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  • Archive for the 'Economics & Finance' Category

    Summer Rerun: Applied Networking in the Early 1900s

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd June 2017 (All posts by )

    An on-line discussion board in 1907

    Interesting that girls as well as boys were participants in this network.

    Using networking technology for a stock trading edge, 1914-style

    A precursor of today’s high-frequency trading

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Society, Tech | No Comments »

    The Apprentices

    Posted by David Foster on 17th June 2017 (All posts by )

    If anyone would like to discuss President Trump’s proposal for an expanded role for apprenticeship programs in America…and related broader issues of workforce training and skills development…this is the place.  Some useful links:

    Trump’s remarks on signing the executive order

    Text of the executive order

    Comments by Ivanka Trump and Labor Secretary Alex Acosta

    Existing Federal regulations re apprenticeship programs

    (There are also state regulations)

    Thoughts?

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Trump, USA | 12 Comments »

    USS Jackson at Portland Fleet Week… and Disruption Hits the Navy

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 10th June 2017 (All posts by )

    Portland, Oregon hosts “fleet week” where navy ships (including from Canada) dock alongside the river right next to downtown and offer tours and set up booths and the like. This year I was excited because USS Jackson, an Independence Class Littoral combat ship was arriving and I would get to see what an advanced combat craft looks like up close. I also found out a key link to “disruption” which has been a theme of my recent analysis and posts.

    The first thing you notice is the unique hull (compared to traditional warship designs). This design is supposed to let it operate in shallow waters near coastlines and also deliver very high speed – up to 50 knots – although the top speed is classified. The navy had a chain link fence up and armed guards with M16 weapons and a sign saying “use of deadly force authorized” so they were not kidding around.

    That same day I received my copy of “Modern War”, a magazine published by Strategy and Tactics Press (and I highly recommend that you subscribe to their publications, they are a solid and interesting publishing house) which just happened to profile the Independence Class ships on p68-70 of their July – August issue. Some highlights:

    They are controversial because of their limited basic armament and expensive construction costs. Senior naval leaders argue the mission flexibility and extensive automation provide a vast array of capabilities with fewer personnel and platforms than traditional designs. Construction and operating costs dominate budget discussions and headlines because they come ‘up front’. Today, however, personnel costs constitute 62% of the annual Department of Defense Budget.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Military Affairs, Tech | 37 Comments »

    Have American Workers Been Chronically Exploited?

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 17th April 2017 (All posts by )

    For centuries leading up to the Bicentennial in 1976 the American Dream of perpetually rising living standards has been paid for with wages that rose faster than prices. During the post WW II era worker productivity – as measured by output per hour – has continued to rise at a constant rate. Wages rose in lockstep with increasing productivity until the mid 1970s, but have since stagnated, rising only 15% as much (11% as compared to 75%) through 2016, as reported by the think tank EPI. The view from the left is that the wealthy owners and managers of capital have expropriated 85% of the fruits of labor, implicitly reflecting the decline of unionization of the private labor force from about one in three workers in the 1950s to one in twenty today. Their policy proposals reflect this perception of exploitation.

    Politicians promote “Social Justice” through protection and redistribution
    Even Karl Marx never expected capitalists to be this successful at exploiting workers, exceeding even that of 19th century robber barons and pre-Civil War southern plantation owners who at least provided their slaves basic sustenance. Politicians have responded with labor protections and income subsidies.

    For example, the Obama Administration strongly supported (and was generously supported by) public sector unions. It also supported the expansion of private sector unionization through such policies as card check and Davis Bacon “prevailing,” i.e., union, wages for construction. It also supported “living wage” laws and raised the federal minimum wage, with states following and in some cases leading. In addition, restrictive state certification rules have increased five-fold since the 1950s.

    Politicians also responded by supporting a rising standard of living with welfare state income redistribution policies. Obama-Care made health insurance universal and the percentage of the population receiving food stamps rose by 32%. In addition, those receiving disability payments rose about 50% during the last decade, despite the decline in risky manufacturing jobs.

    These labor and subsidy policies all have roots in the response to the Depression of 1929/30, before it became “Great.” FDR – following Hoover – supported private – but strongly opposed public – sector unionization and a high wage policy, successfully keeping wages 40% above their market clearing rate according to a 2009 article. Social Security was introduced by FDR’s Labor Department and food stamps by his Agriculture Department (food perishables were purchased by the government to keep farm prices inflated and taken off the market, then distributed to the poor to save storage costs).
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance | 5 Comments »

    Disruption – Liquor

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 14th April 2017 (All posts by )

    “Disruption” is a word usually reserved for hyped sectors of the economy like technology and “Uber” is the ubiquitous example that even a child would recognize. However, there are other components of the economy ripe for disruption, especially those that are heavily regulated, which generally causes significant distortions, monopolistic behavior, regulatory capture, high prices, and a lack of innovation.

    The liquor industry is a heavily regulated industry, with layers of distributors and obscure rules which enforce local monopolies, entrench incumbents (often with inferior products), and provide many opportunities for the government to extract tax income and solicit donations from favored groups. Typically liquor uses a “three tier” system, where there is a producer, a distributor, and a retail outlet (a store or a bar). This is a system ripe for disruption.

    Alongside this archaic regulated system (which works for the benefits of the government and the local monopolies), there was a multi-decade process of concentration within the liquor industry, as local beer manufacturers were bought up by massive multinationals, culminating in the InBev company which controls a huge chunk (28%) of world-wide beer sales. If it wasn’t for the craft beer counter-revolution (see below), the epic consolidation of the liquor industry would have gone on indefinitely, bringing out “innovations” like Bud Light Lime.

