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Warm up the Helicopter of Happiness

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Here is a letter from a reader:

Hi David,

 Long-time reader of yours.  You put out some of the best blog content on the web and I am grateful for that.

I’ve got a question I’d hope you consider answering in the blog.  I’m almost embarrassed to ask it, for fear of appearing facile, but here goes:

Our economy is struggling with a lack of aggregate demand, low monetary velocity, and a whiff of deflation.  QE does not seem to be transmitting its monetary effects to the real economy, just helping to inflate asset prices instead.  So why wouldn’t we consider sending direct stimulus to households, similar to what we did in 2008-09, only on a much bigger scale?  Say there are 120MM households.  Send each one a $5k check, and if I’ve got the zeroes right, that’s a “mere” $600B we’re borrowing to disburse – about 60% of what the Fed is doing annually with QE.  Most of the money would recycle and multiply quickly to the economy (net of what gets allocated to debt paydown, and what gets banked by the well-off).  And due to some current one-times in the Federal budget, we’ve actually got a better balance sheet in the moment to do something with added borrowing/spending. 

Crazy thought, but these are uncommon times.  Curious what you think. 

Dear friend, I think about this in two ways: ethics and metaphysics.  The metaphysics are easy — yeah, let the Fed remit all of its seigniorage to the people rather than to the Treasury.  Far better than letting the government spend it.

But the ethics are touchy.  How do we define ethical taxation systems?  My view is that people should be taxed according to their increase in net worth, and at a flat rate, but with no ability to defer income from taxation.  Most wealthy people don’t care about tax rates because they can find ways to defer/reduce taxable income.  This is a major reason why you should distrust the Democrats, because their desire to raise tax rates would do little.  This is also a reason to distrust the GOP, because there is no decent reason to decrease tax rates.

We need to tighten up the definition of income in the US, and no longer allow citizens and businesses to defer income.  If we taxed all economic activity as it occurred we would have balanced budgets.

The rich aren’t paying enough in the US, not because of tax rates, but because they can hide their income.  That is the way that policy should proceed, to make the wealthy pay according to their increase in net worth.

I’ll write about this more later, but the main idea is to tax people proportionate to their increase in wealth.  That is the Bible’s solution for how people should give.

 

 

Lower the Cap Rate, Not

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Sometimes I think regulators are in over their heads.  They aren’t talented enough to run a company, but they think they can control the excesses of financial companies.  Then there’s the Fed.  They think they can control an entire economy through the weak policy lever of affecting the views of people have for calculating what interest rates they should use to capitalize the values of assets.

Think of assets as a stream of future cash flows.  But what are those cash flows worth today, to buy or sell them?  The interest rate that makes the price and the cash flows equal is the capitalization rate, or, “cap rate.”

For years, at least in the Greenspan era, lowering the cap rate via Fed funds was the rule when times were weak.  He was the anti-Martin, bringing back the punchbowl rapidly when the party was getting a little dull.  Because of that, the economy grew more aggressively for a time, but at a price of growing unproductive debts.

The Problem

You can lower the interest rates as low as you want, but it doesn’t change the underlying productivity of the economy.  You might push asset or goods prices higher — it depends whether saving or spending is more important.  At present, actions of the Fed push asset prices higher, which doesn’t do much for the economy as a whole.  Rising asset prices do not stimulate the economy much.  Though it would be dishonest to do it, it would stimulate the economy more if Ben would rev up the “Helicopter of Happiness” and rain dollars from “Heaven.”

The Fed created the housing bubble with their policies 2001-2007.  They did that to stimulate the economy.  You can only use strong sectors of the economy to transmit monetary policy, because they can absorb more debt.

That’s true when not in a liquidity trap. We are in such a trap now, given the profligate prior Fed policy.  They did not let recessions destroy bad debts leading to a reduction in the marginal productivity of capital.  That value is so low now, that companies pay higher dividends and buy back shares.  Relatively little goes into growth via new investment.

