Summer Fun Offers Financial Lessons

It's that time of year when we have one foot in summer and one foot in the school year. For perpetual students everywhere, here are some lighthearted lessons on the markets and the economy.

1. Beer Bellyache

Summer heat cries out for a cold bottle of beer to quench the thirst. Or, as a senior executive with Anheuser-Busch told Dow Jones Market Watch: "You aren't going to drink vodka gimlets after you mow the lawn."

Hear, hear! Or — better yet — beer here! From baseball games to backyard barbecues, beer has usually been the beverage of choice in the United States. But unlike the frothy real estate market, sales of domestic beer have lost some of their bubbles. In fact, beer has lost share in the beverage market four out of the last five years.

With people drinking more wine than beer, domestic beer makers are worried about their product's image and their share prices. Check the price chart for Anheuser-Busch, which controls nearly half of the U.S. market. BUD has declined about 15 percent over the past year.

Pop quiz: A. When is a good time to buy Budweiser? B. When is a good time to buy BUD shares? (Hint: To make money in the stock market, it pays to buy low and sell high.)

Answer: A. Anytime you're at a ballgame and more often if you're trying to help the company regain market share. B. If you want to buy low, now is certainly a better time than a year ago.

2. Roller Coaster Dow

Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., opened the world's tallest and fastest roller coaster earlier this year. Once on Kingda Ka, riders accelerate to 128 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds. Then they make a 90-degree turn and go straight up for 45 stories before plunging into a nosedive.

Sound scary enough? So is the performance of amusement park stocks over the past few years. For example, Six Flags topped at $40 a share in 1999. It was trading a week ago at around $5.50.

Analysts at Elliott Wave International recently found statistics of the number of new roller coasters being built each year and correlated them with the inflation-adjusted Dow. Guess what? "…Roller coaster booms and busts over more than 100 years conform nicely to the ups and downs of the stock prices."

Into this scene steps Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. He is trying to take control of Six Flags with an offer of $6.50 per share for a total cost of about $140 million. Since his plans became known a week ago, the stock has moved up to around $7 a share.

Word problem: If Mr. Snyder buys Six Flags and its roller coasters at a low, how long will the stock take to return to its price high point? (Hint: The Dow has been losing ground lately, and fewer new roller coasters are being built.)

Answer: Given the correlation between the Dow's ups and downs and new roller coaster numbers, it could be a long time before Six Flags climbs back up the track to $40. But at least Mr. Snyder has learned the lesson about buying low.

3. High School Homework

Phew. Now that we're down off that roller coaster and have our equilibrium back, let's turn to a more scholarly pursuit. Your homework is to review a list of "100 words every high school graduate should know" that was compiled by the editors of the American Heritage dictionary. Here's the website address for the 100 words.

If you know the meanings of more than half these words, then you should be able to decipher this paragraph that includes eight words from the list:

Experts in the world of investing try to inculcate new traders with the phrase, "buy low, sell high." But the irony is that many people take such a vacuous approach toward their pecuniary affairs that they continue to make the mistake of buying high and selling low. These feckless trading habits have a deleterious effect upon investors' finances. Eventually, they become diffident about their investing acumen.

Homework assignment: If that paragraph didn't make enough sense, then it's an auspicious time to pour the beverage of your choice, make reparation to the vocabulary gods and crack open a dictionary. Particularly if you have some kids in high school.

Grade: An A+ if you remember that no matter how high-flown the wording, the important lesson is to buy low and sell high to make money in the stock market.

4. Six Feet Under & Birth Rates

HBO's Six Feet Under was the first television series that dared to face the topic of death. It was set in a family-owned funeral home. After five years, the show's finale aired this month. It was a doozy, flashing forward to reveal how the remaining family members would live out their lives and meet their ends. But just as in real life, all that death and dying was accompanied by a birth (baby Willa to main character Brenda).

Economists think about death and birth, too – perhaps a little more dispassionately than the rest of us do. In their profession, babies represent future workers. The more future workers to replace retiring workers, the better. That's why economists watch birth rates so closely.

Good news on this front: the United States' birth rate is holding up just fine. We register a 2.0 birth rate, second only to India's 3.0 rate. China, with a 1.6 rate, lags well behind, while Germany, Japan and Spain clock in even lower at 1.3 live births per woman. (Data from the Population Reference Bureau)

The import of these numbers? Economic prosperity for those countries that can replace their aging workers (the magic birth rate is 2.1); economic decline for those nations that have a serious aging problem of their population.

Extra credit question: Should we be looking closer at India as the next economic superpower? (Hint: India's population is projected to pass China's by 2050.)

Answer: Yes.

Susan C. Walker writes for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company. She has been an associate editor with Inc.magazine, a newspaper writer and editor, an investor relations executive and a speechwriter for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She received her B.A. in Classics from Stanford University.