    Some of the components of the disruption of liquor in Oregon include:
    1) Craft breweries or brewpubs which brew their own beer (and cider) and can sell it onsite
    2) Distilleries able to make their own spirits and sell themselves out of their facility
    3) New technologies such as Growlers or Crowlers which enable customers to fill directly from a keg into a re-usable container and take the beer home to drink
    4) This is all in addition to the vast wineries (seemingly everywhere) that can sell directly and even ship to many states

    Craft Breweries:

    Portland and Oregon have been leaders in the craft beer movement, enabled by laws (passed against the political power of the beer distributors) which allowed for the brewpubs to sell their own alcohol.
    This article describes how the modern brewery was instituted in Oregon.The “beer culture” is everywhere, with 116 breweries within an hour of Portland, as evidenced by the cover of this recent magazine I picked up. Here is a link to the magazine online.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Oregonia | 11 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 7th April 2017 (All posts by )

    Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan is, IMO, one of the more thoughtful of the financial industry CEO’s.  In his annual letter to shareholders, he devotes considerable space to the current situation of the United States–our assets, our problems, and potential paths for improvement.  The public policy section of the letter starts on page 32.

    My view of several issues is different from Mr Dimon’s, but I think the letter is well worth reading and thinking about.

    (Disclosure:  I’m a JPM investor)

    Posted in Business, Capitalism, Economics & Finance, Education, Entrepreneurship, Immigration, USA | 13 Comments »

    Our Quasi-Soviet Fiscal Policy

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 5th April 2017 (All posts by )

    “It’s like deja vu all over again.”

    Do Yogi Berra‘s words of wisdom apply to the “new” trillion dollar “public infrastructure” program? The last program, still unpaid, focused on “shovel-ready” projects but somehow missed most potholes. Meanwhile, private companies are prepared to spend $100’s of billions on a new fiber optic internet super highway.

    Is the current proposed public spending program more likely to pay off for taxpayers than the last one?

    Historical Precedent

    When the hammer and sickle flag was lowered for the last time in Moscow on December 25, 1991, the international finance agencies created in Bretton Woods in 1944, led by British economist John Maynard Keynes and the Undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury Harry Dexter White, found a new mission.

    The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is a “bank” according to Keynes, provided the financial infrastructure for international trade. The World Bank (WB), or a “fund” according to Keynes, was promoted by, known communist and accused Russian spy, Undersecretary White to help reconstruct European infrastructure, but primarily Russia’s infrastructure, in the wake of WW II destruction.

    The IMF lost its raison d’être in 1971 after President Nixon eliminated dollar convertibility into gold, ending the Bretton Woods function. Russia turned down World Bank membership, so the Bank turned to lending for infrastructure projects in the “underdeveloped” nations, which by 1991 faced overwhelming political obstacles.

    Assisting in the conversion of formerly centrally planned economies into capitalist market economies became the finance agencies’ new post-Soviet mission. However, few people had much of an idea of how to accomplish this. It had never been done before, and the IMF and WB were particularly ill-equipped as their charter limited them to lending only to governments. They were essentially statist organizations with little experience with (or sympathy for) competitive private markets (which helps explain why they remain chronically underdeveloped).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Economics & Finance, Organizational Analysis, Politics, Public Finance, Russia, Trump | 3 Comments »

    Congestion

    Posted by Jonathan on 27th March 2017 (All posts by )

    June 2017 T-Bond Futures (Daily)

    Multiple choice bond quiz:

    1) The fix is in.

    2) The longer this continues, the higher the odds of a big move, probably lower in price, after one of the next breakouts.

    3) Both 1 and 2.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Markets and Trading | 7 Comments »

    Mid-Life Crisis and Alternate Universes

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 25th March 2017 (All posts by )

    One of my favorite Onion jokes of all time is “Alternate-Universe James Hetfield Named Taco Bell Employee of the Month“. This genius post encapsulates the randomness of the world we live in, since the likelihood of James Hetfield being a guy who does odd jobs, plays guitar in a basement, and loves metal is so much infinitely higher than the odds are that he becomes a rich superstar as the singer of Metallica.

    This philosophical view is somewhat similar to Taleb’s theories in “The Black Swan” and his other books where, if you did your life over and over, you would get vastly different results and individuals attribute too much of their luck and good fortune to their specific actions and experience. We are all dealing with the “Survivor’s paradox”, where those who did well get to tell their tale and those who didn’t fare so well are essentially erased from the common consciousness.

    I saw this car down in my garage in Portland and thought to myself “This is the alternate universe for Carl” which is to just keep my prior job and old way of life and buy a shiny new expensive car (this is a Bentley, I would have bought a new BWM 7 Series, but who’s counting) as a distraction. That would have been a fine life, a life I understood, and the car purchase would have been a modest but visible change and distraction from what was otherwise a quite predictable path.

    Instead, however, I changed everything, by moving jobs and careers and physically relocating away from my entire ecosystem of family and friends to the Pacific Northwest. This was a vast change, much larger than cosmetically purchasing a new conspicuous automobile. Starting a new job forced me to change everything, from the way I listened and studied, to the way I interacted with the environment around me. I went from walking to work to commuting by car (like 90% of the world) which is a primary negative, although at least I have been listening to podcasts which turn that driving time which was initially pure frustration into at least a positive learning experience.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Personal Narrative | 10 Comments »

    Free Trade with a Hostile Mercantilist Empire?

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 14th March 2017 (All posts by )

    2017 marks the 200 year anniversary of David Ricardo’s publication on the theory of comparative advantage that underlies the economic case for free trade. Several years later Frederic Bastiat wrote the satirical Candle Maker’s Petition debunking the arguments in favor of protectionism. This was an ironic choice, as candle makers were politically protected by the Founding Fathers as necessary for the Revolutionary War. These protections lasted several centuries, and in 2016 Senator Chuck Schumer sought it re-instated on grounds of unfair competition from China.

    President Trump’s trade representative economist Peter Navarro is making both the political and economic case against free trade with China, which he considers a mercantilist trader with military ambitions hostile to the U.S.

