May 17, 2022

Contracts to Purchase Homes Dropped Slightly in July

WASHINGTON — Fewer people signed contracts to buy American homes in July, but the level stayed close to a six-and-a-half-year high. The modest decline suggests that higher mortgage rates have yet to slow sales sharply.

The National Association of Realtors said its seasonally adjusted index for pending home sales declined 1.3 percent, to 109.5 in July. That is close to May’s reading of 111.3, which was the highest since December 2006.

The small decline suggests that sales of previously owned homes should remain healthy in the coming months. There is generally a one- to two-month lag between a signed contract and a completed sale.

Final sales jumped to an annual pace of 5.4 million in July, the highest in three and a half years, the group said last week. Such a pace is consistent with a healthy housing market.

Higher mortgage rates appeared to have had a bigger impact on new-home sales, which plummeted last month. That raised fears that rate increases were restraining the housing recovery.

But many economists note that home prices and mortgage rates remain low by historical standards. Consistent job gains and rising consumer confidence may also support sales in the coming months.

“Higher mortgage rates are clearly negative for housing, but other key drivers — including the labor market, confidence and expectations for prices and interest rates — still point to improvement,” Jim O’Sullivan, chief United States economist at High Frequency Economics, said in a note to clients.

The average rate on a 30-year mortgage reached 4.58 percent last week, the highest level in two years and up from 3.35 percent in early May. Still, that is below the average since 1985 of about 7 percent, according to

Mortgage rates began to rise after the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, signaled that the Fed might reduce its bond purchases later this year. The purchases have helped keep borrowing costs low.

Rising home prices and more construction have bolstered economic growth and created more jobs. The housing recovery has provided crucial support to the economy when other drivers, like manufacturing, have struggled.

Gains in home prices may be starting to level off, however. Prices jumped 12.1 percent in June from a year earlier, according to the Standard Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index released on Tuesday. That is slightly slower than May’s 12.2 percent year-over-year gain. But price increases slowed in June from May in 14 of the 20 cities tracked by the index.

The stabilization in prices is not necessarily a bad thing, economists said, because it could keep homes affordable and help prevent a bubble from developing in the housing market.

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Magazine Newsstand Sales Plummet, but Digital Editions Thrive

Magazines continue to struggle with sales of subscriptions and newsstand copies in the first half of 2013, but they have made inroads in selling digital editions, according to data released Tuesday.

Total paid and verified subscriptions declined by 1 percent in the first half of 2013, and newsstand sales, which are often an indicator of a magazine’s appeal, dropped by 10 percent. Both declines were similar to the overall trend in the same period a year ago.

But the numbers, released by the Alliance for Audited Media, also showed that a solid base of loyal magazine readers were simply turning to the digital versions of magazines. Digital replica editions — which replicate the format of the print editions — now make up 3.3 percent of total magazine circulation, with 10.2 million digital replica editions sold in the first half of 2013. During the same time period in 2012, magazines sold 5.4 million digital editions, which made up 1.7 percent of circulation.

“They’re relatively small to the mix,” said Steven Cohn, editor of the Media Industry Newsletter, referring to digital subscriptions. “I would expect these numbers to grow rather steadily. It’s like everything else. You have to walk before you run. Things will accelerate.”

Celebrity weeklies had some of the biggest losses in newsstand sales, including People (11.8 percent decline), Us Weekly (16.7 percent) and Life Style Weekly (20.9 percent). But Mr. Cohn noted that these titles declined in part because they didn’t have a big event — like the birth of the royal baby — to help stimulate sales.

“The royal birth came in July,’’ he said. “They needed a stimulant like that and they didn’t have it.

“If it’s a normal news routine, at least with celebrities, they won’t do as well.”

But Mr. Cohn noted that celebrity titles already have benefited in the second half of the year because of birth of Prince George. Larry Hackett, the managing editor of People, said last week that the Aug. 5 “Royal Baby Joy” cover had already sold 1.2 million copies and he expected that to rise 1.4 million issues. “Already at 1.2 it’s the best-selling cover of the year,” Mr. Hackett said.

