Friday, January 31, 2014

Mecum in Kissimmee, Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale: 2014 auction price comparison - Autoweek

If you wanted a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS, you were better off heading to Kissimmee, Fla. than you were trucking out to Scottsdale, Ariz. this past January.

The major January collector car auctions are over, which means that a new sale season is just beginning -- not that the year-round bidding ever really stops. And while much has been made of the jaw-dropping quarter-billion in sales seen in Arizona, figures detailing Mecum's Jan. 17-26 Kissimmee, Fla., event are just starting to trickle out.

It's not fair to compare Mecum's event to all of the Scottsdale auctions, but parallels between the Florida mega-sale and Barrett-Jackson are easy enough to draw. Mecum showed up with a whopping 3,000 vehicles -- more than all of Scottsdale combined -- but sold only around 1,800. Barrett-Jackson brought 1,388 vehicles and sold 1,382 (as of writing). The selections at both auctions run the gamut from garishly customized late-model SUVs to pristine, numbers-matching muscle cars; take out B-J's premiere "salon" collection and the lineups look even more similar.

Of course, some key differences must be acknowledged: Mecum's Kissimmee event stands alone, while Barrett-Jackson is part of a larger cluster of sales with enough gravitational pull -- Hagerty estimates that roughly 15 percent of all cars auctioned each year change hands in Scottsdale in January -- to draw tens of thousands of enthusiasts, all of them potential bidders. That helps to explain why the sale's $113 million final tally dwarfed Mecum's $60 million take.

Beyond that, B-J's general no-reserve policy means a lot of sheetmetal changes hands very quickly. Look through Mecum's results and you'll see a relatively large number of cars that failed to sell, though we're sure auctioneers prefer to refer to these as "sales still waiting to happen." Buyers might like setting a sale-Promo Code floor because it means they won't have to yield to the high bidder. On the other hand, the prospect of snagging a deal at a no-reserve event could attract bargain-hungry bidders, increasing the chance of a sale...

But we're not experts on bidder psychology or we'd start an auction company, so our opinions here probably don't matter too much to you. All that really matters is whether you should hop a plane to sunny Florida or sunny Arizona if you're craving a collector car come January 2015. The sheer volume of vehicles offered at both Mecum and Barrett-Jackson make some interesting head-to-head comparisons possible.

Let's take a look:

Chevrolet Chevelle SS

Two 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SSs, both equipped with a 454 V8 and a four-speed manual. Both have bucket seats, a center console and white racing stripes. The Barrett-Jackson example (a so-called "stunning re-creation," whatever that means) sold for $54,880; the Mecum example went for $30,000. What gives?

The Mecum car has some aftermarket components, including wheels and Flowmaster exhausts. The B-J Chevelle seems to adhere to original spec. In a world where restorers replicate assembly-line chalk marks, this could help account for the $25,000 difference.

Winner: We'd go with the Mecum car. A set of Flowmasters, aftermarket headers and blinged-out wheels don't alter the car substantially, and they can always be replaced down the road by the originality-obsessed.

Jeep Scrambler

Given the popularity of vintage SUVs, it's surprising that Barrett-Jackson didn't have more Jeep Scrambler pickups to choose from. The one Jeep featured -- a customized 1990 model -- sold for an impressive $27,500. We'd favor the original 1983 Scramblers sold at Mecum; one went for $11,000, another, $20,000.

Winner: Mecum. But keep in mind that a Toyota FJ-40 did sell for over $100,000 in Scottsdale this year; there must be something in the water. Or maybe the vintage SUV craze hasn't hit Florida...yet.

Stutz Blackhawk

An oddball car, sure, but it shows how massive and all-encompassing these auctions are. Mecum's was a steal at only $11,500. No Blackhawks showed up at Barrett-Jackson this year, but last year, the auction house moved one for a whopping $47,300. Why the disparity? The B-J example was owned by Sammy Davis Jr., which has a lot to do with it.

Winner: Inconclusive. Stutz Blackhawk-lovers really missed out on a bargain at Mecum, but the star provenance of the B-J specimen makes a straight comparison difficult.

DeTomaso Pantera

At Mecum, you'd have paid $49,500 to take home a 1974 example of the increasingly desirable Pantera. At Barrett-Jackson, a 1971 car would have set you back $48,400. The difference is originality -- the early B-J car is tuned, to put it mildly, with flashy five-spokes and a nitrous-oxide system. Depending on your perspective, this is either a huge improvement or an unacceptable desecration. Compare that to the "highly original" Mecum car.

Winner: We'd vote for the unmolested car at Mecum, but that's personal preference at play. This one's inconclusive.

1957 Chevrolet Bel Air Hardtop

Both the Barrett-Jackson car and the Mecum car recently enjoyed full restorations; both pack beefy 350 V8s paired with automatic transmissions. But the B-J car sold for $58,300, while the Mecum Bel Air went for a paltry $38,000. The biggest difference, so far as we could discern? The former car looks mean in black; the latter sports a turquoise and white two-tone job. Unless the Mecum seller seriously botched the restoration, we suspect you're paying a huge premium for a very similar car at Barrett-Jackson.

Winner: Mecum, unless you really, really need a black car.

Cadillac Allante

The weird thing about Cadillac Allantes is that they actually seem to be appreciating in value these days for some reason. And they're everywhere -- every non-catalog auction has one or two on the block, and even catalog houses feature them from time to time. Even so, $6,500 seems like a lot to pay for the convertible Caddy -- but that's what it took to win the 1996 car at Mecum. Yet at Barrett-Jackson, two 1993 Allantes sold for $11,000 and $17,600. We're scratching our heads about this phenomenon, but we suppose you can't argue with the market.

