The Journal says stocks are trading at just 13.2 times earnings, well below the 16.5 “multiple” they’ve averaged since 1989. But inflation is rising, earnings are under pressure because of the all-but-official recession, and the outlook for everything under the sun is unsettled as the unwinding of the credit matrix continues to gather speed and force.

By the end of the bear market amid the nasty early 1980s recessions, stock prices fell to 8.7 times earnings. The current debt-market crisis and resultant economic downturn are increasingly seen as likely to be the worst since then, suggesting current stock prices have as much or more downside as they do upside.

A relatively stable sector

The WSJ leads its front page with an analysis that says the commercial real estate downturn will likely be less problematic than the residential one. That’s because construction in the commercial sector has been much more restrained over the last several years than home-building, and because unlike most homes, commercial buildings bring in rent and most are taking in enough to cover their mortgages.

The Journal notes that many of the problems classified as “commercial” are actually residential—condo developments, for instance. One in ten condo loans was past due at the end of the year. That’s a near-300 percent increase in twelve months. Just 1.6 percent of non-residential loans were delinquent.

Yes, you are being watched

The New York Times fronts an interesting piece of enterprise reporting that finds that attempts to quantify just how much information Internet companies are collecting from their users. The paper says it’s the first time such a thing has been attempted.

The meat of the story is buried way too far down in the story, but it’s worth reading the whole thing. The Times finds that the major Web sites like Yahoo and Google collect data hundreds of times from a typical consumer each month, and it notes that they’re not limited to their own URLs now, having spread their tentacles to thousands of other sites through ad networks.

Privacy advocates have previously sounded alarms about the practices of Internet companies and provided vague estimates about the volume of data they collect, but they did not give comprehensive figures.

The Web companies are, in effect, taking the trail of crumbs people leave behind as they move around the Internet, and then analyzing them to anticipate people’s next steps. So anybody who searches for information on such disparate topics as iron supplements, airlines, hotels and soft drinks may see ads for those products and services later on.

One of the more interesting things the story finds is that traditional media companies like the Times’ parent and Conde Nast are much more data-poor (and thus, much less valuable) than those founded in ones and zeroes. Conde Nast collects information an average thirty-four times per visitor each month compared to Yahoo’s 811.

During the Internet’s short life, most people have used a yardstick from traditional media to measure success: audience size. Like magazines and newspapers, Web sites are most often ranked based on how many people visit them and how long they are there.

But on the Internet, advertisers are increasingly choosing where to place their ads based on how much sites know about Web surfers.

Kudos to WaPo

It’s local, and it ran yesterday, but we think this story deserves widespread acclaim. The Washington Post on A1 investigates how developers subverted tenants-rights laws in D.C. with the help of the government and made hundreds of millions of dollars pushing tenants out. We quote at length:

Nearly three decades ago, city leaders created a law that gave tenants extraordinary power: the right to vote on whether property owners could convert rental buildings into condominiums. The law also requires owners to pay the city a fee on the sale of new condominiums, which would help displaced renters with relocation costs.

But as the District’s real estate market thrived, landlords found a way out: The law doesn’t apply to vacant buildings.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.