Mr. Cohn said he was more concerned about women’s magazines, which were hit hard by losses on the newsstand. Cosmopolitan showed a 23.9 percent decline in newsstand sales. Glamour dropped by 28.8 percent and O, The Oprah Magazine, fell by 22.7 percent. “I’m not sure whatever they can do can make a difference,” Mr. Cohn said. “It’s very newsstand-dependent.”

But Hearst magazines, which owns Cosmpolitan and O, The Oprah Magazine, noted the progress both magazines had made in digital subscriptions. Cosmopolitan grew by 33 percent, to 246,815 digital subscribers, and O grew 22 percent, to 99,412 digital subscribers.

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Earnings Fall at Shell and Exxon in 2nd Quarter

Royal Dutch Shell is continuing to struggle with its operations in Nigeria and North America, the company revealed Thursday in announcing earnings that fell below analysts’ forecasts.

Shell’s second-quarter income, adjusted for one-time items, was $4.6 billion, compared with $5.7 billion in the same period a year earlier. Analysts had expected the company to earn $5.8 billion. “This is one of the worst set of Shell results that we can remember,” analysts from Bernstein wrote in a research note.

Shell’s shares were down nearly 5 percent in trading in London.

Exxon Mobil, the largest American oil producer, also disappointed markets on Thursday. It reported second-quarter earnings of $6.9 billion, a 57 percent decline from the same period in 2012. The company said that earnings, excluding divestments and other one-time charges, were down 19 percent for the quarter. The company’s shares were down about 2 percent in trading in New York.

Exxon Mobil said that its results were hurt by lower margins and reduced volumes at its refineries. Production was down 1.9 percent year-on-year for the quarter and 2.7 percent for the half year. Capital and operating expenses were also up 10 percent, to $10.2 billion, for the quarter. Still, “Exxon Mobil’s second-quarter results reflect continued strong operational performance,” its chief executive, Rex W. Tillerson, said in a statement.

Shell’s chief executive, Peter Voser, told reporters that the situation in Nigeria, where Shell normally obtains close to 9 percent of its world production, was worsening. The country has long been a mainstay for Shell, but production there has been dogged by political and environmental issues.

Problems in Nigeria during the quarter had lowered production by about 100,000 barrels a day, or around 40 percent, and had cost the company $250 million, Shell said.

Nigerian output was hit not only by the usual “bunkering,” or sabotage aimed at stealing oil from pipelines, but also by an extraordinary legal dispute between the Nigerian maritime authorities and a liquefied natural gas facility in which Shell is a partner. In the most serious episode, the maritime authorities kept L.N.G. tankers from landing at the plant between late June and mid-July until they received a large payment from the operators.

Mr. Voser said oil theft and disruptions to gas supply were causing widespread environmental damage and could cost the Nigerian government up to $12 billion per year. “We will play our part, but these are problems Shell cannot solve alone, ” Mr. Voser said.

Mr. Voser said Shell was reviewing its Nigeria operations and would sell up to 100,000 barrels a day of production onshore, where most of the problems are, preferably to Nigerian players “to have local stakeholders involved in the production of onshore assets.”

Shell also said it was reviewing its exploration and production portfolio in North America, where it has been losing money. The exercise, the company said, will lead to divestments and a sharper focus on fewer projects.

Over the last five years, the company has invested heavily in shale gas and oil properties, building up a $28 billion portfolio. Based on drilling and exploration results in recent months, Shell is writing off about $2 billion after taxes in the shale oil areas after taking previous writedowns on shale gas acreage. The write-downs drop the book value of the portfolio to about $24 billion.

Mr. Voser said that the write-downs represented a relatively low proportion of the North American shale portfolio, but that they reflected continued problems in the Americas, an important area for Shell. Bernstein estimated that Shell lost $4.54 for every barrel it produced in the Americas, the location of almost one-quarter of its output.

Shell’s overall production was down 1 percent to just over three million barrels a day. Its output for the quarter was slightly less than that of its rival BP if the company’s share of almost 20 percent of output from Rosneft, the Russian state-controlled oil company, is included.

Mr. Voser said this year that he would step down as chief executive in 2014. Shell announced last month that he would be succeeded by Ben van Beurden, a relatively unknown executive who has headed Shell’s large marketing and refining business since January. Mr. Voser described Mr. van Beurden as “a great guy” and said that for the next few months he would continue to run the company while Mr. van Beurden focused on marketing and refining.

