Tales of the Unexpected

Andrew Haldane (PDF):

For almost a century, the world of economics and finance has been dominated by randomness. Much of modern economic theory describes behaviour by a random walk, whether financial behaviour such as asset prices (Cochrane (2001)) or economic behaviour such as consumption (Hall (1978)). Much of modern econometric theory is likewise underpinned by the assumption of randomness in variables and estimated error terms (Hayashi (2000)).

But as Nassim Taleb reminded us, it is possible to be Fooled by Randomness (Taleb (2001)). For Taleb, the origin of this mistake was the ubiquity in economics and finance of a particular way of describing the distribution of possible real world outcomes. For non-nerds, this distribution is often called the bell-curve. For nerds, it is the normal distribution. For nerds who like to show-off, the distribution is Gaussian.

The normal distribution provides a beguilingly simple description of the world. Outcomes lie symmetrically around the mean, with a probability that steadily decays. It is well-known that repeated games of chance deliver random outcomes in line with this distribution: tosses of a fair coin, sampling of coloured balls from a jam-jar, bets on a lottery number, games of paper/scissors/stone. Or have you been fooled by randomness?

In 2005, Takashi Hashiyama faced a dilemma. As CEO of Japanese electronics corporation

Maspro Denkoh, he was selling the company’s collection of Impressionist paintings, including pieces by Ce?zanne and van Gogh. But he was undecided between the two leading houses vying to host the auction, Christie’s and Sotheby’s. He left the decision to chance: the two houses would engage in a winner-takes-all game of paper/scissors/stone.

Recognising it as a game of chance, Sotheby’s randomly played “paper”. Christie’s took a different tack. They employed two strategic game-theorists – the 11-year old twin daughters of their international director Nicholas Maclean. The girls played “scissors”. This was no random choice. Knowing “stone” was the most obvious move, the girls expected their opponents to play “paper”. “Scissors” earned Christie’s millions of dollars in commission.

Accidentally Released – and Incredibly Embarrassing – Documents Show How Goldman et al Engaged in ‘Naked Short Selling’

Matt Taibbi:

A quick primer on what naked short selling is. First of all, short selling, which is a completely legal and even beneficial activity, is when an investor bets that the value of a stock will decline. You do this by first borrowing and then selling the stock at its current price, then returning the stock to your original lender after the price has gone down. You then earn a profit on the difference between the original price and the new, lower price.

What matters here is the technical issue of how you borrow the stock. Typically, if you’re a hedge fund and you want to short a company, you go to some big-shot investment bank like Goldman or Morgan Stanley and place the order. They then go out into the world, find the shares of the stock you want to short, borrow them for you, then physically settle the trade later.

But sometimes it’s not easy to find those shares to borrow. Sometimes the shares are controlled by investors who might have no interest in lending them out. Sometimes there’s such scarcity of borrowable shares that banks/brokers like Goldman have to pay a fee just to borrow the stock.

These hard-to-borrow stocks, stocks that cost money to borrow, are called negative rebate stocks. In some cases, these negative rebate stocks cost so much just to borrow that a short-seller would need to see a real price drop of 35 percent in the stock just to break even. So how do you short a stock when you can’t find shares to borrow? Well, one solution is, you don’t even bother to borrow them. And then, when the trade is done, you don’t bother to deliver them. You just do the trade anyway without physically locating the stock.

Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the new World Order

Phillip Coggan:

The world is drowning in debt. Greece is on the verge of default. In Britain, the coalition government is pushing through an austerity programme in the face of economic weakness. The US government almost shut down in August because of a dispute over the size of government debt.

Our latest crisis may seem to have started in 2007, with the collapse of the American housing market. But as Philip Coggan shows in this new book, Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the new World Order which he will talk about in this lecture, the crisis is part of an age-old battle between creditors and borrowers. And that battle has been fought over the nature of money. Creditors always want sound money to ensure that they are paid back in full; borrowers want easy money to reduce the burden of repaying their debts. Money was once linked to gold, a commodity in limited supply; now central banks can create it with the click of a computer mouse.

Time and again, this cycle has resulted in financial and economic crises. In the 1930s, countries abandoned the gold standard in the face of the Great Depression. In the 1970s, they abandoned the system of fixed exchange rates and ushered in a period of paper money. The results have been a long series of asset bubbles, from dotcom stocks to housing, and the elevation of the financial sector to economic dominance.

