Quotulatiousness

June 22, 2014

QotD: Environmentalism and capitalism

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Environmentalists seem to all feel that capitalism is the enemy of sustainability, but in fact capitalism is the greatest system to promote sustainability that has ever been devised. Every single resource has a price that reflects its relative scarcity as compared to demand. Scarcer resources have higher prices that automatically promote conservation and seeking of substitutes. So an analysis of an investment’s ability to return its cost is in effect a sustainability analysis. What environmentalists don’t like is that wind does not cover the cost of its resources, in other words it does not produce enough power to justify the scarce resources it uses. Screwing around with that to only look at some of the resources is just dishonest.

[...]

I did not critique the analysis of energy payback per se, but if I were to dig into it, I would want to look at two common fallacies with many wind analyses. 1) They typically miss the cost of standby power needed to cover wind’s unpredictability, which has a substantial energy cost. In Germany, during their big wind push, they had to have 80-90% of wind power backed up with hot fossil fuel backup. 2) They typically look at nameplate capacity and not real capacities in the field. In fact, real capacities should further be discounted for when wind power produces electricity that the grid cannot take (ie when there is negative pricing in the wholesale market, which actually occurs).

Warren Meyer, “Bizarre Payback Analysis Being Used for Alternate Energy”, Coyote Blog, 2014-06-16.

March 25, 2014

Tech culture and ageism

Filed under: Business, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:56

Noam Scheiber examines the fanatic devotion to youth in (some parts of) the high tech culture:

Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old. “Young people are just smarter,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford back in 2007. As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its “careers” page: “We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.”

And that’s just what gets said in public. An engineer in his forties recently told me about meeting a tech CEO who was trying to acquire his company. “You must be the token graybeard,” said the CEO, who was in his late twenties or early thirties. “I looked at him and said, ‘No, I’m the token grown-up.’”

Investors have also become addicted to the youth movement:

The economics of the V.C. industry help explain why. Investing in new companies is fantastically risky, and even the best V.C.s fail a large majority of the time. That makes it essential for the returns on successes to be enormous. Whereas a 500 percent return on a $2 million investment (or “5x,” as it’s known) would be considered remarkable in any other line of work, the investments that sustain a large V.C. fund are the “unicorns” and “super-unicorns” that return 100x or 1,000x — the Googles and the Facebooks.

And this is where finance meets what might charitably be called sociology but is really just Silicon Valley mysticism. Finding themselves in the position of chasing 100x or 1,000x returns, V.C.s invariably tell themselves a story about youngsters. “One of the reasons they collectively prefer youth is because youth has the potential for the black swan,” one V.C. told me of his competitors. “It hasn’t been marked down to reality yet. If I was at Google for five years, what’s the chance I would be a black swan? A lot lower than if you never heard of me. That’s the collective mentality.”

Some of the corporate cultures sound more like playgroups than workgroups:

Whatever the case, the veneration of youth in Silicon Valley now seems way out of proportion to its usefulness. Take Dropbox, which an MIT alumnus named Drew Houston co-founded in 2007, after he got tired of losing access to his files whenever he forgot a thumb drive. Dropbox quickly caught on among users and began to vacuum up piles of venture capital. But the company has never quite outgrown its dorm-room vibe, even now that it houses hundreds of employees in an 85,000-square-foot space. Dropbox has a full-service jamming studio and observes a weekly ritual known as whiskey Fridays. Job candidates have complained about being interviewed in conference rooms with names like “The Break-up Room” and the “Bromance Chamber.” (A spokesman says the names were recently changed.)

Once a year, Houston, who still wears his chunky MIT class ring, presides over “Hack Week,” during which Dropbox headquarters turns into the world’s best-capitalized rumpus room. Employees ride around on skateboards and scooters, play with Legos at all hours, and generally tool around with whatever happens to interest them, other than work, which they are encouraged to set aside. “I’ve been up for about forty hours working on Dropbox Jeopardy,” one engineer told a documentarian who filmed a recent Hack Week. “It’s close to nearing insanity, but it feels worth it.”

