New-home sales slipped in December, but the new-home market held on to post its best annual sales in five years. Stocks closed lower, ahead of the Federal Open Market Committee’s interest-rate and policy announcements on Wednesday.
The Dow fell 41 points, with 16 of its 30 components retreating. Caterpillar Inc. was the biggest gainer, after it beat earnings and revenue expectations. The S&P 500 Index dropped 8, and the Nasdaq was off by 44. Decliners led advancers by nearly 3 to 1 on the NYSE and more than 10 to 3 on the Nasdaq. The prices of Treasuries weakened. Gold futures fell 90 cents to close at $1,263.40 an ounce, and the price of crude oil dropped 92 cents to settle at $95.72 a barrel.
In Earnings News:
- Caterpillar Inc.’s shares (CAT) jumped 5.94% after the heavy-equipment manufacturer reported share buybacks of up to $10 billion through 2018 and better-than-expected fourth-quarter revenue, which didn’t decline as much as had been predicted. Profit jumped 44% from the prior-year period to $1 billion, while revenue fell from $16.08 billion to $14.40 billion. The company made up for a global mining slowdown through cost-cutting.
In Other Business News:
- New-home sales in December fell 7% month over month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 414,000, according to the Commerce Department. Bad weather may have played a role in the monthly decline, but December’s results were still 4.5% higher than December 2012. The national median new-home sales price was $270,200, while the average price was $311,400. For the full year, the Commerce Department estimates that 428,000 new single-family homes were sold, up 16.4% from 2012.
- Google Inc. will reportedly buy London-based DeepMind, a company working on artificial intelligence, for about $400 million. Little is publicly known about DeepMind, although the tech-news website Re/code described the takeover as a talent-acquisition move by Google, as it seeks to build out its artificial intelligence capabilities. Earlier this month, Google announced it would buy smart-appliance manufacturer Nest for $3.2 billion. Google’s shares (GOOG) fell 2.01%.
- Japan’s annual trade deficit rose to a record 11.5 trillion yen, or $112 billion. The country must import more energy since shutting down its nuclear reactors after the 2011 earthquake. The yen, meanwhile, has been weakened by aggressive policies designed to stimulate the Japanese economy, which widens the trade deficit by raising the prices of imports.
- Ahead of Facebook’s quarterly results on Wednesday, social media-related companies struggled. Twitter’s shares (TWTR) sank 6.20%, LinkedIn’s (LNKD) were down 5.60%, Yelp’s (YELP) fell 4.67%, and Facebook’s (FB) were down a more modest 1.65%.
I don’t always know which way the wind blows, but I thought that, by this point, we’d at least know which way the syrup flows. But we might have had it wrong this entire time. I used to think that the sap used to make maple syrup flowed down from the tops of maple trees. Now, according to a report in Modern Farmer by Laura Sorkin (a maple farmer, also known as a sugarmaker, herself), a pair of researchers from the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center say they’ve discovered that the sap in maple trees actually flows up.
It started when Dr. Tim Perkins and Dr. Abby van Den Berg noticed that one of the trees in their research forest kept producing high volumes of sap even though its crown had been cut off. First, because “research forest” sounds awesome, I’m going to name the tangle in my backyard my “research backyard,” and if anyone complains it’s getting out of hand, tough: It’s for science. But second, and more important, that high volume of syrup had to come from somewhere, and if it didn’t come from the top—which didn’t exist anymore—it had to come from the bottom of the tree. To test the theory, they cut off the tops of several maple saplings in the research forest and capped them with special tubing that created a vacuum. Sure enough, the saplings still produced a high volume of maple sap.
Right now, old maples in old growth maple forests are necessary for sugarmaking because there needs to be a lot of tree above the tap. Sugarmakers typically own thousands of acres of forest to get an economically viable amount of sap, giving them a vested interest in preserving the forests of Vermont, Canada, and elsewhere where maples are found. If the new theory holds up, sugarmakers could instead adopt what Sorkin calls the “plantation style” of farming: plant a bunch of maple saplings in rows, remove their crowns, and suck the sap right out of them. Perkins and van Den Berg estimate that production could jump from an average of 40 or 50 gallons of syrup per acre of old-growth trees to 400 gallons per acre of tightly packed saplings.
Sugarmakers seem to be of mixed minds about the new technology. Two questions: What happens to the beneficial ecosystems of the forests, which right now are benefiting from a sort of positive externality that makes their preservation a happy by-product of economic forces? And then what happens to the high price of maple syrup if the supply eventually increases tenfold? At the currently high level of prices, I can almost hear the dollars pouring onto my waffles along with the syrup. Then again, those high prices are the only thing stopping me having waffles for every meal, washed down with a delicious glass of pure maple syrup (with maple syrup between courses of waffles to cleanse the palate).
Would these new sap-gathering methods destroy the mystique of maple syrup, or are the resulting efficiencies worth it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.