My point is that monetary policy has some potency if central bankers are willing to inflict pain in the bear phase of the credit cycle.  With Greenspan and Bernanke, that was absent.  As such, we suffer in a liquidity trap, and one that current Fed policy will not remedy.  Far better to raise short-term interest rates and let some bad businesses fail, and grow from there.

On Voluntarism

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

One of the great things about the US is that people give their time and effort for things that benefit society.  It is a secular offshoot of the Puritan idea of creating a Holy Commonwealth.  We are out to save the World from itself, but now, without anything like Yahweh/Jesus telling us to do it.

I must admit that I serve in both spheres — I am an elder in my Bible-believing Presbyterian congregation.  I also serve on the Baltimore CFA society’s board, and may become a part of the board that oversees the pension plans for Howard County, should the county executive so choose me.  (As an aside, I applied for similar posts at the Maryland State level, but I fear that I am either too controversial, or too qualified.  I suspect that they don’t want people who really know the business.)

When I came to Baltimore, my boss had a number of things to teach me:

  • When someone asks you for help finding work, give him help.
  • Break off time to aid the broader interests of your industry, in this case, the CFA Society.
  • Where you have the opportunity, favor the local financial community if it doesn’t cost a lot to do so.
  • Help students and young professionals where you can.

I have made an effort to do this.  I aid people who are looking for opportunities, and I advise them.  I may not be the best, but I have been around the block a few times.  I really enjoy aiding people to find jobs in investing.  I love spending time with students, and encouraging them to think broadly about how investing works.  It is not a simple formula.

Thus I find my time pulled many different directions, and my dear wife wonders at how I do it.  The truth is, I don’t do it.  I have as many hours as all those who are alive.  It is just a question of the distractions that you block out in an internet era.

Thanks for reading me, and as Program Chair for Baltimore CFA, if you have any great speaker ideas for me, please send them to me. Thanks.

Locking in a Smaller Loss

Friday, January 4th, 2013

Why are TIPS yields negative out to 20+ years?  People are willing to lock in a loss versus CPI inflation in order to avoid a possibly larger loss.

Why do some people continue to invest in money market funds, bank deposits, savings accounts, when inflation is running at 2%+/year?  They are willing to lock in a loss versus inflation in order to avoid a possibly larger loss.

When the Fed adopts aggressive strategies, people will have two responses:

  1. “Yields on safe investments are too low.  I need more income.  I guess I have to take more risk.”
  2. “Policy is abnormal, and I am scared.  I know I am going to lose here, but I want to lose as little as possible.  TIPS, bank deposits, and money market funds make sense here.  Maybe some gold as well.”

The Fed is counting on response #1, but response #2 is much more common than they would like.  Now, response #1 is nothing all that great — the Fed is trying to extract value out of economic actors by making them undervalue risks, whether those risks are duration, convexity, credit, etc.  When they encourage more risk, they are trying to extract economic wherewithal out of those that invest there.  Who is the one that buys when things are hot, before they are not?  That is the target.

So be wary amid the efforts to “stimulate” the economy.  When an economy is heavily indebted, stimulus does not work.  Far better to invest your money in areas where stimulus does not play a role.  Look for healthy places in the economy that do not rely closely on the government.

Finally, don’t take minor changes by the Fed too seriously.  They are utterly convinced of their “super powers,” and do not appreciate how little control they have.  Every action of the Fed in their “stimulus” has produced progressively less response.

The Fed does not control the US economy.  They are codependent with it, and they do not act, they react.  The FOMC is hopelessly lost, with a cast of C+ students running the show — people who can’t think more broadly than the failed ideas of neoclassical economics.  As I have said before, the FOMC needs more historians, and no neoclassical economists.  Bring in the Austrians, they might solve things.  You might get a depression in the short-run, but afterwards, things would be normal.

That’s why some would rather lock in a smaller loss; this situation is volatile enough that many will want to do so.  As for me, I will try to buy undervalued companies, and make money there.