    Navarro’s political case is an update of that faced by the Founders regarding candle making. China is viewed as pursuing a trading strategy to accumulate wealth and technical know-how to challenge the U.S. militarily in the South China Sea and globally. China’s mercantilist trade practices result in huge export surpluses with the U.S. He argues that China uses this advantage to weaken America’s industrial base and future defensive capability.

    While economists can’t reject this political concern out of hand, it does seem several decades premature given the relative size of the two countries’ navies. At present the US could quickly secure sources of supply for military purposes, and protectionism tends to linger for decades or even centuries.

    The second case against free trade with a mercantilist trader relates mostly to the loss of jobs due to “unfair” competition, i.e., not due to inherent comparative economic advantages as much as political subsidies, in China’s case a purportedly cheapened currency and weak labor and environmental protections. The standard argument is that such trade generally benefits consumers at the expense of high cost producers, resulting in a less political more fair distribution of consumption as well as a higher overall level. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Business, China, Economics & Finance, International Affairs, Japan, Markets and Trading, Politics, Public Finance, Trump | 11 Comments »

    US Infrastructure Will Be Broken Forever

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 11th March 2017 (All posts by )

    Recently I visited Cathedral Park in Portland, which lies beneath the St. Johns Bridge.  The St. Johns Bridge is a magnificent structure, built in 1931, during the height of the depression.

    Portland is a city of bridges.  These bridges were mostly built long ago, when construction projects were feasible in terms of costs and delivery time frames were measured in years, not decades (when approvals, funding, environmental contingencies, etc… are factored in).

    Today the Portland metropolitan area, which includes large Washington communities north of the city, faces severe constraints on traffic and there is widespread local agreement that commute times are growing longer and in some instances intolerable.  I know individuals in Chicago, LA or NYC that would laugh at commute times that aren’t 2+ hours but that is little consolation to the locals who previously had been able to drive around the metro area with relative ease.

    Many of these bridges need to be replaced for multiple reasons – the Pacific Northwest is an earthquake zone and most of these bridges are not built to survive a quake, traffic on the bridges is soaring and causing delays throughout the system because they function as bottlenecks, and frankly bridges cannot last forever without collapsing.

    And yet… it will never happen.  I am confident that we won’t be able to raise the billions that it will take to build these bridges and lawsuits and environmentalists would create innumerable roadblocks (with accompanying cost increases and delays) so that even difficult projects will become impossible. There is an utter breakdown in funding, public will, solid execution, and all the fundamental components that make infrastructure possible.  While China has built giant, soaring cities, we can’t even replace bridges and roads built 100 years ago.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Oregonia, Transportation | 54 Comments »

    Dodd-Frank, Obamacare grew out of same faulty reasoning

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 6th March 2017 (All posts by )

    The current partisan war over the Dodd-Frank Act is just one dispute in a broader ideological divide about the government’s role in industry. This dispute, which has deep historical roots, includes a similar battle over Obamacare. The common disagreement at issue with both laws — now in the cross hairs of a GOP-controlled Washington — is the extent to which politicians should subsidize their constituents indirectly through regulation of private companies.

    The Affordable Care Act governing health insurers was about 1,000 pages, and Dodd-Frank governing most other financial institutions was more than twice that. Both stopped short of nationalizing their respective industry, instead generating more than 10 pages of regulation for every one page of legislation, although many view nationalization as an eventual but inevitable consequence, particularly for health care.

    The distinction between public control and public ownership is the primary distinction between the competing mid-20th-century ideologies of fascism and communism. In contemporary terminology, this distinction is between crony capitalism and nationalization, neither of which can be reconciled with competition and freedom of choice.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Capitalism, Crony Capitalism, Economics & Finance, Health Care, Obama, Political Philosophy, Public Finance, Systems Analysis | 10 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading

    Posted by David Foster on 4th March 2017 (All posts by )

    Simulating a microprocessor with techniques similar to those used in neuroscience raises some cautionary thoughts about conclusions being drawn in the later work.

    Don Sensing links his 2014 post:  America is adopting the Middle East model, and he’s not talking about Islam but rather about the   fact that “At an increasing pace, politics in the West, especially in America, is the surest way to wealth, a 180-out from the West’s history”…but consistent with the way things have worked for millennia in the Middle East.

    Anthony Esolen:  We are a people now illiterate in a way that is unprecedented for the human race. We can decipher linguistic signs on a page, but we have no songs and immemorial stories in our hearts.

    Wendy McElroy on “social justice warriors” and the persecution of heretics.

    Despite about all the automation innovations and the concerns about robots taking all the jobs, manufacturing productivity may really not be showing much in the way of an upward trend.

    Management and meaningful work, studied via Legos

    Posted in Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Leftism, Management, Medicine, Middle East, Science, Tech | 1 Comment »

    Some Thoughts on Trump, Free Trade, and Horses

    Posted by Lexington Green on 28th February 2017 (All posts by )

    A friend sent a link to a leaked, recorded conversation between Trump and Wilbur Ross, his nominee for Commerce Secretary. There is nothing particularly troubling in the conversation. Trump is talking like Trump. He is the same person in public and in private, which is nice.

    I responded:

    Sounds good to me.  A tariff is a consumption tax collected at the port of entry.  The American founders expected to fund the operations of the national government with revenue from a tariff, and it worked.  He is also right that the Japanese and other countries use safety regulations as non-tariff import barriers.  There is nothing bad on here at all.  

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Culture, Economics & Finance, History, Politics, Public Finance, Taxes, Trump | 20 Comments »

    The Boom/Bust Cycle Isn’t about Emotion

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 27th February 2017 (All posts by )

    My first experience with manias was in the 1950’s. As a pre-schooler, I was dragged along to the Filene’s Basement annual designer dress sale. Thousands of women of all types and sizes pressed against the glass doors opening into the subway station. Within minutes of the doors opening, these “maniacs” cleared all the racks and, holding armfuls of dresses, began stripping to their slips. That’s when I panicked.

