Older Workers, Lobsters and R&D: A Year in Charts

(Bloomberg View) -- I like charts! I like looking at them. I like making them. I often rely on them to see me through on days when I'm feeling less opinionated than an opinion columnist probably should. So for the second year in a row, I'm going to revisit five of my favorite chart-heavy columns of the past 12 months, and update them where possible.

Trump Isn't the Only Older Worker Staying on the Job. With a 70-year-old having just moved into the White House, I took a look in February at the labor-force participation rate of Americans 65 and older. The percentage of those in that age group who either have jobs or are actively looking for them (that's what the labor-force participation rate is) had been rising since the 1990s. With 10 months more data, though, it is now looking as if the rate may have stopped rising.

Overall the labor market has been quite strong lately, so I don't think this flattening has to do with older workers despairing of finding work. I also don't think there's a demographic explanation: We're still in the midst of a vast wave of baby boomers turning 65 every year. So I'm going to blame the booming stock market: Burgeoning retirement-account balances mean fewer seniors feel compelled to earn money on the side. When the next bear market comes, I'll try to remember to check in on this metric again.

New York: Softer on Crime, Stronger on Jobs. When the Justice Department took a poke at New York City as "soft on crime" in April, I couldn't resist comparing the homicide rates in New York and Attorney General Jeff Sessions' home state of Alabama. Now there's one more year of Alabama crime data available, and it makes the point even more starkly.

I also hypothesized that Alabama's more punishment-oriented legal system (its incarceration rate was well more than twice New York state's in 2015) might be depressing labor markets, as people with criminal records are more likely to drop out of the labor force. While the next chart doesn't prove anything, it does show a divergence in labor-force participation that has continued to grow.

Maine Is Drowning in Lobsters. I paid a visit to Maine in May, went out on a lobster boat, and, among other things, learned how to put those fat rubber bands on the lobsters' claws. My most lasting memory, though, was of this amazing chart:

Why the explosion in the lobster harvest? The best explanations seemed to be (1) warming ocean temperatures, which moved the sweet spot for lobster fishing northward, and (2) a collapse in the population of cod, which like to eat baby lobsters. As I wrote in my column about the phenomenon, Maine lobster fishermen have been enjoying the bounty while it lasts and doing what they can to find new markets for all that lobster meat. The lobster season that began not long after my visit -- they trap lobsters year-round in Maine, but peak harvest is in summer and fall -- has been something of a disappointment, with some in the industry predicting that the total might drop below 100 million pounds for the first time since 2010 (the official numbers should be out in February). A catch in the 90 million- to 100 million-pound range would still be more than twice as large as any before 1997, though.

Amazon Isn't Just Spending Big Bucks on Groceries. In June, I took note of the fact that Amazon.com Inc. had passed Volkswagen AG as the world's biggest corporate spender on research and development. There's a caveat: While other corporations report their R&D spending, Amazon instead has a line item on its income statement for spending on "technology and content," which it describes as consisting "principally of research and development activities." Counting all of this spending as R&D may skew Amazon's numbers upwards relative to other companies. But with two more quarters in the bag, Amazon's R&D spending lead is now so big that it may render such definitional issues irrelevant:

The Fall, Rise and Fall of Creative Destruction. There's no new data with which to update this chart from September. I just figured I should run it again since it goes against what remains a widely accepted narrative of this being an age of unprecedented corporate upheaval.

The 1980s and late 1990s certainly were times of great corporate churn. Since 2001, though, things have settled down a lot. This may just be a pause until Amazon.com's massive R&D spending enables it to render half the companies on the S&P 500 irrelevant. But for now, we really are living in a time of relative economic calm.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

Stay Updated With View News On BloombergQuint