Other companies have also posted lackluster results, including BP, which reported earnings on Tuesday, and ENI of Italy, which on Thursday reported a 55 percent decline in profits for the quarter, compared with the period last year. BP, which made substantial divestments after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, blamed lower oil prices and higher tax rates, especially in Russia, while ENI was hurt by continuing problems at its Saipem engineering and oil services subsidiary, including an investigation into allegations of corruption in Algeria.

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U.S. Factory Orders Suggest Manufacturing Is Improving

The Commerce Department said on Tuesday that factory orders rose 2.1 percent in May. April’s increase was revised higher, to 1.3 percent from 1 percent.

Most of the increase in May was because of a big jump in commercial aircraft demand. Still, businesses also ordered more machinery, computers and household appliances.

A category of orders that is viewed as a proxy for business investment plans — which excludes the volatile areas of transportation and defense — rose 1.5 percent. That rise was even stronger than the gains in the previous two months.

This measure of business investment had not increased for three straight months since the fall of 2011. The consecutive gains suggest manufacturing in the United States could improve in the second half of the year.

Despite its boost to the economy in the first three years after the recession ended, manufacturing has struggled this year. American factories have seen less demand for exports because of a weaker global growth. And businesses reduced their investment in machinery and equipment in the first quarter.

The May report showed that orders for long-lasting goods, like power generation equipment and ships, rose 3.7 percent in May. Orders for nondurable goods, including paper, chemicals and oil, rose 0.7 percent.

Demand for commercial aircraft increased about 51 percent, after a 18.4 percent gain in April and a drop of 43.3 percent in March.

Orders for autos and auto parts fell 2 percent, after jumping 4.1 percent in April, but the decline is most likely temporary.

American automakers on Tuesday reported healthy sales gains in June. Ford Motor’s sales soared 13 percent in June compared with a year earlier. Chrysler’s sales rose 8 percent. The numbers suggest that auto production will resume a healthy pace in the next months.

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E.C.B. Keeps Interest Rates Unchanged in Hopes for Recovery

FRANKFURT — Defying some calls for bolder action, the European Central Bank left its benchmark interest rate unchanged on Thursday, even as it changed its economic forecast to a gloomier reading for the rest of the year.

The E.C.B. left its main rate at 0.5 percent, as expected. Despite ever more insistent calls from economists for more aggressive moves to stimulate lending in the euro zone, the E.C.B. may have decided it needed to assess the significance of a slight uptick in inflation as well as some evidence that consumers and business managers are becoming less pessimistic.

In a news conference after the announcement, Mario Draghi, the president of the E.C.B., cited “downside risks surrounding the economic outlook for the euro area.” Those, he said, include the possibility of weaker-than-expected domestic and global demand and slow or insufficient policy changes in euro zone countries.

He also said the central bank was lowering its 2013 economic forecast for the euro area, now expecting the region’s economy to shrink by 0.6 percent this year, worse than the 0.5 percent decline previously forecast. But the central bank expects growth in the euro zone of 1.1 percent next year — slightly higher than previous forecasts.

The E.C.B. had hinted in recent months the bank was considering additional unconventional measures to fix a credit crunch in southern Europe. That might even include the unprecedented step of obliging banks to pay to store their money at the central bank, rather than earning interest on it — resulting in a so-called negative deposit rate. The goal would be to force banks to put their money to work, by lending it. Mr. Draghi indicated that the central bank’s governing council, which met before he spoke, had considered that move but decided not to proceed with it.

Judging from recent speeches by E.C.B. policy makers, they are concentrating more on getting banks to deal with problem loans and other issues that may be interfering with their ability to lend.

Mr. Draghi called for euro zone policy makers to move forward with a uniform system for winding down failing banks in an orderly manner.

Marie Diron, an economist who advises the consulting firm Ernst Young, said that, while fixing weak banks was a worthy goal, it was unlikely to yield dividends for some time.

While “a cleanup of banks’ balance sheets is necessary to ensure sustained growth in the medium term, it would probably be negative for growth in the short term,” Ms. Diron wrote in an e-mail before the meeting Thursday. “It is not clear why the E.C.B. seem to have changed its focus since early May.”

