Archive for September 2008

Thoughts on Green Bay

I really enjoyed the game last night in Green Bay.  It is impossible on TV to communicate the energy and decibel level of that crowd, particularly in the first half before Dallas opened up a large lead.  But even with victory pretty much out of reach with 5 minutes to play, virtually no one left  (our Arizona fans would already have been out of the parking lot by then).

The game featured a 72,000 person crowd in a town of 100,000.  In a world where traditional groups are increasingly fragmented, the entire town is united in their dedication to the team.  The Packers are ubiquitous in town, so much so I can't even think of any good major-city analogy.  The best analogy I can come up with is that the game was more like a
high school football game in west Texas than a typical NFL game.  Even the cheerleaders look like a high-school cheer squad with girls in jumpers and guys with megaphones, in a world where the other 30+ teams all have pinup girls with breast enhancement. 

The Ultimate Lottery Ticket

A government job can be a great deal.  Likely it pays more than a comparable private job, it's generally impossible to get fired from, and it has outrageously good medical and pension plans.  And, if you don't shy away from a bit of perjury, can be made to pay off spectacularly:

During the workweek, it is not uncommon to find retired L.I.R.R. [Long Island Railroad]
employees, sometimes dozens of them, golfing there. A few even walk the
course. Yet this is not your typical retiree outing.

These
golfers are considered disabled. At an age when most people still work,
they get a pension and tens of thousands of dollars in annual
disability payments "” a sum roughly equal to the base salary of their
old jobs. Even the golf is free, courtesy of New York State taxpayers.

With  incentives like these, occupational disabilities at the L.I.R.R. have become a full-blown epidemic.

Virtually
every career employee "” as many as 97 percent in one recent year "”
applies for and gets disability payments soon after retirement, a
computer analysis of federal records by The New York Times has found.
Since 2000, those records show, about a quarter of a billion dollars in
federal disability money has gone to former L.I.R.R. employees,
including about 2,000 who retired during that time.

97 percent?  Wow!  And just to demonstrate that year was not some kind of outlier:

In each year since 2000, between 93 percent and 97 percent of employees
over 50 who retired with 20 years of service also received disability
payments.

The article goes on to demonstrate that this is occurring at what appears, from the injury statistics, to be one of the safest railroads in the area.  Say what you will about the NY Times, but when they get their teeth into local corruption they can still do a masterful job, as evidenced by this long article discussing many apparently ridiculous payroll situations at the LIRR.

I can say from experience that there is a group of people in this country for whom getting a lifetime disability payment (e.g. from the Social Security Administration) is as good as hitting the lottery.  I remember one time I got a survey form from the SSA asking about a former employee.  I didn't pay much attention to the form's purpose as I filled it out -- I get all kinds of such government wastepaper with breathless admonishments about the urgency of my reply.  Anyway, about 2 weeks later I got a very threatening letter from the attorney for this former employee, threatening me with all kinds of dire consequences if I did not immediately retract my (honest) answers to the SSA inquiry.  Apparently, I was endangering a lifetime disability determination that this person had been working on obtaining for years. 

Every day, in fact, I get job applicants who try to cut deals with me of one sort or another (e.g. can you pay me under the table in cash?) because they say they are fully able to do outdoor maintenance work but they can't show any income because it might endanger their lifetime disability payments.  In a similar vein, I have three cases I know of in my company today where workers filed workman's compensation claims of injury several days after they were terminated.

I've said it before, but the reckoning is coming on state and local government pensions, which in most cases are unfunded, undisclosed liabilities of startling magnitude.  The disaster that is fast approaching in these state and local government finances will make Social Security's problems look pitiful by comparison.

Postscript:
  Railroad labor law is just weird and a total mess.  Being the first major industry, and the first major industry that was regulated, a whole regulatory structure was put in place for railroads that (fortunately) has been applied to few other industries.  Whatever the problems we have with state workman's comp programs, they are models of governance compared to how things work in the railroad industry.

For example, I remember when I worked for a railroad in the 1990's, carpel tunnel claims were common.  By the nature of the comp system, workers got cash payments for injuries in addition to medical treatment (I recall a figure at the time of $7500 per wrist for carpel tunnel, but that may be off).  It was a common piece of advice among railroad workers that if one wanted to get the money together for a down-payment on a new pickup truck, one only had to go to Dr. X or Y and get a carpel tunnel diagnosis.

