19 October 2014

Lord of The Flies

Being stranded on an island in the Atlantic, though not all that far out, without my beloved desktop I'm forced to keep this short. I hate laptops, and this one (not mine, fur shur) is horrid. These endeavors have talked about the arc of the future, from the many perspectives of the macros, micros, and quants. Data doesn't help a bunch, if the incentive structure which generated the time series you're relying on to predict the future really isn't there any more. Much like Oakland in the view of Stein.

In today's NYT Business Upshot piece, Shiller takes on the miscreants. He's explicitly dealing with the Behavioural Economics aspects of Mr. Market, although he doesn't use the term. Rather, it's a faint feint to Ebola.
Fundamentally, stock markets are driven by popular narratives, which don't need basis in solid fact. True or not, such stories may be described as "thought viruses". When they are pernicious, they are analogous to the Ebola virus: They spread by contagion.

In the end, what's behind the recent collapse of Mr. Market's arches? Time for Dr. Scholls.
Some people say that a theory of John Maynard Keynes -- known as the "underconsumption theory" because it says people inherently underspend once they become prosperous - is taking hold.

Mark Twain wrote, arguably, the best dissection of that idea with "The Gilded Age", a decade before Keynes was born (and before "Huckleberry Finn", for what it's worth). Even if you're Daddy Warbucks, you can use only so many fast cars, loose women, and fancy food. Economists have known this, if not by explicit name, since long before Keynes.

The Wiki has a, not fawning, piece: here.

16 October 2014

One Life to Live

It was raining cats and dogs this morning here in South Fireplug, CT (although not nearly what my beloved, yet benighted, Bermuda faces tomorrow), so I postponed my daily stroll to get the dead trees NYT and a cuppa joe until it let up. In the meantime, I spent some time with r-bloggers and came across a young pup who talked about predicting life expectancy from historical data. I considered a tongue in cheek rebuttal, but tasks interfered.

The rain let up, and there were still NYTs on the shelf. What do I find? David Leonhardt's, et al take on the issue of quants not looking out the window to see if it's raining. These endeavors have addressed this issue a few times. Time series data of some attribute may be useful in predicting the attribute's future value, IFF the entities which have the attribute are running under God's Laws over which they have no control. On the other hand, when measures are of some aspect of human activity, it's mostly a Wizard of Oz situation: some human(s) are behind the curtain bending, breaking, or re-writing the "laws" of behavior which determine the attribute. It wasn't thermodynamics which propelled house prices, but various Wizards playing various games with the rules of the game. That financial quants were all too happy to ignore the absurdity of their data, well...

Curiously, one might argue that the examples (possibly, save one or two) he gives of odds are of attributes and entities which obey God's Laws. Such odds are accurate, by definition of our understanding of God's Laws. No mention of house prices continuing to rise like smoke from a volcano.

So far as life expectancy goes, if you go and look (I've provided links more than once), you'll see that from 1900 to 2000 life expectancy at birth increased by nearly 70%, but life expectancy at 65 increased about 7% of total lifetime (less if you measure from the start of Social Security). The increase in life expectancy at birth is the number that right wingnuts use to bray, "we have to kill SS because 'we' can't afford it. You all have to buy stocks and bonds from our friends in the financial services industry." Not that they see any conflict of interest. The overhead of SS is about 1%, and protects citizens from oscillations of Mr. Market. Can't say the same thing about that 401(k); all those Wall Street fat cats got fat off "your" retirement nest egg.

So, why is predicting life expectancy from today forward based on the accumulated data over the last X years silly? Because, just as the Wizard of Oz, those added years are the result of human intervention, sporadic and specific. Increase in life expectancy, whether at birth or 65 or some other age, is not a God given gift to humanity for just being on the planet for evermore years. Doesn't work that way. Most of the increase at birth is due to greatly diminished infant and child mortality, this due mostly to public health initiatives; vaccines and anti-biotics being discovered and made widely available. That's not going to happen again. One might even speculate that, with increasing wealth concentration, what had been widely available will become more restricted. With the loonies chirping about autism and vaccines and denying same to their spawn, we are finding increased (although not epidemic levels, yet) incidence of old diseases. And so on. Humanity, despite what some quants believe, isn't Brownian motion or a random walk. No, progress exists because humans change the rules, from time to time. And sometimes those changes benefit most of us rather the the 1% and we all live a bit longer. It isn't God that has provided us with longer lives than we had in 1900, it's us. As we've reached near the limit of our ability to stave off Father Doom, and, perhaps, our willingness to make this ability available to all, we will see a leveling (if not diminishment) of life expectancy at all ages.