It’s safe to say that the reigning sensibility at Dropbox has conquered more or less every corner of the tech world. The ping-pong playing can be ceaseless. The sexual mores are imported from college—“They’ll say something like, ‘This has been such a long day. I have to go out and meet some girls, hook up tonight,’ ” says one fortysomething consultant to several start-ups. And the vernacular is steroidally bro-ish. Another engineer in his forties who recently worked at a crowdsourcing company would steel himself anytime he reviewed a colleague’s work. “In programming, you need a throw-away variable,” the engineer explained to me. “So you come up with something quick.” With his co-workers “it would always be ‘dong’ this, ‘dick’ that, ‘balls’ this.”

There’s also the blind spot about having too many youth-focussed firms in the same market:

The most common advice V.C.s give entrepreneurs is to solve a problem they encounter in their daily lives. Unfortunately, the problems the average 22-year-old male programmer has experienced are all about being an affluent single guy in Northern California. That’s how we’ve ended up with so many games (Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, Crappy Bird) and all those apps for what one start-up founder described to me as cooler ways to hang out with friends on a Saturday night.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.

March 17, 2014

Current US government programs actually increase income inequality

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:32

In the Washington Post, George Will says that we’ve learned nothing about helping the poor since Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s day:

Between 2000, when 17 million received food stamps, and 2006, food stamp spending doubled, even though unemployment averaged just 5.1 percent. A few states have food stamp recruiters. An award was given to a state agency for a plan to cure “mountain pride” that afflicts “those who wished not to rely on others.”

Nearly two-thirds of households receiving food stamps qualify under “categorical eligibility” because they receive transportation assistance or certain other welfare services. We spend $1 trillion annually on federal welfare programs, decades after Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that if one-third of the money for poverty programs was given directly to the poor, there would be no poor. But there also would be no unionized poverty bureaucrats prospering and paying dues that fund the campaigns of Democratic politicians theatrically heartsick about inequality.

The welfare state, primarily devoted to pensions and medical care for the elderly, aggravates inequality. Young people just starting up the earnings ladder and families in the child-rearing, tuition-paying years subsidize the elderly, who have had lifetimes of accumulation. Households headed by people age 75 and older have the highest median net worth of any age group.

In this sixth year of near-zero interest rates, the government’s monetary policy breeds inequality. Low rates are intended to drive liquidity into the stock market in search of higher yields. The resulting boom in equity markets — up 30 percent last year alone — has primarily benefited the 10 percent who own 80 percent of all directly owned stocks.

January 14, 2014

2014 Economic Freedom Rankings

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Liberty — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:51

The Heritage Foundation has posted their 2014 economic freedom rankings. Here’s a slideshow of the top ten countries by Heritage’s ranking formula:

The United States missed the top ten, coming in at #12. Canada ranked number six:

Canada’s economic freedom score is 80.2, making its economy the 6th freest in the 2014 Index. Its overall score is 0.8 point better than last year, reflecting improvements in investment freedom, the management of government spending, and monetary freedom. Canada continues to be the freest economy in the North America region.

Over the 20-year history of the Index, Canada has advanced its economic freedom score by 10.7 points, the third biggest improvement among developed economies. Substantial score increases in seven of the 10 economic freedoms, including investment freedom, fiscal freedom, and the management of public spending, have enabled Canada to elevate its economic freedom status from “moderately free” 20 years ago to “free” today.

A transparent and stable business climate makes Canada one of the world’s most attractive investment destinations. Openness to global trade and commerce is firmly institutionalized, and the economy has rebounded relatively quickly from the global recession. The financial system has remained stable, and prudent regulations have allowed banks to withstand the global financial turmoil with little disruption.