11.0010010000111111011010101000100010000101101000110000100011010011

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

For fun, I decided to try running a test on the constant we call Pi in binary form [note headline].  Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.  It is many more things as well.  It is a unique number in mathematics.  As Linus said to Charlie Brown after meeting the kid named “Five,” “How about the name 3.14159?”  Charlie Brown says, “I think there are a lot of kids who would be named 3.14159.” (From memory, I could have botched it.)

I found on the web the first 2^15th power (32,768) binary digits for the “fractional” part of Pi. In decimal terms, it means Pi to a little more than 10,000 decimal places.

Pi is an irrational number.  That means it can’t be expressed as a fraction of two integers.  As such, in binary form, since the series does not terminate, the pattern of ones and zeroes should be random.  As such, we can do a “runs test” to see whether the number of runs is abnormal.  Too few runs: zeroes and ones alternate too frequently.  Too many runs: zeroes and ones do not alternate enough.

My expectation was that neither abnormality would occur.  But I had to follow the data to the conclusion.  As it the first 32,768 digits of Pi, it had too many runs, such that the probability of it being random was 1.26%.

I don’t know what to do with this, but my next experiment will be on the number e, 2.71828…

I’m good with math, but not great with it.  Advice is welcome…

The Anti-Consultancy Consultancy

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

I’ve had this idea for 15 years or so, but forgot about it until I sat down and talked with a friend who worked for a dysfunctional company that recently let him go.  My experience working in corporate America is that the best and most effective firms listen to their employees, and set up some means of obtaining their opinions on how the business could be improved.  Bad firms have managements that think that know it all, and the rank and file must merely execute what they imagine will work.

In all of the time that I worked in the insurance industry, or served on the boards nonprofit organizations, I have yet to have seen a situation where a consultant needed to be hired to solve a problem.  The middle management of the firms in question knew what the answer was, but senior management was either fighting with itself, or weak-minded.

I remember one situation where the Chief Investment Officer and the Chief Financial Officer hated each others guts, and could rarely agree.  The only way to solve a particular problem was to hire a consultant, who would neutrally give them an answer that they both would heed.

I was running a small line of business in the company, and the consultant approached me for data, which I gave him, but I asked my boss about the situation.  He told me that the company was spending roughly 7% of that year’s income to analyze the investment policy of the firm, particularly with respect to the liabilities of the firm.  I said to my boss, “If you gave me 3 months, I could solve this project on my own, and the cost would be 3% of what the consultant charges.”  He laughed and told me about the fighting above us, that led to the costs.

As it was, the consultant gave advice that was less detailed than I would have given, but was valuable, though embarrassing to the insurance company — they were invested two years shorter than they should be.  There a free lunch to pick up income and reduce risk.  You could go three years longer if you wanted to optimize risk.

Lovely, but if management had just asked its line of business actuaries to answer the questions it all could been solved for a small fraction of the cost, and with more precision.  Also, though no one talked about it at the time, it really showed that senior management really did not understand the core business, which was earning a spread over liabilities adjusted for risk.

I have another experience working with a non-profit where the executive was weak, and would never hire anyone more talented than himself.  As a board member, I was always shocked with how badly the place was run, but the board members suffered from the same disease; few were competent.  Management liked having incompetent board members.  Worse, the incompetent board members did not like anyone suggesting that there was a better way to do things, which is why I eventually left.

This management team hired consultant after consultant on things that I felt were answerable from resources within.  But being weak-minded, they did not trust their middle management to answer basic questions.  A lot of money was wasted in the process, which was particularly painful, because the non-profit did not have a lot of resources to spare.

Do You Really Need a Consultant?

There are cases where hiring a consultant is needed, but the first question should be whether those who work for the firm, particularly middle-management might be able to do a better job with it for less cost.  Going back to the first firm mentioned, I was hired by a division of the firm to provide exactly that expertise.

Even if employees are a little short of the expertise needed, giving the project to them will develop the expertise internally to deal with the question at hand and handle greater questions later.  More, it will improve morale, as employees deal with difficult problems and triumph over them.  If you want to read about one vignette in dealing with this, you can read it here.  It made me choke up as I re-read it, because it was such an amazing transformation/comeback that no one expected.

