God is a Capitalist

Friday, June 30, 2017

Seattle proves economics is not physics

The ongoing fight about min wage in Seattle magnifies some of the things wrong with mainstream economics. In 2014 the city council voted to phase in a $15 wage over the next few years and in 2015 increased the wage floor from $11 to $13 per hour. Recently, the University of Washington conducted a study that showed the increase caused low-wage workers’ annual pay to go down and overall low-wage jobs to also shrink.

Keep in mind that mainstream economists cling to their gods, guns and economic models because, as they insist, math makes economics a science like physics. Yet with all of the veneration of the math and statistics, I have seen no econometric study such as this one change anyone’s mind or change mainstream economics in my 40 years of watching the game. The usual suspects in economics greeted the study in the same old way they have met with similar studies for the past half century: the right (free market) celebrated and the left (socialists) poo-pooed it.

No one sees such behavior in the truly math oriented sciences such as physics. There aren’t five schools of physics that dispute gravity or the speed of light as there are five different schools of macroeconomics. But why aren’t the econometric analyses of economic data more convincing? The problem lies with the subject matter. Physics is child’s play compared to economics because gravity and light and electrons always act the same way under similar circumstances. Humans, the subject of economics, don’t. And the number of relevant variables in a physics problem is small compared to those in economics, not to mention the complex interactions.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Christian laissez-faire built this country

I have been looking for an economics text book for non-majors for years and finally found it in Francis Wayland’s Elements of Political Economy – published in 1837. It’s shocking how little good economics has changed in almost 200 years. But first, readers need a little background in order to appreciate the book.

Puritan economics in the US followed Calvin’s ideas closely and gave absolute control over commerce to the government. However by the turn of the eighteenth century, Puritan ministers no longer equated commerce with greed, but with “industriousness and prudence, moral reform and Protestantism’s interest in the world. They maintained that providence used overseas traders to protect English liberty and spread civilization,” according to Mark Valeri in Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan America. And Isaac Newton, having been a great theologian as well as history’s greatest scientist, influenced Puritan pastors. Instead of viewing the hand of God directly causing events in the physical world, Newton described “nature as a system integrated into a regular pattern by universal physical laws” that God had created. God worked indirectly through natural laws.

Soon theologians began to find similar natural laws working in society to promote prosperity and order as well as to restrain vice. Prosperity no longer resulted from God’s favor at a Christian’s devotion but from following the natural laws of the market, and financial hardship was not a sign of God’s wrath as much as failure to understand and abide by God’s natural laws according to Valeri.
Writers on both sides of the Atlantic probed the meaning of the economy as a subset of this cosmic order. They described commerce as a series of natural exchanges that, by the law of nature, coalesced into a balanced system. This reading prompted pastors and merchants to imagine the natural dynamics of exchange as a divinely sanctioned, moral good. Innate desires brought people together into networks of trade that depended on mutuality, confirming the natural integration of variety into a whole; as Foxcroft put it, nature “impresses men with a deep sense of the bonds and benefits of society; and so excites them to feel the good of others” as they pursued their own economic good, “rendering their work daily more and more natural.” God designed the market system that ran by moral laws.

Monday, June 19, 2017

PhD’s and computers explain market volatility since 1980

Richard Bookstaber’s 2007 work, A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Innovation, examines the huge increase in stock and bond market volatility since 1980. He notes that GDP volatility has shrunk while market volatility has increased. And if you graph the S&P 500, especially the year-to-year change, the massive increase in volatility is obvious.

Bookstaber, who has a PhD from MIT, writes that before the rise of computer trading, investment banks tended to hire college graduates who were also former athletes because managers thought they had the right temperament to handle the stresses of trading. Then computers came along and of course they need models to work with. Who had better models than PhD professors at universities? So the banks loaded up on PhD’s to create models for computer trading.

Bookstaber provides an insider’s account of the victories and tragedies of investment banking and arbitrage trading from the mid-1980s on because he labored in the trenches as a risk analyst, much of the time with Salomon Brothers. Two things stand out to Bookstaber: computer trading and innovation.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Trump still off key about trade

At the recent summit held in Europe of the seven richest countries, the G-7, President Trump trashed the German trade surplus, “The Germans are bad, very bad. Look at the millions of cars that they’re selling in the USA. Horrible. We’re gonna stop that.” German newspapers translated “very bad” as “evil.” Many "reputable" financial publications, including the Wall Street Journal, sang harmony with Trump. Here is a sample of the lyrics:
Germany’s current account surplus–the amount its exports outpace its imports–recently hit 270 billion euros, close to 8.9 percent of its gross domestic product. This upward trending trade surplus shows little signs of slowing and Germany’s current account balance may rise above 9 percent of its this year. Despite years of criticism from the Obama administration and the International Monetary Fund, Germany has shown no willingness to address the persistent imbalance.
Germany’s persistent current account surpluses add to German GDP while they subtract from the GDP elsewhere around they [sic] world. Germany is not just exporting products–it is exporting stagnation, job losses, and deflation.
Germany’s trade surplus with the U.S. is particularly large and damaging. It exports high-end manufactured goods to the United States–such as cars, auto-parts, chemicals and airplanes. Cars, for instance, make up more than 10 percent of its exports to the U.S. A more balanced trade in these goods would mean many more high quality jobs in the United States in regions that badly need them.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

D-Day lesson - decentralize decision making

June 6, 1945, Allied forces invaded the Nazi fortress of Europe. Not everyone cheered. General Douglass MacArthur said of the invasion that he would court martial the SOB who had planned it. Of course, he knew well the planner. He had worked as MacArthur’s aid for several years: General Dwight Eisenhower. The mass slaughter of Allied troops in the invasion horrified MacArthur. His philosophy had been to land where the enemy wasn’t and then attack. In dozens of amphibious landings MacArthur lost fewer men than the Allies lost at Anzio alone. Churchill had lobbied for the main landing in the south of France where the German presence was much thinner. Instead, Eisenhower and the Allied command chose to jump right into the the teeth of German troops in Western Europe.

The D-Day invasion succeeded in spite of being a very poor military strategy. But why? The Germans held a significant advantage and were very confident. The answer lies mostly in the field of organizational behavior, specifically, the issue of centralized versus decentralized decision making. In organizational theory, the larger and more complex the situation, the more decentralized decision making must become. Centralized decision making works best with routine and simple operations.