    Looking back, those women acted rationally. There was a limited supply of deeply discounted dresses available on a first come basis. They traded among themselves to get the right size and their most desired dress. Buyer’s remorse was cushioned by Filene’s liberal return policy.

    The premise of U.S. financial regulation is that actors within private markets are irrational, but the evidence shows that it’s not maniacal, illogical behavior that sends markets into freefall.

    Great Depression and Recession

    Now in its seventh edition, Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises, Charles Kindleberger’s seminal work provides the narrative that underlies virtually all public financial protection and regulation: First, the irrational exuberance of individuals transforms into “mob psychology” and fuels an asset bubble. Then, when the exuberance of a few turns to fear, the mob panics and overreacts, causing a crash that brings down both solvent and insolvent financial institutions.

    In his memoir, the former Federal Reserve Bank President and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was at the epicenter of the last crisis, concluded, “It began with a mania — the widespread belief that devastating financial crises were a thing of the past, that future recessions would be mild, that gravity-defying home prices would never crash to earth.”  

    Most U.S. federal financial regulation originates from the Great Depression and the subsequent introduction of federal deposit insurance provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which was established in 1933 to protect “small” savers. All prior state attempts to provide insurance failed. Because there were no effective, non-politicized regulations that could prevent the moral hazard of insured banks and savings institutions taking on excessive risks, an extensive regulatory infrastructure was put in place.

    Rational Actors

    Now, the U.S. has about 100 financial regulators, including those in the U.S. Treasury and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the FDIC, and the Fed. With near-universal deposit insurance, bank runs have become a rarity, but systemic crises have occurred more frequently. It is incontestable that big bubbles eventually burst, asset prices crash, and financial crises ensue. What causes the bubbles to inflate to systemic proportions, and to ultimately burst, is more contentious.

    At the time of Kindleberger’s analysis, individuals were assumed to be rational. The latest edition of his book, written after the 2008 financial crisis, postulates numerous theories about mob psychology (mania) that could lead rational individuals to produce irrational markets, but these ideas are all rather lame.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Capitalism, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Markets and Trading, Public Finance, Real Estate, Systems Analysis, Tradeoffs | 9 Comments »

    Robots and Jobs – the Bet

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd February 2017 (All posts by )

    Keith Ablow, a Fox News analyst, asked Should Trump stop robots from stealing jobs?

    Economist Don Boudreaux responded:

    It’s true that the pace of introducing new labor-saving techniques has magnificently quickened in the past two hundred years.  This fast pace continues today.  Yet still we encounter no evidence that labor-saving techniques permanently increase unemployment.

    You’ll reply “This time is different!”  Perhaps, but I doubt it.  And I’m so confident in my prediction that I’ll put $10,000 of my own my money where my mouth is.

    Terms of the wager are at the Boudreaux link. I’m not sure if the bet has been accepted or not.

    Meanwhile, here is Bill Gates, suggesting that robots should be taxed.  Left undefined, at least in this interview, is a question of Exactly What is a Robot?  Is a CNC machine tool a robot?  I’d say it absolutely is, as was the case with earlier numerically-controlled machine tools that became pretty common in the 1970s and 1980s.  How about an automated teller machine in a bank?  And what about “robots” that have no direct physical incarnation but are purely software, such as the office productivity software that accounted for a huge portion of Microsoft’s success?  It was largely Microsoft Word and similar software that made secretaries an endangered species in most organizations.  (Can you imaging the lobbying, litigation, and regulatory struggles that would surround this definitional issue if politicians were to take Bill’s proposal seriously?)

    The proposal also ignores that fact that the United States is not the entire world–taxing robots here would harm our competitiveness vis-a-vis those countries pursuing no such policy.  (Which would clearly include China.)  The only way to make a US-only anti-robot policy ‘work’ would be to establish very high tariff barriers.

    See also my posts Attack of the Job-Killing Robots and Attack of the Job-Killing Robots Part 2.   I hope to soon complete Part 3 of the series, which will focus on automation technologies and their impact in the post-WWII era.

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Tech | 19 Comments »

    The Ballpoint Pen as an Economic Case Study

    Posted by David Foster on 20th January 2017 (All posts by )

    Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has lamented China’s inability to “make ballpoint pens with a smooth writing function.” After five years of research, a state-owned steel company now says it can.

    WSJ notes that 80% of the world’s ballpoint pens are made in China…but that thus far, China has not been making all of the pen’s components.  Specifically:

    The tip of a high-quality ballpoint demands metal work involving high-precision machinery and very hard, ultrathin steel plates. So 90% of pens made in China have imported tips. China’s leaders want “self-sufficiency,” in pens as in semiconductors. Now they claim they’ll have it.

    This little story is interesting from at least three angles.

    First–as the WSJ story points out, China’s desire to control the entire ballpoint pen supply chain indicates that their leaders still value economic autarky, and that Chinese leadership denunciation of President Trump on grounds of his insufficient respect for free trade carry more than a whiff of hypocrisy.

    Second–the ballpoint pen example makes the point that the apparent simplicity of a product does not necessarily reflect the complexity or lack thereof involved in manufacturing it.  American economic commentators often fail to grasp this point when they assert that America’s future must lie in producing “advanced high-technology products.”

    Third–the example should also clarify the point that the highest value in a product supply chain does not necessarily lie in the assembly of the final product.  The final product assembly is usually the most visible part of the supply chain, but very often the creation of components that go into that chain involves more complexity and requires more skill than the final assembly process itself.  It’s considerably more difficult to make integrated circuits, for example, than to assemble those chips onto circuit boards and to assemble the boards into a plastic or metal case.