Winner if you can call it that: Mecum.

1968 Chevrolet Corvette convertible

At Mecum, you could get an all-original Stingray convertible for $31,000. A freshly restored 'Vette went for $44,000 at Barrett-Jackson. Both had 327 engines and four-speed manuals. We suspect the crisp, restored car presented better, but there's also value in originality.

Winner: A toss-up, really, but we'd lean toward Barrett-Jackson. $44,000 isn't a lot to pay for a concours-quality Stingray convertible; for $31,000, the all-original example had better be nice to justify that sale price. Still, we're tempted to take our chances and go with the original Mecum car here. Unrestored cars come with their own set of problems, but they're only original once (or so they say).

Corvette L88 coupe

The 1967 Corvette L88 coupe sold for an incredible $3,850,000 at Barrett-Jackson, while the 1968 L88 coupe brought in only $510,000 at Mecum. This isn't an apples-to-apples comparison; the earlier L88 is valued at slightly more than twice as much as the latter car, which Hagerty says is worth $1.3 million).

Winner: Inconclusive. The half-million sale price of the '68 L88 fell right in line with its projected value, but someone paid more than triple the projected value of the car at Barrett-Jackson. We have to pin some of that on the fast-paced, frenzied environment the Arizona auction house strives to create, which often results in cars going for far more than their book value. A Mecum sale in Dallas last September saw a 1967 Corvette L88 convertible sell for $3.2 million, so its clear that it doesn't take the glamor (?) of Scottsdale to make bidders crazy for rare fiberglass.

1954 Packard Caribbean convertible

The 1954 Packard Caribbean convertibles aren't quite as highly desired as their flamboyant tri-color '55 siblings, but these stately-yet-fun cars have held their value well over the past decade. A freshly restored example sold for $71,000 in Florida, while a clean, well-maintained car sold for $50,600 in Arizona.

Winner: Tough to say, but we'd lean toward Barrett-Jackson. If the B-J car's story checks out and the car was truly owned and maintained by a former Packard mechanic, we'd choose it over the totally restored Mecum car. Then again, a $20,000 budget won't get you much of a restoration, so you might be better off biting the bullet and paying more for the recently refreshed car. How much do you value originality?

Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

Is there a huge difference between the 1973 Trans Am ( sold at Mecum for $36,000) and the 1975 Trans Am ( sold at B-J for $55,000)? We're not entirely sure why one commanded such a larger premium over the other. Both are 455 V8-equpped cars with four-speed manuals, and both look to be in great shape.

Winner: Mecum. You could buy a lot of cheap beer with that extra $19,000.

The bottom line is that both Mecum and Barrett-Jackson's January events are gargantuan enough to feature bargains and eyebrow-raising high-dollar sales. Yet Mecum's Florida show, which generally hasn't received the publicity of the multi-auction Scottsdale circus, often features near-duplicate cars for many thousands of dollars less. For whatever reason, this seems to be especially true for anything powered by a big American V8.

If Mecum held its event the week before Barrett-Jackson, we'd fill a hauler with muscle cars from the Florida sale and drive straight through to Arizona, where frenzied bidders and handsome profits would almost certainly await us.

The order of the two events is reversed, though, so we'll have to put that dream of arbitrage out of our minds. But if you're looking to put a classic in your garage and you can wait until next January to do it, it might just pay to do some comparison shopping.

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Monday, January 27, 2014

Great Deals on a Variety of Transcend Storage Today on Amazon

Today's Amazon Deal Gold Box features SSDs, SD cards, and external hard drives from Transcend, all at great prices. Here's the complete list:

Though totally unrelated to storage, it's also worth pointing out a second Gold Box deal that features a 6-piece home theater system from JBL for $280, or $70 below the previous low price. Happy shopping!

This post is brought to you by the Commerce Team, a dedicated group of deal hunters and product enthusiasts. We operate independently of Editorial to bring you the best bargains every day, share our favorite products with you, and ask you about yours. When you buy something we recommend, we may also get a small share of the sale. We welcome your questions and want your feedback.

Follow us for the best deals on the Internet, curated for @Gizmodo readers.

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- Shep McAllister (@shepmcallister) December 10, 2013

Should Folk Music Be Kept Out of Classical Music Halls?

There are occasional moments in Bartók's String Quartet No. 1 when the gloom lifts, when the densely woven musical lines pause momentarily for a spot of pure, consonant sunniness. In the string quartets of Beethoven or Brahms, these rare and radiant episodes would have a temporal and harmonic meaning, they would bring the argument to a conclusion, or summation, before moving on with a new idea. But in Bartók's musical language, the effect is almost visual. They don't suggest closure, or rest. Rather, it seems as if the music has been pierced, like sun through a canopy of trees, or the enlightenment of a restless mind finding something definite and tangible in its search for certitude. In a small, intimate way, they remind the listener of one of the most thrilling moments in all of twentieth-century music, the "fifth" door of "Bluebeard's Castle," Bartók's sole opera. When opened by Bluebeard's relentlessly inquisitive new wife, the tyrant's majestic realms are represented in a gigantic, brilliant blast of orchestral sound of music remake, with the stage direction: "in a gleaming torrent, the light streams in."

The first quartet was completed in 1909, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a brutal but still vaguely coherent project, when Hungary still held large swaths of Transylvania where Bartók would collect his beloved folk music, and before World War I would remake the map of Europe, geographically, intellectually, artistically, and spiritually. The usual narrative used to explain Bartók's six monumental string quartets maps their evolution along two axes: the composer's musical development and relation to the folk tradition, and his experience as a Hungarian during five of the most tumultuous decades in European history. The first quartet, arguably the composer's first masterpiece, is a prelude to the other five, still connected to the nineteenth century, expressive but less rigorous than the later ones, and not yet fully representative of the peculiar tendency to formal order and motivic complexity that folk music inspired in the older composer. Even those moments of light and illumination are unique to the first quartet, and have no reprise in the more ferociously energetic, even brutal style of his later exercises in the form.

