flwyd: (currency symbols)
I remember thinking, in 2010, that the stock market was likely to rise for a while after falling precipitously in 2008 and 2009. I also had a significant chunk of cash (earning really low interest) from five years of living below my means. "I should do some research, figure out how to actually buy stocks, and invest a bunch of that cash."

With the exception of maximizing 401(k) contributions, I didn't do that research and didn't invest anything. Partly this was because I had a continual sense of "I might decide to buy a house in the next two years," so the chance of losing a bunch of money due to market fluctuations was unattractive. But mostly it was because I like to do a lot of research to understand significant decisions and financial research is both endless, in the sense that there are thousands of securities one might invest in and their prospects change frequently, and boring, in the sense that finance takes everything that's interesting and unique about companies and governments and human decision making and reduces them to a whole bunch of numbers about the past and present accompanied by verbose disclaimers that past performance is no guarantee of future results.

It turns out that not investing in the broad U.S. stock market in 2010 came with a significant opportunity cost: the S&P 500 has roughly doubled in value in the last 5 years. International stocks haven't done as well, with non-U.S. developed markets growing around 4% per year and emerging markets growing by less than 1%. Had I invested $50k in 2010 in half-U.S./half foreign indexed funs I would today have about $30k more I could spend on a house (which I'm still not ready to buy). [It's not totally clear that not investing was a terrible decision, though. I spent much of the energy I could have devoted to poring over financial data becoming a better software engineer and making friends and having fun. The total future outcome of these activities in terms of future salary and well-being may well be worth tens of thousands.]

In December I happened to be looking at charts of the S&P 500 over the last few decades and noticed that the shape of the graph has a recent slope comparable to the slopes leading to 2000 and 2008, but with a present value significantly higher than when the market crashed in those two years. I spend a lot of time at work looking at graphs of web traffic and server performance, so a graph shape that matched historic trouble zones looked worrying to me.

After a checkup on and a rebalancing of my 401(k), I set out to the book store in search of a sensible volume educating readers how to invest in the market. My selection criteria mandated a copyright date after 2009, figuring that a book without the lessons of the worst financial crisis in nearly 80 years would be an incomplete read. Fortunately, there's a new edition of A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton G. Malkiel. This book argues that investors (particularly average folks) can achieve no better return, over the long term, than to put their money in a low-cost fund tracking a broad stock market index. When the book was initially published in the early 1970s, one couldn't actually invest in the market as a whole (short of buying a few hundred stocks, which a person with modest means can't do). Malkiel's advocacy of this strategy led to the creation of mutual funds based on indexes like the S&P 500 and the Russell 3000.

The reasons for the primacy of an indexing approach to investing are several. Perhaps most fundamentally, the demand for securities which outperform the market exceeds the supply of such securities. With demand exceeding supply, prices will rise until the securities are priced so high that they no longer outperform the market.

More concretely, in order to outperform an indexed fund, the total returns of the security must exceed the index by more than the cost of maintaining the fund. This cost is expressed as "expense ratio" in mutual fund documents and represents both payments to the people responsible for selecting the components of the fund and the transaction cost of buying and selling the underlying stocks when they become attractive or no longer attractive. Index funds of U.S. stocks often have an expense ratio below 0.1% while actively managed mutual funds typically have an expense ratio between 1 and 2%. So to outperform the market, an actively managed fund must not do better than the average stock in the index but must do so by one or two points. Assuming an average return of 10% for the broad market, an active fund must provide a 11 or 12% return; in other words they must be 10 to 20% better than the average. Among professional investors, it would be surprising to find individuals who are consistently 20% better than their peers. And in years when the market goes down across the board, you lose more money the higher your fund's expense ratio.

In addition to the core point of index-fund investing, A Random Walk covers a fair amount of ground in financial education. Malkiel starts by explaining several historic periods of rapid growth and sudden decline in asset prices from the famous Dutch tulips in 1637 through the global financial crisis in 2008. He then explains two general approaches to investing: Castles in the sky, also known as technical analysis, is focused on figuring out what price people are likely to pay for something in the near future, even if it's much more than the asset is worth. Firm foundations, also known as fundamental analysis, focuses on determining an absolute value of an asset based on facts about it, like how much money the company earns. Malkiel then argues against these approaches, proposing instead the efficient-market hypothesis. He uses both the theoretical basis of EMH and plenty of academic studies and comparisons of historical returns to make the case that long-term, low-cost index funds are the best investment vehicles. You can't beat the market, he argues, but you can match the market. And the market, over any long period in history, has done significantly better than other types of investments. The market doesn't need to be efficient for indexing to be a good strategy.

A Random Walk also has several chapters of practical advice on how to go about investing in the market. Though the book is primarily focused on stocks, Malkiel explains how to understand other types of assets and create a diversified portfolio. He discusses how to plan for situations when cash flow is needed like retirement and major expenses. He also broadly covers the impact of tax on investment returns (essentially: invest as much as possible in tax-free accounts like a 401(k) or IRA to take full advantage of compounding and reinvestment of dividends). Finally, he gives his thoughts on the near-term prospects for investing: the stock market is unlikely to grow at the rate it has for the last several years but will probably continue at a modest growth rate, less than 10% total returns. With low interest rates (though the Fed is expected to slowly start raising them), most bonds will not be very attractive for a while.

Having read the book, I've spent much of my free time in the last several weeks working out an investment strategy for some of the pile of cash sitting in my bank account. There are a few tricky aspects to this. First, my high tax bracket as a well-compensated programmer combined with historic low interest rates means that income-producing assets like bonds in a regular brokerage account would produce returns only slightly better than a certificate of deposit in an insured bank, meaning that interest rate risk leading to a decrease in the value of a bond fund could lead to a loss of money. So much for diversification of asset classes.

The second problem I'm encountering as I scour available ETFs is that recent security valuation history seems somewhat at odds with global economic trends. U.S. markets have doubled in value in the last five years despite stagnant conditions for the median American household. As one would expect, foreign developed markets haven't grown much, with the slow-moving Euro crisis playing a large role. Yet with most of the world economic and population growth growth coming in emerging markets in the last ten years (leading to the creation of acronyms like BRICS), emerging market stocks haven't been rising accordingly. One interpretation of these trends is that "emerging market growth" is mostly about folks in the third world having more money they can spend on products made by multinational companies based in the U.S.A. Another interpretation is that a lot of this economic growth is occurring among companies not (yet) listed on stock markets. While I think that's a great trend that may support sustainable communities, as an investor it's much more difficult to take advantage of ("obtain exposure to") such growth. A third interpretation is that the Giant Pool of Money went looking for the next target after the housing, commodities, and debt markets collapsed and the Pool decided that U.S. equities had the best chance for returns. As the S&P graph flattens out, the Pool may head off on the next quest for above-market returns, leading to a decline in U.S. markets and unhealthy growth somewhere else.

So what am I going to do about it?
I'm contributing as much as possible to my tax-free 401(k) with a several-decades-to-retirement allocation. That's the easy part.

I still think it's likely that I'll buy a house in Boulder, with a target date of 2018 or later to allow my sweetie to establish a stable job, reducing the risk that we'll decide that we need to live somewhere else. Three years is too short a period to rely on positive stock market returns, so I'm going to keep most of my pile of cash invested in cash.