Blogging on the Bailout

I would blog on the most recent bank bailout, but I don't really understand what the proposal is.  The administration apparently wants to take $700 billion and ... do something with it.  Frankly, I would prefer them to just let the banks totter over and spend the money, if they really feel it necessary, to clean debris up afterward, as they did with the RTC in the 1980s.   At least that way we would avoid the moral hazard and know the money was going to cleaning up the worst messes.  My guess is that $700 billion pseudo-randomly injected into whatever companies can cry the loudest at the treasury's door is not only creating bad incentives, but is probably going to waste at least half of the money.

Greetings from Green Bay

I am here in Green Bay checking off another item on my sports bucket list: seeing a game at Lambeau Field.  And it should be a really good one. 

We went out last night on the town to various bars, mostly on Washington street, after a ritual visit to "fuzzy's."  (Packers fans can tell me later if we were on the right track with these choices).  My friend (who lives in DC) and I were shocked to pay only $2 a beer at the first bar we were at.  It turned out that this was virtual price gouging in the local market.  We never paid more the rest of the evening than $1 for a mug of draft, on a Saturday night yet.  Yet another good reason to stay off the coasts.

For the record, Green Bay is really a very nice, tidy little town.  Kind of quiet, like many small towns -- they set all the traffic lights to flashing yellow last night about 8PM.  The only difference between it and any other nice midwestern town is that every single business has "packers" in its name somehow and roughly 30% of the population at any one time is wearing something with "FAVRE" on the back.  Who is this Favre guy?  I thought he played in New York  ;=)

I Want the Builder Who Built the Yellow House

Ike11

Click to enlarge.  From here.

Differential Inflation

I am seeing an increasing number of articles of late about differential inflation rates, and how changes in income inequality may be overstated by using a single inflation rate for rich and poor.  The argument goes that lower income folks who spend a relatively high share of income on goods that Wal-Mart and China have made cheap are experiencing a lower inflation rate than wealthier folks who have seen huge price increases at their favorite Four Seasons resort.  Mark Perry has two interesting articles along these lines.

Another Reason Bailouts are Bad

I think the incentives issue has been beaten to death pretty well, but there is another problem with bailout:  They leave the productive assets of the failed company in essentially the same hands that failed to make good use of them previously.  Sure, the management has changed, but a few guys at the top of these large companies don't really mean squat.  To this point:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of
various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and
human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as
"management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently
managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the
management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its
unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all
this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression
that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and
getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.
You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the
consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix
it. 

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to
process to history to culture could better be called the corporate
DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking
brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an
upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I
don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the
DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you
still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system
and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or
knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I
could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from
Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over
Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to
shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.
Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their
experience may overtax their DNA.

David Leonhart (via Carpe Diem) argues that this was exactly the long-term downside of the Chrysler bailout:

Barry Ritholtz "” who runs an equity research firm in New York and writes The Big Picture,
one of the best-read economics blogs "” is going to publish a book soon
making the case that the bailout actually helped cause the decline. The
book is called, "Bailout Nation." In it, Mr. Ritholtz sketches out an
intriguing alternative history of Chrysler and Detroit.

If
Chrysler had collapsed, he argues, vulture investors might have swooped
in and reconstituted the company as a smaller automaker less tied to
the failed strategies of Detroit's Big Three and their unions. "If
Chrysler goes belly up," he says, "it also might have forced some deep
introspection at Ford and G.M. and might have changed their attitude
toward fuel efficiency and manufacturing quality." Some of the
bailout's opponents "” from free-market conservatives to Senator Gary
Hart, then a rising Democrat "” were making similar arguments three
decades ago.

Instead, the bailout and import quotas fooled the
automakers into thinking they could keep doing business as usual. In
1980, Detroit sold about 80% of all new vehicles in this country.
Today, it sells just 45%.

As I wrote about GM:

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the
right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of
20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an
old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the
mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a
change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make
big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its
leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30
years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next
2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the
best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our
nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then
releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.
Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation,
find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has
more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

Wa' Happen?

