Thursday, October 06, 2005

The price of foam

On of the more obscure problems Katrina caused is a shortage of foam used in upholstered furniture. Thankfully, Select Comfort's business model allows them to sell beds now and ship them later, so with careful management it should be possible to avoid lower sales if not fewer deliveries. If the average delivery time goes up only a few days, consumers might not even notice or care.

The principle of supply and demand might cause problems in the long term, however. If foam is in short supply over the next few months, companies that need it will bid up the price in order to ensure they have enough to finish their own products. Until the supply problem is fixed, Select Comfort is at risk of lower profit margins.

Company-specific risks like this are hard to predict unless you have a detailed understanding of the micro-economics of an industry. Even then, the unexpected happens more often the we think. But good companies with solid capital structures and competent management will survive.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Capital allocation

The central idea of capitalism is that money is the score-keeper of economic activity. Most people would feel that there are numerous other criteria to judge human endeavors than whether or not it makes money. For instance, artists take pride in creating works that are not commercial, environmentalists oppose companies that pollute, and most people would trade salary for doing what they really enjoy. And if money didn't somehow represent all of those things, capitalism wouldn't work.

Consider labor unions. They demand higher pay and better working conditions for workers at the expense of company profit. Auto workers over the years have virtually guaranteed that US manufacturers will produce more cars than they can profitably sell. In essence the unions have won the battle, since it is Ford, GM and Chrysler who are paying the price, and not the workers. But the war isn't over, and if those companies can't stay in business while paying their wages, all sides will lose.

In other words, money gets converted into what we really value. For organized labor, it gets converted into job security at all costs. Consumers don't particularly care about job security (except their own, of course), but they do care about how much money their car costs. If paying for job security lowers the cost (unlikely) or raises the quality of cars sufficiently, it could be a good use of capital and the companies will thrive.

The problem with the communist systems in Eastern Europe and Russia, was that workers where theoretically valued, but poitical influence was valuable. Over time, the disconnect became unsustainable.