05 August 2012

Return to Sender

For some time now, it's been clear that the old rules of investment are, well, old. Part of the shift was made by moneyed interests who seek only to make money, rather than output of goods to sell. These folks "invest" in fiduciary instruments (bonds, and to a lesser extent, stocks) rather than in plant and equipment. The siren song of the post-industrial, service economy. Other than hair cuts, folks directly buy few services, and virtually none of those which exemplify the new economy of financial manipulation.

The second factor is Moore's Law. Long asserted to be a good thing, variously voiced but most commonly that computing power of the integrated circuit doubles every 18 (or 24) months. Not exactly what Moore said, but close enough for government work. What's been going on for the last decade or so reveals that Moore might not be such a great thing, after all.

If we return to 2002, we find the aftermath of 9/11, and Alan Greenspan's attempt to avert a depression on Dubya's watch by continually lowering Fed rates. It worked, sort of. Much evidence exists that this effort was the Patient 0 of The Great Recession. The wealthy class didn't like earning 2 or 3 percent, risk free of course. They demanded more return for the pleasure of not using money they couldn't use anyway. Corporate bonds actually involved risk, although at much higher rates. The wealthy class always has the option of holding corporate bonds, but wasn't much interested. So now, with Treasuries paying so little, the wealthy class demanded a new source of high paying, risk free, assets.

The mortgage industry was happy to oblige. Traditionally, for most of the post World War II time, home mortgage banking was boring and simple. Your income, minus short term debt (credit cards, generally) defined the size of your mortgage. Simple. You qualified for $100,000 30 year fixed rate (whatever it was that week). Builders built houses which could be priced to the mass of incomes in the area. Such data has been collected for SMSAs (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area, now nym-ed as MSA) for since the 1950 census. The result is, builders, knowing the median income for the SMSA and the prevailing rules and regs for mortgages, knows the exact price point it must build toward.

Now, with Fed rates plummeting, builders saw an opportunity. The carrying cost of a house is principal and interest. Thus, price and interest rate tend to track inversely when builders have sufficient time to adjust. Why leave all that money on the table? They didn't. At first, there were sufficient mortgages to satisfy the wealthy class's demand for high return, risk free assets. As time went on, mortgage companies (not banks; they came to the game later) saw an opportunity to draw in those who hadn't been qualified. The mortgage companies invented the ever more exotic mortgages. The purpose of these mortgages was to allow ever lower income households to buy the ever increasingly priced houses. Builders got the money for the McMansions they produced. Everybody else ended up holding the bag.

The result of this part of the tale: the wealthy class's demand for high return, risk free assets led to the creation of sufficient output to meet the demand. Well, superficially.

The second half of the tale derives from Moore. On the first hand, we have the wealthy class seeking high guaranteed returns. On the other hand, we find Moore kicking the crap out of returns on physical investment. This fact was brought to hand with a couple of news stories over the last few days.

Here's one about the Samsung Galaxy 3. Apple has had the current iPhone on the market for less than 1 year (4 October 2011). There are countless more data points. Consider my pet area, SSD. OCZ keeps churning out ever newer models, all the while fire sale-ing existing models, within a period of a few months. What's the wealthy class to do? Corporate assets no longer enjoy the longevity of steel mills or factories (American capitalists decided that fiduciary assets were more fun).

The second harbinger is the Knight Capital self-immolation. Here we see the same compressed amortization timeline at work. Knight had built some new algorithmic software to take advantage of rule changes. In order to lengthen its return period, by only a few days it seems, they rushed the code into production. With predictable results.
Trading firms, market makers, brokers, investment banks, and exchanges and other trading venues are linked in a network of complex computer systems that compete to execute trades as fast as possible. That competition, combined with the never-ending array of new rules, forces market participants to constantly improve their systems.
(my emphasis)

As more of American capital is devoted to computer based efforts, whether goods or services, amortization periods have plummeted. There really isn't a long term, any longer. Investment has become a quick buck endeavor, not a long term growth prospect. This will not have a pleasant ending.

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