Boom Times for Doomsday Bunkers

❝ In his pitch to potential buyers, Larry Hall touts his condominium’s high ceilings and spacious living rooms. Then there are the swimming pool, saunas and movie theater. But what really sets the development apart, in his view, is its ability to survive the apocalypse.

Mr. Hall has converted a former military nuclear missile vault into a luxury condominium built 15 stories into the Earth’s crust. He is a leader among a new group of real estate developers investing in the nation’s central prairies and Western foothills: doomsday capitalists.

❝ Americans have, for generations, prepared themselves for society’s collapse. They built fallout shelters during the Cold War and basement supply caches ahead of Y2K. But in recent years, personalized disaster prep has grown into a multimillion-dollar business, fueled by a seemingly endless stream of new and revamped threats, from climate change to terrorism, cyberattacks and civil unrest.

❝ Bunker builders and brokers have emerged as key players in this field. And they see the interior of the country, with its wide-open spaces, as a prime place to build. Aiding them is history. During the Cold War, the military spent billions of dollars constructing nuclear warheads and hiding them in underground lairs around the nation, often in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Those hideaways, emptied of their bombs, are now on the market and enterprising civilians are buying them (relatively) cheap and flipping the properties. Eager customers abound.

Good thing I really wish to stay retired. It is so easy to sell to stupid and scared…and well off. Can’t be a more “American” market than Doomsday real estate.

NRA boss asked for luxury mansion as “protection” after Florida shooting


It takes lots of money to make me feel safeJose Luis Magana/AP

❝ The chief executive of the National Rifle Association asked the nonprofit organisation buy him a luxury mansion last year after a mass shooting at a Florida high school, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions…Wayne LaPierre told associates he was worried about being targeted and needed a more secure place to live after 17 people were gunned down last year in Parkland, Florida, sources said.

❝ Mr LaPierre and his wife, Susan, rejected an upscale high rise in Dallas with numerous security features in favour of a 10,000-square-foot French country-style estate with lakefront and golf course views in Westlake, Texas, on the market for about $6m, according to emails and text messages.

Obviously, it costs a great deal to make a miserable low-life creature like Wayne LaPierre feel “safe”.

Ready to sail on the maiden voyage of Titanic 2?

Queensland billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer has unveiled his plans to build the Titanic II to add to his tourism portfolio.

Mr Palmer said his new company Blue Star Line Pty Ltd had commissioned the state-owned Chinese company CSC Jinling Shipyard to build a near replica of the ill-fated Titanic. The cost is unknown…

Mr Palmer said the companies had signed a memorandum of understanding to build the cruise liner in China, with the ship’s maiden voyage from England to North America scheduled for late 2016.

“It will be every bit as luxurious as the original Titanic but of course it will have state-of-the-art 21st-century technology and the latest navigation and safety systems,” Mr Palmer said.

Mr Palmer said the rebuild was a tribute to the spirit of the men and women who constructed the original Titanic. “These people produced work that is still marvelled at more than 100 years later and we want that spirit to go on for another 100 years,” he said.

The Titanic was commissioned by the company White Star Line and was the world’s largest liner, measuring nearly 270 metres long, 53 metres high and weighing approximately 40,000 tonnes.

Asked today if the Titanic II could sink, Mr Palmer told reporters: “Of course it will sink if you put a hole in it…It will be designed as a modern ship with all the technology to ensure that doesn’t happen…

He said the design of the new Titanic would be as close to the original as possible but would have “state of the art engineering” and would run on diesel rather than coal power. “The technology will be 100 years improved,” the spokesman said…

I wish I could afford one of the cheap cabins.

My kin were of the class that did their ocean voyages in steerage as immigrants. Except those who traveled in the hold of English ships built for the transport of slaves and the indentured. In chains.

Ferrari sales drop [in Italy] as coppers track tax evaders


Italy in the winter of tracking tax evaders

Police fanned out across Milan in late January halting more than 350 vehicles, mostly luxury SUVs and Porsches.