July 27, 2013

Municipal bonds and the economic law of gravity

Filed under: Economics, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:48

In the US, municipal bonds — bonds issued by city or other municipal governments — have been widely viewed as “safe” investments. Detroit may cause that view to change drastically. Reggie Middleton has been sounding the alarm for a few years:

Following up on my timely post “Here Come Those Municipal Defaults That Everyone Said Couldn’t Happen, Pt 2“, I comment on Meredith Whitney’s OpEd in the Financial Times. If you remember, she — like I — warned of municipal defaults years ago and was ridiculed for such. Ms. Whitney is quoted as saying:

    “As jarring as the reality may be to accept, Detroit’s decision last week to declare bankruptcy should not be regarded as a one-off in the U.S. municipal market.” she said.

    “There are five more towns like Detroit in Michigan alone. There are many more municipalities across the country in similar positions.”

    “The bill for promises past is now so large for some cities and towns that it is crowding out money for the most basic of services — in the case of Detroit, it could not even afford to run its traffic lights,” she said.

    “Will [lawmakers] side with taxpayers, unions or the municipal bondholders? If they back residents, money will be directed to underfunded public services at the expense of pensions and bondholders. If they side with the unions, social services will continue to be cut and the risk to bondholders will increase considerably. If they side with bondholders, social services and pensions are at risk.”

    In the case of Detroit, elected officials, for the first time in a very long time, are siding with residents, Whitney said. This is a new precedent that boils down to the straightforward reality of the survival and sustainability of a town or city, she said.

    “After decades of near-third-world conditions in the richest country in the world, the city finally stood up and said enough was enough,”

Well, this is the problem. Defaulting on revenue bonds where the underlying asset (ex. a housing project, utility, or infrastructure project) is not generating the sufficient cash flows is part and parcel of the risk of investing in said class of bonds. This is widely accepted and understood, which is likely why those bonds have a slightly higher yield.

For some obscene reason, defaulting on the general obligation bonds which purportedly carry the “full faith and credit’ of the municipality as a back stop is deemed as wholly different affair. The reason? Who the hell knows? This is a point I tried to drive home in the original “Here Come Those Municipal Defaults That Everyone Said Couldn’t Happen” article in 2011. Backing by the full faith and credit of a public entity does not make an investment risk free. To the contrary, if said entity is fundamentally insolvent, the investment is actually “riskful” as opposed to risk free.

Treating these bonds as unsecured in the bankruptcy is essentially the way to go. If you don’t want to do that, well you can still consider them backed by the full faith and credit of the insolvent municipality, which is essentially unsecured — and move on anyway — particularly as many potential collateral assets of value would have likely been encumbered by agreements with a little more prejudicial foresight.

March 30, 2013

Looking at crowdfunding as a replacement for venture capital

Filed under: Business, Economics, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:43

ESR looks at where crowdfunding fits in the traditional tech start-up food chain:

In How crowdfunding and the JOBS Act will shape open source companies, Fred Trotter proposes that crowdfunding a la Kickstarter and IndieGoGo is going to displace venture capitalists as the normal engine of funding for open-source tech startups, and that this development will be a tremendous enabler. Trotter paints a rosy picture of idealistic geeks enabled to do fully open-source projects because they’ll no longer feel as pressed to offer a lucrative early exit to VCs on the promise of rent capture from proprietary technology.

Some of the early evidence from crowdfunding successes does seem to point at this kind of outcome, especially near 3D printing and consumer electronics with a lot of geek buy-in. And I’d love to believe all of Trotter’s optimism. But there’s a nagging problem of scale here that makes me think the actual consequences will be more mixed and messy than he suggests.

In general, VCs don’t want to talk to you at all unless they can see a good case for ploughing in at least $2 million, and they don’t get really interested below a scale of about $15M. This is because the amount of time required for them to babysit an investment (sit on the company’s board, assist job searches, etc.) doesn’t scale down for smaller investments — small plays are just as much work for much less money. This is why there’s a second class of investors, often called “angels”, who trade early financing on the $100K order of magnitude for equity. The normal trajectory of a startup goes from friends & family money through angels up to VCs. Each successive stage in this pipeline is generally placing a larger bet and accordingly has less risk tolerance and a higher time discount than the previous; VCs, in particular, will be looking for a fast cash-out via initial public offering.

