Service (USPS) rolls out its new “forever stamp.” The same stamp that you buy today will still provide postage for a 1 ounce letter in 2017 or even 2107.

So are the forever stamps a bargain for consumers or the Postal Service? A little of both. They eliminate those annoying 1 and 2 cent stamps for consumers and smooth revenue for the USPS. Maintaining consistent pricing has been a challenge for the Postal Service. Looking back at the inflation-adjusted price of stamps since 1945 (for nominal prices, check out spudart), stamps have ranged from $.22 in 1956 and 1957 to $.49 in 1975.

Historically it was difficult to hone price increases to match inflation for one simple reason: we don’t have a currency smaller than the penny. Raising the price from $.03 in 1957 to $.04 in 1958 constituted a nominal 33% price increase. Today a 1 cent increase only means a 2.4% price increase. The implication is that with more expensive stamps, it has become easier for the USPS to track inflation keeping the real cost of stamps more consistent. Expect this to continue in the future as the USPS ties the price of the forever stamp as closely as possible to inflation. Regardless of their effort, it seems likely that a secondary market in forever stamps will crop up. Why? Arbitrage.

According to the USPS web site, there is no limit to number of forever stamps you can buy. So someone playing in the futures market of stamps (statastic is not promoting this) would wait until the day before the next forever stamp price increase. An investor would fork over $4.1 million to buy ten million forever stamps the day before the next penny price hike. By holding a futures contract guaranteeing a buyer for all of the stamps at 41.9 cents each, the speculator could turn an overnight profit of $90,000 - assuming the USPS doesn’t make this illegal first.

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Nursing Wages Back to Health

Statastico appreciates nurses. They know when to apply pressure, whether to put ice (or is it heat?) on a sprain, even how to keep someone conscious who might otherwise go into shock. With a rapidly aging American population and massive cost increases in the medical industry, it’s hard to understand why there is constantly talk of nursing shortages.Age distribution of nurses

Sure it seems a little simplistic, but aren’t nurse wages subject to the same supply and demand forces as other wages? If there aren’t enough nurses, don’t salaries just go up to attract more young folks into the profession? Somewhat.

Nursing has historically benefitted from a captive labor market: women. Women in the post-war years had scarcely any choice besides teaching or nursing. No longer. Women now make up 48.5% of our future doctors, and earn 47.5% of the law degrees. While the next generation of women has expanded into new occupations, nursing has remained decidedly behind the times, as seen in Chart 4.

So the nursing population is aging. But is it underpaid? It depends where you are. There are indeed shortages in rural areas and numerous states have implemented programs such as loan forgiveness to lure nurses to less desirable areas.

An economic concept called monopsony may help explain why nursing shortages persist in some of these areas. Whereas a monopoly company can dictate prices to consumers because it’s the only business in town (e.g. cable TV), a monopsony is the only employer in town for a particular industry. This means that a single hospital in a smaller town might be able to dictate wages to nurses who are unwilling to relocate.

But is there a really a looming nursing shortage? In a 2001, Douglas Staiger, an economics professor at Dartmouth predicted “a 400,000-nurse shortage in 20 years.” Despite expert projections, Statastico is going out on a limb and predicting that the shortage won’t occur.

Why? The market is already reacting. From 2000 to 2004, average inflation-adjusted nursing salaries went up by 12.8%. That’s real salary, not nominal, folks. Salaries for teachers and nurses were about equal in 1986. Now full-time nurses average $60,000 annually, while teachers make about $48,000. In fact, over the last 20 years, registered nurse salaries have risen faster than teachers, professors, architects, engineers, ubiquitous lawyers, even physicians.

The high percentage of (ahem) “seasoned” nurses does tend to skew salary averages upward. But assuming that the National Labor Relations Board doesn’t scare new recruits away from nursing by preventing unionization, we’ll surely find an unanticipated source. Currently, men make up only 5.7% of registered nurses. Perhaps more lucrative salaries will lure them to the field, reducing the taboo of the male nurse.

Gender equality may yet reach the medical profession.

Percentage Increase in Inflation-Adjusted Annual Salaries 1986-2005

Notes: Teachers include primary and secondary school teachers. Academia includes all full time college faculty. All data are median salaries except for registered nurses and teachers which are average salaries.

Sources: Teacher salaries 1996-2005: National Education Association

Teachers (national) salaries 1986-1995: Pennsylvania State Data Center

Academia, physicians, lawyers, engineers & architects 1986-2005: American Association of University Professors; Original source for Figure 3: ‘‘Median Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers Who Usually Work Full Time, by Detailed Occupation and Sex, 1983–2002’’ and ‘‘Median Usual Weekly Earnings of Employed Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers by Occupation, 2000–04,’’ unpublished tables, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2006.

Registered Nurse salaries 1984-2004: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 1986 and 2005 estimated by statastic. 1986 was calculated by averaging real salaries from 1984 and 1988. 2005 was estimated to continue the 3.1% real annual increase that occurred between 2000-2004.