But the first priority of people management in a firm should be hiring bright people and set them free to act.  There was one firm I worked for where this was actually done, where the man in charge hired people, all of whom were brighter than him.  I was one of them, and I did not realize at the time that he had hired me to be his #2.  Small organization, informal, yeh.

He wasn’t always easy to deal with, and on a number of occasions people in our unit would come to me near the end of the day, and say “can we talk?”  When I learned the topic, I would say, “Close the door.”  Then I would listen to their grievances.

I responded to them, “Look, our boss is imperfect, but he means well, work with him.  He was courageous enough to hire people brighter than himself, which few will do.  Reason will win out here, and I will help the process along, but be sweet reason incarnate, try to convince, don’t gripe.”

And as it was, all such situations were resolved, and we produced a far better firm, with good results to the client, and good morale.  (And I quietly led useful change, which was the way I did things in my younger days.)

A New Business

So, if you as a management team think that you need a consultant to solve your problems, e-mail me.  For a nominal fee, I will ask you whether you have set up a culture with bright people who can solve problems, and whether they have tried to solve your problems.  If you have tried that, and your team can’t do it, yes, a consultant is warranted, otherwise not.  But it also means that you have hired wrong.  Get some talent in your door that can solve tough problems.

In essence, I would be a consultant telling you not to hire consultants, and to build up the talent base of your organization, such that you would never need me, or anyone more expensive than me again.  I would be a very cheap way of improving your organization.

Denouement

But what happened to the group where I became the #2?

Well, I briefly became #1 when the boss left prior to a merger.  We merged into a larger organization that didn’t really get how insurance assets should be run.  As it was, they lost the mandate, long after I was gone.

The rump of the organization now has a five star rating from Morningstar for high-yield bond management, and is happily managing assets in Charm City (Baltimore), while the immediate parent company (that they were sold to) is in NYC.

Oh, the boss who left?  He eventually found work  managing bonds near DC.  A good guy, if a little irascible. He is still a friend.  In fact, all the people I mentioned are still friends, because I don’t make permanent enemies.  I just try to promote what is best for all.

Should I Invest or Save?

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

“Should I Invest or Save?”

An easy question, not.  First, I need to know your time horizon.  If it is short, save.  The bank will invest your money, and you will get a little back from it.  Second, I need to know who you are?

Is it possible that you will need the money in six months?  Do you have three months of expenses saved?  If not, save, don’t take the chance on investing.

Investing is for those that can take losses.  Even if your goal is long term, I would have to ask how important it is to achieve your goals.  The higher the importance, the greater the funding need.  Fund assuming that returns in the market will be positive, but poor.  If the goal isn’t that important, contribute less, and assume a higher return on assets.

The main idea here is that you should invest more for goals that you care a lot about, because those goals will be achieved, most likely.  Goals that rely on high asset returns are not likely to be achieved.

Searching for the Not-Romney

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Over the last six months, I have described the Republican nomination to be the search for the not-Romney.  The average Republican does not want Romney, but they don’t know who they do want, among the midgets that are running.  Thus we see candidates spike in their approval ratings — everyone except for Huntsman, as Republicans search for an alternative to Romney.

Tonight, Santorum may be the not-Romney.  Ron Paul can never be the not-Romney because he is Ron Paul; he is something in himself, and not the competitor in relative terms.

My guess is that the not-Romney, whoever he might be, will win the nomination, and maybe the election.  My best hope is for a deadlock at the Republican convention, and they choose someone other than the midgets that are currently running.

Recent Tweets

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

I’m going to try as an experiment publishing my tweets at my blog.  They highlight significant articles that I have read.  Let me know if you want me to do this regularly.  Alternatively, you can get my tweets via RSS or email, as I described here.