The problem is this: it’s quite rare for crowdfunding to raise money even equivalent to the low-end threshold of a VC, let alone the volume they lay down when they’re willing to bet heavily. Unless crowdfunding becomes an order of magnitude more effective than it is now (which seems to me possible but unlikely) the financing source it will displace isn’t VCs but angels.

January 16, 2013

When is a retirement fund not a retirement fund?

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

When you draw it down long before retirement to pay ordinary living expenses:

This trend has been in place since the financial crisis, but the fact that it is accelerating is extremely disconcerting. First off, this is not the kind of behavior that should be witnessed in an “economic recovery.” Second, we need to remember the huge percentage of Americans on food stamps and/or disability. As we have discussed previously, many of them also have jobs. So essentially, a wage and a check from the government is still not enough to survive. They still need to tap into a loan from their 401k plans.

From the Washington Post:

    More than one in four American workers with 401(k) and other retirement savings accounts use them to pay current expenses, new data show. The withdrawals, cash-outs and loans drain nearly a quarter of the $293 billion that workers and employers deposit into the accounts each year, undermining already shaky retirement security for millions of Americans.

    [. . .]

    “We’re going from bad to worse,” said Diane Oakley, executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security. “Already, fewer private-sector workers have access to stable pension plans. And the savings in individual retirement savings accounts like 401(k) plans — which already are severely underfunded — continue to leak out at a high rate.”

    A report due out this week from the financial advisory firm HelloWallet found that more than one in four workers dip into retirement funds to pay their mortgages, credit card debt or other bills. Those in their 40s have been the most likely culprits — one-third are turning to such accounts for relief.

January 7, 2013

Discounting for total political dysfunction

Filed under: Business, Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:30

The Economist reports on last week’s “deal” in Congress and why the markets are still able to function in spite of the almost unprecedented level of political uncertainty:

Markets now live in the policy equivalent of Beirut in 1982. They have adjusted to perpetual political dysfunction. Over the last eight weeks, as the fiscal cliff talks stumbled, revived, collapsed, then came to life again, market movements were surprisingly narrow, and much of them could be explained by tax considerations as investors prepared for higher capital gains and dividend rates. The sang froid perplexed many of us who follow the policy process for a living and knew how high the stakes were. But perhaps we were too close to it. You can steep yourself in the intricacies of political coalitions, the electoral calendar, the makeup of the executive, senate and house, the interaction of permanent and temporary fiscal policy and such arcana as reconciliation, filibusters and blue slips, and yet still not know how to model the outcome. The fiscal cliff perfectly illustrated this: the people closest to the process didn’t know any better how it would end than those reading the newspapers, or not reading the newspapers, for that matter. There were just too many moving parts.

Richard Bookstaber once attributed the evolutionary success of the cockroach to coarse decision rules: it ignores most of the information around it and responds only to simple signals. Investors do something similar when confronted with hopeless complexity. They boil it down to a binary question: disaster/no disaster. Then they ignore all the idiosyncratic inputs and ask: what does experience suggest the probability of disaster is? Four times in the last two years, politicians went up to some do-or-die deadline without going over: in December, 2010, when the Bush tax cuts first came up for expiration; in April, 2011, when the federal government nearly shut down for lack of discretionary spending authority; the following August, when Treasury was days away from hitting the hard debt ceiling; and December, 2011, when the payroll tax cut first came up for expiration. In each case, one side, or both blinked; tax rates never went up, the government never shut down, and Treasury did not stop paying bills, much less default. It was, arguably, a better record than in 1995-96 when the federal government shut down twice and Bill Clinton threatened to suspend social security payments if Newt Gingrich’s Republicans didn’t raise the debt ceiling. Ignore the specifics of the latest episodes, and the logical conclusion is that despite their differences, both sides have powerful incentives to avoid disaster, so they will.

And who are the policy experts to say otherwise? For all the twists and turns, the cliff negotiations ended up where the median market participant a few months ago assumed they would: with a short-term fix and the remainder stuffed in a can and kicked down the road.