I'm planning to take some cash and sell some company-granted stock (which has grown in value but isn't well diversified and can only be sold at certain times) and invest it in a variety of index-tracking exchange-traded funds, which are much like mutual funds but requiring smaller tax payments when not held in a tax-free account. I've spent several dozen hours this month looking at graphs and numbers and portfolio distributions and holding lists and building a spreadsheet. And due to the paradox of choice and information overload, coupled with the uncertainty of returns of a random-walk market, I'm not sure my plan is much better off than it was before.

My plan so far involves investing 45% in U.S. markets, 25% in the "All non-US companies" index plus major developed countries (which make up the bulk of the all-world index), 20% in emerging markets, and 10% in real estate investment trusts. Typical investment advice for someone my age would suggest 20% bonds, but with low interest rates and high income tax, I don't think bonds will be a good investment for several years. This portfolio isn't going to generate much current income in the near future, so it's not going to contribute to the house-buying fund but instead be treated as a long-term investment; a general bet on overall economic growth, particularly in the third world.

So what should you do?
First, take any investment advice with a healthy dose of skepticism. Don't bother reading most short-term focused writings (articles with titles like "7 Energy Stocks that are a Strong Buy" or anything on CNBC). Read books and articles like A Random Walk Down Wall Street that are focused on long-term investing and don't make bold claims about beating the market.

Second, take full advantage of workplace retirement programs. In the absence of a robust welfare state, the two tools most folks have for surviving old age are tax-free investment accounts and kids with good jobs.

Third, carefully examine any investment opportunities for cost. The more money you have to pay someone to manage your money, the less money you get from investments. Index funds tend to be the best investment choices.

Fourth, live below your means. There are hordes of people who would be happy to lend you money so you can make poor financial decisions.

Fifth, if you've got extra money to invest, think carefully about how you want to approach investing. Know that you're not likely to make a huge profit in the near future and that your investments might suddenly shrink if the global financial system suddenly discovers that was again acting on incorrect or incomplete information on a massive scale.
flwyd: (intense aztec drummer DNC 2008)
This TED talk by Rodrigo Canales draws parallels between prominent Mexican drug cartels and more ordinary businesses. Brand, markets, and social involvement all play a key role. Canales describes Los Zetas as a franchise business for ex-military members and local gangs. They're credited with many of the most gruesome killings in the drug war, and part of that is their brand. There are parallels here with Al Qaeda, which is also a franchise organization with an interest in tooting their own horn about how destructive they are.

Los Caballeros Templarios Guardia Michoacana (Knights Templar Cartel, successor to La Familia Michoacana) control some very important transit territory. They operate on a very local basis with social programs, and are loved by many in the communities. They portray many of their killings as community defense (petty criminals, local drug dealers, outside organized crime) and have played a significant role in local politics. This sounds to me a lot like Hezbollah, which operates schools, hospitals, and other social capital-building enterprises along side their long-running battles with Israel and arab governments. Other paramilitary organizations have had similar success with social programs and local support including the IRA and loyalists in Ireland and the Basque ETA. It's very hard to destroy an organization like this; they have the benefits of guerrilla warriors plus the financial resources of a major corporation.

The Sinaloa Federation operates a lot like a multinational corporation, including an executive on the Forbes billionaires list. They innovate in product delivery technology, they have executives (aka family members) supervise new ventures, they outsource tasks that would damage their brand, and so forth. In addition to parallels with legal corporations like oil companies I think they also bear a striking resemblance to historic organized crime groups like the Mafia and Yakuza. The salient feature is the organized part moreso than the crime. The latter is only present because the business's products happen to be illegal.

I think it's helpful to think of these groups as companies with violence as one of their business methods rather than a grand version of random street violence. It also suggests that tourist fears about travel in Mexico may be unnecessarily elevated: would killing you further the business interests of the cartels?

A TED blog post about this video links to a few others on similar topics, including a suggestion that the best way to fight these organizations is to devalue their brands.

One interesting twist in the Mexican drug war is that the Americans are funding both sides. The cartels make most of their money by selling drugs to the U.S. distribution network, not to mention side businesses like smuggling migrants for the labor market. Meanwhile, the U.S. government subsidizes the Mexican government's anti-cartel activities, with gun manufacturers from the States profiting from sales to both sides. Not to mention the money spent on border enforcement and anti-drug efforts north of the border, a chunk of which also goes to American arms dealers.
flwyd: (currency symbols)
Eric Garland has a collection of articles about Guitar Center, the company which set out to do for musical instruments what Circuit City did for consumer electronics. The first was a short post about how their business model is failing and their bonds were degraded to junk status. A few months later, he wrote a little longer article with a great title Guitar Center's real problem: their customers are broke, pivoting from the store to the disappearing middle class and the country's significant unemployment problem despite a nominal recovery from recession. His latest piece focuses on the byzantine financial structure Guitar Center's set up with private equity firms Bain Capital and Ares Capital Management and the parasitic effect these financial shenanigans have on the economy.
When I recognized how much the financial markets have become like 2006, I finally figured out why some other financier could shell out $50 or $100 or $300 million for Guitar Center junk bonds. For the customers of private equity, a few million isn't that much money. These investors actually need some higher-risk assets in their portfolio, rather than let their money sit around in a zero-interest rate environment. They might be like Warren Buffett and already have huge stakes in sensible things like Too-Big-To-Fail banks, railroads or Coca-Cola. This just rounds out their overall position. Make 6-9% with the chance that the company could finally go tits-up? Why not! If it pays out, then great, and if it doesn't – tax write off!

In the business reporting during the financial crisis of 2008, you might have heard the phrase "appetite for risk;" this is what they were talking about. When an investment is risky (which basically means the thing you're investing in is more likely to fail), you can charge higher interest rates (which basically means you get more money until it fails). So that's why a few big financial companies can spend the better part of a billion dollars on a company that's likely to have a fire sale and go bankrupt: they've got a budget spreadsheet that says "Spend $XX billion on investments at 6+%."

Imagine an alternate world where the same financiers took the same $3 million per Guitar Center retail store and invested, say, $1 million in each of 940 community music centers. A community music center could be something like a coffee shop of sound, with instruments for sale, music lessons, rehearsal space, and an "intimate" concert venue. This would help foster a local music economy and boost both supply and demand for music.

But now that it's run by equity firms, approximately nobody in the Guitar Center management or financing chain is involved because of a deep desire to increase the amount of music being played, expand musical literacy, build a community of musicians, or even necessarily because they really enjoy selling guitars. They're in it because they think they've got reasonable odds of making a significant return on investment and the pieces of paper making up Guitar Center's corporate structure and debt obligations are an available vehicle for the financial joy ride they want to take. The folks running the show would be just as interested if they'd bought a national chain of soup canneries.

Trevor's Rule for Running a Great Company

Use profit as a tool to grow the business. Don't use business growth as a tool to obtain profit.

One of the things I really love about Google is how it's run, from top to bottom, by people who care about what we're doing. We structure efforts to be profitable so that we can easily invest in improving their quality and bringing them to more people–if YouTube makes more money than it costs, we can keep making YouTube better and serve more of the world's visual stories. Yet not every effort must be profitable on its own; many projects are done because they're good for the Internet or good for the world, with the foresight that a better Internet and a more informed world will be a better world for Google to be in for the rest of this century.