Some recent economic indicators have kept alive hope that the euro zone is close to hitting bottom. Surveys have shown that businesses and consumers are a little less pessimistic than they were. And inflation has accelerated slightly, although it is still below the E.C.B. target of about 2 percent.

Many economists have urged the E.C.B. to be bolder, as unemployment remains a persistent problem, with joblessness in the euro zone at a record high of 12.2 percent. France on Thursday reported a 10.8 percent unemployment rate for the first quarter, also a record high

James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, said in Frankfurt last month that the E.C.B. should consider so-called quantitative easing similar to that undertaken by the Fed — large bond purchases meant to drive down market interest rates.

It is very unusual for central bankers to put pressure on their peers so publicly. But Mr. Bullard warned that Europe was acting as a dead weight on the global economy.

“You have to be concerned,” he told an audience in Frankfurt. “The European Union as a whole is the biggest economy in the world.”

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Economic Growth Was Moderate in First Quarter

The Commerce Department said on Thursday that economic growth in the first quarter was only marginally below the 2.5 percent annual rate the government had estimated last month. The rate is still much faster than the 0.4 percent growth during the October-December quarter.

Most economists think growth is slowing to around a 2 percent annual rate in the April-June quarter as the economy adjusts to federal spending cuts, higher taxes and further global weakness. Still, many say the decline may not be as severe as once thought. The numbers have been buoyed by solid hiring, surging home prices and record stock gains, which should keep consumers spending.

Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said the small revision to first-quarter growth supported her view that the economy would grow a moderate 2.2 percent for the year, the same as last year.

Still, Ms. Lee expects growth to improve to 3.2 percent in 2014, as the job market accelerates and consumers grow more confident in the economy.

Employers have added an average of 208,000 jobs a month since November, well above the monthly average of 138,000 during the previous six months. And the government said on Thursday that weekly jobless aid applications had risen to 354,000, a level consistent with modest job gains.

In addition, the number of Americans who signed contracts to buy homes edged up in April to the highest level in three years. The increase points to growth in home sales in the coming months.

The National Association of Realtors said on Thursday that its seasonally adjusted index for pending home sales rose 0.3 percent to 106. That is the highest since April 2010, when a home buyer tax credit inflated sales.

Signed contracts have jumped 10.3 percent in the last 12 months. There is generally a one- to two-month lag between a signed contract and a completed sale.

Sales of previously occupied homes rose in April to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 4.97 million, a 3 1/2 year high. Sales of newly homes also rose in April, to nearly a five-year high.

Still, the supply of homes on the market remained low and that could keep sales from accelerating later this year. The number of available homes for sale rose in April, the Realtors’ group said last week, but was still down 14 percent from a year earlier.

Fewer homes for sale may be holding back sales in tight markets in the West, like Las Vegas and Phoenix. In those cities, many homeowners still owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.

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U.S. and European Union to Negotiate Settlements in Chinese Solar Panel Cases

HONG KONG — The Obama administration and the European Union have each decided to negotiate settlements with China in the world’s largest antidumping and antisubsidy trade cases involving China’s roughly $30 billion a year in solar panel shipments to the West, officials and trade advisers in Beijing, Brussels and Washington said.

The plan that is starting to take shape would essentially carve up the global solar panel market into a series of regional markets. It would sharply raise the price of solar panels exported from China, the world’s dominant producer, by requiring Chinese companies to charge more while limiting the total number of solar panels they could ship.

In exchange, Chinese companies would no longer be charged steep taxes on their exports of solar panels. The United States is already collecting tariffs totaling about 30 percent while the European Union is expected to impose similar tariffs of about 50 percent on June 5, and may backdate them to March 5.

Parallel decisions by the Obama administration and the European Union to separately negotiate high prices for imported solar panels may prove unpopular among environmentalists. Some environmental groups are already upset that the tariffs have made solar energy less affordable, which makes it less competitive with more polluting fossil fuels.

Huge shipments from China have driven solar panel prices down by three-quarters in the last four years. American and European producers contend that much of that decline represents the effect of Chinese government subsidies and Chinese dumping of solar panels below the cost of producing them, which means that a negotiated settlement could need to push prices up significantly.