What’s that odd whistling sound coming from Wall Street?

December 18, 2012

Don’t expand the Canada Pension Plan: reform it

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:52

Andrew Coyne briefly praises the CPP before advancing a plan to (eventually) supplant it entirely:

By most measures, Canada’s retirement income support system is an outstanding success. The poverty rate for Canadian seniors, with just 4.4% living below half the median income, is among the lowest in the world. The Canada Pension Plan, once careening towards insolvency, is now on a sounder footing. Millions of Canadians contribute to their Registered Retirement Savings Plans every year, with a view to replacing more of their income than the 25% covered by the CPP; Tax-Free Savings Accounts are a fast-growing alternative. For most people, then, the pension system works well. There is no evidence of a generalized pension “crisis.”

[. . .]

Suppose an additional levy were tacked onto CPP premiums. Only instead of going into the regular CPP pot, the funds would accumulate in the contributor’s own personal fund — like an RRSP, only compulsory. To avoid wasting money on management fees, funds would be invested strictly passively (ie buying the indexes), with the particular asset mix varying as the investor aged: more stocks when younger, more bonds when older.

Any increase in benefits would thus have to be fully funded; at the same time, since legal title to the funds would rest with the contributor, there would be no way politicians could raid the kitty. Moreover, with such a direct link between contributions and the size of their nest egg, contributors would be less likely to see the rise in premiums as a tax increase, and more as savings, mitigating labour market effects, at least on the supply side.

On its own, this would be vastly preferable to CPP expansion. If we liked the results, we might even think of going further. Over time, one could imagine migrating more and more of the regular CPP over to these mandatory personal accounts, allowing the CPP fund to be slowly wound down. Rather than simply expanding the CPP, the challenge of population aging presents an opportunity to reform it.

October 23, 2012

Canada’s foreign investment “net benefit” test is a farce

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Cancon, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:15

Andrew Coyne scrambles to find the right words to describe the indescribable:

The existing rules, as readers will know, require that a foreign takeover be of “net benefit” to Canada. How this is to be demonstrated, how it is even defined, is a secret to which the bidder is not privy — understandably enough, since it is not known to the government either. The result may be compared to a game of blind man’s bluff, only with both players wearing blindfolds. The bidder makes repeated attempts to hit the mark, while the government shouts encouragingly, “warmer… ” or “cooler…” depending on its best guess of where the target happens to be at the time.

I’m joking, of course. In fact, there’s a perfectly clear definition of “net benefit.” As set out in section 20 of the Investment Canada Act, the minister is required to take into account the effect of the investment on “the level and nature of economic activity in Canada,” specifically (but “without limiting the generality of the foregoing”) “on employment, on resource processing, on the utilization of parts, components and services produced in Canada and on exports from Canada.” Clear enough, right?

[. . .]

All told, I count more than 20 different criteria to be applied, vague, elusive and contradictory as they are. Whether it is possible to measure even one of them in any objective fashion, still less all of them at the same time, may be doubted — but even if you could, the Act provides no benchmark of what is acceptable, separately or collectively. Neither does it say what weight should be given to each in the minister’s calculations, or even whether he strictly has to pay any of them any mind at all (“the factors to be taken into account, where relevant, are…”).

In other words, the whole thing is a charade, applying a veneer of objectivity to what remains an entirely subjective — not to say opaque, arbitrary and meaningless — process. Which is good, since any attempt to define such benchmarks, weights, etc would be even more arbitrary and meaningless. Because there isn’t any objective definition of “net benefit,” at least in the sense implied, nor is it necessary to invent one. We don’t need to clarify the net benefit test. We need to abolish it.