I know that most non-financial folks, including myself, have their head spinning after this past few weeks' doings on Wall Street.  Doug Diamond and Anil Kashyap have a pretty good layman's roundup on Fannie/Freddie, Lehman, and AIG.  My sense is that their Lehman explanation also applies to Bear Stearns as well.  Here is just one small piece of a much longer article:

The Fannie and Freddie situation was a result of their unique roles
in the economy. They had been set up to support the housing market.
They helped guarantee mortgages (provided they met certain standards),
and were able to fund these guarantees by issuing their own debt, which
was in turn tacitly backed by the government. The government guarantees
allowed Fannie and Freddie to take on far more debt than a normal
company. In principle, they were also supposed to use the government
guarantee to reduce the mortgage cost to the homeowners, but the Fed
and others have argued that this hardly occurred. Instead, they appear to have used the funding advantage to rack up huge profits
and squeeze the private sector out of the "conforming" mortgage market.
Regardless, many firms and foreign governments considered the debt of
Fannie and Freddie as a substitute for U.S. Treasury securities and snapped it up eagerly. 

Fannie and Freddie were weakly supervised and strayed from the core
mission. They began using their subsidized financing to buy
mortgage-backed securities which were backed by pools of mortgages that
did not meet their usual standards. Over the last year, it became clear
that their thin capital was not enough to cover the losses on these subprime
mortgages. The massive amount of diffusely held debt would have caused
collapses everywhere if it was defaulted upon; so the Treasury
announced that it would explicitly guarantee the debt.

But once the debt was guaranteed to be secure (and the government
would wipe out shareholders if it carried through with the guarantee),
no self-interested investor was willing to supply more equity to help
buffer the losses. Hence, the Treasury ended up taking them over.

Lehman's demise came when it could not even keep borrowing. Lehman
was rolling over at least $100 billion a month to finance its
investments in real estate, bonds, stocks, and financial assets. When
it is hard for lenders to monitor their investments and borrowers can
rapidly change the risk on their balance sheets, lenders opt for short-term lending. Compared to legal or other channels, their threat to refuse to roll over funding is the most effective option to keep the borrower in line.

This was especially relevant for Lehman, because as an investment
bank, it could transform its risk characteristics very easily by using
derivatives and by churning its trading portfolio. So for Lehman (and
all investment banks), the short-term financing is not an accident; it
is inevitable.

Why did the financing dry up? For months, short-sellers were
convinced that Lehman's real-estate losses were bigger than it had
acknowledged. As more bad news about the real estate market emerged,
including the losses at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, this view spread.

Lehman's costs of borrowing rose and its share price fell. With an
impending downgrade to its credit rating looming, legal restrictions
were going to prevent certain firms from continuing to lend to Lehman.
Other counterparties
that might have been able to lend, even if Lehman's credit rating was
impaired, simply decided that the chance of default in the near future
was too high, partly because they feared that future credit conditions
would get even tighter and force Lehman and others to default at that
time.

A.I.G. had to raise money because it had written $57 billion of insurance contracts whose payouts depended on the losses incurred on subprime real-estate related investments.
While its core insurance businesses and other subsidiaries (such as its
large aircraft-leasing operation) were doing fine, these contracts,
called credit default swaps (C.D.S.'s), were hemorrhaging.   

Furthermore, the possibility of further losses loomed if the housing
market continued to deteriorate. The credit-rating agencies looking at
the potential losses downgraded A.I.G.'s debt on Monday. With its lower
credit ratings, A.I.G.'s insurance contracts required A.I.G. to
demonstrate that it had collateral to service the contracts; estimates
suggested that it needed roughly $15 billion in immediate collateral.

A second problem A.I.G. faced is that if it failed to post the
collateral, it would be considered to have defaulted on the C.D.S.'s.
Were A.I.G. to default on C.D.S.'s, some other A.I.G. contracts (tied
to losses on other financial securities) contain clauses saying that
its other contractual partners could insist on prepayment of their
claims. These cross-default clauses are present so that resources from
one part of the business do not get diverted to plug a hole in another
part. A.I.G. had another $380 billion of these other insurance
contracts outstanding. No private investors were willing to step into
this situation and loan A.I.G. the money it needed to post the
collateral.

In the scramble to make good on the C.D.S.'s, A.I.G.'s ability to
service its own debt would come into question. A.I.G. had $160 billion
in bonds that were held all over the world: nowhere near as widely as
the Fannie and Freddie bonds, but still dispersed widely.

In addition, other large financial firms "” including Pacific
Investment Management Company (Pimco), the largest bond-investment fund
in the world "” had guaranteed A.I.G.'s bonds by writing C.D.S.
contracts.