At checkpoints, including one adjacent to the fashionable Corso Como, the police got the driver’s license and registration, which they passed on to the national tax agency. The tax authorities will use the data to check if the cars’ owners had declared enough income — and of course paid the right amount of income taxes — to justify their lifestyles.

It was at least the fifth raid targeting wealthy Italians since a Dec. 30 sweep at the posh Cortina d’Ampezzo ski resort, where 251 high-end cars were stopped, including Ferrari and Lamborghini supercars… Rome, Portofino on the Italian Riviera and Florence have also been targeted…

Italian authorities are applying to luxury-car owners the same logic they displayed more than a year ago, when tax agents started tracking down the owners of yachts berthed in Italy’s harbors to see if they were current on their tax payments.

In the raid in Cortina D’Ampezzo, tax agents found that 42 luxury car owners had declared income of less than 30,000 euros for 2010 and 2009. Another 19 luxury cars were owned by businesses which posted a loss in the previous year. The sweep in Florence discovered a builder with no tax record who was driving a Mercedes with his wife who was receiving social assistance. Tax officials also found a German owner of a BMW X5 SUV with no declared income, according to the website of the tax agency’s Florence office.

This is serious stuff for the government, which estimates that tax evasion costs the country about 120 billion euros a year in lost revenue…

The collection effort is part of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s plan to curb record borrowing costs on Italy’s 1.9 trillion-euro debt and avoid following Greece, Portugal and Ireland which all had to seek bailouts.

Demand for vehicles from the likes of Ferrari and Maserati brands and Lamborghini slumped 53 percent in January, with just 66 supercars sold, according to Anfia, the association of Italian carmakers. The new taxes and high-profile dragnets have also sent exotic-car prices down 20 percent, according to dealer association Federauto…

Still, for Ferrari, which earns higher profit margins than any other Fiat unit, it’s not the end of the world. There’s plenty of demand outside Italy for the company’s sports cars.

“Italy isn’t a concern for Ferrari as it sells its cars abroad,” Marchionne said last month in Detroit.

I wonder what people like John Boehner and Harry Reid intend to drive when they retire from Congress – and they no longer have to lie quite as much as they do now about what they really care about.

Black Friday sales show the class divide between shoppers


Neiman Marcus sold out 10 Ferraris at $395,000 each under an hour of making them available

As the busiest retail weekend of the year begins late Thursday night, the differences between how affluent and more ordinary Americans shop in the uncertain economy will be on unusually vivid display.

Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Best Buy and Target will start their Black Friday sales earlier than ever — at 9 and 10 p.m. in some instances — with dirt-cheap offers intended to secure their customers’ limited dollars. A half a day later, on Friday morning, higher-end stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom will open with only a sprinkling of special sales.

The low-end and midrange retailers are risking low margins as they cut prices to attract shoppers, while executives at luxury stores say that they are actually able to sell more at full price than in recent boom years.

“We’re now into a less promotional environment than we were before the recession,“ said Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and chief executive of Saks. In the third quarter, for instance, Saks reduced the length of an annual sale to three days from four, and excluded the high-margin category of cosmetics from another regular sale.

Retail analysts are expecting a decent holiday season, with many estimating that sales will increase about 3 percent over last year, with contributions from shoppers across income levels. Yet the Friday after Thanksgiving, the kickoff to the highest-revenue weeks for stores, is expected to lay bare the increasingly parallel universes of retailing in America, the analysts said.

“Those in a more modest income situation are the people who are going to the Wal-Marts and the Best Buys and the Targets at 8, 9, 10, 11 p.m. with little kids in tow because they can’t afford a baby sitter,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultant firm. “It’s a very unpleasant shopping experience, frankly, for a lot of people.”

Meanwhile, many affluent shoppers will avoid the scene altogether, he said. “The women who are shopping the fourth floor at Saks are not Black Friday shoppers,” he said…

“If you talk to people who are in my business, people who analyze our business, they would consistently tell you that stores at the mall, especially anchor stores, are more promotional than they were last year,” he said. “Now that may not be true at the high end — the strength of the business or the higher-end consumer has allowed them to do a little less promotion — but that’s high end.”

