Friday, August 28, 2015

Stock market forecasts better economists

After the stock market stumbling through the past two weeks, you will hear top mainstream economists repeat the old joke that the market has predicted ten of the last eight recessions. The point of the joke is to belittle the idea that the market can predict recessions and to convince investors to remain fully invested. Austan Goolsbee echoed the joke on National Public Radio recently then insisted the economy was fine and he saw no recession in the near future. When asked if now was a good time to panic, he said it’s never a good time to panic and people should just ignore what the market does.

It is true that the market has predicted more recessions than actually happened, but if anyone will examine the data they will find that growth slowed dramatically after major declines in the market even though the fall wasn’t deep enough for the National Bureau of Economic Research to declare an official recession. But even with its false positives, the market has done a better job of predicting recessions than have any mainstream economists.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Training the Chinese dragon in economics

The story of China’s great leap forward to slightly freer markets is well known. Around 30 million people starved to death in the 1960s and the West fed the Chinese in the 1970s. Deng Xiaoping took over after Mao died and began looking for some way to make Communism work well enough to at least feed the people.

About the same time, a small group of farmers in a remote village rebelled against socialist farming by dividing up the land among them and selling their excess produce on the black market. They signed a contract binding each farmer to take care of the families of any farmers whom the state discovered and executed. After a couple of years, they couldn’t keep their success a secret any longer and Deng found out. But instead of executing the farmers, Deng made them national heroes and encouraged other farmers to do the same.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Watch out for falling productivity

The government reported recently that productivity in the US rose 1.3% from the last quarter, but that was little comfort to the Maestro, Alan Greenspan, who is worried about the collapse in productivity. Investors should be worried as well. StreetInsider.com reported Greenspan saying:
I think it's the most serious problem that confronts not only the United States but the world at large and more exactly the developed world especially. American productivity is not significantly different from zero growth in the last 6 or 8 quarters. And the cause of that, if you work backwards through the causative chain is capital investment has been inadequate to fund the amount of assets that you need.
The interviewer, Tom Keene responded with “There was a moment when we were bewildered by why nation's productivity was so good and America running on all cylinders. It is a distant memory.”

Why has productivity fallen and what does it mean? The answer lies in Hayek’s Ricardo Effect. Profits in consumer goods sectors will peak near the end of the expansion phase of a business cycle. Profits rise because investment in capital goods sectors has increased employment, and therefore demand for consumer goods before new consumer goods arrive on the market. Prices and profits rise in step.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mainstream economists predict the past

Mark Twain once said,"Prophesy is a good line of business, but it is full of risks," and "It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future." In the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ (BEA) recent statement that the GDP of the US grew by 2.3% in the second quarter of this year, it isn’t predicting the future, but the past. And Twain was right, even that is hard.

Initial GDP growth numbers are not actual data; they are the output of statistical models. That’s why the BEA has to revise them in a month and again years later. Most people pay attention to the first estimate, but the real interesting information comes from the direction of the miss. Most math models will miss on the high side as the economy heads into a recession and the gnomes will revise the numbers downward. In an expansion, they will miss on the low side and be revised upward.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Buffet's alpha

The Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) teaches that no one can beat a general market index over the long run because the market instantly adjusts to all new information. The EMH has been mainstream dogma for longer than Warren Buffet has led Berkshire. Buffett doesn’t like the EMH and responded to the theory in this story that I included in my book Financial Bull Riding:
Warren Buffett got to the heart of the problem with the EMH at a 1984 conference at the Columbia Business School held to honor the 50th anniversary of Benjamin Graham’s Security Analysis. Finance professor Michael Jensen, a defender of EMH, told the audience that investors such as Buffett who beat the market were just lucky. The EMH did not assert that no one could get lucky; only that they couldn’t get lucky consistently. “If I survey a field of untalented analysts, all of whom are doing nothing but flipping coins,” Jensen said, “I expect to see some who have tossed two heads in a row and even some who have tossed ten heads in a row.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The money horror picture show

All is not well with the economy in spite of rising home prices and soaring car sales. The disturbing news comes from money. Losing velocity with money is like losing altitude while flying. It can be hazardous to your health.

Economically, the velocity of money reflects how quickly people spend a new dollar once they get it. Technically, it’s the GDP growth that a rise in the money supply can’t explain. The general idea holds that if people are well off and feeling confident they will spend new dollars quickly and each dollar will change hands many times before the end of the year.

Here is an amusing tale about money velocity that I got from the Adam Smith Institute:
It is the month of August, on the shores of the Black Sea. It is raining and the little town looks totally deserted. It is tough times, everybody is in debt and everybody lives on credit.

A rich tourist comes to town. He enters the only hotel, lays a 100 Euro note on the reception counter and goes to inspect the rooms upstairs in order to pick one.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Car sales are bad news

The worst recessions in history have all followed excessive investment in housing, personal transportation and the stock market. Today, the US is hitting two out of three. Take a look at the auto sales graph below. US sales have reached pre-recession levels.

You can see one of the reasons for the high sales volume in the next chart. Interest rates on auto loans are lower today than during the crisis. Auto loans seem to have replaced lagging real estate loans for banks.