Friday, December 12, 2014

Plucked Chickens, MMT and Investing

Plato once defined man to his followers as a featherless biped. Diogenes heard it, caught a chicken and plucked it then brought it to Plato saying, “Here is your man.”  I got that story from Jack Sparrow at the Mercenary Trader.
Was Plato wrong? No. Most men walk on two legs and most of us don’t have feathers, but that is a very simplistic model of what constitutes mankind and as a result has very limited application. The humor in the story comes from Diogenes stretching the model beyond its ability to describe the real world and drawing wrong conclusions.
Plucked chicken modeling happens in economics on a regular basis. Economics is about modeling complex events. If the model is too complex it becomes unwieldy and few can understand it. The trend in economics over the past century has been to create extremely simple models. The assumption of equilibrium that forms the foundation of mainstream economics is the most egregious example.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tyranny of benchmarks

There has been a lot of press lately about institutional investors abandoning hedge funds. Conventional wisdom in finance tells us to compare fund performance with a benchmark, usually the S&P 500 index. That’s always a good idea, but the measure you use makes a lot of difference. The standard for decades has been rate of return. For example, the total return for the index in a given year might be 30% including price appreciation for the year plus dividends. Using that measure, few funds or investing strategies can beat benchmarks. That’s why conventional wisdom teaches us to buy a broad index and never sell until we retire. The assumption behind the philosophy is that earning a higher percentage means investors will have more money at the end of their investing life cycle.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Crude Economics

Central bankers in countries that have fallen into recession or are on the precipice have suffered seizures over the fall in oil prices. Most are mainstream economists or groupies who think that falling oil prices will deepen the plunge in prices, which they consider the ultimate evil, even while most consumers are cheering them.
Of course, mainstream economists will fall back on the old apologetic that says what is good for individuals can be bad for the nation as a whole. They claim it is a paradox and those types who love Eastern mystic nonsense like “the sound of one hand clapping” or “global warming will cause another ice age” love such inscrutable sayings.

The truth is that it’s not a paradox; it’s a contradiction. Mainstream macro contradicts a large part of the principles of microeconomics. And since micro has the firmer foundation that means a lot of macro is pure nonsense. Now mainstream macroeconomists aren’t dummies, so why do they love inflation when the rest of the sane world hates it? It’s because they know what inflation does: it transfers wealth from savers to borrowers (and they hate savers) and from workers to employers.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Abenomics' big fail and the sinking of the rising sun

Economists predicted a 2.25% gain in Japan’s GDP after the 7.3% fall in the second quarter. As usual, they missed it again. Japanese GDP fell 1.6% last quarter according to initial estimates. Mainstream economics’ theory of business cycles states that such downturns in the economy are random events, shocks to equilibrium. As the London School of Economics told the Queen, they had successfully predicted that no one can predict the onset of the worst recession since the great one. Still, they crank out GDP forecasts as if they could predict a recession. They irony is huge, but apparently unnoticed by most of the profession.

However, the most important part of the story was that Prime Minister Abe has been conducting a major monetary policy experiment. He promised to boost nominal GDP and achieve a minimum inflation of 2% by printing as much money as was necessary. No limits. Paleo-Keynesians like Paul Krugman were giddy. 

Abe also promised to reduce the deficit through tax increases and reform the structure of the economy. Partly as a result, the Japanese stock market climbed 55% and the value of the Yen fell 25% in 2013.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

CAPE Fear

I recently finished Meban Faber's book, Global Value: How to Spot Bubbles, Avoid Market Crashes, and Earn Big Returns in the Stock Market, and found it to agree very well with the ABCT Investing philosophy. Faber is a co-founder and Chief Investment Office of Cambria Investment Management.

Faber aimed his book at the majority of individual investors who try to time the stock market on their own. Studies of the flow of money into and out of mutual funds prove that most individual investors wait to enter the stock market until it has reached the peak of a cycle and then sell when it is near the bottom of a collapse. In spite of this, most people think they are good investors. It's all part of the syndrome in which most people think they are better looking and more intelligent than average.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Burned by Bonds