    Posted in Business, China, Economics & Finance, Tech, USA | 44 Comments »

    The End of Accounting Book Review – Part One

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 8th January 2017 (All posts by )

    Recently I read an excellent book called “The End of Accounting and the Path Forward for Investors and Managers” by Baruch Lev and Feng Gu. I highly recommend this book for investors, analysts, accountants, and those with a general interest in business. The book is very well written and researched in that it:

    1. Describes the current situation in depth
    2. Aligns the situation across an historical context and with relevant research
    3. Makes specific recommendations about how to improve the situation

    If you’d like to read more about this topic on your own (will help to frame out these posts), here is an excellent Wall Street Journal article titled “The End of Accounting” (if the link doesn’t work because you don’t have a subscription you can probably find it elsewhere on the internet). Here is a link from Accounting Today and an interview with the author from CFO magazine.

    The first post in this series is going to be my personal insights and journey in the area of accounting information, financial and investor relations analysts. This context is relevant because I, too, have seen the problems that the authors outline in the series and come up with my own “hacks” to attempt to gain better information and insights.

    I started out my career as an accountant, and I used to help create the footnotes that you see at the end of the financial reports. This wasn’t creative work per se – you would start with last year’s footnote as a template and insert new numbers, unless it was a new requirement, in which case it was a lot of work and we would turn to specialists. At that time (20+ years ago) there were only a few footnotes and the financial statements themselves weren’t that long; you would be able to read from the Chairman and CEO’s letter all the way through to the last footnote in a couple of hours.

    This was also before the internet; we would go into the company library and look at microfiche sometimes to do research or you’d pull up the hard (printed) copy from the files. At that point an annual report was also somewhat of a marketing document; companies put a lot of thought into the cover, for instance.

    At various points in the history of accounting there has been a focus on the balance sheet (assets and liabilities), the income statement (earnings per share and price / earnings ratio) and on cash flows (cash generated from the business). Each of these views are important and have their merits and their drawbacks. The statements were generally the “GAAP” view which focused on financial statement presentation and used taxes at official rates (many companies pay almost nothing in taxes in actuality by deferring them indefinitely) and held assets at historical costs. Both of these assumptions made the financial statements less useful for certain types of companies and industries.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Capitalism, Economics & Finance | 3 Comments »

    Autos and Disruption

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 1st January 2017 (All posts by )

    Prior to moving to the West Coast, I had little need for a car because I walked and / or took public transport to work (or a cab if I was lazy, back in the days when you could hail a cab on the street).  Thus I typically invested the minimum amount I could in a reliable car that could fit 4 passengers with a full size trunk and also squeeze into a narrow parking garage.

    The cars that “fit the bill” for me were the older model Nissan Altima which I drove for a decade and then a Jetta which I picked up in 2011.  Each of these cars cost about $17,000 “out the door” and contained a reasonable level of equipment (the Altima was my first car with air bags, the Jetta was my first car with ABS and traction control) – they weren’t completely stripped down models with manual transmission, for instance.  These cars have both turned out to be highly reliable autos – and the old Nissan Altima is still driving today, almost 20 years later, as a starter car in my extended family.

    The average age of a car on the road today is 11.5 years (nowadays you don’t even have to “link” to sources – Google just brings in the data from Wikipedia as a search response when you ask a common question) and that seems long to me.  For every new car on the road, for instance, there is a late ’90s model still driving to offset it in order to get back to an average of 11.5 years.

    My theory today is that the total package of “functionality” or “value” that you could obtain from a new Jetta for $17,000 would be comparable to autos that cost far more for 99% of the scenarios in which you would plausibly use that auto.  These scenarios include 1) commuting to work 2) running errands around town 3) going on a trip and putting luggage in the trunk.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t scenarios where it doesn’t make sense to have a more powerful or capable auto.  In Oregon we went to visit a friend who lives up in the hills and I had 4 people in the car and gravel had been newly laid on an uphill slope (which, as it turns out, means that it is very slippery).  As a result our car couldn’t make it up the hill and we slid sideways into a ditch and had to have a friend hook up a rope and give us a pull from their big pickup truck to get us back on the road.  If I lived up there, for instance, then this car would be completely inappropriate.  But that isn’t a common “use case” for my auto.

    When you look at the “true cost” of owning an auto, there are a lot of factors to consider, and whole web sites to calculate it in various ways.  Instead, I am going to make the general statement that if you buy a new car at around the $17,000 price point and drive it for perhaps 7-8 years before selling it you are probably going to pay about $150 / month for that car (net of what you receive on resale).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Personal Finance, Transportation | 23 Comments »

    This is Why We Can’t Make Nice Things

    Posted by David Foster on 30th December 2016 (All posts by )

    A positive review of General Electric stock points out that the company is less exposed to the oil market than it was prior to the Baker Hughes spinoff…and then goes on to say:

    Gone too is the iconic firm’s appliances business, which was sold to Chinese firm Haier. This is really a progression of the economic cycle. While folks like President-elect Donald Trump and financial provocateur Peter Schiff lament that Americans just don’t make stuff anymore, at a certain point, advanced economies should outsource physical work to less-advanced countries. It’s not so much a matter of ability as it is financial efficiency.

    Does this writer believe that GE should also divest the jet engine business, the power generation business, and the transportation (locomotive) business?  All of these businesses make physical things, and make substantial amounts of those physical things in the US.

    The idea that manufacturing is devoid of intellectual content and hence unworthy of advanced economies is fallacious and has done serious harm–see my post Faux Manufacturing Nostalgia.  Happily, this attitude has turned around substantially since I wrote the linked post..to the point that manufacturing is being practically over-romanticized…but islands of the “who needs it?” view still exist.

    GE’s reasoning for divesting Appliance seems to have been centered on a desire to focus the company on business-to-business markets rather than consumer markets and, and also, I think, on a perception that there was not sufficient room in the appliance world for product differentiation and a technology edge.  “Technology edge,” rightly understood, includes the complexity/difficulty of manufacturing something, not just the intellectual property embedded in the product itself.  It certainly did not reflect any conclusion that manufacturing is inherently a low-value function.