Given the huge size of the contracts and the number of parties
intertwined, the Federal Reserve decided that a default by A.I.G. would
wreak havoc on the financial system and cause contagious failures.
There was an immediate need to get A.I.G. the collateral to honor its
contracts, so the Fed loaned A.I.G. $85 billion.

Update:  Travis has an awesome post with his own FAQ about what is going on.  Here is a taste:

Lots of financially naive folks think that we can remove all risk,
inflation, etc. by only ever trading apples for chickens on the barrel
head, and doing away with paper money (so that all money is gold) and
doing away fractional reserve banking, so that when I deposit one gold
coin in the bank, the bank can then take that actual physical gold coin
and loan it to someone else. It turns out that the friction involved in
doing things this way is so huge that the effect would make The Road
Warrior look like a children's bedtime story. You want to borrow money
to buy a car? The bank can't just loan money that's been deposited in
someone else's checking account - the bank has to get that person to
sign a note saying "yes, I understand that this money is on deposit
until that dude buying the card pays the bank back IN FULL". And the
lender, if he wants his money out ahead of time, is SOL. And even then,
there can be a flood, and your car gets totaled, and you get
Legionaire's disease, and you can't make the payments.

or this:

Now, for the next complication, let's also imagine that there are
300 million other people watching all of this, thinking "How bad is
this? Should I go down to the gun store, stock up on .223 and 12 gauge
shells, then stop by the veterinarians to see how much antibiotics I
can cadge before heading to the hills" ?

And the Feds really don't want 300 million armed folks heading
for the national forests, so they first try to tell everyone who owns a
bicycle "Hey, the value of your bike didn't really drop! It's still
worth $9!".

But no one wants to believe that.

So then they go to the guy who's writing insurance policies on
the value of bikes and they say "if you got $100 million, would that
calm things down a bit?".

Quote of the Day

"I think it was exciting to some that she was a woman"

- Bill Clinton on Sarah Palin  (via)

Cargo Cult Regulation

Someone noticed that just before certain stocks crash in value, there is a lot of short-selling.  So the US government has banned short-selling, at least temporarily.  Classic cargo-cult logic. 

Boy this sure makes perfect sense in a time when we are concerned about speculative bubbles -- let's ban one of the most important tools that exist for bubbles to be shortened and made less, uh, bubbly.  Here is why (very briefly and non-technically) short-selling takes the edge off speculative excesses.

At the start of the bubble, a particular asset (be it an equity or a commodity like oil) is owned by a mix of people who have different expectations about future price movements.  For whatever reasons, in a bubble, a subset of the market develops rapidly rising expectations about the value of the asset.  They start buying the asset, and the price starts rising.  As the price rises, and these bulls buy in, folks who owned the asset previously and are less bullish about the future will sell to the new buyers.  The very fact of the rising price of the asset from this buying reinforces the bulls' feeling that the sky is the limit for prices, and bulls buy in even more. 

Let's fast forward to a point where the price has risen to some stratospheric levels vs. the previous pricing as well as historical norms or ratios.  The ownership base for the asset is now disproportionately
made up of those sky-is-the-limit bulls, while everyone who thought
these guys were overly optimistic and a bit wonky have sold out. 99.9% of the world now thinks the asset is grossly overvalued.  But how does it come to earth?  After all, the only way the price can drop is if some owners sell, and all the owners are super-bulls who are unlikely to do so.  As a result, the bubble might continue and grow long after most of the world has seen the insanity of it.

Thus, we have short-selling.  Short-selling allows the other 99.9% who are not owners to sell part of the asset anyway, casting their financial vote for the value of the company.  Short-selling shortens bubbles, hastens the reckoning, and in the process generally reduces the wreckage on the back end.

Update:  From Don Boudreaux:

To ban short-selling of stocks is to short-circuit an important
mechanism through which people share their knowledge and expectations
with others.  Banning a mechanism that better allows share prices to
reflect the expectation that the underlying assets are not worth as
much as current market prices suggest does nothing to change the
underlying reality.  Such a ban merely distorts knowledge of this
reality

Canada to Join EU Free Trade Zone?

If so, great for them.  The more free trade in the world, the better:

Canadian and European officials say they plan to begin
negotiating a massive agreement to integrate Canada's economy with the
27 nations of the European Union, with preliminary talks to be launched
at an Oct. 17 summit in Montreal three days after the federal election.