Anyway, here are the tweets:

China’s Top 10 Business Stories in 2011 http://bit.ly/rRN3S0 Patrick Chovanec, professor in China gives his perspectives on a tough year $$

 

Job Creation Is Price for US Health Law bloom.bg/rK5s7R Inflexible mandates on business tend to decrease jobs in the economy $$ #yup

 

Spain says deficit bigger than expected, hikes taxes reut.rs/vF8gLj Spain goes for austerity amid large budget deficits. Surprise! $$

 

Fear Recoupling in ’12, Not the End of the World bloom.bg/unlphk Pesek on dangers from Asian economic 2nd-order effects in 2012 $$

 

Heterodox economics: Marginal revolutionaries econ.st/tGlNai The Economist on the effect economics bloggers have on the mainstream $$

 

Bonds Prove Best Financial Asset in 2011 bloom.bg/tvL3z5 Leave aside Shilling, Hoisington & a few others. Who called this? I didn’t.

 

Major Dubai companies ‘may need bail-outs’ tgr.ph/v00OEW It is usually not wise to lend money on projects that are grandiose. $$ #duh

 

Borrowing From ECB Jumps on.wsj.com/vFlbpR If banks wont lend 2 each other bit.ly/v42Tw7 then CBs must lend 2 banks $$ #liquiditytrap

 

SSgA Files For Short-Term Junk Bond ETF bit.ly/tZFizH A promising idea that will get overdone, leading to losses. Nonrated CP anyone?

 

The Germans have many conflicting goals $$ RT @calculatedrisk: Merkel: “Will do everything to strengthen the euro” goo.gl/fb/vxa3h

 

Maybe 2 cents in dividends? RT @BCAppelbaum: If you put $1 in the S&P 500 at the beginning of the year, you would end the year with… $1 $$

 

TED Spread on Watch for Breakout bit.ly/v42Tw7 Short-term lending getting tight, banks don’t trust each other; CBs 2 the rescue? $$

 

A Margin for Error in Hedge-Fund Filings on.wsj.com/sC7KAO Might some hedge funds b mismarking their less liquid stocks? bonds? X? $$

 

BIS Describes the Exposure of Emerging Markets to Europe bit.ly/vJ3w1a Credit slowing down from EZone 2 emerging markets, GDP slowing

 

Deepening Crisis Over Euro Pits Leader Against Leader on.wsj.com/v1pjlz Tale of how Angela Merkel undercut Berlusconi. Clever lady $$

 

Gloomy Picture for Banks in Europe’s Core on.wsj.com/vQftdv EZone Govt’s & banks depend on each other; 2 drunks holding each other up

 

The Q Ratio and Market Valuation bit.ly/tkbOnp Good article going over the Q ratio, what it means, how to calculate & forecast $$

 

California Barred by Judge From Cutting Medi-Cal Rates bloom.bg/uSFCCX Expect this pattern to repeat in a fight over priorities $$

 

Hospice Turns Months-to-Live Patient Into Addict bloom.bg/s0WCiH Misdiagnosis of time to live can create addicted elderly folks $$

 

Contra: Republicans, Lost in Moderation bloom.bg/vCrabB Did the Republicans win more elections b4 or after conservatives took over?

 

Banks Continue to Stockpile Agency MBS bit.ly/tOMvNz Nice credit-risk free asset to pair against cheap funds from the Fed. $$

 

Tough Markets: Punishing Hedge Funds Since 2003 on.wsj.com/vPf2UN Hedge funds in aggregate r yield hogs & abhor volatility $$

 

End of Corn Ethanol? bit.ly/v599bC US ended a 30Yr subsidy 4 corn-based ethanol that cost $6B/yr & ended tariff Brazilian ethanol $$

 

China is a Closed Communist Economy, concludes research bit.ly/ucMjsH The Party is still in control & directs the use of resources $$

 

What Deleveraging? bit.ly/vj9jmZ What is this deleveraging you continue to babble about . . . ? $$

 

ReformedBroker Downtown Josh Brown

Anytime I get nervous about the US economy, I just look over at how calm and stable China seems to be and I feel much better.