By contrast, a business run by people who don't really care about what the business produces or the people it serves (which is basically the point of private equity firms) has no reason to foster the long-term ecosystem its customers live in. When profit is the product, anything that doesn't put money in investors pockets–no matter how relevant it is to the company's ostensible mission–is likely to be slashed and burned. The private equity firm doesn't care if it clear-cuts the spending power of its customer base or strip mines the market for its colonial products as long as it extracts the monetary resources it needs to fuel its endless quest of profit for profit's sake.
flwyd: (currency symbols)
During Mitt Romney's concession speech, as he was thanking all his classes of supporters, he euphemistically said "job creators." Something about the way he said it gave me a flash of insight:

The political dialog about how to grow the economy and reduce unemployment has been largely focused around people who hire other people. But a political economic policy which focuses only on employers ignores the balance of economic activity. You can give all the corporate tax breaks and hiring incentives you want, but if there's no demand for the company's products, they're not going to create any jobs. In order to create American jobs, we need to foster an environment of a demand for products and services that Americans are best fit to provide.

Romney engaged in a lot of anti-China economic grandstanding during the election. Instead, China's vast stockpile of dollars could be a boon to American job creation if we can start selling more things that China wants to buy.

Both parties positioned themselves as in favor of private sector "job creators." Yet government has an immense role to play in job creation. Most directly, government hires a lot of people. The Department of Defense is the world's largest "job creator" with over 3 million employees and probably hundreds of thousands of indirect contractors. Government also creates jobs indirectly. Changes in regulation can increase or decrease demand for products and services. Strong public health leads to more productive people with more disposable income. Transportation projects help get products to places where people want to buy them. Taxes and government regulation can get in the way of economic growth and job creation. But so can reckless cuts to taxes (and therefore government activities) and regulation. When you consider the balance of supply and demand, even prisoners are job creators: by locking up millions of our citizens, we create jobs for tens of thousands of prison guards.

There's a final irony in the focus on job creation. The default political view is that the United States is no longer a manufacturing leader. In fact, the U.S. makes and exports more stuff than any other country in the world, including China. But in the last 40 years or so, American manufacturing has become very automated. A couple people and a few complicated machines today do the work of a thousand factory workers in the 1960s. Neither a hiring incentive nor a corporate tax break will lead to the factory rehiring all 1000 people: there wouldn't be enough for them to do. In many industries, "job destruction" has led to major gains in productivity and profit.

The contradiction of modern America is that we're an incredibly prosperous nation with an uncomfortably high unemployment rate. Our first challenge is to find a new way to productively engage millions of people. Our second challenge is to structure society such that you don't have to keep busy just to keep alive. In the 20th Century we learned that everyone can eat even if most people aren't farmers. In the 21st Century we need to learn how to help everyone thrive even if robots and programs do most of the work.
flwyd: (currency symbols)
The theory of supply and demand explains that when a resource is more plentiful, market pressures lower the price, but when a resource is in short supply and high demand, prices go up. Apples are cheap, lobsters are expensive.

This principle ought to apply to the labor market too. The supply of actors exceeds the demand, so most get paid very little, doing uninteresting work. The supply of folks that can sell fast food or dig ditches is pretty high, so they don't get paid very much. Similarly, there's not much demand for driftwood gatherers, so it's a hard way to make a living.

But the model breaks down for high supply, low demand positions. There's a very small and essentially fixed demand for professional baseball players. There's a huge supply of people willing to do the job. But the people who get the job get paid millions, even though they'd probably do it for much less 'cause it sure beats digging dishes. Star actors get way more money, more control, more fame, and more fun roles than their struggling colleagues. In most companies, a promotion means you get more money to have more power and do more interesting and impactful things. If supply and demand worked like they do on the chalkboard, shouldn't a promotion come with a pay cut? Aren't there people who will work as the CEO of a multinational corporation for less than a million dollars?

This illustrates that when it really matters, quality trumps market forces. Even with thousands of Minor Leaguers to choose from, the Major League pays big money to get top quality. And while a CEO with a $5 million salary may not perform ten times better than one who will do it for 500 grand, he may make more than five million dollars of difference. It's more rewarding to be good than to be cheap.

Alternatively, money follows something like the general theory of relativity: very massive bank accounts distort the gravity of the surrounding economic field.
flwyd: (Trevor glowing grad macky auditorium)
In case anyone's searching for me after my Ignite talk, Money and Other Useful Myths has my slides and some relevant links. If you're reading this before I talk: no peeking!

Update: The talk rocked. Several slides managed to be more succinct than in practice and a lot of folks told me afterward that they really liked my talk (and not all of them were my friends). Everybody also liked my ironic panda hat. I managed to pick up 7 new Twitter followers in six minutes and another five later in the night. These geeks and their social media...

Oh, and here's me in a panda hat with a penguin: Next up, Trevor Stone (@flwyd) is regaling us with myths about money
flwyd: (currency symbols)
If you're already a fan of Ignite Boulder, you may have noticed my name on the speaker lineup for Ignite Boulder 14. If you're already a fan, you'll also know you should get your tickets now, because it'll sell out before the event three weeks from now.

If you're not already a fan, here's the pitch. Come see me and 13 other clever folks each give a five minute presentation consisting of 20 slides which auto-advance every 15 seconds. It's on March 3rd at 7 PM at the historic Boulder Theater. I'll be talking about Money and Other Useful Myths, explaining why money is fictional and how true value is people doing stuff. If you can't make it to the Boulder Theater, the event may be streamed live and the talk will be on YouTube later.

As readers of this journal know, I'm really good at being long-winded. So I'm impressed that in test runs, I've been able to say what I want in just three minutes. My second draft has to be longer? Whoa.
flwyd: (currency symbols)
Ignite Boulder 14 is March 3rd. Vote for my spark, Money and Other Useful Myths and ese me on stage!

Posted via LjBeetle
flwyd: (Trevor glowing grad macky auditorium)
(Via this Coding Horror blog post):

This video is a fantastic illustration and explanation of motivation and reward. The speaker is Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He says that money is a good motivator for mechanical tasks. If you pay people for each pound of tomatoes they pick, they'll pick more tomatoes than if you pay a flat rate each day. But if the task requires any cognitive skill, people do worse if there's a performance incentive. If you give people the freedom to do something interesting, you'll get much better results than if you offer an innovation bonus and tell them to work on something.[1] Money is a motivator, but to a limited extent: pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.

This is a pretty good description of my motivations. My actual salary isn't particularly important to me; I'd probably be happy to do the work I'm doing for half the salary (but not a quarter of the salary, 'cause then I'd have to put a lot more focus into getting by on a tight budget). What motivates me at work is (a) interesting projects, (b) socially beneficial results, and (c) having fun.

Pink concludes that, beyond being profit maximizers, people are purpose maximizers. This jives with something I've thought for a while: economists study things in terms of money because it's easy to measure, but that lens is insufficient to capture a wide spectrum of human activities and motivations. "Purpose" isn't easily transferrable, it's hard to measure, it doesn't seem to follow mathematical rules, but it's how those crazy Homo sapiens sapiens work.

Maybe the problem with the Soviet system is that they wanted a very industrial society, but they applied a system that's suited to post-industrial creative jobs. For all Marx's focus on factories and industrial workers, he described a communist society "where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic." [Idealism and Materialism]

[1] Even worse, if you offer huge financial incentives for easily-measured results to smart investment bankers, you can tank the world economy.

flwyd: (currency symbols)
I posted the following to a Burning Man mailing list. The original context, mostly irrelevant, is whether volunteers for an event should get free admission.
But also there is the idea that our culture seems to really value some very valueless things while simultaneously undervalueing or seeing no value at all in some extremely valuable things - like motherhood, art, caregiving of all types, and so on. What I think we're doing with these discussions is working out what "value" means to our community and how we really can make our way to true giving - it's hard though and messy I think.

