Blake Borgeson, in blog form

suspected facts. validated opinions.

Posts Tagged ‘economics

obamanomics needs a one-liner: excellent nytimes article on obama’s economics views

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There’s an excellent (once-a-month excellent, if I can say that) article that appeared on the nyt website yesterday on Barack Obama’s economics philosophy, and ideas for what we need to do to fix the state we’re in. If you have time (it’s 8 pages, but worth it), it explains a lot about the politics of economics over the last few presidents, and is very clearly written and applicable right now.

Here’s an excerpt that sums up the gist of Obama’s views.  This came in response to a question, after an hour of economics discussion with the journalist, as to whether or not Obama “had a message that compared with Reagan’s simple call for less government and lower taxes.”  Obama’s reply:

I think I can tell a pretty simple story. Ronald Reagan ushered in an era that reasserted the marketplace and freedom. He made people aware of the cost involved of government regulation or at least a command-and-control-style regulation regime. Bill Clinton to some extent continued that pattern, although he may have smoothed out the edges of it. And George Bush took Ronald Reagan’s insight and ran it over a cliff. And so I think the simple way of telling the story is that when Bill Clinton said the era of big government is over, he wasn’t arguing for an era of no government. So what we need to bring about is the end of the era of unresponsive and inefficient government and short-term thinking in government, so that the government is laying the groundwork, the framework, the foundation for the market to operate effectively and for every single individual to be able to be connected with that market and to succeed in that market. And it’s now a global marketplace.

Now, that’s the story. Now, telling it elegantly — ‘low taxes, smaller government’ — the way the Republicans have, I think is more of a challenge.

Read the article if you want more.  I solidly agree with the bulk of Obama’s general economics positions, at least most discussed in this article, and also that we all need come up with a pretty package for it.  If you come up with something great, let me know.  If you disagree, keep quiet let me know.

Written by blakeweb

August 21, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Posted in politics

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doha trade talks collapse: it matters, and it’s bad for us

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It started popping up in the news throughout Tuesday, and got the front-page writeup Wednesday: after 7 years of trying, the Doha round of free trade talks have been declared over with zero agreed on.

The NYTimes and others write in detail about what the US says on one side, and what India and China say on the other, about what went wrong, and who’s the stubborn one that cares more about guarding against risks to their own pocketbook than moving forward the world economy.  But, like a lot of news, there’s very little discussion of why anyone should really care much about all this.

I believe the standard position I hear from economists: that the principle of free trade is good, just like free markets in general, but that it causes problems for the people on the losing side of the equation when wealth and jobs are redistributed within a country and throughout the world.  Still, it’s not second nature for me to think of what some real ramifications could be of free trade stopping its recent forward march, or of turning around and retreating.  But I happen to be reading a book that does a fine job of discussing that.  Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists, which generally is about the benefits, causes and curses of free markets, spends some time on free trade, and its importance to free markets and competition within a country, so I thought I’d share a few lines.

First, a huge problem free markets generally run up against is the whims of democracy.  To illustrate this, the authors discuss what happens once a country has had a free market for a time–long enough to have some very successful large companies that now dominate their industries.

Those in power–the incumbents–prefer to stay in power.  They feel threatened by free markets.

So you’ve got big, successful companies that now dominate their industries and have tons of cash, and these guys are looking to put a bit of a damper on the “free” aspect of markets and competition to maintain their position.  The winning firms want to hold onto their power.  They’ve got cash.  The distressed (to a large extent, the ones who lost their jobs) are numerous, loud, and rally in the name of reversing the damage.   In their words,

…incumbent groups ride the coattails of the distressed back into power.

The two groups combine their political influence to enforce regulations on the market.  For the dominant companies, the goal is to restrict competition.  For the distressed workers, it’s to bring about a system more like the old days, with less risk and less change foreseen.  The main defense against regulating away competition, which eventually makes the industry stagnate and under-perform compared to the industry in other more competitive countries,  is opening the country’s borders to allow trade with other countries.  Competition from the outside prevents our government from regulating markets out of existence in the name of smoothing risks and preventing further damage to the distressed.

Open borders limit the ability of domestic politics to close down competition and retard financial and economic growth.

Why don’t we hear about the effects of closed borders on developed countries more these days?  Mainly, the authors believe, because these days it’s quite hard for developed countries to successfully keep out foreign competition, given how open the world as a whole has become.

A country’s borders are porous.  When the rest of the world is open, it is difficult for any single country to put up barriers to the flow of goods, capital, and people.  … So when the world is open, its borders will perforce be open unless it is a police state.  Incumbent interests will be subdued.

But if we allow the world as a whole to drift backwards, we risk those rules of the game changing significantly. Countries have the ability to close their borders en masse and keep out competition to protect incumbents and ailing industries.  The Doha Round of talks, at the beginning, was supposed to outline a set of commitments among most of the largest economies in the world to continued opening-up of borders and freeing-up of markets that are currently not very free.  In the end, the hope was to at least get everyone to commit to at least keep trade about as open as it currently is.  Unfortunately even that failed.

So let’s do what we can to keep from rolling backwards on free trade.

[Update: As I should have expected, the Economist put out a piece in their latest issue, online just a day after my post, with a lot better treatment of specifically what the eventual goal of the Doha talks at the end were, and what that failure specifically means: The Doha round…and round…and round]

Written by blakeweb

July 30, 2008 at 11:22 pm

Posted in politics

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finally, good statistics: have any mutual fund managers beaten the market?