The goal of the current tariffs, and of the price and quantity regulations that could replace them, is to protect American and European manufacturers from what they and the Obama administration describe as unfair competition. Western manufacturers and the administration say that Chinese solar panels are heavily subsidized by the Chinese government and then dumped in foreign markets at prices far below the cost of production.

Two dozen American and European solar panel manufacturers have already cut back production or gone bankrupt in the last three years, moves widely attributed to Chinese imports.

Francisco Sanchez, the under secretary of commerce for international trade, has just flown to Beijing for a visit to discuss civilian nuclear power trade issues, people with a detailed knowledge of his visit said. Mr. Sanchez has a long agenda of bilateral trade issues to discuss that includes mentioning an American interest in negotiations, a person with detailed knowledge of his visit said.

The Commerce Department deferred on Monday to the United States trade representative’s office about what Mr. Sanchez would say in Beijing about solar panels.

The Obama administration is in the earliest stages of sounding out Congress about the shift toward replacing tariffs with a negotiated settlement. Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat whose state is a center of solar panel production, said that he supported a negotiated deal.

“We are really at a fork in the road with respect to producing renewable energy technology in the United States,” he said. “This is the moment for the administration to obtain a global agreement that levels the playing field for American producers and provides the certainty needed for America’s renewable energy, and solar sector in particular, to survive.”

Chinese producers have partly bypassed the American tariffs by performing one stage in the solar panel manufacturing process outside mainland China: turning solar wafers into solar cells in nearby Taiwan.

A negotiated deal would close the loophole in the American tariffs; the European trade case does not have the same loophole.

China has retaliated for American and European tariffs on solar panels by moving to impose steep tariffs on imports of the main raw material for solar panels, polysilicon. A negotiated settlement would also involve China’s removal of these retaliatory tariffs.

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Off the Charts: Seen From Greece, Great Depression Looks Good

The Greeks can only wish they had it so good.

The Greek government this week released its estimate of economic output in the fourth quarter of last year, and also published its unemployment report.

For the year as a whole, the Greek economy, measured in 2005 euros, fell to 168.5 billion euros, down 6.4 percent from the previous year. That was a little better than the 7.1 percent decline in 2011. The last time the Greek economy was smaller than in 2012 was in 2001. The cumulative decline since 2007 was 20.1 percent.

In December, the unemployment rate was 26.4 percent, and that figure actually looked a little encouraging because it was lower than the 26.6 percent reported for November. Not since May 2008, when the rate fell half a percentage point to 7.3 percent, had there been a single month when the unemployment rate was reported to have fallen.

The accompanying charts compare the changes in gross domestic product and unemployment in the United States during the five years after 1929 with the changes in Greece during the five years after 2007.

There is reason to take all the numbers with a grain of salt. The American figures were estimated after the fact, by the government for G.D.P. and by the National Bureau of Economic Research for unemployment. For G.D.P., only annual changes were estimated.

The Hellenic Statistics Authority, Greece’s compiler of official numbers, has a history of deception — the country lied to get into the euro zone — and it now cannot apply seasonal adjustments to its quarterly G.D.P. estimates. As a result, the figures shown in the charts are calculated by adding up the four quarters of each year. But European officials now vouch for the quality of Greek figures.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the course of the two economies comes in government consumption spending — basically spending that is not for investment, as in building roads or bombers. In the United States, that spending was growing even under President Herbert Hoover and helped to cushion the economy’s fall. In Greece, required by Europe to follow a course of harsh austerity, that spending has fallen rapidly, even if it has not declined as rapidly as some Europeans want.

By the fifth year of the Depression, personal consumption spending had begun to recover in the United States. In Greece last year, it fell 9.1 percent, more than in any other year of the downturn.

Greece publishes monthly overall unemployment figures, but provides details only on a quarterly basis. The charts show the trends of joblessness by sex and age group through the third quarter of last year, the most recent available. Women are more likely to be unemployed in every age group shown, and older workers are far less likely to be jobless than younger ones. Even the groups that look good by comparison are doing poorly. Among men age 45 to 64, nearly one in six is out of work. Among men 30 to 44, the figure is one in five.

Rates for teenagers and people over 65 are not shown, since few of them are in the labor force. The picture is glum for those teenagers who do want jobs. The male unemployment rate is 52 percent, and the rate for women is 81.5 percent. Most of those over 65 who say they want to work do have jobs, but the proportion of such people in the labor force has been falling in recent years.