11 October 2014

I Have No Interest in You, Anymore

Regular reader should recall that I've been pestering the macros, micros, and quants (especially those who're in love with time series) about The Giant Pool of Money, corporate moolah hoards, the limits of knowledge (once you know the Laws of Nature, there's little left to discover), and such. The upshot of these concerns is that real returns to physical capital, which is the only, and controlling, manifestation of compound interest must needs be declining. If there's no place to put the moolah that is productive, well...

Turns out, I'm not entirely alone. A bond pundit has weighed in, and reach just that conclusion. The piece doesn't detail the reasoning, but, really now, what else could it be? Too much moolah chasing too few real opportunities. House and car notes don't actually generate real return, only foregone consumption. That's not organic growth.

If you read German (I got tired of waiting for Google Translate to finish, sigh), this is the source interview. Not much longer than the English reference articles.

10 October 2014

Diamonds Are a Tim's Best Friend

I wonder: will anyone be willing to supply Apple now? They clearly, based on reporting, shafted GT. Nor, for that matter based on reporting, was GT Apple's first choice. Those earlier explorations led to companies saying NO to the terms Apple demanded. Much, if not most, of Apple supply dealings are in the Far East, away from US media reporting. I suspect there are many more corporate corpses over there. Make a deal with the devil...

Apple holds at least one patent on S/G/S and S/G lamination. Given BendGate, the likelihood that a monolithic sapphire screen would survive is slim.

Apple looks to have won this battle. The war is another matter.

07 October 2014

I Want My Gumby Phone

A few times I've mused that the phablet sized phones' days were numbered, and that flip phones (with flexible displays and/or hinges) would come back. Well, I'm no longer the only one.
Over the next couple of years, a lot will change. OLEDs, which are being sold as televisions by LG, can be made to conform to shapes. You can see the beginnings of the implications of that in Samsung's Galaxy Note Edge phablet. Thanks to new technology from companies like Kateeva, it's going to get even easier to make those flexible displays very soon. The implications are critical on two fronts (1) displays that bend, flex, fold and expand will become possible (2) screens that are nearly unbreakable will become commonplace.

I hereby claim the trademark and copyright on The Gumby Phone. Should have done that in the first place.

06 October 2014

The Lone Ranger, Superman, and Jim

"You don't mess around with Jim."
-- Jim Croce/1972

Or Tim, who learned at Steve's knee. GTAT has filed Chap. 11. They may have been headed there anyway, given their exposure to solar, and the vicissitudes of same. But still. Betting that Apple would be a good fairy godmother? Apple did much the same with capacitive touch screens with the first iPhone, although I don't recall any Chap. 11s from that escapade. Apple has, once again, frozen competitors out of useful technology. GTAT isn't the only supplier of sapphire, but nearly the only supplier of machine tools for making it. Who said Tim was a milquetoast?

05 October 2014

Two Bill Buckners For One Mickey Mantle?

With its usual panache`, the Sunday NYT has more on-point material for the macros, micros, and quants than one short blog can reasonably deal with. I'll limit myself to two pieces, which share a minor thread.

First, is the situation with container ships. This a full page and a half on the conundrum faced by container shipping companies: how to forecast demand for slots, price of fuel, and cost of moolah to decide whether to buy, and if so how many, new ships. The piece uses the recent Triple-E types of Maersk as example, in the body (so to speak) of the new Mary Maersk. In economics, generally in 101 class, the student is introduced to the farmer's dilemma; no there isn't a Wiki piece, oddly. (If you go there, you end up with Prisoner's Dilemma, which is somewhat worse.) The problem, in a nutshell, is that farm product is largely dependent on forces out of the farmer's control, weather mostly, such that a bad harvest in one year will, often, lead to higher than usual prices that year. The Dilemma: plant more the coming year, expecting (hoping?) that other farmers won't and that the high price will be sustained. Generally, doesn't work. Ruinous competition. We see similar at today's gas pump; all that horizontal drilled black gold is driving price down. Sniff!!

What's interesting about the container ship problem is that Acts of God are less significant. It's almost entirely the result of human decision making. Some quotes.