I think it's important to distinguish between "what our culture values" and "what pays well." Markets can take on a life of their own, so while you may be able to correlate values with money within a particular market (e.g., Americans have valued house size over quality of construction), comparing dollars paid in one market to dollars paid for something else doesn't really work.

For a silly example, I got paid a lot more to write software for governments than most sex workers get paid to give people orgasms. Does that mean our culture values effective property tax systems more than sex? No, it just means the market for people who know how to write code is tighter than the market for people who can have sex.

For a less silly example, I pay $5 in gas (plus car depreciation) to drive from Boulder to Denver and back. I pay nothing to ride around town on my bike. Does that mean I value driving more than bicycling and Denver more than Boulder? No, I enjoy riding a lot more and prefer to spend time in Boulder. It's just that the nature of cars involves spending money, but bikes not so much.

In my ideal world, the community makes sure everyone's well fed and cared for, even if there isn't a lucrative market for what they do. Like clean air, safe roads, and public broadcasting, art is a public good. You can't quantify how much value a person will get from artwork, so it's not well suited to markets with supply and demand. The fact that artists have trouble making a living doesn't mean we don't value art; it's just a reflection that our economic system isn't a perfect tool for ensuring our values are actualized.

Remember: economists use "willingness to pay" as a substitute for personal values, but that's just because it's a lot easier to do math with the former. Money is a useful tool for pursuing our values, but it does not straightforwardly represent our values. Don't confuse a pencil for a poem.


Friday, March 20th, 2009 06:15 pm
flwyd: (bad decision dinosaur)
There's been a lot of media noise in the past week or so about over $160 million in "bonuses" paid to employees of AIG, a company the U.S. government has recently spent close to $200 billion to prop up. Many of those bonuses went to employees of the Financial Products division, "the guys who got us into this mess in the first place."

Most people's reaction, hearing it phrased like that, goes something like "What the fuck? Those greedy banker fuckwads have some nerve, throwing big piles of taxpayer money on bonuses for people whose performance was dismal?!?!?!?!?!?" President Obama expressed outrage and said his staff would look into all legal routes of getting that money back. AIG's counter was "We were contractually obligated to give those bonuses."

Now, in my lexicon, "bonus" implies that it's contingent on something. At work, we all get a bonus at the end of the year if our division meets certain earnings goals; if we the division doesn't meet those goals, we don't get bonuses. In the past I've also gotten a performance bonus where my boss said "I think these employees did a great job this year, they should get a special reward." In both cases, "bonus" means "It might not happen, but if it does, you get extra cash."

The $160 million in question at AIG turns out to be from an arrangement where they didn't expect much opportunities for traders to make profitable trades, so they set up their 2008 employment contracts to apply the 2007 bonus in 2008 as well. This is more or less equivalent to a car dealer telling his sales team "I don't expect us to sell many cars next month, but I don't want you to quit, so you can have the same commission next month as you had last month." At that point, I don't think of it as a "bonus" but as a "salary." I'm not sure to what extent AIG was in control of the story as it broke, but using the term "bonus" when the thing under discussion is more like a "salary" doesn't really help the discussion.

This is not to say that AIG's payment structure is a good one, that their employees deserve that much money, or that they shouldn't have renegotiated the employment contracts when the company nearly collapsed, taking the global economy with it. It's just important to understand what's going on and to have the finesse to be outraged about the right issues.
And 0.002 dollars will NEVER equal 0.002 cents.
flwyd: (Vigelandsparken thinking head)
This short article about credit card companies getting rid of customers doesn't say anything new, but it catalyzed an interesting analogy for something I've been thinking about for a while:

Free Marketeers like to talk about the tragedy of the commons. Suppose 100 people live in a village and their local pasture can support 220 cows. Everyone can graze two cows and things will be fine. But then some clever fellow realizes he can get ahead by grazing an extra cow that slips under the radar. But then everyone does that and the pasture can't support that many cows, the grass dies, and then the cows have nothing to eat. Free Marketeers say that the solution to this problem is to privatize the commons so that an individual has an incentive to ensure the pasture survives.

Now suppose we replace "pasture" with "American consumers" and "cows" with "nonessential goods and services." The recent decade of boom, domestically and globally, was largely driven by cows nonessential goods and services foraging on grass American consumers. Big houses, expensive electronics, SUVs, sneaky fees, and other products made huge profits by stretching the resilience of American consumers. And while one or two industries stretching consumers beyond good fiscal discipline could be sustainable, when everyone piled on, the resource was tapped out and everyone's cows business ventures starved.

The Free Marketeer solution of privatizing the resource obviously doesn't work in this analogy -- private ownership of another person's economic activity is slavery. The other main resolution to the tragedy of the commons is regulation: the people organize a governing body which can prevent or punish those who try to graze more cows endanger the ecosystem for personal gain.

Remember: Be suspicious of anyone who has a vested interest in you making poor decisions. Credit card companies don't like people who pay off their full balance every month (the responsible thing from the card holder's perspective). Rather, they prefer people who make the minimum payment each month, but a couple days late so they can rack up interest and fees. (Except now they're trying to get rid of those people to reduce their risk exposure. Oops.) Therefore, the credit card company does everything it can to get you to make poor economic decisions. A commercial bank wants to make as much profit off your deposits, loans, and fees as possible, but a credit union wants to provide the most benefit to its depositors and lenders. Therefore, a credit union's policies are more likely to be in your favor.

Quiet Stimulus

Thursday, March 5th, 2009 09:28 am
flwyd: (Vigelandsparken goat stone)
I just got my direct deposit notice by email and said "Huh, that's slightly more than it was two weeks ago. Did I get a very small raise for some reason?" Comparing side-by-side with last paycheck, I found the difference: federal taxes were about $20 less. "Oh yeah, a cut in payroll taxes were part of the stimulus plan." Maybe I'll celebrate by buying... uh... lunch?

I'd love to help the economy, but since I'm putting all my stuff in storage in a month, acquiring new things isn't very attractive. I suppose I could eat out more often, but then I wouldn't have a bowl of left over curry when I'm running short on time. One thing on my to-do list is to pick some non-profit organizations for donations, since they're probably hurting right now.
flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
The phrase "too big to fail" was bandied about a lot last fall as people with a fair understanding of how the national and world economy works (worked?) worried about the collapse of major banks. I got to thinking: "Who else is too big to fail?" and the first example to come to mind is public utility companies. I'm sure the government would step in if the phone or power company was in precipitous danger of running out of money to provide service.

Free marketers typically oppose strong regulation, even in the face of catastrophic failure, on the grounds that it may hamper innovation and evolution, and I see their point to an extent. Other folks point out that if taxpayers are going to keep your company afloat, the taxpayers should be assured you act in the public interest. So how about this compromise:

If you want to claim you're too big to fail, you need to play by public utility rules and accept regulations that guard against you failing. If you don't like the regulations, split yourself up until the pieces are small enough that they can fail.
flwyd: (bad decision dinosaur)
As a follow-up to my previous post, I'll note that the worst possible currency investment -- by a score of orders of magnitude -- is the Zimbabwean dollar. In July, one U.S. dollar was worth 758,530,000,000 (758 billion) Zimbabwean dollars. On August first, the central bank revalued the currency, making Z$10 billion worth Z$1. In August, 1,780 Zimbabwean dollars were worth one U.S. dollar. Over four weeks in October, the exchange rate went from 2,300,000 to 10,700,000 to 1,220,000,000 to 251,000,000,000. In the middle of November, one U.S. dollar was worth thirteen quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars.