Trade Minister Michael Fortier and his staff have been engaged for
the past two months with EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson and the
representatives of European governments in an effort to begin what a
senior EU official involved in the talks described in an interview
yesterday as "deep economic integration negotiations."

If successful, Canada would be the first developed nation to have
open trade relations with the EU, which has completely open borders
between its members but imposes steep trade and investment barriers on
outsiders"¦

A pact with the United States would be politically impossible in Europe, senior European Commission officials said.

I would have said that changing the last statement would be a great goal for an Obama administration that wants to make Europe love us again (did they ever?)  But he has made clear that trade does not count in his definition of good relations, and in fact has already committed to initiating trade wars against our neighbors Mexico and Canada.

I Guess I'm Not Patriotic

I have always been mildly suspicious of the word "Patriotism," particularly when it is used to mean supporting one's country even when it is behaving badly.  I prefer to say that I respect, even love this country for the high values it has historically set for itself.   But when it falls short of those values, it is going to hear it from me, patriotism or no.

But if patriotism is defined as having my money put in someone else's pocket, I am not a patriot.

Thoughts on the Lehman Bankrupcy

While I am not happy to see a historic company go bankrupt, and have vague but unspecific worries about some kind of general cascading financial problem, I am happy to see the government let Lehman go bankrupt without any sort of special intervention or bailout for a number of reasons:

  • Bailouts create awful incentives for other large companies managing their risk portfolios
  • I know many small business people who have gone bankrupt, and I once lost my job in a company bankruptcy.  There is no reason Lehman equity holders and managers should be immune from the same process just because their company is large and old. 
  • Lehman's management has failed to get a positive return from the assets in their care.  A bailout only keeps these assets under the same management.  A bankruptcy puts these assets in the hands of new parties who hopefully can do a better job with them. 
  • I strongly suspect that the hole in Lehman's balance sheet from underwater assets like certain mortgages is large compared to its equity but small compared to its total assets.  If this is true, equity holders will end up with nothing, but most creditors should come out close to whole when everything is unwound.

Like Megan McArdle, I found Obama's recent reaction to the Lehman bankruptcy to be wrong-headed but unsurprising.  Obama is blaming recent financial problems on an overly laissez faire approach by GWB in general (LOL,that's funny) and a lack of strong enforcement by the SEC in particular. 

But one has to ask, what laws were not enforced?  My sense is that these are all perfectly lawful portfolios of mortgages in which the one mistake was systematically being too generous in giving out credit.  Mr. Obama's party has always been a strong advocate of pushing banks to be more generous with credit, particularly to the poor, and of promoting home ownership as a national goal.  If anything, financial institutions are struggling because they were too aggressive in these goals.  McArdle writes:

This was not some criminal activity that the Bush administration should
have been investigating more thoroughly; it was a thorough, massive, systemic
mispricing of the risk attendant on lending to people with bad credit.
(These are, mind you, the same people that five years ago the Democrats
wanted to help enjoy the many booms of homeownership.) Lehman, Bear,
Merrill and so forth did not sneakily lend these people money in the
hope of putting one over on the American taxpayer while ruining their
shareholders and getting the senior executives fired.  They got it
wrong.  Badly wrong.  So did everyone else.

It appears from further Obama statements talking about lack of enforcement for predatory lending laws that the Democrats want to get back on the rollercoaster of whipsawing banks between charges of redlining (you are not lending enough to the poor) and predatory lending (you are lending too much to the poor).

Postscript:  While in retrospect there may turn out to have been laws broken, in situations like this, particularly when a management team is trying to head off a liquidity crisis, these tend to be of the reporting and disclosure ilk.  We saw back during the Enron failure that people tend to assume law-breaking of some sort to be the cause of a major bankrupcy or collapse, and to satisfy this notion the government aggresively pursued Enron executives.  But nothing for which Enron was prosecuted had anything to do with their failure -- all the violations were about disclosure and accounting methodologies.  The company would have still crashed, probably faster, without these violations.

Update:  More here

More on California's Big Dig

The Anti-Planner has more on the California high speed rail proposal I wrote about earlier.  My guess was that the first $9 billion bond issue, on the ballot this fall, would not get the train out of the LA metro area.  Well, I was right and wrong.  The smart money thinks the line will start at the other end, in San Francisco.  But the betting is that for $9 billion the line won't even get out of the San Francisco metro area, making it perhaps as far as San Jose. 