In January, the Takács String Quartet, one of the most respected ensembles performing today, brought complete cycles of the six Bartók quartets to New York's Carnegie Hall, Washington's Kennedy Center, and Stanford University's Bing Concert Hall. Played over two nights, the concerts in Washington were almost sold out, though a ferocious snow storm and bitter cold snap depressed attendance. Yet empty seats made for an even more intense artistic event, whittling an already self-selecting audience down to the most passionate and engaged. These works, a summit of the twentieth-century repertoire, are intellectually exhausting when heard individually; gathered together, they present a challenge to the listener that is almost overwhelming.

The Takács recorded these works twice before, most recently in the 1990s; the response then was admiration, mixed with the caveat that there was still room for their readings to grow and deepen. Today, they are completely at home in the music. Beyond the sheer technical challenge of performing the fiendishly difficult score, the major interpretative issues have to do with finding a workable balance between extremes: complexity and clarity, polyphonic austerity and folk-inflected high spirits. Without a trace of fussiness or ostentation, the Takács finesse the underlying challenge, remaining true to the abstraction of the music while referencing its worldly engagement with infectious rhythmic patterns, its occasional humor and even brief moments of Mahlerian irony (in the last movement of the fifth quartet). Even things that might at first seem a weakness to their approach are, after sustained listening, obvious virtues. Is the violin tone perhaps a bitter spidery and thin? Perhaps, but the resulting ensemble texture is the more unified and balanced for that. Is the viola just a tad wooly and woofy? Possibly, but its distinctive timbre makes it easier for the ear to find easily lost inner lines.

There is a bad habit of pretending that concert music needs the charisma of folk music to widen its appeal.

A note in the program book tells listeners that the Takács often collaborate artistically with the Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikás, "whose sense of adventure and joyful abandon has hopefully crept into our performances." This is worrying. The influence of folk music, processed in Bartók at a level far deeper than quotation or pastiche, is everywhere present in these quartets, but there is a bad habit of pretending that concert music needs the charisma of folk music to widen its appeal. Bartók, and his Romanian counterpart George Enescu, turned to folk music for reasons quite different than, say, Vaughan Williams or Dvořák, who sought engaging, ready-made melodic material. The folk music of Eastern Europe was disruptive, dissonant, and dizzyingly complicated on the rhythmic level. The turn to folk music was not, for Bartók, nostalgic, but rather a way forward. What he found there wasn't simplicity, but density, and in that density was a modernity as vital as anything hatched in the musical systems of Paris and Vienna.

Transylvanian folk style also foregrounded ornament in a way that breaks down the usual sense that ornament is something inessential but attractive pasted onto the deeper, structural substance of the music. In Bartók's processing of folk music, these small turns and mordant-like figures become essential motivic material, and even the most alert listeners rely on their recurrence to find a way through the musical thickets.

So one wonders whether inspiration from an actual folk ensemble may well be misdirection, leading the interpreters to highlight a superficial sense of folksiness that Bartók never intended. Fortunately, whatever the Takács may have learned from Muzsikás, it hasn't resulted in any simple-minded fetishization of the ostinato patterns, modal melodic figures, or the freely improvisational "hora lunga" style he occasionally used as a thematic template. Compared to another great Hungarian ensemble, the Végh Quartet (which produced an important Bartók cycle in the 1970s), the Takács keep rusticity at bay, acknowledging it but always within its appropriately processed and abstracted musical frame. Lesser Bartók performers, determined to make the music more engaging, make it more episodic, and everything that falls between the occasional episodes of fiddling, dancing, and perpetual motion breathlessness just sounds like filler. The Takács' readings are more integrated and organic, with the focus on the music's continual and frenetic development rather than its pure drama and atmosphere.

The more one listened, the more remote and odd Bartók's aesthetic seemed. The musical voice, the stylistic fingerprint, was always recognizable over the course of almost four hours of music. But compare the Bartók quartets to the 15 quartets of Shostakovich, and one hears an almost desperately single minded consistency in the former. Shostakovich's cycle is deeply personal, and often imbued with a profound sense of fear; Bartók's is strangely depersonalized, and more focused on anxiety. Although fear can be based on a false sense of danger, anxiety is a more ungrounded emotion, free floating, detached from immediate causes or explanations. While fear can be dispelled, anxiety is ever present, lifting on occasion but always settling back in. Even at its most calm and reflective, as in the lento movement of the Fourth Quartet, one never senses any slackening of Bartók's obsessional need to keep control of the music. His relation to his musical materials is like our relation to the world: One must keep a grip, and keep moving.

So the music is always anxious, always driving forward, which is both exhausting and exhilarating, and perhaps that's why Bartók's endings-ironically anticlimactic, humorously flippant, pompously emphatic-are so appealing. By the time Bartók ends something, no honest listener could claim to want to hear more. The idea, the gesture, the mood has been wrung out, used up, finished off. And then it's on to the next thing, with renewed energy and relentlessness.

When the critic George Steiner published his T.S. Eliot Lectures (delivered in 1971 at Kent University), he chose a title from Bartók: " In Bluebeard's Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture." The opera inspired him because of the metaphor of the door, the obsessional need to keep opening them, even at our peril.

We open successive doors in Bluebeard's castle because "they are there," because each leads to the next by a logic of intensification which is that of the mind's own awareness of being. To leave one door closed would be not only cowardice but a betrayal-radical, self-mutilating-of the inquisitive, probing, forward-tensed stance of our species.