October 10, 2012

Is “national security” just another term for “protectionism”

Filed under: Business, Cancon, China, Government, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:16

Daniel Ikenson at the Cato@Liberty blog:

Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE long have been in the crosshairs of U.S. policymakers. Rumors that the telecoms are or could become conduits for Chinese government-sponsored cyber espionage or cyber attacks on so-called critical infrastructure in the United States have been swirling around Washington for a few years. Concerns about Huawei’s alleged ties to the People’s Liberation Army were plausible enough to cause the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to recommend that President Bush block a proposed acquisition by Huawei of 3Com in 2008. Subsequent attempts by Huawei to expand in the United States have also failed for similar reasons, and because of Huawei’s ham-fisted, amateurish public relations efforts.

So it’s not at all surprising that yesterday the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, yesterday, following a nearly year-long investigation, issued its “Investigative Report on the U.S. National Security Issues Posed by Chinese Telecommunications Companies Huawei and ZTE,” along with recommendations that U.S. companies avoid doing business with these firms.

But there is no smoking gun in the report, only innuendo sold as something more definitive. The most damning evidence against Huawei and ZTE is that the companies were evasive or incomplete when it came to providing answers to questions that would have revealed strategic information that the companies understandably might not want to share with U.S. policymakers, who may have the interests of their own favored U.S. telecoms in mind.

It’s not just the United States, either: Canada is also getting wary of Huawei.

The Canadian government has said that it will be invoking a “national security exemption” as it hires firms to build a secure network, hinting that Chinese telco Huawei could be excluded.

The exemption allows the government to kick out of the running any companies or nations considered a security risk, which coming in the wake of the US report earlier this week labelling Huawei and ZTE as security threats, strongly indicates they’re out of the bidding.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s top media spokesman refused to say for sure whether the government had Huawei in mind when invoking the exemption.

“The government is going to be choosing carefully in the construction of this network and it has invoked the national security exception for the building of this network,” he said, according to the Calgary Herald.

September 4, 2012

TANSTAAFL is not the whole story

Filed under: Economics, History, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:25

At The Freeman, Sandy Ikeda points out that the handy little saying “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” is not enough to explain modern prosperity::

Economics teaches us the importance of TANSTAAFL and capital investment. Again, the trouble is they are not the whole truth.

As I’ve written before, however, there is such a thing as a free lunch, and I don’t want to repeat that argument in its entirety. The basic idea is that what Israel M. Kirzner calls “the driving force of the market” is entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship goes beyond working within a budget — it’s the discovery of novel opportunities that increase the wealth and raises the budgets of everyone in society, much as the late Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison or Madam C.J. Walker (probably the first African-American millionaire) did. Yes, those innovators needed saving and capital investment by someone — most innovators were debtors at first — but note: Those savings could have been and were invested in less productive investments before these guys came along.

As McCloskey, as well as Rosenberg and Birdzell, have argued, it isn’t saving, capital investment per se, and certainly not colonialism, income inequality, capitalist exploitation, or even hard work that is responsible for the tremendous rise in economic development, especially since 1800.

It is innovation.

And, McCloskey adds, it is crucially the ideas and words that we use to think and talk about the people who innovate — the chance takers, the rebels, the individualists, the game changers — and that reflect a respect for and acceptance of the very concept of progress. Innovation blasts the doors off budget constraints and swamps current rates of savings.

[. . .]

Indeed, innovation is perhaps what enables the market economy to stay ahead of, for the time being at least, the interventionist shackles that increasingly hamper it. You want to regulate landline telephones? I’ll invent the mobile phone! You make mail delivery a legal monopoly? I’ll invent email! You want to impose fixed-rail transport on our cities? I’ll invent the driverless car!

McCloskey’s book has shown up a few times on the blog.

August 12, 2012

China’s economic situation in Keynesian and Austrian terms

Filed under: China, Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:27

Tyler Cowen in the New York Times:

Keynesian economics holds that aggregate demand — the sum of all consumption, investment, government spending and net exports — drives stability, and that government can and should help in difficult times. But the Austrian perspective, developed by the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek, and championed today by many libertarians and conservatives, emphasizes how government policy often makes things worse, not better.

Economists of all stripes agree that China may be in for a spill. John Maynard Keynes emphasized back in the 1930s the dangers of speculative bubbles, and China certainly seems to have had one in its property market.