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We’ve all heard it a number of places over the years, I imagine: actively-managed funds basically never beat the market anymore.  But a study published about a year ago finally sounds like it used the right statistics to answer the question.  It’s covered in this NYT article: The Prescient Are Few.

Here are some excerpts, if you’d rather not click through.

The method:

The statistical test featured in the study is known as the “False Discovery Rate,” and is used in fields as diverse as computational biology and astronomy. In effect, the method is designed to simultaneously avoid false positives and false negatives — in other words, conclusions that something is statistically significant when it is entirely random, and the reverse.

The result:

… when analyzing their entire fund sample, with records through 2006, this proportion was just 0.6 percent — statistically indistinguishable from zero, according to the researchers.

Some likely explanations:

WHY the decline? Professor Wermers says he and his co-authors suspect various causes. One is high fees and expenses. The researchers’ tests found that, on a pre-expense basis, 9.6 percent of mutual fund managers in 2006 showed genuine market-beating ability — far higher than the 0.6 percent after expenses were taken into account. This suggests that one in 10 managers may still have market-beating ability. It’s just that they can’t come out ahead after all their funds’ fees and expenses are paid.

Another possible factor is that many skilled managers have gone to the hedge fund world. Yet a third potential reason is that the market has become more efficient, so it’s harder to identify undervalued or overvalued stocks.

A friendly reminder:

Whatever the causes, the investment implications of the study are the same: buy and hold an index fund benchmarked to the broad stock market.

[thanks to umair haque for including this in ‘Essential Reading‘]

Written by blakeweb

July 14, 2008 at 11:43 am

Posted in investing

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god and gold – a fantastic perspective on america’s roots and future

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This book is outstanding, and if its principles were taught in American history classes instead of the smorgasbord of facts and dates and ideas taken out of their historical context, people would see America’s place in the world much more clearly. Honestly it made me feel like the basis for my opinions on how our country should be treating foreign policy went from ehh to decent, which I’d highly recommend to anyone. If you do start reading, be sure you don’t get bogged down in the details of England’s history in the past few hundred years, and focus more on how America’s view of what it is and what it stands for developed from that foundation. In the end, the outlook of our future is generally optimistic, with the author highlighting our incredible progress this past century and calling most of all for patience and some self-restraint in bringing our views and insights to parts of the world that need them.

Here’s a link to buy it at amazon. Or you can read my short 5-star review there.

Written by blakeweb

April 20, 2008 at 3:07 pm

Posted in politics

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what does a higher gdp get you? national influence, not citizen happiness

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I was reading the leader in the 4/11 economist regarding america’s slowing growth, and the following line of the economist made me think about gdp, happiness, spending, etc: “spending will be supported by tax rebates in the second half of the year”. I feel like it relates to some things that umair (umair haque–see my blogroll) has discussed recently, though a lot of it comes from some of the ideas behind god and gold–that national influence comes first from economic strength.

Briefly, reading this statement made me go through the following connections, which I thought just passed the interestingness bar for something worth sharing.

  • The government thinks consumer spending is good, and will give people money to spend when they see the economy (gdp growth) slowing.
  • The reason they see consumer spending as a good thing is not out of any particular care for the happiness or well being of people in the short term, but it’s because they want the size of the economy to continue to grow, in terms of output and consumption.
  • The reason they want output and consumption to grow is behind a lot of the discussion in god and gold as to how england realized that commerce was driving their ability to lead the world in military power and general influence.
  • The more the country produces and consumes, the harder the country works in general, and even if the wealth decays (people buy crappy tvs at walmart that break in a year and get thrown away), people working harder means the government has more possibilities to accumulate and grow militarily, and it also means the government can use that economic turnover as leverage in dealing with other countries.
  • This isn’t doing any good for the people in the country necessarily per se, except that it allows the country to have its way with the rest of the world, enforcing its values and interest.

Just to sum up, I’m not saying that I think economic growth and development is pointless (I think national influence can be and generally is a good thing) or harmful (unless it comes at the expense of peace, general prosperity, or other sources of value on a national or global scale). All things being equal, and as long as the costs of environmental damage and resource usage are properly allocated, which they currently aren’t, I think economic growth is fundamentally a very good thing, and that progress and technological development make the world a better place. But focusing only on national and world gdp, as currently measured, as our main measurement of progress doesn’t perfectly target what we really should value. We just need to be aware of where our metrics don’t line up with our true goals, and work to change and hone those metrics.

Please feel encouraged to drop a comment and let me know what you think.

Written by blakeweb

April 20, 2008 at 2:38 pm

Posted in politics

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Fred Wilson on startups in the downturn: batten down the hatches

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Fred Wilson, partner at Union Square Ventures, backer of Twitter et al, speaking mostly about the venture-backed startup world, examines some quotes from vcs floating around in the news concerning the effects of the current economic downturn. It’s clear that they’re taking it pretty seriously, even for innovative internet startups. To quote him,

in my mind, the single most important thing is not revenue in a time
like this. The most important thing is cost structure. Thomas Cole says
“smart companies are battening down the hatches”. That’s right.

I think it’s worth digesting all those comments, especially if you’re running a startup, and especially if that startup is bootstrapped. A downturn isn’t the time to throw in the towel for a bootstrapper. In fact, it can be a great time to start a company–the big guys are cinching up for the cold winter, which gives you some time to get in there and figure out the market first. It just makes you stay leaner, which means in the end you could emerge as a stronger, more efficient, and more profitable company. You just have to make it through the rough patch to see the sun on the other side.

Written by blakeweb

April 2, 2008 at 10:45 pm

Posted in startups

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