This was Steiner's best hope for hope, after the brutality of World War I, the obscenity of Hitler, ages of anti-Semitism, and the terrors of the post-war age, especially its predation on what was once called, without embarrassment, Culture. It is also a perfect description of the powerful, dutiful, heroic denial of self in Bartók's string quartets, which also proceed by a logic of intensification, and which leave the listener grasping at "the mind's awareness of being." Leaving the second concert, I slipped into a taxi, the driver of which was playing something loud, pop, and auto-tuned on the radio. I didn't recognize it, not just the artist or the song, or the purpose or the meaning, but the basic imprint of authentic human creativity. But it was engaging noise, and I drifted off into a dull submission to its repetitive energy. With a fleeting sense of sadness, "the inquisitive, probing, forward-tensed stance of our species" fled from the mind, replaced by something easier and emptier, neither serene nor focused, but hypnotically disengaged. After hours of Bartok, the very category "music" seemed incapable of stretching wide enough to encompass what the Takács do, and what the singer on the radio was doing.

Image via Shutterstock

Saturday, January 25, 2014

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Friday, January 24, 2014

King Lear - review

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Another day, another Lear. But, although this is the third production I've seen in the past seven months, it is quite exceptional. It combines a cosmic scale with an intimate sense of detail and is neither imprisoned by an intellectual concept nor by an actor's temperament. Instead you feel the director, Sam Mendes, and the Lear, Simon Russell Beale, are working with everyone else to explore every nook and cranny of the play.

It starts impressively. Lear's division of his kingdom is not some idle whim but a huge public ceremony executed by a man who looks very much a military dictator. A vast crowd of extras line the room which only adds to Lear's sense of outrage at the thwarting of his will by the disobliging Cordelia. As if to emphasise his fury, Russell Beale's bullet-headed Lear humiliates Cordelia by forcing her to stand on a chair like a naughty schoolgirl before she is rescued by the French king. Yet although the scene has an epic quality, it is filled with human detail. Adrian Scarborough's Fool, who squats downstage on the Japanese-style hanimichi (or runway) that extends into the stalls, rushes up to lovingly embrace Cordelia before she is bundled off.

This mixture of the epic and the intimate runs right through the production. As in Peter Brook's legendary 1962 version, Lear is accompanied on his travels by a train of riotous knights whom his daughters are loth to entertain: understandably when they hurl a huge stag onto the middle of Goneril's dining table. At the same time you see the petty malevolence of Goneril in the way she removes Lear's slippers from his favourite place. There is something epic about the fact that the loyal Kent is enchained under a heroic, Soviet-like statue of Lear in his days of power. Yet later there is a distressing intimacy to the fact that Gloucester is blinded by his abusive guests in his own wine cellar.

But if any big idea emerges from this production, it is that Lear is a play of insane contradictions. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods," says one character. "The gods are just and of our pleasant vices make instruments to plague us," says another. Shakespeare presents us with a world with no rhyme nor reason, no pattern of divine justice. And rather than impose a false coherence on the play, Mendes seems ready to embrace its manifest opposites.

You see this in Russell Beale's extraordinary Lear. He has all the aspects of a Stalinesque tyrant and struts around with his massive head thrust forward as if about to devour anyone who crosses him. Yet he also inspires love and affection in Kent, Gloucester and the Fool and possesses a self-knowledge that enables him to heartbreakingly say of Cordelia, while squatting on a suitcase, "I did her wrong." Russell Beale also brings out the moment-by-moment contradictions within Lear.

He swears he will never see Goneril again: a second later he cries "but yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter" and his hand tentatively reaches out to touch her.

The supreme example of Russell Beale's ability to explore the senselessness in Shakespeare's play occurs in the hovel scene. There is a wild comedy to the moment when Russell Beale's Lear, padding around in his underpants, affects to put Goneril and Regan on trial while staring at an upended tea-urn and a lavatory bowl. But suddenly the deranged Lear takes an iron bar to the Fool and batters him to death. It is truly shocking because it is so brutal, unexpected and without sense given Lear's love for the Fool.

Russell Beale is a magnetic and unorthodox Lear. But his is only one of many fine performances that overturn expectation. Stanley Townsend makes Kent an aggressive bully-boy rather than the usual pious worthy while Stephen Boxer's Gloucester has the diffidence of the middle-rank courtier. Sam Troughton's Edmund hides his villainy under a mask of scholarly respectability and Tom Brooke does all he can with the near-unplayable Edgar: why, I always wonder, does he not reveal himself to the tormented Gloucester? Kate Fleetwood's quietly venomous Goneril is also perfectly contrasted with Anna Maxwell Martin's extrovert and hysterically cruel Regan.

Slightly fussy staging makes the play's ending less moving than I have known it. But this is a small blot on a production that is well designed by Anthony Ward and that is packed with illuminating detail yet never loses the sense of narrative sweep. There are times when I feel that Lear is a play that has to be endured as much as enjoyed.

But Mendes's production and Russell Beale's performance sharpen our understanding of Shakespeare's analysis of human folly and the primacy of contradictory feeling over calm rationality.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Markets Live: Stocks finish up

That's it for Markets Live today.

You can read a wrap-up of the action on the markets here.

Thanks for reading and your comments.

See you all again tomorrow morning from around 9:30.

The benchmark S&P/ASX 200 Index gained 36.5 points, or 0.7 per cent, to 5331.5, as heavy falls among resource stocks were outweighed by gains in the finance sector. The broader All Ordinaries Index also added 0.7 per cent.

Local shares received little guidance from overseas at the open as US equity markets were closed on Monday night due to the Martin Luther King Jr holiday. Major markets around Asia provided positive leads in the afternoon.