[. . .]

The Austrian perspective introduces some scarier considerations. China has been investing 40 percent to 50 percent of its national income. But it is hard to invest so much money wisely, particularly in an environment of economic favoritism. And this rate of investment is artificially high to begin with.

Beijing is often accused of manipulating the value of its currency, the renminbi, to subsidize its manufacturing. The government also funnels domestic savings into the national banking system and grants subsidies to politically favored businesses, and it seems obsessed with building infrastructure. All of this tips the economy in very particular directions.

The Austrian approach raises the possibility that there is no way for China to make good on enough of its oversubsidized investments. At first, they create lots of jobs and revenue, but as the business cycle proceeds, new marginal investments become less valuable and more prone to allocation by corruption. The giddy booms of earlier times wear off, and suddenly not every decision seems wise. The combination can lead to an economic crackup — not because aggregate demand is too low, but because the economy has been producing the wrong mix of goods and services.

Lots of earlier discussion of the problems in China’s economy here.

July 2, 2012

What value do speculators offer?

Filed under: Economics, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:17

In most newspapers, you don’t need to wait long to read some journalist beating up on evil speculators for the “damage” they do and the claimed “uselessness” of their activities. Tim Worstall points out that speculators are actually essential to smooth operation of free markets:

What is it that the speculator in food manages to achieve? They move prices through time. At the moment, there’s a drought, and so we think there will be less corn available for consumption next year, so its price goes up.

What would we like to happen? Should prices stay stable? We would all carry on using the amount of corn that we originally thought we’d get. And we’d run out — there may even be a famine. People tend to die in famines.

So what we’d actually like to happen is for people to prepare by consuming a bit less corn this year.

Some of this should come from substitution: farmers will feed wheat to animals not corn. Consumers might move from grits to weetabix for breakfast. Perhaps the fools putting corn into cars will move over to sugar cane to make ethanol from.

We would also like a supply effect: those who are currently growing corn might add a bit more fertiliser, take more care in harvesting, make sure less gets spoiled or lost in transport.

Rising prices causes both of those pretty neatly. Put up the price and people will use less, while suppliers will make more. And what is it that the speculators on the futures markets have done in response to this report of drought? They have raised prices.

February 3, 2012

Lemonade stand economics and government accounting

Filed under: Economics, Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:14

An amusing illustration of the differences between real world profit and loss and the government’s accounting methods:

Parents, wanting to encourage the idea that working and making money is a good idea, drive around to buy the lemon, sugar, designer bottled water, cups, spoons, napkins, a sign or two, and probably a paper table cloth.

Aside from time and gas, the outing adds up to something north of $10. At the opening of business the next day, the kids find business is slow to nonexistent at $1 per cup. So, they start to learn about market demand and find that business becomes so brisk at only 10 cents per cup that they are sold out by noon, having served 70 cups of lemonade and hauled in $7.

[. . .]

There is a strand of economics, we’ll call it the K-brand, that sees all this as worthwhile. They add together the $10 spent by the parents to back the venture and the $7 spent by the customers and conclude that an additional $17 of spending is clearly a good thing. Surely, the neighborhood economy has been stimulated.

To the family it is a loss, chalked up as a form of consumption. If this were a business enterprise it would be a write-off. In classical economics it is a “mal-investment.”

[. . .]

But that is not how it works in government accounting. While a private business must adjust its books to reflect the losses from an intended investment that went bad, governments never do that.

When a government “invests” in, say, an airport in Johnstown, Pa., all the expenditures for labor and materials are recorded as investments and are additions to national output. Never mind that when it is later discovered that only three people a day want to fly to or from the airport, no adjustment to national wealth will reflect the folly of this “mal-investment.”

If the airport had been financed by purely private, commercial enterprises, the initial expenditures would have been recorded as investment spending, but when reality struck and the entire project was written off as a total loss, the business-profit component of national output would decline. That is, a previous bad “investment” reduces, rather than augments, current national income.

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