Floyd Norris comments on finance and the economy at

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Conversations: Increasing Sales by Answering Customers’ Questions

By early 2009, his company, River Pools and Spas, a 20-employee installer of in-ground fiberglass pools in Virginia and Maryland, had a decline in orders from an average of six a month to barely two. That winter, four customers who had planned to install pools costing more than $50,000 each demanded their deposits back. For three consecutive weeks, the company overdrew its bank account.

Around this time, Mr. Sheridan began to overhaul his marketing. The company had been spending about $250,000 a year on radio, television and pay-per-click advertising. It would now cut the budget to about a tenth of that and focus on generating sales through informational blog posts and videos, what has become known as content marketing. But Mr. Sheridan took an unconventional approach to his content.

As a result, River Pools has recovered to exceed its peak pre-2007 revenue, and Mr. Sheridan, a 35-year-old father of four, has become something of a Web marketing guru. While he still owns a 33 percent interest in the pool company, his partners manage it day to day while he concentrates on his new venture, He recently spoke about his marketing approach in a conversation that has been edited and condensed.

Q. Take us back. How did you save your company?

A. I just started thinking more about the way I use the Internet. Most of the time when I type in a search, I’m looking for an answer to a specific question. The problem in my industry, and a lot of industries, is you don’t get a lot of great search results because most businesses don’t want to give answers; they want to talk about their company. So I realized that if I was willing to answer all these questions that people have about fiberglass pools, we might have a chance to pull this out.

Q. What was the first question you answered?

A. The question I was always asked within the first two minutes of talking to customers was, How much does a fiberglass pool cost? Pool installers are like mattress or car dealers — we hate talking about how much a pool costs until we have you in person because there are so many options and accessories we want to sell you. As a result, pool companies never mention price on their Web sites. But I said, I don’t care what the question is, we’re going to answer it.

Q. Did you actually tell people the price of a pool?

A. No — because I couldn’t. But see, that’s the magic behind this. Google’s search engine doesn’t really care if we answer the question. It’s just looking for companies that are willing to address the question. So I said in that article, there are a ton of options, so it depends, the price can range anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000 and a lot of our customers end up between $40,000 and $80,000. And that was enough. Within about 24 hours of writing that article, it was No. 1 for every fiberglass-pool, cost-related phrase you could possibly type in. And because I have analytics, so far to this day, I’ve been able to track a minimum of $1.7 million in sales to that one article.

Q. What was the next question?

A. People used to ask me all the time, “Marcus, I’ve been hearing that fiberglass pools have all sorts of problems and issues. So what are the problems and issues?” Of course, they’d been talking to a concrete pool guy, but it doesn’t matter where they got it, now they have the question. So we wrote an article about the problems with fiberglass pools and specifically came right out and said: Here are the issues. Here are the benefits. You decide. Now, when you go in and type anything about fiberglass issues and problems, you’re going to see the River Pools Web site and you’re going to think, “Oh my gosh, these guys are so honest.”

Q. Anything else?

A. In most industries, there comes a time in the sale process where the customer turns to you and says, “O.K., I like you, but who are some of the other good companies that do this?” Half the time it’s a test, because people know who our competitors are because they can find them in .5 seconds online. Most contractors avoid the question. They say, “Oh, we don’t really have competition.” But because I was asked that question so often, I decided to answer it. I wrote a blog post about the best swimming pool builders in Richmond, Va., one of our main service areas.

Q. Where were you on the list?

A. I wasn’t on it.

Q. You weren’t?

A. No, because the moment I put my name up there I would lose all my credibility. But here’s the thing. Take the first company on the list, Pla-Mor Pools, a top competitor of ours. If you type in, “Pla-More Pools reviews Richmond, Va.,” which of course people do all the time when they’re vetting a company, what comes up? Me! You vet all my competitors, now I’m showing up for all their key words. If you really want to understand the power of inbound marketing, it comes down to this idea: I want to have the conversation at my house.