But we have a second data point -- there is a proposal on the table to extend BART from Fremont to Santa Clara for $4.7 billion, a distance (as shown on the map below) about a third of that from San Francisco to San Jose.
Map

I am not sure what high-speed rail technology that they are considering, but a true high-speed line requires special alignments, track, and signaling that should make it FAR more expensive per mile than a BART line (just as an example, a true high-speed line could take miles to make a 90 degree turn, eating up land and reducing alignment flexibility in a very congested and hilly area).  And remember, the BART cost estimate is probably low.

No way these guys get to San Jose for $9 billion, much less to LA for $40 billion.  Just what Californians need with their massive budget deficit:  a brand new white elephant.

Re-Evaluating Home Ownership

Mark Perry has had a series of posts of late presenting the hypothesis that high rates of home ownership in the US may be detrimental as it reduces labor mobility.  The argument goes that homeowners have a harder time moving for new jobs than renters do.

Homeownership
impedes the economy's readjustment by tying people down. From a social
point of view, it's beneficial that homeownership encourages commitment
to a given town or city. But, from an economic point of view, it's good
for people to be able to leave places where there's less work and move
to places where there's more. Homeowners are much less likely to move
than renters, especially during a downturn, when they aren't willing
(or can't afford) to sell at market prices. As a result, they often
stay in towns even after the jobs leave. And reluctance to move not
only keeps unemployment high in struggling areas but makes it hard for
businesses elsewhere to attract the workers they need to grow.

The argument makes sense on its surface, but I am having a bit of trouble buying into it (though I will admit that as an American, I am steeped in decades of home-ownership-boosterism, so I may not be approaching the problem without bias).

On the plus side, the selling a home and buying a new one certainly has more costs than switching apartments, particularly if you add in a moving premium for home owners who can accumulate a lot more stuff than apartment dwellers and the switching costs due to emotional attachment to the current house.  Also, on its face, the argument is similar to criticisms of the economy of the antebellum south, where too much capital was invested in land and assets tied to the land.

However, I see a couple of problems with it.  First, its hard to find an increase in structural unemployment rates in the past decades to correlate to the increase in home ownership.  Second, the costs to change homes has been falling of late as the government-protected Realtor monopoly is finally being broken by technology and commission rates are falling.  Third, my sense is (though I can't dig up the data) that the average time in a home is dropping, meaning homes flip owners more frequently, again indicating a decreasing barrier to moving.

I would, however, be willing to accept that in a high home ownership regime, falling home prices and lengthening for-sale times could exacerbate an economic downturn by slowing mobility and thereby slowing the correction.  I would have argued in the past that this was offset by home equity as a savings tool and a source of cash in difficult times, but that could be different this time around as mortgage policies have tightened, drying up the ability to convert equity to emergency cash.

Is There a Zero-Cost Regulatory Solution to Energy Efficiency?

A while back, I criticized a story in the NY Times, as quoted by Kevin Drum, that said that California had among the lowest per capita electricity usage of any state (true) and that this was because of the intelligent regulation regime in the state (yes, but not the way they meant).  The implication of Drum's argument was that there was some sort of efficiency ideal that a smart group of technocrats could reach at limited cost to the state (false). Specifically, Drum argued:

Anyway, it's a good article, and goes to show the kinds of things we
could be doing nationwide if conservative politicians could put their
Chicken Little campaign contributors on hold for a few minutes and take
a look at how it's possible to cut energy use dramatically "” and reduce
our dependence on foreign suppliers "” without ruining the economy. The
energy industry might not like the idea, but the rest of us would.

My response, in part, was this:

Well, here are the eight states in the data set above that the
California CEC shows as having the lowest per capita electricity use:
CA, RI, NY, HI, NH, AK, VT, MA.  All right, now here are the eight
states from the same data set that have the highest electricity prices:  CA, RI, NY, HI, NH, AK, VT, MA.  Woah!  It's the exact same eight states!  The 8 states with the highest prices are the eight states with the lowest per capita consumption.
Unbelievable.  No way that could have an effect, huh?  It must be all
those green building codes in CA.  I suspect Drum is sort of right,
just not in the way he means.  Stupid regulation in each state drives
up prices, which in turn provides incentives for lower demand.  It
achieves the goal, I guess, but very inefficiently.  A straight tax
would be much more efficient.