CPI-Inflation statistics: Federal Reserve

A Fifth of a Penny for Your Thoughts

In 1972, the year Statastico was born, a penny was worth the equivalent of a 2006 nickel. Imagine if the U.S. Mint decided in 1972 to start making new coins called Fifths (with a portrait of James Monroe, naturally) and they were worth 1/5 of a cent. Well, we have them today and we call them pennies.

As recently as 2002, the U.S. Mint pulled in $24 million in seigniorage by producing pennies. No more. The Washington Post recently reported that because of rising zinc prices, the U.S. Mint is paying about 1.2 cents for every penny produced – not a very good return on investment.

Getting rid of pennies is a contentious issue. There is a pro-penny organization and people seem to attribute more value to a penny than it’s actual worth. Americans are frugal enough to pick a penny up off the street 76% of the time, though rich folks are more than twice as likely to leave that penny on the ground.

Indeed the mighty dollar’s biggest currency rival, the euro, also has 1 cent coins. However, businesses in Finland, the Netherlands and Greece commonly round to the nearest 5 cents to avoid those coins, so maybe the Europeans are onto something.

What about the rest of the world? Comparing a country’s most humble coins is a little tricky. A penny and a centavo both divide a major unit of currency by 100, but that’s where the similarity ends. First, you have to factor in the ebb and flow of exchange rates. Then it’s important to consider what a centavo buys locally, also known as purchasing power parity (PPP). One centavo might buy a whole mango in Guatemala, but it would only get you the mango’s stem in a U.S. grocery store.

So how worthless is the penny? Only the Chinese produce a more worthless coin (and we all know that their currency is undervalued). On the other end of the scale, the Japanese 1 yen coin is worth almost six times more than a U.S. penny in local wages.

And while we’re on the subject, have a look at our largest commonly used coin, the quarter. In coin-crazy Japan, they mint the most valuable coin in the world at currect exchange rates: The 500 yen coin is worth $4.33.

But once you factor in the lower local wages, it’s the Central and West African CFA (a vestigial franc from French colonial rule) that truly stands out. The 500 CFA coin - popular and convenient for highway bribes - is worth about 80% of the local hourly wage in Cameroon, the equivalent of a coin worth $16.50 in the U.S.!Lowest Denomination Coins in Select Countries Highest Denomination Coins in Select Countries

Sources: Statastic research; Wikipedia; xe.com; IMF

*Notes: These are the highest and lowest value coins that commonly used in these selected countries. Coin currency equivalent was converted to dollars using exchange rate as of 7.13.06. Average hourly wages were calculated using the PPP of GDP per capita, and assume that workers toil 50 weeks per year, 40 hours per week.

Minimum Wage and Poverty

“Republicans Cut Minimum Wage by 21%” – or – “Do-Nothing Congress is Something of a Misnomer”

This week, Democrats are threatening to block a bill that would give members of Congress a raise until the minimum wage is increased. While I applaud the Democrats in Congress for re-opening this issue, minimum wage should not be subject to political winds. Since 1938, the annual minimum wage (based on working 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year) has ranged from $6,807 to $18,621 in 2006 dollars. During that time minimum wage has ebbed and flowed, creating instability and unpredictable incomes for the poorest American workers.

Much of this instability is masked by inflation. Inflation silently eats away at minimum wage when Congress is in a do-nothing sort of mood. In 1981, the Democratic Congress raised the minimum wage from $3.10 to $3.35 where it remained for 8 years. Unfortunately, that same $3.35 in 1981 was only worth $2.46 by 1989. Effectively, inaction on minimum wage cut worker pay by 27% between 1981 and 1989.

Not to be outdone, the Republicans increased minimum wage from $4.75 to $5.15 in 1997, where it has remained ever since. Unfortunately, that same $5.15 in 1997 only buys $4.08 of goods in 2006, a reduction of 21% due to inflation.

The Democrats have proposed raising minimum wage by $.70 per year until 2009 when it would top out at $7.25/hour. This would raise minimum wage by about 15% annually. While this proposal does rescue minimum wage – and Congress – from the ignominy of falling below the poverty level for the first time since 1949, it is a sudden increase for those who employ minimum wage workers.

Inaction (or sudden action) on minimum wage creates wage cost volatility for employers. Jarring increases in the wage costs make it more difficult for businesses to plan.  These infrequent and unpredictable increases in minimum wage can also create a political backlash from small business owners.

The solution is to create an automatic, annual increase of the minimum wage based on either the federal consumer price index, or some fixed percentage over the federally-determined threshold for poverty. Make minimum wage more transparent to employers and the working poor, and let do-nothing Congresses get back to their flag burning amendments.

Historical Minimum Wage vs. Poverty threshold


*Historical Minimum Wage assumes working 40 hours/week, 50 weeks/year and is adjusted by the CPI.

#U.S. Census Bureau 2005 Poverty Threshold for single person under 65, adjusted upwards by 3% for 2006 estimated inflation.

^6.27.06 - Reuters reported a Democratic proposal in Congress to raise minimum wage by $.70 per year until 2009 when it would top out at $7.25/hour.