March 6, 2023

Today's Topics

Good morning! After balloons, the latest twist in American-Chinese relations is crane-related — as reports that Chinese-made cranes at American ports could actually be equipped with surveillance equipment. Today we're exploring:

  • Perfect storm: It's more bad news for first-time homebuyers.
  • Steep drop: Six Flags attendance numbers are flagging.
  • The slow track: America's immigration court backlog keeps building.
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Perfect storm

Last week the average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage passed 7%, compounding the misery for would-be homeowners who now face a perfect storm of higher borrowing costs and still-elevated home prices.

That combination has sent the National Association of Realtors' housing affordability index down to 95.5 in the latest quarterly figures. A reading of 100 on the index means that a median income family will have exactly enough to qualify for a mortgage on a median priced home. The data shows that this is the least affordable housing market for nearly 40 years, with a lower reading not seen since the mid 1980s.

The theory is that higher rates will cool demand, and house prices will fall — but few things translate from the textbook to reality that quickly. It may take months for sellers to realize they aren’t getting the offers they require before slashing prices, and a construction slowdown has meant that the market isn't currently flooded with new homes either.

As spring fast approaches, a time when young families often try to find houses before summer and a new school year, many prospective homebuyers may find themselves scrolling a lot further down on Zillow to find a house they can actually afford.

Steep drop

Six Flags parks have some of the most terrifying drop towers in the states, but it’s the plummeting park attendance figures that will have the company's execs concerned, with visitors to the parks down 26% in 2022.

Waning attendance is a big issue for the coaster company — which owns and operates some 27 theme and water parks across North America — one it excused because of higher ticket prices, fewer operational days, and its decision to scrap free and heavily-discounted entry deals.

Rollercoaster Tycoons

The company’s first location, Six Flags Over Texas (a reference to the six nations that governed the state in its history), opened in 1961, and the company’s amusement and water parks have attracted millions of families and thrill-seekers for over 60 years since. Despite that success, the company’s CEO is keen for Six Flags to reinvent itself and target a different set of (higher-paying) customers, having worried that the parks “became a day-care center for teenagers”.

Though only 20.4m people passed through the Six Flags turnstiles last year, down some 7.3m on 2021, park admission still constituted the bulk of the company’s sales — worth $735m last year. Of course, attendees aren’t done once they’ve handed over the entry cash either, with guests spending on average a further $27.93 once inside the park. That was 18% more per-person than 2021, helping to partially offset the dropping visitor numbers.

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The slow track

Federal immigration judges are working at a faster rate than ever before, completing some 172,180 cases between October 2022 and January 2023. That puts the court system on track to get through ~60% more cases in this fiscal year than it managed last year, and yet it’s still unlikely to put a meaningful dent in the backlog of pending immigration cases which remain at record levels.

Indeed, data from TRAC reveals how the US immigration court backlog has grown in the last decade, ballooning to more than 2 million cases as of the latest fiscal year, more than 6x the number that were pending just a decade ago.

Judgment year

Pinpointing why the backlog has grown so much is difficult, with a cocktail of factors spanning multiple governments. Increased border arrests and activity have certainly played a part, with a record 2.2 million arrests along the Mexican border last year, as have under-resourced courts — there are just 600 federal immigration-court judges in the entire country. Court closures during the pandemic only exacerbated the underlying issues.

The build-up means that a typical case now takes more than 4 years. Indeed, the backlog is so large that, even if each judge cleared 5 cases from the docket every single day (including weekends), the backlog would take nearly 2 years to clear… and that assumes no new cases get added.

More Data

• Over 50% of the world’s population could be overweight by 2035 unless significant action is taken, according to a new report.

Lunchables, the steadfast back-to-school snack, saw a 21% sales uptick in 2022... and could be on for another sales boost as the brand looks to sign a deal with schools across the country.

• America’s roads are getting more dangerous for pedestrians, with fatalities up 18% since 2019.

Creed III just broke the record for the opening weekend for a sports movie after taking $58.6m at the box office.


• Charting the pandemic’s effects on mental health.

New Yorkers are heading back to the office, but only if they’re fancy enough.

Off the charts: Which company, that just abruptly fired its CEO “without cause”, was briefly one of the most valuable communication companies back in 2020?

Answer here.

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