At Saks Fifth Avenue and other luxury stores, full-price selling has generally been increasing. So the few deals at luxury stores on Friday are not so much bargains as token nods to the Black Friday tradition. Saks is offering half off cashmere sweaters, Neiman Marcus is giving discounts on a future shopping trip when people spend more than $100, while Nordstrom says it does not have big promotions planned.

High-end retailers “don’t have to do anything desperate — it’s kind of hard to see a 5 a.m. queue outside of a Fifth Avenue luxury retailer,” said Chris Donnelly, a senior executive in Accenture’s retail practice. “If you don’t have to put it on sale and people are still going to buy it, why put it on sale?”

Since I’m a news junkie who actually prefers to watch news instead of consuming what some media hack considers entertainment – I get a lot of my TV news coverage from business channels like Bloomberg TV. Folks in business, concerned with markets and investing, haven’t any inclination to watch crap. There’s a lot more news on hand in a half-hour of Bloomberg TV than you might bump into on CNN or one of the truly cruddy network news programs in an hour or two.

Consequently, I absorb a lot of business and sales analysis – by osmosis, I guess.

Some of the soundest economists I’ve watched feel the growth in sales for this holiday season will surpass 6%. More than anything suggested in this article. The question is how much of that is the bump at the upper end from the folks with serious increases in their disposable income – over the same period that’s seen a continuation of the decline in real income for the American middle class that started to nosedive with the Bush/Cheney election?

Mecca as religious souk: the hajj has become big business

The arid landscape hugging the Jeddah-Mecca highway used to hold little appeal. But now travellers can marvel at the fantastical structure rearing out of the otherwise unforgiving landscape, clearly visible from 25 miles away.

The new 485-metre-high Mecca clocktower would bear a remarkable resemblance to Big Ben, were it not for the gold crescent and Arabic calligraphy adorning it, and represents a new era for Mecca, symbolising the dizzying vision and growth of the religious tourism industry in Saudi Arabia.

An estimated 2.5 million Muslims began the annual hajj pilgrimage today and the total number of tourists to Mecca and Medina, home to the prophet Muhammad, is expected to rise from about 12 million to almost 17 million by 2025.

The clocktower is part of a project that buckles under the weight of its own statistics. Abraj al-Bait, a complex of luxury hotels, malls and apartments, has an estimated value of $3bn, a built-up area of 1.4m sq metres, 15,000 housing units and 70,000 sq metres of retail space…

The level of pampering offered by some of the hotels – Asprey toiletries, 24-hour butler service, $270 chocolate selections – may jar with the ethos of sacrifice, simplicity and humility of hajj but it is not a contradiction felt by the customers snapping up royal suites at $5,880 a night, eating gelato or milling around hangar-like lobbies of polished marble in their Hajj clothing of bedsheets, towels or burqas. Raffles is reporting 100% occupancy for it 211 rooms.

Helal said: “As long as you do what you have to do for the hajj, it does not mean you have to eat bread or lobster, or sleep on a bed or the floor. It is not for me to say how people should stay when they get here…”

Business reports conclude that Saudi tourism, especially the religious variety, is recession proof. The government’s commission for tourism and antiquities said revenue from tourism this year would reach $17.6bn, then almost double again by 2015.

RTFA. As usual, religion is big business around the world. The landlords of Islam are no less greedy than the Baptist educators of the whole person. You get what you pay for – is still the slogan.

Cell phones achieve primacy over air conditioners

What would you give up first, air conditioning or your cell phone?

In tough economic times with people looking to cut costs many Americans said a cell phone or computer are must-have items and regard a clothes dryers, air conditioner and microwave as less of a necessity, according to survey by the Pew Research Center. “A relative newcomer in the everyday lives of most Americans, the cell phone is among a handful of newer gadgets that have held their own on the necessity scale from 2006 to 2009”.