So if you go shopping in Zimbabwe, make sure you do it in the morning because your money will be worth less in the afternoon.

Insofar as Zimbabweans are surviving, they're doing it with the help of friends and relatives outside the country. Zimbabwean expatriots have been sending money to family members for years. On the BBC's Business Daily program a few days ago I heard that Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa are paying taxi drivers to drive food to their friends in Zimbabwe.

This hyperinflation is due in part to the government's practice of printing money to pay increased salaries to the army and civil servants. It's unlikely that this situation will materially improve until Robert Mugabe is no longer in charge. And even though there's near-worldwide consensus that it's time for Mugabe to go, that doesn't seem likely until he dies.
flwyd: (mathnet - to cogitate and to solve)
Over a month ago, [livejournal.com profile] clarsa asked
I figured, when the Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae thing hit the tarmac, the best place to be would have been in foreign currency, particularly the yuan which had been held artificially low for quite some time in order to facilitate international trade. But for the last few days, I've been reading that Asian stocks were flailing wildly and Asian currency is losing ground against the dollar. How can that be?
I've been late in answering in part because I was busy and in part because I haven't learned as much about currency markets in the past few months as I have about other markets. But here's a stab at an answer.

First, some background. Most countries have their own currency. When one country's economy isn't doing well, their currency doesn't buy as much of other currencies. Equivalently, people with currency from other countries can buy that country's currency for cheap. For example, in the middle of summer, one U.S. dollar could buy half a British pound and one British pound could buy two U.S. dollars. Today, one U.S. dollar can buy 67 pence and one British pound can buy $1.50. In the former situation (a strong pound, a weak dollar), American goods are cheap for Brits and British goods are expensive for Yanks. In the latter situation, Americans find it "cheap" to visit castles and Brits find it "expensive" to visit Disneyland. (Traveling in Western Europe and America is almost never cheap when you compare the price of food and lodging to third world countries, but in currency exchanges it's relative prices that matter.) The Europeans weren't particularly happy with their high-valued currencies this summer because it resulted in fewer U.S. imports of European products. So they could buy more stuff, but they had a harder time selling stuff.

Some countries use currencies which aren't freely traded in this way. In some cases, they use another country's currency directly; for the last several years El Salvador's official currency has been the U.S. dollar. In other cases, the country keeps their currency, but assigns a fixed (or barely-fluctuating) conversion rate to another country. For instance, the Hong Kong dollar is always worth 103 Macau patacas. (That way you don't have to change money when you go from Hong Kong to Macau for a day, but the Macanese merchants get a few cents advantage.) The Chinese currency* is "pegged" to the dollar. In the middle of the summer, one U.S. dollar was worth about 6.83 Chinese yuan. Last week, one U.S. dollar was worth about 6.83 Chinese yuan. China just recently announced it would lower the value of the yuan, making one dollar buy 6.88 yuan. Not a big gain, but a significant sign.

* There are several ways to refer to Chinese currency. Its official international name is the Chinese yuan (CNY). In China, the official name is the Ren Min Bi (RMB), "The People's Currency." But if you ask someone how much a half-kilo of fruit or a plastic dingle-dangle costs, they'll answer in kuai. "Kuai" is a count word meaning "units," so "Er shi kuai" is short for "Er shi kuai ren min bi," "Twenty units people's currency." A loose translation of "Er shi kuai" is "Twenty bucks."

So there's part of the answer to your question: Since the exchange rate of the yuan with the dollar is fixed, investing in yuan doesn't give you any advantages over investing in the dollar (unless you want to buy a lot of goods and services priced in yuan). It's sort of like betting on the weight of a sack of flour. You won't lose any bets, but you won't make much money either.

What about other currencies? Since every day we hear news about how terrible the U.S. economy is, wouldn't it have been wise to invest in some other currency in the middle of the summer? Not really.

The U.S. dollar is sort of the de facto world currency. Barrels of oil, for instance, are bought and sold in dollars. And remember all those mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations that blew up earlier this year? They were all in dollars. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, everyone who'd sold (the equivalent of) an insurance policy against Lehman going bankrupt had to pay the policy holder. That meant they all needed dollars they could spend. They sold off oil and other commodities and foreign currencies so they'd have dollars to cover their investment positions.

Furthermore, the U.S. economy is seen as the most robust in the world. If the U.S. Federal Reserve collapses, the world will be near the point where we need to start trading cows for beans and searching our hard drives for funny pictures. So while holding pounds and euros was sensible when the U.S. economy was falling alone, now that the whole world's economy is collapsing, dollars are seen as the safe bet.

That's the theory anyway, but I wanted to be sure. Are there any currencies that have done better than the dollar lately? I grabbed data for 13 currencies vs. the dollar and graphed their value against the dollar. (Values are normalized so the currency's value on the first day of the graph, July 30th, is 1. That lets pounds at 0.5 to a dollar appear on the same graph as yen at 100 to a dollar). The Chinese yuan held steady (I skipped other currencies pegged to the dollar). 11 currencies lost value, ranging from the Thai baht which is 94% of its previous value to the Brazilian real and Australian dollar which are 67% of their previous value. The lone winner was the Japanese yen, now at 116% of its late-July value.

I don't know why the Japanese yen is doing well while everything else is tanking. Japan went through its own fiscal crisis in the mid- to late-90s so its financial system has some recently-created safeguards that Obama's economic team is probably studying. There are probably other factors too, but I've heard very little about Japan lately (other than references to their 1990s collapse).

54K graph )On the plus side, now would be a great time to visit Australia or Brazil. It's even summer!
flwyd: (bad decision dinosaur)
"It's as if your auto insurance agent came over to your house, got liquored up, borrowed your keys, totaled your car, and said 'Well that'll make your rates go up.'"

That's from today's Planet Money episode on NPR and in the New York Times. It's one of the best "How does the global financial crisis become local?" bits they've done.
flwyd: (mathnet - to cogitate and to solve)
[livejournal.com profile] mackys asks
What is a reasonable estimate for the ACTUAL value of the mortgage-backed "junk" securities that $810 billion of my tax dollars bought?
The answer to that question has fluctuated every few days recently, so note that everything I say could be wrong soon.