As part of a presentation I am working on about global warming and proposed California CO2 abatement bill AB52, I had the occasion to do a bit more research.  All of my data is from the Energy Information Administration, whose page URLs keep changing and thus breaking my links but this index page to data seems to stay the same.

I found three factors that seem to be the main drivers of state electricity demand (which is measured in all of the charts below in thousands of kw-h per capita).  The first factor is climate, and certainly California has one of the milder climates.  The chart below looks at residential electricity demand vs. cooling degree days (weighted for population location).  Each data point is a state, with California is shown as the red data point:
Electricitybystatecdd

We get something similar for heating degree days, with electrical use going down as the climate gets milder, though not as good of a fit, which is not surprising since electricity is less important to heating than cooling.  Since California is well below the line, mild climate can be said to explain some of its lead on other states, but not all.

So I looked next at the percentage of electricity demand that goes to industry.  More heavily industrialized states will have a higher total per capita demand, because heavy industry chews up electricity that other types of businesses do not.  It turns out that California has a relatively low industrial use, which is not surprising given the regulatory environment there and the degree to which industry has been chased out of the state (one would have to be a madman to, all things considered, set up a new factory in California).  So here is the same type of chart of total electrical per capita use by state vs. the % industrial demand, again with each data point a state and California in red:
Electricitybystateindust

Again there is a pretty strong relationship, and again we see some but not all of California's low per capita consumption explained.  In effect, states on the left have exported their high-electricity-use industries to the states on the right (or to other countries).

I have saved the most obvious relationship for last:  price.  It turns out unsurprisingly that the states with the highest electricity prices have the lowest per capital consumption:

Electricitybystateprice

Rolling climate, industrial intensity, and price together, these factors seem to explain at least 80% of California's efficiency lead over other states.  California government regulatory policy does indeed drive lower electrical consumption, just not exactly the way they would like you to think.  By chasing industries out of the state and raising electricity costs above those of almost every other state, California has reached a lower per capita consumption level.

Dumbest Thing I Have Read Today

From the department of wishful thinking comes this:

The worst oil shock since the 1970s has put a permanent mark on the
American way of life that even a drop in oil's price below $100 a
barrel won't erase.

Public transportation is in. Hummers are out. Frugality is in. Wastefulness is out....

As prices come falling back to earth, Americans aren't expected to
drop their newfound frugality. The jarring reality of $4-a-gallon
gasoline stirred up an unprecedented level of consumer angst that
experts say will keep people from reverting to extravagant energy use
for years to come - if ever again.

High gas prices prompted calls to lower speed limits to 55 mph in some states and touched off a seemingly endless wave of "Go Green" campaigns.

"I see a permanent shift," said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist
at San Francisco's Golden Gate University who has studied how high oil
prices have affected Americans' buying behavior. "Historically, when
gas prices come down, people use more. But we've learned a lot of new
things during this period and it will be hard to go back to our
gas-guzzling ways."

Really?  I could have sworn people said that in 1972 and again in 1978.  But the SUV and the Hummer were not even invented until after these oil shocks.  He mentions the 55 mph speed limit, but we once had a national speed limit at 55 in the 1970s and we chucked it.  What possible evidence does this guy have, particularly since the recent shock was not nearly as bad as 1972 or 1978.  In fact, you can see that here in this graph of gas price pain:

Gas_prices_2

And, we have not seen the absolute shortages and gas lines we saw in the 1970s.  Usually these weird statements like this published by the AP are the start of some kind of broader political campaign.  The only thing I can guess is that this is the front end of some leftish/Obama polical message that we need to keep slamming on government conservation directives and alt-energy subsidies even as prices fall.

Windows Users: Beware the New iTunes Update

Via ZDNet:

I'm reading lots of complaints about the new iTunes 8 update causing
horrific problems on Windows machines, including widespread reports of
STOP errors, aka the Blue Screen of Death. My colleague Adrian
Kingsley-Hughes has asked readers for reports and Gizmodo has a sketchy post as well.

The author goes on to blame some extra software Apple is "sneaking" into the download.  I tend to doubt there is some deep conspiracy here, but you can read more if interested. (remember Coyote's Law: 

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.)