The big four banks all closed higher. Commonwealth Bank and National Australia Bank both rose 1 per cent to $76.10 and $33.99 respectively. Westpac added 0.8 per cent to $31.79, and ANZ gained 0.9 per cent to $31.15.

"Bank stocks won't do as well in 2014 as they have over the past three years but they will still generate decent returns. Valuations may have expanded but the banks have also improved profitability," T. Rowe Price International head of equities Australia Randal Jenneke said.

The release of k ey consumer price inflation data for the December quarter on Wednesday is expected to produce a benign result despite evidence of higher petrol prices due to a weaker currency.

''The only area where we are seeing any meaningful inflationary impact from the weaker Australian dollar is via higher petrol prices. The inflation outlook remains quite benign,'' said Westpac senior economist Justin Smirk.

The company cut its interim dividend from 26¢ to a fully franked 18¢ a share, payable March 6.

After taking into account one-off restructuring costs of $10.1 million at Sunbeam and Dexion, GUD's bottom line net profit plunged 74 per cent to $4.8 million.

The consumer and industrial products company, which has long been considered a bellwether for the economy, maintained its guidance for a 20 per cent decline in underlying full year earnings before interest and tax.

"I fully expect to see improvements in performance being evident in the 2015 financial year," said new managing director Jonathan Ling.

GWA Group. Energy World, and Mesoblast all finished up more than 5 per cent.

On the other end of the scale, and as mentioned a number of times today, a drop in iron ore prices weighed on miners of the metal.

Fortescue and Atlas Iron were the worst performers, both down by more than 4 per cent.

The well-out-of-favour Forge Group slipped another few per cent today as well.

The best and worst performers today.

The small end of the market, as measured by the Small Ords, was up 1.1 per cent.

Looking across the sectors, consumer discretionary was the big winner, up 1.5 per cent, after displaying some weakness in recent weeks.

Melbourne was ranked sixth, after San Jose, the US-based Demographia International Housing Affordability found. The survey looked at housing markets in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US.

Australia has the highly amount of "severely unaffordable"housing markets, at 25, followed by the US with 23 and the UK with 15.

"Each of Australia's major markets has been 'severely unaffordable' for all 10 years of the survey - a distinction shared only with New Zealand, with its single major market, Auckland," the survey's authors wrote.

All the "severely unaffordable" housing markets had restrictive land use policies, the authors added.

Read the full report here.

Sydney is the fourth most unaffordable housing market in the world.

chinese happy new year cards design steel and iron ore futures slid on Tuesday to their weakest levels since they were launched, reflecting thin demand from the world's top consumer of the two commodities that has also slashed spot iron ore prices by 7 per cent this month.

Tighter access to loans and slow steel demand are keeping Chinese steel producers from replenishing iron ore inventories ahead of the week-long Lunar New Year break as they have done in past years.

Restocking demand sent spot iron ore prices to $160 a tonne in January last year, ahead of the holiday in February.

" We are far and away from any restocking this year," said an iron ore trader in Singapore.

" The market is pretty depressed, the reason being the tight credit situation in China and high port stock inventory."

Iron ore for immediate delivery to China fell nearly 2 percent to $124.80 a tonne on Monday, its lowest since July 10, according to data compiled by Steel Index.

Monday's drop was the deepest for iron ore since mid-September.

The price may decline furthe r with Shanghai steel futures weakening for a fourth straight day on Tuesday.

Prospects of slower economic expansion in China, which would curb steel demand, were also dragging down prices. China's economy is likely to cool further this year after annual growth eased to a six-month low of 7.7 percent in the fourth quarter.

The broker also takes into account that as investors get more comfortable with the idea of being back in the sharemarket, after some sort of catastrophe, they are willing to take more risk. When that happens the search for yield isn't as important as the promise of capital gains.

For that reason stocks like Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals might come into play.

They are not really known for the yields but with a drop in capital expenditure they will start to generate a fair bit of cash flow.

The other stocks the broker has identified include Arrium, Fortescue Metals, Challenger Financial, Bank of Queensland, National Australia Bank, Myer, Suncorp, Macquarie Group, Mineral Resources and Spark Infrastucture.

JP Morgan and Macquarie have joined Credit Suisse and CIMB with positive recommendations on the recently listed free-to-air television network, with the stock up over 3 per cent to $2.07 a share today, in the vicinity of its $2.05 offer price.

On Monday fund manager Perpetua l revealed it has a 5.4 per cent stake in the company.

The days of households deleveraging are over, UBS economist Scott Haslem notes:

  • Despite a relatively patchy domestic economy, Australia's household debt-to-income ratio ceased falling a year or so ago, and has since been glacially drifting higher.
  • While the extent of the turnaround is minimal, it's nonetheless surprising, given the lack of deleveraging that's occurred over the past half-decade. Indeed, from its peak of 153% in Q306, RBA calculations for Australia show a trough 145% in mid 2012.
  • This 8%pt reduction in household leverage is modest, compared with the 20-30%pts of deleveraging in the US (now 105%) and the UK (now 138%).
  • Moreover, over recent quarters, Australia's household debt ratio has risen back to 148%, compared with the EU, which also hasn't fallen, but is at least 'steady' at a much lower 110% (Figure 2).
  • For the dollar-bloc, while the underlying drivers may differ, the outcomes appear similar. While Canada's household debt to income ratio has yet to stop rising, crossing the 150% in mid-2013, New Zealand has mirrored its Antipodean neighbour, having deleveraged into mid 2012 to 142% (-11%pts), before retracing half of this over recent quarters, rising up to 148% in Q313.

BHP is next, while CSL also rates an overall buy recommendation from "the street".