First, a timeline.
  1. US Financial System: OMG! We paid way too much for all these mortgages and nobody wants to buy them from us! O noes!
  2. US Treasury Secretary: You guys are too big to fail. I'll save you!
  3. Lehman Brothers: Save us, Henry!
  4. US Treasury Secretary: Wait, not you, Lehman.
  5. Lehman Brothers: <is dead>
  6. US Financial System: OMG! Did you see what just happened to Lehman, guys?!? I'm not going to give you any of the money I don't have in case you're the next Lehman.
  7. US Treasury Secretary: Ruh roh.
  8. US Treasury Secretary: I has a 3-page plan; let me show you it! Let me offer you a $700 billion "bailout" by buying all your "toxic waste." No oversight, no accountability. Sounds great, huh fellas?
  9. US Taxpayers: WTF?!? You're bailing out a bunch of bankers by buying toxic waste?
  10. Karl Rove: What happened to the Bush administrations public relations team after I left? That's the worst sales job ever.
  11. Senate Banking Chairman: Hey, I've got an 8-page better idea. The government should buy shares in banks. They'll get a liquidity injection and the government will make money when the banks do.
  12. US Financial System: <flail wildly>
  13. John McCain: In my many years in Warshington, I've fought wasteful government spending. And as president... Wait. For the next two days, I don't want to be president. I need to rush off to help the government hastily approve $700 billion in spending.
  14. Political Pundits: You're not a maverick. You're a loony.
  15. US President, US Treasury Secretary, Federal Reserve Chairman, Speaker of the House, Committee Heads, Attention Whores Presidential Candidates: Buying $700 billion of toxic assets sounds great. Here's a 100-page proposal.
  16. House Representatives in Tight Races: O noes! Our constituents found our phone numbers! Halp! I want to get reelected, screw this bailout.
  17. US Financial System: Well shiiiiiit.
  18. Emergency Conference Meeting: You know what people think is tasty? Bacon. Let's add 350 pages of pork.
  19. Somebody In The Meeting: *psst* Let's slip the stock purchase option back in there.
  20. US Senate: Tastes great, we're willing!
  21. US House of Representatives: Okay, I guess...
  22. Financial Commentators: So... the government is going to invent a price for a bunch of stuff which has no market value because nobody wants to buy it.
  23. Economists (some): Something must be done. This is something, therefore, it must be done.
  24. Economists (others): This is a terrible idea.
  25. Economists (still others): This might work, but I've got a better idea.
  26. US Financial System: I'm going to drink heavily for a week and then turn on MTV and the radio at the same time.
  27. US Treasury Secretary: I know I said there might not be an economy by Monday, but I'll need five weeks and some Wall Street executives on staff before I can do anything.
  28. Germany: Scheise! Now our banks are in trouble. Immediate action! Your money is safe in German banks!
  29. Europeans: Hey, now we have to guarantee our banks!
  30. Economists: Hey... that sock purchase plan is in the bailout plan. Let's try that.
  31. United Kingdom: Bollocks! Now our banks are in trouble. Immediate action! We'll take major shares in you chaps. kthxbai.
  32. World Financial System: Whoa... I think I'm still drunk.
  33. World's Major Central Banks: All together now: lower interest rates! That usually works!
  34. World Financial System: Crap! I mean Great! I mean... maybe?
  35. Iceland: We're melting! And not just because of global warming.
  36. US Treasury Secretary: World leader huddle!
  37. World Financial Leaders: Okay... we're not making progress running straight into the line. Let's run the option.
  38. US Treasury Secretary: But I hate the option. My fans always boo.
  39. World Financial Leaders: Henry... you can run the option or you can lose the game.
  40. US Treasury Secretary: Fine! I'll run the stupid option.
  41. World Financial Leaders: Okay, everybody. I know we've all trumpeted the wonders of the free market system for years. But the free market is having trouble, so we need to save it. Our plan is often called "nationalization." We're going to become part owners of major banks so they'll have money they can use to lube the wheels of the economy.
  42. Financial Commentators: Wow. The best option is socialism.
  43. John McCain: I'm gonna go ahead and NOT mention that in my campaign.
  44. US Financial System: Well... okay... I guess. But I won't move until everybody else moves too.
  45. US Treasury Secretary: Dear diary... the last month has sucked ass. But I think we're going somewhere.
So... what's the value of what taxpayers are buying? Like most questions in finance, the answer is "That depends on the future market." What are the pieces?

Henry Paulson (Secretary of the Treasury) wanted to solve the problem by spending $700 billion to buy mortgage-backed assets. (Essentially, that's a bunch of assets tossed in a pile. Except then somebody pulled pieces out of each mortgage and stuck them into other piles. It's like everybody in a neighborhood having spaghetti, but each noodle is really long and is on everybody's plate.) What would the value of these assets be? In some approaches to value, something is worth exactly what someone else is willing to pay. So in a sense, we'd be buying $700 billion of mortgage assets because we're willing to pay $700 billion. But then they'd be immediately worth much less because nobody else wants to pay $700 billion for them. In fact, nobody wants to pay much of anything for them. Part of the problem is that, under mark-to-market accounting rules, if nobody wants to buy a bank's piles of mortgages, banks can't pretend they have a bunch of money instead. And if they can't pretend they have a bunch of money, they have problems doing their normal bank activities like borrowing and lending money.

Under other approaches to value, the piles of mortgages are worth significantly more than nothing. Some percentage of the people who mortgaged their homes are making monthly payments, so the piles of mortgages are earning income. But investors don't think they can make a good guess about how many people will keep paying their mortgages, so they aren't willing to gamble on invest in them. If the U.S. government owned them, they wouldn't have to worry as much about accounting rules. The government would get the money that homeowners pay each month, meaning they'd have some real value. After a few years, once the economy settled down and investors felt like buying stuff again, the government would sell the piles of mortgages back and recover some of the taxpayer's money. In the mean time, the federal government would be the country's biggest landlord and end up owning a bunch of houses. I'll come back into that in a bit.

The main problem with the Paulson plan (aside from the world's worst marketing job) is that it put the government in the role of a really dumb investor. One of the main goals of the "OMG, save the banking system!" plans is to inject liquidity (i.e., money that's easy to spend) into financial system. If the government drove a hard bargain (what a private investor would do), they'd get a bunch of really cheap mortgages (great for the budget when the market improves later!), but banks wouldn't get much money they could spend. If they paid enough to get the money flowing (what a government would do), they'd probably end up losing a bunch of money in the end. The government has some smart people working out some rules for a reverse auction The federal government is good at losing money (call it an Investment Portfolio to Nowhere), but a lot of economists looked into the proposal and thought it wasn't very good.

Finally, Paulson bit the bullet and followed the European lead to the government buying major shares in banks. Some key things to note:
  • The government gets "preferred stock." That means that the government gets company profits (from dividends or sale of assets in case of a collapse) before normal shareholders.
  • The Treasury has said, on their honor, that they won't use the shares to influence the decisions of the bank.
  • This provides an immediate infusion of liquid cash (technically it's electronic, which is kind of like liquid... there's electrons flowing through wire instead of water flowing through pipes...)
  • Nobody has to make up a price for the piles of mortgages. The government's buying shares which currently have a market value.
  • If the banks get better, the government makes money when they sell the shares.
  • If the banks fail, the government gets a chunk of their assets.
  • This guy thinks there are some devilish details the banks can twist to connive with the sudden infusion of taxpayer money. (He lists "rotisserie baseball" as an interest. I hope that doesn't involve hitting a chicken with a stick.) Listen to the Planet Money podcast for his points. (As usual, Adam Davidson does a better job than I do at explaining this stuff.)
  • I think Treasury is still planning to buy "toxic assets," but their total available cash for toxic waste and bank stock is around $350 billion and the latter will take about $200 billion.
So what's the real value of the mortgage-backed securities taxpayers are buying? Hard to say. But we aren't spending $700 billion on them. What's the value of the bank stock we're spending $200 billion on? Hard to say, but if things get better the value should be more than $200 billion. The bankers don't really like the stock plan, but their collective overvaluing of the market got us into this mess, so tough cookies.

A caricature of the Soviet economic system is that everybody gets an identical place to live (owned by the government) and gives most of their money to the State. America, these caricaturists say, is better because we let each person decide what house to buy with their own money. But in the end, everybody ended up buying a house that looked just like all the other houses in their subdivision. And under the Paulson plan, the government would've owned a bunch of them and everybody would've paid their mortgages to the State. Under socialism, government men start with a plan to exploit their fellow men. Under capitalism, it just ends up that way.