Apple and the American economy

The Economist:

THE macroeconomic discussions that Apple’s success prompts tend to be very curious things. Here we have a company that’s been phenomenally successful, making products people love and directly creating nearly 50,000 American jobs in doing so, criticised for not locating its manufacturing operations in America, even as Americans complain to Apple about the working conditions of those doing the manufacture abroad: life in dormitories, 12-hour shifts 6 days a week, and low pay. It isn’t enough for Apple to have changed the world with its innovative consumer electronics. It must also rebuild American manufacturing, and not just any manufacturing: the manufacturing of decades ago when reasonable hours and high wages were the norm.

The utility of Apple, however, is that it does provide a framework within which we can discuss the significant changes that have occurred across the global economy in recent decades. Contributing to that effort is a very nice and much talked about piece from the New York Times, which asks simply why it is that Apple’s manufacturing is located in Asia.

Re-Evaluating Germany’s Blind Faith in the Sun

Alexander Neubacher:

The costs of subsidizing solar electricity have exceeded the 100-billion-euro mark in Germany, but poor results are jeopardizing the country’s transition to renewable energy. The government is struggling to come up with a new concept to promote the inefficient technology in the future.

The Baedeker travel guide is now available in an environmentally-friendly version. The 200-page book, entitled “Germany – Discover Renewable Energy,” lists the sights of the solar age: the solar café in Kirchzarten, the solar golf course in Bad Saulgau, the light tower in Solingen and the “Alster Sun” in Hamburg, possibly the largest solar boat in the world.

The only thing that’s missing at the moment is sunshine. For weeks now, the 1.1 million solar power systems in Germany have generated almost no electricity. The days are short, the weather is bad and the sky is overcast.

As is so often the case in winter, all solar panels more or less stopped generating electricity at the same time. To avert power shortages, Germany currently has to import large amounts of electricity generated at nuclear power plants in France and the Czech Republic. To offset the temporary loss of solar power, grid operator Tennet resorted to an emergency backup plan, powering up an old oil-fired plant in the Austrian city of Graz.

Death of a currency as eurogeddon approaches

Jeremy Warner:

The defining moment was the fiasco over Wednesday’s bund auction, reinforced on Thursday by the spectacle of German sovereign bond yields rising above those of the UK.

If you are tempted to think this another vote of confidence by international investors in the UK, don’t. It’s actually got virtually nothing to do with us. Nor in truth does it have much to do with the idea that Germany will eventually get saddled with liability for periphery nation debts, thereby undermining its own creditworthiness.

No, what this is about is the markets starting to bet on what was previously a minority view – a complete collapse, or break-up, of the euro. Up until the past few days, it has remained just about possible to go along with the idea that ultimately Germany would bow to pressure and do whatever might be required to save the single currency.

A Curious Case of Optimism

Ed Wallace:

I first started reading biographies of men of great accomplishments in high school; the first was that of Eddie Rickenbacker. I haven’t stopped, either; the most recent was that of Steve Jobs. Sometime after I’d started my career in the automotive industry, I took to reading books about the men who had created that industry. One thing you learn quickly about these individuals is that most had suffered serious financial setbacks before they finally succeeded. In fact the setbacks they encountered would have stopped the average individual in his tracks; but those who finally succeeded to greatness seemed to brush off defeat even faster than they accepted their ultimate success.

The other fact one notices in reading great car guys’ biographies is that many of the greatest names in business history actually started in the absolute worst of economic times. Others, such as GM’s Alfred Sloan, made their reputations in periods of horrendous economic activity.

Is There Life After Debt?

Sudden Debt:

Fact: The debt crisis is global – and, yes, this includes the so-called creditor nations, such as China. After all, in our fiat currency world it takes a debit in order to create a credit.

The way we got into this mess is well known: the West foolishly (even criminally, if you ask me) gave up its industrial/manufacturing base and the high earned-income jobs it generated, replacing them with services and low value-added jobs. However, it didn’t lower its consuming and spending habits to balance the losses, instead it piled on debt from vendor nations, and constructed Rube Goldberg asset bubble contraptions that attempted to generate “wealth” out of thin air (e.g. real estate, derivative-based bonds, etc.).

History and Evaluation of the Policy Response to the Great Recession: Summers BGP-266M Crisis Economics Syllabus

Larry Summers @ Harvard

Course Overview: This course will examine the American policy response to the recent financial crisis
and associated Great Recession. The objective is to illuminate (i) the changes in macroeconomic thinking necessitated by recent events (ii) the relationship between analytical macroeconomics, finance and policymaking in a political context (iii) lessons of recent experience for public policies directed at preventing crises in the future and responding to them when they come. The lectures will draw on the professional economic literature to the minimum extent necessary to facilitate understanding of the issues involved. The primary focus will be on the process of policy choice and the factors entering into actual policy decisions. Each lecture after the first introductory lecture will cover a different aspect of the policy response to the crisis. Sections will take up relevant analytical economic aspects.