Analysts are more cautious on CBA, but rank NAB and ANZ in the top five of the dozen stocks we've picked out.

Rio rates the best among analysts, followed by BHP, while CBA is the least preferred.

The debate over house prices and housing affordability is not restricted to Australia. As the chart in this tweet by Bloomberg's head of economics, house prices have been lifting in other countries such as the UK and China.

China Leading Rise in Home Prices:

- Michael McDonough (@M_McDonough) January 21, 2014

Citigroup Global Markets Australia has paid a penalty of $40,000 to comply with an infringement notice given to it by the Markets Disciplinary Panel.

The penalty was for failing to demonstrate prudent risk management procedures by not setting and documenting appropriate maximum price change limits, as required, ASIC says.

Butter is back! And its big business again, too. This from Quartz:

"For the last 20 years or so, we have been too obsessed, overly obsessed on the fact that butter was opposed to margarine," Antoine Bernard de Saint-Affrique, the head of Unilever's Food division, told investors last month. "I'm happy to say that this time is over and we have changed in a very significant way."

In what Unilever executives describe as a "fundamental turnaround," the consumer products giant is now selling a spread made with butter.

The move amounts to a stark about-face for a company that has been an anti-butter bastion for years.

Meanwhile, butter consumption in the US hit a 40-year high in 2012. Sales are up by over 65% since 2000.

Butter is back, and in a big way. Take that., margarine.

Something to lighten the mood as we head into the second half of the session (and to be honest, there's not a whole lot of news around...).

To recap: the ASX200 is slightly higher in choppy trade, led by banking and defensive stocks, with Wall Street closed overnight for Martin Luther King Day and offering no leads to follow.

An uptick in some banking and defensive stocks is helping to buoy the index. CBA and NAB are both up 0.9 per cent, ANZ has added 0.75 per cent and Westpac 0.7 per cent.

"The index has just been trailing off, it's obviously trading sideways with traders waiting for what the Fed's going to do in the US and how investors will react to that news," says Jonathan Fyfe, investment advisor and portfolio manager at Wilson HTM Investment Group.

The resource sector has been worst hit as iron ore and copper dipped after near-term demand prospects from top consumer China remained muted despite slightly better-than-expected Chinese growth data.

Heavyweights BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto are down 0.2 per cent and 0.7 per cent each, while Fortescue is down 3 per cent after the iron ore price slid overnight.

Following up on that Oxfam study saying that 85 people own half the world (see 9.54am), Exec Style's Steve Colquhoun has taken a closer look at who's in that exclusive club and while the names won't come as a surprise, he notes that there's only one Australian membe r:

Gina Rinehart's wealth is estimated at $US15.2 billion, ranking her the world's 61st richest person.
Her personal fortune is estimated to exceed the GDP of 78 countries including Jamaica, North Korea and Iceland.

Gina Rinehart's wealth exceeds the GDP of many small countries. Photo: Bloomberg

They have a year-end target of 5850 for the ASX 200, implying a 10 per cent return from where we are now, before factoring in dividends.

Underpinning their optimism is that earnings growth looks more promising, particularly in the resources sector (which they continue to favour).

But they also see greater uncertainty than the previous couple of years, with the change of direction in US monetary policy looming large. Adding to that is whether or not the local economy shows signs of picking up in the next 12 to 18 months.

The more cyclical industrial stocks no longer have as compelling valuations, write the strategists, but have the potential to become expensive as their earnings recover, and they also continue to prefer them over the more defensive sectors and banks.

The easing of the resources boom has led to slower passenger growth at Brisbane Airport than its larger capital city rivals, Sydney Airportand Melbourne Airport.

Brisbane Airport reported 1.4 per cent passenger growth in 2013, led by a 4.8 per cent rise in international traffic but only a 0.6 per cent rise in domestic traffic.

The 1.4 per cent overall growth rate at Brisbane Airport to 21.8 million passengers compared with a 4 per cent rise to 30.6 million passengers at Melbourne Airport and a 2.6 per cent rise to 37.9 million passengers at Sydney Airport.

All three airports reported stronger growth rates for international passengers than for domestic passengers but international passengers comprise a smaller portion of traffic as a starting base at all of the airports.

Sydney Airport and Melbourne Airport both said December 21 was the busiest day on record for traffic at their respective international terminals, while Brisbane Airport reported a record-breaking day on December 22.

National Australia Bank is making a push to increase its share in consumer lending, cutting interest rates on personal loans and launching a new offer to woo more credit card customers.

The bank today cut the variable interest rate on unsecured personal loans by 1.51 percentage points to 11.99 per cent, and launched a zero per cent balance transfer for 15 months.

NAB has the smallest market share in credit cards of the big four banks, and the move suggests it is eyeing expansion in the higher-margin unsecured lending market.

It comes after the big four banks have lifted their share in the credit card market over 2013, despite consumers remaining reluctant to take on unsecured debt. Recent analysis from said the big four banks had increased their share of of the credit card market by 1 percentage point in the year to November, giving the majors 84 per cent of the market.

However, a survey from Veda published today suggested households remain wary towards personal loans and credit cards.

Reader 'mitch of ACT' has done some numbers crunching and comes up with an interesting stat (well, for some):

Here's some information the statistical pedants on here might find useful. Since 1/7/13 the AllOrds has gone up 532 points. The breakdown by day of the week is:People on here have said that Mondays are not good days and they are right.

We'd like to suggest a follow-up, mitch: is there a correlation with sunny/rainy days?

Interesting graphic doing the rounds on Twitter (courtesy of @DonallGeoghegan) showing the proportion of CO2 emissions by country, and that there are two main culprits around (no surprise there).

More to come on the implications of climate change for investors. Stay tuned.