Part of me thinks it would be really interesting for the government to own a whole bunch of suburban real estate. They could embark on projects to create local centers of employment and commerce, reducing the distance people would have to drive and thereby reducing dependence on foreign oil. They could turn vacant McMansions (in Denver lingo "Prairie Palaces") into housing cooperatives. The other part of me thinks housing cooperatives and local community development must grow bottom-up to have a chance of success. The federal government is good at doing big things like running national parks. A half-dozen hippies are good at doing small things like organizing a house inhabited by a half-dozen hippies. But I think there's a chance that the anonymous sprawl suburbs will become the new ghettos while former industrial buildings (aka lofts) become the hip expensive places to live. Centennial will be a really swank ghetto, but it'll still be a ghetto. Maybe we'll be listening to rap songs entitled "Straight Outa Rancho Cucamonga."

I've come to understand some interesting things about macroeconomics in the last few years, but hard-core capitalism still bothers me. At its root, it's a bunch of people doing stuff in exchange for imaginary pieces of paper. The main advantages of money are that you can do math with it and it can be exchanged multiple times. If you give me $10, I can later give the $10 to somebody else. Or I can divide it in half and give $5 to two people. But money isn't the only thing that can be exchanged. Much of the time, it stands in for time, effort, or information. If I give you an afternoon of my time and energy moving all your stuff from one apartment to another, you can't necessarily give that afternoon to somebody else. If you and I have sex for ten minutes, it has no (necessary) impact on your ability to have sex with somebody else for ten minutes... or two other people for five minutes. If I tell you a funny story and you want to tell it to two other people, there's no need to tell each only half the story.

Money is a tool to enable zero-sum games. But a very effective path to success is for multiple individuals to team up and play a game that's not zero-sum. Maybe that's why society gets so skittish about prostitution: it tries to mix a zero-sum game (paying money) with a non-zero-sum game (two people helping each other have an orgasm).

Remember that investing is essentially gambling with two important differences: Nobody's quite sure what the odds are and the house doesn't always win in the long run. When you invest money, you might get more of it back or you might get less of it back. When you invest time (hanging out with friends, playing games, having sex, relaxing in the sun on the porch) you know that hour of time won't come back, but you also know it won't suddenly turn into just half an hour. Remember that money isn't the only thing in the world worth exchanging with another person.

So that's all the economics questions I was asked on my original post. If I didn't bore you to tears and you didn't learn what you want to know from Planet Money, ask more questions!
flwyd: (mathnet - to cogitate and to solve)
[livejournal.com profile] slyviolet asks
For those of us with relatively insignificant (in comparison... obviously not insignificant to ME) bank holdings, no credit debt to speak of, no large loans outstanding and no stocks/bonds/other things of that nature, what will the practical personal fallout of the bailout be, if any?
The correct answer to that question requires predicting the future. Economists spend a lot of time predicting the future. But there's a lot of variation between economists' predictions, so you can often pick the prediction you like best and pretend that's what the future holds. "What will happen?" is not nearly as clear as "What could happen?"

First, what won't happen is losing the money in your bank account. The FDIC and NCUA just raised their insurance amount from $100,000 to $250,000. That means that even if your bank or credit union collapses because their loans all fail, you'll keep all your money (checking accounts, saving accounts, money market accounts, etc.) up to a quarter million dollars. So you don't have any reason to withdraw all your cash and stuff it under your mattress.

The key part of the current financial crisis is a halt in lending. Investors have been very reluctant to lend money to businesses and other banks. A lot of companies run on debt—retail stores often don't turn a profit until Christmas season so they borrow money during the rest of the year—and if they can't get loans they may have to fold. I haven't heard of a sudden rash of collapsing companies outside the financial sector. The government has taken a fairly active role in trying to stabilize things and if a lot of companies were suddenly about to collapse for lack of credit, the Federal Reserve would probably step in (which it did a week or so ago when it announced it would buy commercial paper). This is therefore probably a low risk right now, but it wouldn't hurt to check in with anybody you're receiving a regular paycheck from and ask what the company's financial situation is.

I think a bigger risk to companies is a weak Christmas sales season. I heard one time that "If Christmas were canceled one year, the whole American economy would collapse." A lot of people have reduced spending recently due to all the media attention on economic collapse. (Would you buy an iPod after the Secretary of the Treasury says "If we don't pass this bill, we might not have an economy by Monday?") If a lot of retailers collapse due to week holiday spending, you'd probably have some friends that were out of work, you might not be able to buy some of the stuff you want, and so forth. It would be a big sign of wide-spread economic hard times, a recession/depression hitting most Americans. I don't suspect this Christmas Crash scenario will happen, though. September of 2001 also featured a sudden change in market atmosphere and public worry about the future, but January 2002 didn't feature a major collapse of the retail sector (though it was a rough season).

If you're considering taking out a loan soon (to buy a car or a house or start a business or something) you may find it hard to get credit at a reasonable interest rate since lenders are reassessing who they ought to give money to. Depending what options in the bailout plan get activated and what new mortgage-relevant laws get passed, the housing market could go in several directions. If the government takes steps (changing mortgage terms or extra cash or whatever) to help current owners keep homes then I wouldn't expect a big change from the current housing situation, though home prices may continue to fall. If a lot of mortgage holders can't keep their properties, things may get exciting. If you rent a house, or condo (etc.) and the owner can't pay the mortgage, it'll go into foreclosure. If it's bought and the new owner wants to move in, you'll need to find a place to go. On the plus side, if you can afford it there may be some reasonably-priced foreclosures you could buy in such a situation.

Tied to the general economic situation (and not particularly to the bank bailout), commodities prices have fallen recently. Oil was trading around $90 a barrel this week, down from over $140 this summer. You've probably noticed gas prices are down; some of this is seasonal, but some is due to commodities traders selling in the face of uncertain financial future. (I keep typing "commodoties." When their prices go down, it's a nice whirlpool effect.) Food may also get cheaper.

Another thing that could happen: Your parents might get worried about their retirement savings and call you for advice. I spent around an hour explaining recent financial news to my mom last week. I advised her not to withdraw a bunch of money because she wouldn't have a chance to earn back what she's lost in the market. Calls from parents will give you the opportunity to reflect on things that ups and downs of financial markets can't take away: having conversations with people you like. Also: going for walks/hikes/bike rides, lying around in the sun, and socializing over board, card, and role playing games. Anybody want to play Monopoly?

Longer term effects: As the presidential debate moderators have mentioned, the next president will probably need to scale back some of his proposed projects in light of the state of the economy and the fact that $700 billion may be tied up in chunks of mortgages. So if you're hoping for particular proposals to come into effect next year, you might need to brace for disappointment. But really, that's sound advice for any political campaign. On the flip side, if there's a government program you're not fond of, 2009 might be a good time to organize a campaign to defund it. Like, say... "Hey, we've just spent $700 billion on a bank bailout. How about we don't spend another $700 billion on Iraq?"

As things ripple throughout the world, foreign economies may be rather volatile. It might be a great time to go to Europe if the Dollar regains significant ground against the Euro. It sounds like Iceland could use some cash... It's possible that countries who weren't closely tied into the scene become (relatively) better off -- maybe South America will be the place to be instead of China. But unless you're planning on international travel or business, changes in foreign markets won't have a direct effect on you and indirect effects are largely speculation at this point.