The number of people who said microwaves were a necessity for their homes fell 21 percentage points in 2009 from 2006. Air conditioners dropped 16 points while dishwashers slumped 14 points, the poll showed.

Job losses, the months-long recession, and tight access to credit have convinced U.S. consumers to reduce their spending in the past year on anything they consider unnecessary or a luxury…

But as tech gadgets increasingly find a place in homes, cell phones, flat screen TVs and Apple’s iPod are now part of the must-have category, according to the survey of 1,003 adults.

No surprise to me. Americans are still in love with cars. What kind of car – or pickup – may be changing; but, the flexibility, mobility, enabled by those 4-wheel fuel-suckers still rules.

Luxury of the traditional few vs. the modern in India


Lalgarh Palace suite of the new luxury train, Royal Rajasthan on Wheels
Daylife/Reuters Pictures

Mukesh Ambani is recession-proof.

He is among the richest men in India and worth billions. His interests span mobile telephony, supermarkets and oil refining. He is building a skyscraper of a mansion, with 27 stories stretched to the height of 54, in Mumbai. He has the private plane for quiet reading time, the helicopter for the tight weave of Mumbai traffic, the Zimbabwean wildlife getaways for family bonding…

How about a custom-stitched Brioni suit? Actually, Mr. Ambani prefers a white short-sleeved shirt and dark pants, like Indian bureaucrats wear. Fine Bordeaux wines? He prefers coconut water. Gucci loafers? He prefers those rounded black shoes worn by the $300-a-month salarymen on the train. Fancy restaurants? He prefers street snacks; the first time he dined at Nobu in New York, he suggested to a companion afterward that they go ‘‘eat’’ now.

Mr. Ambani is the furthest thing from the average Indian, and rather far ahead of the rest of the Indian elite. But he distills an Indian personality trait that may be the great dilemma for Western luxury brands here.

Those brands have built flagship stores in India and have begun to sell. But sales have seldom lived up to expectations, and it may be because India’s affluent classes are bipolar on matters of luxury: with a little of the renouncing, homespun ascetic in them, and a little of the mansion-building maharajah. Luxury brands are locked in the awkward middle, peddling things that are, strangely, both too luxe for India and not luxe enough.

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Illegal immigrants try for UK – hidden in a Bentley GT

An audacious bid by four illegal immigrants to enter Britain hidden in a luxury car has ended in failure after they were intercepted by immigration officers.

The four men from Iraq were found sitting in a Bentley GT, worth over $190,000, that was being taken from the Nurburgring race track in Germany in a lorry to Bentley’s factory in Crewe, central England.

They were discovered in Calais after UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers, using specialist detecting equipment, found high levels of carbon dioxide being emitted from the German-registered lorry before it boarded a ferry.

“It’s important we stop would-be illegal immigrants before they reach the UK,” said UKBA Director Tom Dowdall.

Pretty snazzy gear. Simple. Effective.

Of course, the fact that the British government has started enforcing immigration regulations sets it apart from our own government.

Luxury car sales in Saudi Arabia unaffected by global crisis. Surprised?

Recession fears may be gripping much of the global economy, but in the world’s largest oil exporter Saudi Arabia car manufacturers are betting on more big spending…

“The luxury car market in Saudi Arabia is the biggest one in the Gulf region, so for the BMW group it is the potential market focus,” said Reiner Braun, sales director at Mohamed Yousuf Naghi Motors which imports BMW and other cars.

“The global crisis will certainly have an impact on all markets worldwide but … the Middle East will probably be the most stable (market)…”

While ordinary Saudis have suffered over the past year as inflation soared to 30-year highs, the kingdom’s elite have continued to prosper.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second biggest and most liberal city, the rich live fast and consumption is conspicuous.

Exhibition organizers say that Mercedes and BMW are among the most popular cars in the super-expensive range. Rolls-Royce cars were also on display in the exhibition, where colors extended to orange and lurid green.

Gosh, I was worried for a while that everyone was going to suffer through this economic downturn.