Japanese shares are up, with the Nikkei rising 1 per cent, amid the start of the Bank of Japan's two-day policy meeting and as a weaker yen boosts exporters.

''As the Bank of Japan meeting starts today, investors will be watching whether they raise their outlook for the economy and consumer prices,'' says Toshihiko Matsuno, a strategist at SMBC Friend Securities, a unit of the country's second-largest lender. ''With earnings season about to begin in earnest, we'll see a lot of buying in anticipation of companies posting strong results.''

More than 520 companies on the Topix report earnings next week, with about 640 posting results the period after, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Mortgage demand is up 15.3 per cent year-on-year for the fourth-quarter, a sharp rise from 9.3 per cent in the previous period, research compiled by a private data analytics firm shows.

The increase in queries was driven mostly by older Australians, credit bureau Veda said in a report released today.

The new figures reinforce official data showing that first-home buyer activity as a proportion of total borrowers fell to a record low in November amid growing investor activity.

"We saw a further shift to mortgage applications from older demographics, with more first home buyers leaving the market," Veda's general manager for consumer risk, Angus Luffman, says:

  • An extended period of low interest rates is supporting the lift in mortgage enquiries, which have stepped up a level and are now showing the strongest growth since late 2009.
  • It is likely that we will see a continuing increase in the near term, along with sustained house price growth.
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Short seller ... Jim Chanos

After years of hiding under their desks, short sellers are re-emerging - slowly, Reuters notes.

Investors who make a living betting that stock prices will fall are happy to forget 2013: Credit Suisse's index of hedge funds with a dedicated short bias lost 25 per cent as global stock markets soared.

Buying the most heavily shorted stocks was a much better bet than the S&P 500: a list of top shorted stocks from SunGard's Astec Analytics beat the S&P 500 by 26 percentage points on average last year.

But with the Federal Reserve beginning to cut back on its bond buying - in a withdrawal of the stimulus that underpinned the rally - there's hope for short sellers in 2014.

Jim Chanos, president and founder of Kynikos Associates and one of the most prominent short sellers, says the market is primed for people like him and as a result he has gone out to raise capital.

"Now I think is not a bad time to be raising capital for what we do. When we got a rough going in the mid-90s, that was exactly the time to raise capital," Chanos says, adding it was better to do this when critics viewed him as "like the village idiot and not an evil genius."

Don Steinbrugge, chairman of Agecroft Partners, a global consulting and third party marketing firm for hedge funds, says "long/short" equity - a strategy betting both on and against stocks - will see the most demand among all hedge fund strategies this year.

Long/short equity represented more than 40 per cent of the hedge fund industry assets before 2008. The sector then experienced large outflows to other hedge fund strategies including commodity trading advisers (CTAs) and various fixed income-oriented strategies.

Its market share of industry assets bottomed out at approximately 25 percent in the beginning of 2013. "Last year saw this trend reverse, and we expect very high demand for long/short equity in 2014," Steinbrugge says.

A surge in global share prices combined with a sharp fall in the value of the Australian dollar helped superannuation funds record their second-best performance last year since the introduction of compulsory contributions in 1992.

The average balanced scheme posted a 17.5 per cent gain, with the top-performing fund - the REST Core vehicle - returning nearly 20 per cent, a survey from research firm Chant West showed.

Behind the stellar performance was a 19.7 per cent gain in Australian shares and a 48 per cent gain in unhedged international shares. The sharp rise recorded by international shares was in part thanks to a fall in the Australian dollar to $US0.89 from $US1.04.

Half of the top 10 performers last year were industry super funds. Telstra Super was the top-performing corporate fund, recording a 19.3 per cent return, while retail providers Aon, MLC, JANA and AMP also had products in the top 10. Supers' best annual performance came in 1993, one year after compulsory contributions were introduced.

So what is this important for the Australian dollar? The divergent trajectory of the RBA and RBNZ's moves, with the Reserve Bank expected to maintain an easing bias as it waits for the non-mining sectors to fill the growth gap left by a fall-off in resources investment, is expected to weigh on the Australian dollar.

The weakness in the Australian-New Zealand dollar cross rate is in turn weighing on the Australian-US dollar exchange rate. A weaker exchange rate is something the Reserve Bank has been calling for, as it prefers a lower Australian dollar, rather than further rate cuts, to drive growth in the economy.

As we noted yesterday, the US sharemarket's "fear index", the Vix, is at very low levels, suggesting investors are relaxed and comfortable in early 2014. Also, money is pouring out of bond funds and into equity funds. Now several commentators have been pointing out how long it is since global equity markets last experienced a correction of 10 per cent.

This from Societe Generale analysts:

Nonetheless we still worry how in these times of interconnected asset markets and mark-to-market risk modelling, such extended runs can hide the real volatility in equity investing. In brief it can lead to excessive risk taking. Perhaps this was also on the Richard Fisher's mind from the Dallas Federal Reserve when he pointed out that QE could be causing investors to wear beer goggles.

It's been over 400 days since global sharemarkets had a collective 10 per cent correction.

The Australian dollar, which squeezed up higher against the New Zealand dollar yesterday, reaching US107.06¢, fell to US105.74¢ this morning. The Australian-New Zealand dollar cross rate is at eight-year lows.

The stronger inflation figures leaves the door open for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand to raise the cash rate at its meeting next week. New Zealand's cash rate, like Australia, stands at 2.5 per cent.

"It's fuelled speculation that the RBNZ are looking to hike rates at some point. Having said that, CPI in New Zealand is still below what it is in Australia. Aussie-Kiwi is now getting closer to the multi-decades lows," Rochford Capital's director Thomas Averill said.