How to drive prices down:
"There's too much capacity in the market and that drives down prices," [Ulrik Sanders, global head of the shipping practice at Boston Consulting] continued. "From an industry perspective, it doesn't make any sense. But from an individual company perspective, it makes a lot of sense. It's a very tricky thing."

A classic game theory problem, seen by upper level undergraduate and graduate macros, micros, and quants. What to do? What to do?

Remember the JIT movement? Kind of a secondary gift from Deming, though not often explicitly mentioned. So, what do these behemoths mean?
The industry wants ships that carry more containers, more slowly. Fuel prices are a major factor, so ships now commonly "slow steam" to save fuel, cruising at 16 or 18 knots instead of 22. A typical trip from Poland to China takes 34 days.

Sends us back to the good old days of primitive industrialization. We're all going Chinese.

Which brings us to a statement of such opacity, that it is hard to believe
When the world economy slackens, so does the shipping industry. At one end of Mary's route, the growth engine of China has been losing steam, while at the other, Europe is again flirting with recession.

Ah, folks: the growth engine of China is shipping widgets to the US and EU. These are not separable events. Gad.

Bigger is better, in capital. But how to get bigger?
"In this down cycle, the new-built prices are low and money is cheap, so you would much rather go and buy the vessels than go and acquire a company" that has older ships, said Martin Dixon, director of research products at Drewry. "Many shipping lines are struggling to make money, so cost leadership is key to survival. Hence, you're seeing a lot of investment in bigger ships."

In the airline industry, 727s were sold off to regionals and such when more fuel efficient Boeings and Airbuses start coming into production. Turns out, there's not that situation in container shipping. But, at least, we have fiduciary capital turning into real capital, not sub-prime used car loans and beachfront condos. I think, that's better?

The engineering of Mary reminds me of that cruise to Bermuda in an ancient boat. Tin foil boats in a typhoon? Yikes!
The two men looked over the ship's side and spoke on walkie-talkies to sailors on the ground. Minutes passed -- 10, 20, 30. The Mary, crawling at 0.1 knots, began sidling up to a pier.

"Compared to the whole size and the weight of the ship, the steel plates in the side are actually pretty thin," the captain explained. "If we get a speed higher than that, we'll start buckling plates."

Next, second, and last a short piece on free trade. Regular reader may recall the many times these endeavors have talked about New Gold (the US buck), export driven (small) economies, the US trade deficit and how all of these factors have to exist in symbiotic rhythm for the whole house of cards to stay vertical. Well, another Left Wingnut offers up some musing. Just two quotes.

First a bit on how to ignore experience.
[in 1995], the W.T.O. adopted a rule obliging members to abide by rich nations' patent laws. (Never mind that Americans stole technologies from Europe throughout the 1800s.) These laws typically enabled investors in rich countries to reap substantial rewards, while poor nations like India were forced to pay the same price for patented drugs as the rich West, because they were not allowed to make generic substitutes.

But the consensus was flawed. Even free-trade advocates now admit that American wages have been reduced as a result of outsourcing, the erosion of manufacturing and an ever-increasing reliance on imports. Middle-income countries, meanwhile, have been blocked from adopting policies that might make them world-class competitors. Nations that have ignored the nostrums of the Washington Consensus -- China, India and Brazil -- have grown rapidly and raised their standards of living. Improvements in poverty and inequality occurred in Latin America only in the 2000s, after the I.M.F. and the World Bank reduced their grip on those nations.

Second, a simple re-statement the macros, micros, and quants can't ignore.
A third lesson is that models of growth that depend indefinitely on exports are not sustainable. The large imbalances in trade between China and the United States distort economies. The same is true of Germany's huge trade surpluses, which are based on a fixed euro and restrained domestic wages.

To the extent that capital seeks out slavery level subsistence wages, in the short term the micros and quants crow of their success, and excess compensation. In the medium term and longer, everybody loses. In due time, there'll be no one to buy the widgets. Not to mention, which these endeavors do on occasion, that exporting countries have a habit of moving their currencies, relative to the importers, in ways advantageous to themselves. The Golden Goose is the middle class consumer. China has about 1 billion folks. The country could have grown its domestic economy, but chose to "sell" its citizens to foreigners. India did likewise.

The thread? Well, trade, of course. And the permanent fact that, They Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.