    It would be silly to argue that a computer programmer in a bank is a “knowledge worker” and a programmer in manufacturing is not.  It would be equally silly to argue that a bank branch manager is inherently performing a more highly-skilled job than a shift supervisor in a factory, or that a first-level customer service rep for Amazon is performing a more advanced kind of work than an assembly line worker, or that an operations research expert doing inventory studies for a manufacturing firm is less of a knowledge worker than his equivalent doing inventory studies for Target.  But this is implicitly the argument that many of the ‘we don’t need manufacturing here’ crew have been making.

    This dismissive attitude toward a vast and complex industry which supports millions of people represents one more example of the constellation of attitudes against which many people rebelled when choosing to vote for Donald Trump.

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 7 Comments »

    There Is No Possible Reform for HUD

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 17th December 2016 (All posts by )

    “The Department of] Housing and Urban Development has done an enormous amount of harm. My god, if you think of the way in which they have destroyed parts of cities under the rubric of eliminating slums … there have been many more dwelling units torn down in the name of public housing than have been built.” ~ Milton Friedman, Interview, Hoover Institution, February 10, 1999

    President-elect Trump’s appointment of Dr. Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is being criticized on the grounds that he lacks the requisite administrative experience. More likely, Carson’s affront was to question why HUD exists.

    Republican presidents have been ambivalent. Having bigger fish to fry, President Reagan appointed Sam Pierce HUD Secretary so that he could ignore it. George H.W. Bush repaid Jack Kemp’s political opposition by first making him HUD Secretary and then frustrating his attempts to eliminate the Department. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, appointed by George W., was allegedly focused on participating in the traditional kickback schemes while his Assistant Secretary for Housing pursued homeownership policies that contributed mightily to the financial crisis of 2008.

    Democratic presidents have used it as a platform to pursue other agendas. Jimmy Carter’s HUD Secretary Patricia Harris introduced Fannie Mae housing goals – quotas – as punishment for not appointing a woman to the Board of Directors. Between scandals, Clinton’s HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros promoted the homeownership goals that left both the financial system and the new mortgage borrowers bankrupt.

    HUD’s budget is relatively small as compared to other federal departments, but it has always punched far above its budget weight in destructive power. To put HUD’s annual budget of about $50 billion in perspective, the cost of the homeowner mortgage interest tax deduction is two to three times greater, but HUD’s “mission regulation” of financial institutions has given it influence or control over trillions more.

    The initial political interest in housing during the Great Depression was entirely Keynesian, i.e., related to the short-term potential to create jobs and relieve cyclical unemployment – the “infrastructure investments” of that era. The Democrat’s approach to construction, management, and allocation of public housing was generally implemented to benefit builders and rife with corruption. FHA and Fannie Mae were chartered mostly as off-balance sheet financial institutions to stimulate housing production on the cheap.

    The problem of urban development, as many politicians and urban analysts saw it in the 1960s, stemmed from the 1956 Eisenhower initiative to build highways financed by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, a byproduct of which was that more affluent people commuted from the suburbs while leaving poorer families behind. The pursuit of the American Dream of homeownership left city administrations accustomed to cross-subsidizing municipal services in fiscal distress, creating a vicious cycle: as services declined, more affluent households moved out.

    The Housing and Urban Development Act in 1965 established HUD as a separate cabinet department as part of LBJ’s Great Society to give a greater priority to housing and urban issues. HUD inherited a mishmash of various New Deal federal programs, ranging from public rental housing to urban renewal, as well as financial oversight of FHA and Fannie Mae.

    Faced with steep “guns and butter” budget deficits, LBJ focused on ways to further encourage off-balance-sheet financing of housing construction through “public-private partnerships.” Republicans, led by Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, convinced by academic studies that the urban riots of the 1960s were the direct result of poor quality housing and the urban environment and by lobbyists for housing producers, supported the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. The “goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family” was first introduced in the 1949 Housing Act. Title XVI of the 1968 Act “Housing Goals and Annual Housing Report” introduced central planning without specifying the goals, a timetable for implementation, or a budget.

    In the late 1960s, the Weyerhaeuser Corporation produced a forecast of single-family housing production in the coming decade to assist with tree planting. Congressional math wizards divided the total forecast by 10 to produce HUD’s annual housing production goals for the nation. For the next decade, HUD Secretaries were annually paraded before their Senate oversight Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to explain why they did or did not meet these production goals.

    Republicans have historically supported rental housing vouchers for existing private rental units for privately built housing to minimize market distortions. Republican HUD Secretary Carla Hills in the Ford Administration pushed HUD’s Section 8 subsidies for existing housing – something arguably better administered as a negative income tax – as a political alternative to the Democrats’ push for a return to public housing construction. But as a further political compromise, the largely autonomous local public housing authorities would administer these vouchers, leading to the same concentration of crime and urban decay as public housing. To borrow a phrase from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, “Republican social engineering” isn’t necessarily better than “Democratic social engineering.”

    The economic goals of “affordable” housing have generally been in direct conflict with urban development. When I proposed demolishing the worst public housing projects and redeveloping the land, using the proceeds to fund subsidies for existing private market housing (something partially achieved during the Reagan Administration), Clinton Administration officials scoffed at the idea.

    HUD combines socialist goals and fascist methods that seriously distort and undermine markets. There is neither market nor political discipline on the enormous scope of its activities. HUD met unfunded goals through financial coercion, undermining both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and their commercial banking competitors, with the collusion of the Senate Committee responsible for both financial and housing oversight, leading to the sub-prime lending debacle of 2008.

    There is no economic rationale for a federal role in housing or urban affairs in a market economy. HUD represents a continuing systemic threat for which there is no cure. May it RIP.

    Kevin Villani


    Kevin Villani

    Kevin Villani, chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985, is a principal of University Financial Associates. He has held senior government positions, been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath.