"You could see it test NZ105¢, maybe have a dip down ... towards NZ104¢. I think you are not going to see much lower than that in the Aussie-Kiwi pair."

Atlas Iron was the worst hit among the top 200 stocks, down more than 5 per cent, followed by Fortescue Metals, which was down 3.5 per cent.

Rio Tinto is now down 1.2 per cent to $65.70 a share.

On the other side of the ledger, uranium miner Paladin Energy is the best performing stock this morning, followed by G8 Education and Treasury Wine Estates.

This morning's best and worst

The industry is investing heavily in liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing infrastructure, prompting concern about potential delays and cost overruns. This has meant the sector has been overlooked, leaving many companies undervalued for the potential growth we believe they still offer.

We favour Oil Search in particular, believing it should outperform as it delivers on its investments. Indeed, its recent Papua New Guinea project update revealed it is 90 per cent complete - exactly the type of trigger that we expect will give investors greater certainty on the deliverability and production growth associated with this new capacity.

Rio Tinto is down 1.3 per cent, and metals and mining stocks are leading the market lower as iron ore prices eased overnight.

Across the sectors, gold miners look ready for another good day, up 0.7 per cent, and health care is also recording early gains, up 0.4 per cent.

Over in New Zealand, annual inflation rate accelerated in the fourth quarter, underpinning the Reserve Bank of New Zealand's case to start raising interest rates this year.

Consumer prices rose 1.6 per cent from the year-earlier quarter, the fastest annual pace since early 2012. Prices gained 0.1 per cent from the third quarter. Economists expected annual inflation of 1.5 percent and a quarterly drop of 0.1 per cent.

Faster inflation, rising business confidence and soaring house prices add to signs the RBNZ will raise the official cash rate from a record-low 2.5 per cent before the end of the first quarter.

New Zealand's currency has gained as investors bet the central bank will be among the first in the developed world to increase borrowing costs.

''Domestic inflation pressures are gradually re-emerging, but the RBNZ will have time to respond at a measured pace,'' Michael Gordon, senior economist at Westpac in Auckland, said ahead of the data.

New Zealand's dollar rose after the report, buying 83.01 US cents from 82.61 cents before the release. The Australian dollar fell about 1 cent to $NZ1.0595.

A piece that is doing well this morning is this one on the uneven distribution of wealth (which is one of the key themes in Davos, where the World Economic Forum kicks off tomorrow):

Eighty-five people control the same amount of wealth as half the world's population. That is 85 people compared with 3.5 billion.

A new report from Oxfam has been published in time for the World Economic Forum in Davos this week. It shows the world's ultra-wealthy have not only recovered from the global financial crisis, they have positively blossomed.

The report shows the wealth of the 1 per cent richest people in the world is worth about $US110 trillion, 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world's population.

It also shows the world's richest 85 people control about $US1.7 trillion in wealth, equivalent to the bottom half of the world's population.

Who are the richest of the rich? Here's a useful list by Bloomberg

Get rich faster ... Source: Oxfam

Here's the Warrnambool Daily (one of the last editions, as Saputo is edging closer to success):

Canadian dairy giant Saputo is nearing a majority holding in Warrnambool Cheese and Butter but must still convince investors with over 2 per cent of the company to accept its $533 million takeover offer by Wednesday evening to receive an extension on the bid.

Saputo said today that acceptances of its bid for WCB had reached 47.85 per cent. So long as the company reaches 50 per cent by tomorrow evening, it will receive an automatic two-week extension on its bid, in line with legislation governing takeovers.

Sources close to the deal have told The Australian Financial Review that some hedge funds are close to accepting Saputo's bid.

The three-way bidding war for WCB has lasted four months and involved many of the region's dairy players.

Iron ore is down $US10 per tonne since the start of the year and is trading around $US124.80 after falling nearly 2 per cent overnight. It is now below the trading range it's been in since the middle of last year.

That puts the focus on the materials sector today, particularly the iron ore ''pure plays''.

However, IG's Evan Lucas notes that BHP is likely to continue to push ahead having closed at $38.00 yesterday, with its ADR pointing to a further nine cents to be added despite the fact iron ore has fallen:

  • The bearish calls on iron ore are growing and that is only expected to get louder as China continues to stock pile the raw material and record production numbers flood the market.
  • The reason for the run-up in BHP is likely to be two-fold, one: the China data from yesterday was supportive and two: BHP's fourth quarter production numbers are due tomorrow pre-market.

Good morning and welcome to the Markets Live blog for Tuesday.

Your blog pilots today are Jens Meyer and Patrick Commins.

This blog is not intended as investment advice.

BusinessDay with wires.

The Australian market looks set to open lower after a mixed and lacklustre performance on international markets with Wall Street closed and China turning in disappointing growth data.

Iron ore miners may experience some pressure after the price of the commodity slumped another 2 per cent overnight.

What you need2know:

  • SPI futures down 7 points at 5249
  • The AUD has risen to 88.2 US cents, 91.9 yen and 65.07 euro cents
  • Wall St was closed for the Martin Luther King Jr holiday
  • In Europe, Eurostoxx -0.93 , FTSE100 +0.11%, CAC -0.11%, DAX -0.28%
  • Spot gold was flat at $US1254an ounce
  • Brent oil slipped to $US106.35 per barrel
  • Iron ore fell 2 per cent to $US124.80 per tonne

ANZ notes:

It was a very quiet session overnight with US markets closed for the Martin Luther King Holiday. Overall, European equity markets were a touch softer, while core and peripheral European bond yields declined marginally. In currency markets, AUD/USD traded modestly higher overnight to around 0.88. Iron ore declined a further 2.0% to USD124.8 per tonne - its lowest level since July 2013.

Read more in this morning's need2know