Retweeted by AlephBlog

The public sphere is different, where the ECB takes lower-quality collateral; that seems to be loosening things up a bit for now $$

 

European Bank Worry: Collateral on.wsj.com/sbkgGT In the private sphere, loans can only gotten by pledges of hi-quality collateral $$

 

The most stable, dividend paying sectors have the highest PEs, the most cyclical elements tand to have the lowest PEs now. $$ #fear #yield

 

S&P 500 PE 11.85, Industrials 12.37, Discretionary 13.71, Staples 14.59, Utilities 14.72, Telecom 16.84… do you see the pattern? $$

 

The S&P and Sector P/E Ratios bit.ly/rz4LKA Financials 9.68, Energy 10.26, Materials 11.37, Healthcare 11.46, Technology 11.67 $$

 

Forecasting Asset Price Booms bit.ly/tOwuNN The fool does at the end of the boom what the wise man does at the beginning $$

 

Spikes in Bank Stock Volatility Precede Economic Trouble, suggests research bit.ly/vhMdqz Volatility flows through banks 2 economy $$

 

Forecasting Oil Prices with Economic Data bit.ly/toKHW4 Real crude prices go up when global econ conditions r strong $$ surprise, not

 

Investment Advisers Likely To Bear Cost Of More Oversight on.wsj.com/s3REK0 Could put small advisers like me out of business $$

 

Lure of Chinese Tuition Squeezes Out Asian-Americans at California Schools bloom.bg/scxHZm State schools becoming more like private

 

India to Exceed Its Record Borrowing Target bloom.bg/tiMnMi Too many governments r caught on a borrowing treadmill; can’t get off $$

 

China needs new policy course as capital tide turns reut.rs/vmMWsx China will likely have to reduce the reserve ratio at its banks $$

 

Phantom firms bleed millions from Medicare reut.rs/uJOps5 Looong article on how fraud bleeds a lotta $$ out of Medicare->shell comps

In Memoriam — Ron Smith

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

My friend Ron Smith has died.  For those that do not live in Baltimore, the Ron Smith show was the leading radio show in Baltimore.  I had the rare opportunity of being on the show three times out of the last three years.  Even better, I was able to do it in the studio with Ron.  The best times that I had when on WBAL were during the commercial breaks, where Ron and I would discuss issues that were far beyond what we were talking about to listeners.

Ron Smith was an intensely bright man.  He was an agnostic, though one that respected religious belief; his opinions outside religion were highly reliable.  He told me that I was doing “God’s work” for raising my eight children.

I will miss Ron.  He was the sort of person that I would have liked to have developed a deeper relationship with, but that was not possible because he was far more busy than I am. We corresponded over a number of issues over the years, and I always learned something from him.

Baltimore will be a poorer place without Ron Smith.

Disclaimer


David Merkel is an investment professional, and like every investment professional, he makes mistakes. David encourages you to do your own independent "due diligence" on any idea that he talks about, because he could be wrong. Nothing written here, at RealMoney, Wall Street All-Stars, or anywhere else David may write is an invitation to buy or sell any particular security; at most, David is handing out educated guesses as to what the markets may do. David is fond of saying, "The markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you," and so he encourages caution in investing. Risk control wins the game in the long run, not bold moves. Even the best strategies of the past fail, sometimes spectacularly, when you least expect it. David is not immune to that, so please understand that any past success of his will be probably be followed by failures.


Also, though David runs Aleph Investments, LLC, this blog is not a part of that business. This blog exists to educate investors, and give something back. It is not intended as advertisement for Aleph Investments; David is not soliciting business through it. When David, or a client of David's has an interest in a security mentioned, full disclosure will be given, as has been past practice for all that David does on the web. Disclosure is the breakfast of champions.


Additionally, David may occasionally write about accounting, actuarial, insurance, and tax topics, but nothing written here, at RealMoney, or anywhere else is meant to be formal "advice" in those areas. Consult a reputable professional in those areas to get personal, tailored advice that meets the specialized needs that David can have no knowledge of.

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