    This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

    Posted in Big Government, Economics & Finance, Politics, Public Finance, Real Estate, Urban Issues | 4 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 15th December 2016 (All posts by )

    A USAF jet fighter pilot flies a WWII P-51 Mustang.

    An argument that China will never be as wealthy as America.  (‘Never’ is a long time, though)

    A huge database of artworks, indexed on many dimensions.

    An ethics class that has been taught for 20 years (at the University of Texas-Austin) is no longer offered.  According to the professor who taught it:

    Students clam up as soon as conversation veers close to anything controversial and one side might be viewed as politically incorrect. The open exchange of ideas that used to make courses such as Contemporary Moral Problems exciting doesn’t happen. It’s not possible to teach the course the way I used to teach it.

    At the GE blog:  Direct mind-to-airplane communication…and, maybe someday, direct mind-to-mind communication as well.  Although regarding the second possibility, SF writer Connie Willis raises some concerns.

    Also at the GE blog:  The California Duck Must Die – a very good explanation of the load-matching problems created when ‘renewable’ sources become a major element of the electrical grid. Media discussion of all the wind and solar capacity installed has tended to gloss over these issues.

    The Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 – January 1945.

    Posted in Academia, Aviation, China, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Education, Energy & Power Generation, History, War and Peace | 3 Comments »

    Can Donald Trump Prevent the Economy from Falling Into a Black Hole?

    Posted by Kevin Villani on 13th December 2016 (All posts by )

    Interest rates will eventually rise without an even more devastating policy of financial repression. When they do, rising interest costs will produce a vicious cycle of ever more borrowing. We are already approaching the “event horizon” of spinning into this black hole of an inflationary spiral and economic collapse from which few countries historically have escaped. A substantially higher rate of growth is the only way to break free.

    National economic growth is typically measured by the growth of GDP, and citizen well being by the growth of per-capita GDP. The long run trend of GDP growth reflects labor force participation, hours worked and productivity as well as the rate of national saving and the productivity of investments, all of which have been trending down.

    The population grows at about 1% annually and actual GDP growth averaged 2% overall for 2010-2016 (using the new World Bank and IMF forecast of US GDP at 1.6% for 2016), hence per capita GDP grew at only 1%. Moreover the income from that 1% growth went primarily to the top one percent while 99% stagnated and minorities fell backwards.

    Why we are approaching the Event Horizon
    The Obama Administration annually predicted a more historically typical 2.6% per capita growth rate, consistent with the historical growth in non-farm labor productivity. How could their forecasts be so far off?

    The Obama Administration pursued the most massive Keynesian fiscal and monetary stimulus ever undertaken. Such a policy generally at least gives the appearance of a rise in well being in the near term, as the government GDP statistic (repetitive, as the word “statistic derives from the Greek word for “state” ) reflects final expenditures, thereby imputing equal value to what governments “spend” as to the discretionary spending of private households and businesses in competitive markets. But labor productivity gains stagnated at only about 1%, most likely reflecting the cost and uncertainty of anti-business regulatory and legislative policies that dampened investment, something the Administration denied, trumping even a short term boost to GDP.

    As a result the national debt approximately doubled from $10 trillion to $20 trillion, with contingent liabilities variously estimated from $100 to $200 trillion, putting the economy ever closer to the event horizon. Breaking free will require reversing the highly negative trends by reversing the policies that caused them.

    Technology alone isn’t sufficient
    Obama Administration apologists argued that stagnation is “the new normal” citing leading productivity experts such as Robert Gordon who dismissed the potential of new technologies. Many disagree, but Gordon’s findings imply even greater reliance on conventional reform.

    Fiscal policy won’t be sufficient
    Raising taxes may reduce short term deficits but slows growth. Cutting wasteful spending works better but is more difficult.

    The list of needed public infrastructure investments has grown since the last one trillion dollar “stimulus” of politically allocated and mostly wasteful pork that contributed to the stagnation of the last eight years. Debt financed public infrastructure investment contributes to growth only if highly productive investments are chosen over political white elephants like California’s bullet train, always problematic.

    Major cuts in defense spending are wishful thinking as most geopolitical experts view the world today as a riskier place than at any prior time of the past century, with many parallels to the inter-war period 1919-1939.

    The major entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare for the elderly need reform. But for those in or near retirement the potential for savings is slight. Is Medicare really going to be withheld by death squads? Are benefits for those dependent on social security going to be cut significantly, forcing the elderly back into the labor force? Cutting Medicare or SS benefits for those with significant wealth – the equivalent of a wealth tax – won’t affect their consumption, hence offsetting the fall in government deficits with an equal and offsetting liquidation of private wealth. Prospective changes for those 55 years of age or younger should stimulate savings and defer retirement, improving finances only in the long run.

    The remaining bureaucracies are in need of major pruning and in numerous cases elimination but they evaded even budget scold David Stockman’s ax during the Reagan Administration.

    Americans will have to work more and consume less
    That is the typical progressive economic legacy of excessive borrowing from the future.

    The first Clinton Administration created the crony capitalist coalition of the political elite and the politically favored, e.g., public sector employees and retirees, subsidy recipients and low income home loan borrowers. The recent Clinton campaign promised to broaden this coalition, which would have accelerated the trip over the event horizon.

    Reform that taxes consumption in favor of savings and a return to historical real interest rates could reverse the dramatic decline of the savings rate. Regulations redirecting savings to politically popular housing or environmental causes need to be curtailed in favor of market allocation to productive business investment.

    Repeal and replace of Obama Care could reverse the trend to part time employment. Unwinding the approximate doubling of SS Disability payments and temporary unemployment benefits could reverse the decline in labor force participation.

    Service sector labor productivity has been falling since 1987, the more politically favored the faster the decline. Legal services are at the bottom, partly reflecting political power of rent-seeking trial lawyers, followed by unionized health and then educational services. Union favoritism through, e.g., Davis Bacon wage requirements and “card check” increases rent seeking, particularly rampant in the unionized public sector.