Austrian economists can get forecasts wrong, occasionally. Many were wrong about inflation when the Fed stuffed its balance sheet with junk bonds. Inflation has remained asleep except in asset markets. That wrong forecast gave some of us a jaundiced outlook for bonds. The reasoning went that higher inflation and a greater demand for loans would force interest rates higher in 2014, and when interest rates rise the price of bonds fall. Also, the Fed was trying to go sober after multiple shots of QE. So I stayed away from bonds this year because the fall in value would erase all of the benefits from the interest earned. As a result I missed out on a great opportunity.
While most of the world was fixated on the choppy stock market, bonds were as stealthy as 007 while soaring. The October 20 Wall Street Journal (page C1) reported that the Wasatch-Hoisington U.S. Treasury Fund earned 28% for investors this year. Lacy Hunt, the fund’s chief economist, said, “I don’t think the Fed is going to raise rates. All they can do is hold rates here for longer and longer time periods.”
So where did Austrians go wrong? First, they didn’t take Hayek and Mises seriously when they warned against assuming the quantity theory of money works mechanically.  The monetarist Milton Friedman influenced too many Austrian economists. The quantity theory states that increases in the money supply will lead to consumer price inflation. That is always true, ceteris paribus, but things are never ceteris, let alone parabus. Many things can break the link between increases in the money supply and prices. Most importantly, we should temper our expectations of the quantity theory with the subjective theory of value. As Mises wrote, people may not always respond to increases in the money supply in the same way. That is the principle of subjectivism applied to money, something Mises is most famous for.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Aggregate Blindness

Peering at the economy through macroeconomics aggregates will blind economists. Gavyn Davies offers an example in a recent post in FT.com:

There have been downward revisions to GDP forecasts in the euro area, but these have been offset by slight upward revisions in the US and recently even in China. The latest nowcasts for global activity have remained firm, and data surprises in the world as a whole have been close to flat for several months.
 Maybe the slowdown in the euro area has increased the perceived risk of recessions returning to other parts of the world, but there has been no general downward revision to central projections for global GDP. In fact, J.P. Morgan’s team of economists, which tracks global activity data extremely carefully, said on Friday that signs of above trend global GDP growth were beginning to emerge. Markets have clearly been out of synch with the flow of information in this regard.
 I’m going to pick on Davies here not because he is a bad economist. He is one of the best mainstream economists I know and I read his columns regularly for his insights into mainstream monetary policy. I’m picking on him because his post well represents mainstream thinking on business cycles.

First, anyone who has tracked the accuracy of mainstream forecasts of GDP knows how inaccurate they are. They are very good at predicting the GDP for the next quarter, but forecasts farther out in time or when the next quarter shows a decline in GDP at the bottom of a recession, mainstream GDP forecasts are totally worthless. They’re worse than worthless because when people take them seriously, as Davies has, they become dangerous. How many predicted the major drop in GDP in the first quarter this year?

Mainstream economists have failed for a century to predict a single recession. So why would anyone expect them to be able to now?  In fact, the mainstream definition of recessions is that they are random events. So looking at GDP forecasts to try to see them coming is by definition futile.

Second, a decline in GDP is the mark of the end of the recession as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Even if mainstream economists could correctly predict a decline in GDP in the next quarter, they would only be telling us that the recession is almost over.

Of course, Austrian economists can’t predict the quarter that recessions begin or end, either. The difference is that Austrians know that recessions aren’t random events but are caused by central bank manipulation of interest rates. So we look for omens that portend the end of expansions. And we have no confidence in the GDP forecasts.

Mainstream blindness to recessions happens because mainstream economists fixate on aggregate data, such as GDP, and high levels of aggregation hide important changes in the economy. Think about it. In recessions not every business in the nation fails. Actually only a few fail. If GDP contracts by say 3%, the economy is still 97% as good as it was the year before. Yet economists consider a 3% decline in GDP a really bad thing because of the damage it does through unemployment.

But let’s look at employment figures. In the latest recession unemployment climbed to 10%, but 90% of workers were still employed. And if job creation falls to say 100,000 per month, that is a net figure. The economy has created two million jobs that month while losing 900,000.

Recessions are similar. A few industries will do poorly while most will plug along. The recession happens mostly in capital goods industries and to a lesser degree among consumer goods makers.

Some mainstream economists who want to criticize the ABCT will attempt it using aggregate data. For example, they might look at all capital equipment makers together. But the ABCT never claims that all capital goods makers rise and fall together. It’s difficult to predict which capital goods industries will suffer the most. In the recession of 1991 the fiber optic cable industry had the most bad investments. In 2000 it was internet and software. In 2008 it was real estate and autos. If economists only look at aggregate data they will completely miss those features.

Mainstream economists are like house inspectors who drive by and if the house is still standing they declare it to be of sound construction. Austrian economists, taking a micro approach, inspect for termites.

So why is this important to investors? It’s important because long before mainstream economists recognize a recession the market will have crashed. A stock market crash is one of the better leading indicators of a looming recession. Mainstream economists will laugh and say the stock market has predicted 10 of the last 8 recessions. But they fail to see that the market has a better forecasting records than they do.

If investors want to protect their savings, they will ignore the sunny predictions of mainstream economists and look for termites in the economy.