Further listening: This American Life: Another Frightening Show About The Economy. NPR: Planet Money podcast and blog. Adam Davidson from NPR (who's also the main guy in the This American Life economy shows) is the best business/economy reporter I've heard. I also like Steve Evans, the sometimes host of Business Daily on the BBC. He has a very engaging interview style
flwyd: (mathnet - to cogitate and to solve)
I've been absorbing a lot of news and blogs about the current financial crisis and about financial systems over the past few weeks. I feel like blogging what I've learned to help my adoring readers understand the situation. Yet I know that I tend to think about undertaking such explanations and then getting overwhelmed by the amount I want to say and not writing anything.

So I won't attempt to explain the entire financial crisis here. Instead, I'd love to answer questions about it. By focusing on one point at a time, like "What is a mortgage-backed security" or "Why are U.S. taxpayers 'bailing out' big banks by buying 'toxic' assets" I can share some of what I've learned in a context that will hopefully keep me succinct.

Are there terms you've heard in the news that you don't know? (Basic tip: "Security" in financial news doesn't mean what it means in "Homeland Security.") Are you confused about what's happening in "global credit markets" and how it impacts your daily life? Anything is fair game, but be warned that I'm not an economist or a financial adviser. I'm pretty good at picking up the core concepts of a domain, but there's a lot of background I don't have. So I'll try to be clear about what I know, what I suspect, and what I opine.

So, what do you want to know?
flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
I've been mentally working on a post with a title like "What's Going On In The World: A Summary" lately, but I haven't made time to write it all down. One thing it'll touch on is the "Global Credit Crunch," which grew out of the "U.S. Housing Crisis" stemming from the "Subprime Mortgage Collapse." I don't have any formal education in economics, but I often find that I can construct a decent sense of the key issues by listening to the language of people who do know what they're talking about. But despite all the news references to this major financial current event, I could tell I was missing key pieces of the puzzle.

Fortunately, This American Life is really good at sharing a full story in a way that's easy to understand in human ways. Episode #355: The Giant Pool of Money looks at people involved at each level of the house of cards which has now foreclosed. They define key terms, explain why otherwise sensible people made bad decisions, and what factors came into place for everything to fall apart. The whole episode will be available as a free download on their podcast for the next week; even if you don't want to listen to everyday people's stories about weird stuff every week, be sure to listen to episode 355.

One thing they didn't really touch on is the question "Where did all the money go?" They said "It's just gone," but money doesn't just disappear; it goes somewhere. Somebody class of people came out on the winning side. I think the answer goes something like this:
Global investors (the giant pool of money) bought shares in mortgage-backed securities offered by investment banks on the assumption that payments would be regular, producing dividends.

Investment banks bought loans from mortgage brokers and commercial banks on the assumption that they could sell shares to big investors.

Mortgage lenders gave money to people (many of whom shouldn't have gotten a loan in the first place) on the assumption they'd make regular payments (or on the assumption that someone would buy the loan before it would matter).

Some people took out mortgages to pay other debts on the assumption that the going interest rate was better than their other interest rate. So creditors are one set of winners. And not entirely coincidentally, creditors like the financial megalith JP Morgan Chase Manhattan were major players in the shenanigans we're now seeing fallout from. So they may not have lost as bad as their current numbers look.

Some people took out mortgages to pay for big expenses like college for their kids or trips to Mexico on the assumption that American housing prices would keep going up and they could use the equity in their home as an ATM. So smart spenders are one set of winners. If someone took out a mortgage, paid for college, then lost the house in foreclosure, they at least funded a good education for their kid who can find a good job (even in the current economy, they hope) and get a house with some extra room for their parents. Of course, dumb spenders are one set of losers. If they bought a big screen TV and took a trip to party on Mexican beaches and then lost their house in foreclosure, the best they can say is "The real titties looked better than the high def ones did."

And, of course, some people took out mortgages to buy houses. For several years, American home construction was a booming industry. So one set of winners is home builders. But then they became losers as they discovered they had vast tracts of cookie-cutter subdivisions ready to sell just as everyone started losing the houses they shouldn't have purchased three years before. But before the home builders moved to the loser category, they paid a lot of money in wages to construction crews. American construction work these days is largely done by Hispanics. A lot of Hispanics send a significant portion of their income to family members in Latin America.

So the flow goes something like this:
American consumers buy cheap goods at discount retail stores -> discount retail stores buy cheap goods from China -> China invests dollars in U.S. mortgage bonds -> mortgage bonds create a demand for unsound loans -> unsound loans promise American consumers the dream of home ownership -> dream sellers build ostentatious subdivisions -> frugal carpenters send their share of American consumer money to poor Mexican families.
It's not so much trickle-down economics as it is Gordian-hose economics. The flow doesn't start or stop where I've outlined, but it's interesting to see how two groups (Chinese factory workers and Mexican subsistence farmers) who at first seem to have nothing to do with $500,000 houses on Shady Hills Lane are beneficiaries of the complex transactions of the American housing market. Of course, with major increases in the prices of food and oil, those benefits may rapidly dissipate. I wonder how much of that increase has come from investors fleeing poor assumptions about the U.S. housing market in favor of assumptions about commodities markets...

Remember kids, when investing or making other important decisions: The past is not necessarily a good predictor of the future. Life is one big Hume problem.
flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
Seven people tried to buy drugs from me at the show tonight, but I found that The Chemical Brothers got my mind to wander with no more chemical aid than an $8 (WTF?) beer. While I danced next to the sound boards (where the music sounds best and nobody's in danger of being hit by my right arm), my mind wandered around in the field of economics.

I heard last week that Milton Freedman thought the only valid functions of government is contract enforcement and military defense from external attack. Freedman's economics are (unless he's way more into psychology than he's portrayed) based on rational agents with perfect information. I haven't read Freedman, so I don't know if I'm missing nuances, but given informed rational agents, these seem like an indefensible pair.

If a rational agent has perfect information, he knows how often and in what circumstances everyone broke previous contracts. Assuming past observations are a good way to predict the future (a non-rational belief), one can then determine the probability a contract under consideration will be broken and use that probability to weight the expected utility. It's therefore usually in the interest of a rational agent to abide by contracts and only violate them if the expected utility of the violation outweighs the loss in expected utility from a lack of trust in future encounters.

Put more simply, why leave to government what can be solved by rumor and social stigma?

And if Kant's right, rational agents will never violate a contract, so we don't need to worry about it.

The problem with allowing military defense as the second function of government isn't that it's a bad thing for government to do, but rather that military defense shouldn't be alone in government-supported defenses.

From a functional standpoint, the only difference between a bomber or terrorist blowing up a building and an earthquake blowing up a building is that you can't retaliate against an earthquake. The only difference between an enemy poisoning a drinking supply and a dead animal poisoning a drinking supply is there's nobody to blame. If it's valid for the government to work to defend the populace from a bunch of invading humans, why shouldn't it also work to protect the populace from a bunch of invading microbes or tectonic plates?

Put more simply, public health and fire departments are social goods just as much as national sovereignty. Why would I pay protection money to a fire department when I can build my house next to someone who has an incentive for a fire in my house to not spread to his?

The success of modern economics is due in large part to applying evolutionary thinking to market participation. So why don't economists take the view that governments (which every society of significant size has developed) are adaptations, not flaws?
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