    Competition, of which free but reciprocal trade has historically been a major component, has traditionally provided the largest boost to well being by realizing the benefits of foreign productivity in a lower cost of goods while channeling American labor into employment where their relative productivity is highest. The transition is often painful, but paying people not to work long term is counterproductive. Immigration of both highly skilled and low cost labor (but not dependent family) generally contributes to per capita labor productivity in the same way as free trade.

    None of this will be easy. The alternative is Greece without the Mediterranean climate or a sufficiently rich benefactor.

    —-

    Kevin Villani, chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985, is a principal of University Financial Associates. He has held senior government positions, been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath.

    Posted in Big Government, Current Events, Economics & Finance, Politics, Predictions, Public Finance, Trump | 13 Comments »

    Technology and Offshoring

    Posted by David Foster on 9th December 2016 (All posts by )

    Thought question: If Henry Ford had been able to have the Model T manufactured in Mexico by people making 50 cents a day…and with no need for the assembly line and related productivity-improving technology…would that have been equivalent, in terms of its economic, social, and political consequences, to making it in Detroit on the assembly line with workers making $5.00/day and a 10:1 reduction in unit labor content?

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Tech | 28 Comments »

    Attack of the Job-Killing Robots, Part 2

    Posted by David Foster on 15th November 2016 (All posts by )

    In my previous post of this series, I remarked that most discussion of the employment effects of robotics/artificial intelligence/etc seems to be lacking in historical perspective…quite a few people seem to believe that the replacement of human labor by machinery is a new thing.

    This post will attempt to provide some historical perspective on today’s automation technologies by sketching out some of the past innovations in the mechanization of work,  focusing on “robots,” broadly-defined…ie, on technologies which to some degree involve the replacement or augmentation of human mind/eye/hand, rather than those that are primarily concerned with the replacement of human and animal muscular energy…and will discuss some of the political debate that took place on mechanization & jobs in the 1920s through 1940s.

    Throughout most of history, the production of yarn for cloth was an extremely labor-intensive process, done with a device called a distaff, almost always employed by women, and requiring many hours per day to generate a little bit of product.  (There even exists a medieval miniature of a woman spinning with the distaff while having sex…whether this is a comment on the burdensomeness of the yarn-making process, or a slam at the love-making skills of medieval men, I’m not sure—-probably both.)  Eventually, probably around 1400-1500 in most places in Europe, the spinning wheel came into use, improving the productivity of yarn-making by a factor estimated from 3:1 to as much as ten or more to one.

    Gutenberg’s printing press was invented somewhere around 1440.  I haven’t seen any estimates of its effect on labor productivity, compared with the then-prevailing method of hand copying of manuscripts, but surely it was at least 1000 to 1 or more.

    The era from 1700-1850 was marked by tremendous increases in the productivity of the textile trades.  The flying shuttle and other advances greatly improved the weaving process; this created a bottleneck in the supply of yarn, which was partly addressed by the invention of the Spinning Jenny–a foot-powered device that could improve the yarn production of one person by 5:1 or better. Power spinning and power looms yielded considerable additional productivity improvements.

    An especially interesting device was the Jacquard Loom (1802), which used punched cards to direct the weaving of patterned fabrics.  In its initial incarnation, the Jacquard was a hand loom: its productivity did not come from the application of mechanical power but rather from the automation of the complex thread-selection operations previously carried out by a “Draw Boy.”

    Turning now to woodworking:  in 1818, Blanchard’s Copying Lathe automated the production of complex shape–a prototype was automatically traced and copied. It was originally intended for making gunstocks, but also served in producing lasts for shoemakers, and I believe also chair and table legs.

    Another major advancement in the clothing field was the sewing machine.  French inventory Barthelemy Thimonnier invented a machine in 1830, but was driven out of the country by enraged tailors and political instability.  The first commercially-successful machines were invented/marketed by Americans Walter Hunt, Elias Howe, and Isaac Singer, and were in common use by the 1850s.

    By the late Victorian period the sewing machine had been hailed as the most useful invention of the century releasing women from the drudgery of endless hours of sewing by hand. Factories sprung up in almost every country in the world to feed the insatiable demand for the sewing machine. Germany had over 300 factories some working 24 hours a day producing countless numbers of sewing machines. 

    The beginnings of data communications could be seen in gold ticker and stock ticker systems created by Edison and others (circa 1870) , which relayed prices almost instantaneously and eliminated the jobs of the messenger boys who had previously been the distribution channel for this information.  Practical calculating machines also appeared in the 1870s.  But the big step forward in mechanized calculation was Hollerith’s punched card system (quite likely inspired in part by the Jacquard), introduced in 1890 and used for the tabulation of that year’s census.  These systems were quickly adopted for accounting and record keeping purposes in a whole range of industries and government functions.

    Professor Amy Sue Bix, in her book Inventing Ourselves out of Jobs?, describes the fear of technological unemployment as silent movies were replaced by the ‘talkies’. “Through the early 1920s…local theaters had employed live musicians to provide accompaniment for silent pictures.  Small houses featured only a pianist or violinist, but glamorous ‘movie places’ engaged full orchestras.”  All these jobs were threatened when Warner Brothers introduced its Vitaphone technology, with prerecorded disks synchronized to projectors.  “Unlike other big studios, Warner did not operate its own theater chains and so had to convince local owners to screen their productions. Theater managers would be eager to show sound movies, Harry Warner hoped, since they could save the expense of hiring musicians.”

    The American Federation of Musicians mounted a major PR campaign in an attempt to convince the public that ‘living music’ was better than ‘canned sound.’  A Music Defense League was established, with membership reaching 3 million…but the ‘talkies’ remained popular, and the AFM had to admit defeat.  A lot of musicians did lose their jobs.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Capitalism, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, History, Tech, USA | 47 Comments »