Q. Once you wrote a blog post, how much time did you spend promoting it on Twitter and Facebook?

A. I didn’t. Dude, that one article on price has never been tweeted. It’s never been Facebooked. I’m not saying social media doesn’t help, but it’s nowhere near what people think. The only metric that really matters is total pages viewed. Here’s a statistic for you: If somebody reads 30 pages of my River Pools Web site, and we go on a sales appointment, they buy 80 percent of the time. The industry average for sales appointments is 10 percent. So, our whole marketing campaign revolves around getting people to stick around and read our stuff, because the longer they stay on our site, the greater the chance they’re going to fall in love with our company.

Q. What do you say to business owners who say they don’t know what to blog about?

A. That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard, and I hear it a lot. What they should be doing is just listening to every single question they get and answering it. In my consulting business the first thing we do is brainstorm what questions the company gets on a regular basis. I’ve never had a company come up with less than 100 questions in 30 minutes.

Q. How do you suggest companies find time to do all of this blogging?

A. Most of the time, they can take the employees they already have talking to customers and turn them into content producers. If you have 25 salespeople, and each one of them writes one post a month, your search is going to be through the roof because that’s a new piece of content every day.

Q. How have your competitors responded to all of this?

A. They still don’t really get it. They’re nice about it. I’ll have one of my best-pool-builder lists come out, and I’ll run into them. And they’ll say, “Hey, man, thanks for including me in that list. I’m not sure why you did it, but thanks.”

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Off the Charts: In the Developed World, Economic Growth Contracts

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 34 countries, said this week that the combined gross domestic product of its members declined at an annual rate of 0.6 percent in the final three months of 2012. It was a sign of just how far the global economy has weakened since 2010, when it appeared that the recovery was gathering strength.

The estimate was preliminary, since not all countries have released figures for the quarter and those that have will be revising them. The United States, which reported a small decline of 0.1 percent in the quarter, is expected to revise that to show a small gain when it reports new figures next Thursday.

It is unusual for downturns to be so widespread that they produce declines in the combined economies of the O.E.C.D. countries, which include all the major developed nations. Since 1962, when the O.E.C.D. statistics were first released, there have been only 13 quarters when that happened. The first three were in 1974 and 1975, during the worldwide recession brought on by the shock of soaring oil prices. There were four more in the early 1980s, during the double-dip American recession, one in 2001 and four in 2008 and 2009, during the credit crisis.

On Friday, the European Commission issued a glum forecast, saying the 27 countries in the European Union would see economic growth this year of just 0.1 percent, while the euro zone economies would shrink by 0.3 percent. If the O.E.C.D. estimates are correct, each of those forecasts would represent an improvement from 2012. During the four quarters of 2012, the O.E.C.D. estimated, the economies of the entire European Union declined by 0.6 percent, while the euro zone economies were down 0.9 percent.

The accompanying charts show the contribution from each of three sectors to the economies of the O.E.C.D. and four major parts of it — the United States, the euro zone, Britain and Japan — since 2006. Those sectors are private consumption, government consumption and gross investment. The charts show movements in each area over 12-month periods ending in the quarter shown.

The recent weakness is unusual in that there has been no countercyclical support from governments in many of the countries when the economy weakened. The euro zone never had a 12-month period when all three sectors shown were negative — until the periods ending in the first three quarters of 2012. (Fourth-quarter numbers are not yet available for the sectors.)

The United States economy has been doing better than many others over the last year, and the charts show why. A major reason is that fixed capital investment is still rising at a decent clip in this country — measured by comparing the fourth quarter of 2012 to the same quarter of the previous year — while it is down in Japan, Britain and the euro zone.

That gain is caused entirely by the private sector, which may have benefited from a banking system that did a better job of recapitalizing in 2010 than banks in Europe did, and thus is able to finance more projects.

Government investment in the United States has been declining for more than two years.

Historically, it has been very unusual for government consumption to decline, but that has become common in many countries, including the United States. During the first decade of this century, there was not a single quarter where such consumption was lower in the United States or the euro zone than it had been a year earlier. But since then, that has become the norm, not the exception, in both regions. In the United States, federal, state and local government budgets have been squeezed, while in Europe, austerity has become the byword in many countries.

Interestingly, while the British government has proclaimed a policy of austerity, government consumption over the last year has grown faster than private consumption while capital investment has fallen.

Floyd Norris comments on finance and the economy at

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