I think I will wait a while before updating, though.

Update:  Apple has a new version of iTunes 8 for windows

Don't Panic!

OK, the light at the end of the tunnel may be a train, but so far it is too soon to panic about bank failures.*  Mark Perry brings us this chart for perspective:
Bank1

Of course, since we are in an election cycle, current problems are going to be portrayed as the worst economy since the Weimar Republic, or whatever.  Perry has a lot more in the post.

Thinking about Jeff Skilling

I was thinking a bit about Jeff Skilling (former Enron CEO) today.  What must he be thinking as a series of large firms that were supposedly far more stable than Enron go down one after the other to liquidity crises much like that of Enron?  Bear Stearns and Lehman, two firms that should have been rock solid, go down in the blink of an eye in a credit crunch, and all we hear from the media is how the firms fell victim to larger forces beyond their control.  At least at Enron they were up-front with the market about their taking on large risks.  Now, the government is running around in the background trying to match-make these failing companies and helping to save at least a squidge of shareholder equity.  The only thing the government did in the Enron collapse was hound Skilling and others into jail.   

Sure, Skilling may have made some overly optimistic statements about his company as he was trying to stave off the crunch, but no more so that the happy-face statements issuing from Bear or Lehman in their final days.  Executives who find themselves in a credit crunch are in a nearly impossible position.  The best way they can serve equity holders is to downplay or even bury bad news to head off the looming crisis of confidence.  But if they do so, they face presecution for making false statements about the company, ironically under laws meant to protect equity holders.

No Surprise To Anyone Who Is a Fan of "The Wire"

One of the recurring themes in HBO's fabulous series "the Wire" was how well-intentioned government officials could be led astray by perverse incentives, and, tied to this, the overwhelming pressure that can build up in government to fix the metrics rather than the problem.

In Charleston, they apparently thought they had a real public school success story on their hands:

Sanders-Clyde is a school in downtown Charleston that serves some of
the poorest students in the county. Most of its children come from the
nearby homeless shelter or public housing apartments. Its test scores
once were the worst in the county, and its future was so bleak that the
county board planned to close it.

Then MiShawna Moore became
the school's principal in 2003. She tailored lessons for students,
helped their parents pay bills, washed students' clothes and opened the
school building on weekends. The school's test scores began to rise.

By
2007, the school outscored state and district averages, far exceeding
the progress of schools with students from similar backgrounds.
Educators hailed Moore as a model for other principals, the community
showered her school with praise, and federal and state awards went to
the school in recognition of its achievement. Moore was so successful
that she was asked to lead a second downtown school, Fraser Elementary,
to duplicate her accomplishments.

But suddenly, the bottom dropped out:

This year, the school's PACT results fell sharply in every subject and at every grade level.

So what changed?  The curriculum?  The students?  No, what changed was who was in charge of compiling the scores.  For the first time, they took the measurement process out of the hands of the person being rewarded for the measure:

This was the first time that the school district monitored the school's
testing. District officials took tests away from the school each night
and put monitors in classrooms daily. Janet Rose, the district's
executive director of assessment and accountability, told The Post and
Courier in May that the extra scrutiny would validate the school's
scores.

Oops.  It seems the former high-flying principal suddenly needs to spend more time with her family

A few weeks after the tests this spring, in a move that surprised
parents and officials, Moore announced that she was leaving Charleston
County.

Hat tip to Andrew Coulson

Volume Gouging

I was just volume-gouged on gasoline today in Atlanta.  I was returning my rent car, and needed to fill the tank.   Stations here seem to fear a hurricane-related gas shortage, to the first station would only sell me 10 gallons maximum.  The second claimed to be out of gas.  At the third I was able to fill my tank the rest of the way.  These stations gouged me on volume, simply because they didn't have the simple courtesy to re-price their product upwards in a shortage in order to ensure continued availability of supply.

By the way, memo to news guys -- telling everyone to run out and fill their tanks RIGHT NOW in order to avoid a possible gasoline shortage will only precipitate said shortage.  If everyone fills his or her tank at the same time, this shifts inventory from large regional reservoirs to individual reservoirs (e.g. gas tanks), the most inefficient of inventory storage models.  Having every car's gas tank go nearly instantaneously from 5/8 full to full requires something like 600 million gallons of draw down from retail and wholesale inventory to car fuel tanks.  The system cannot survive that in 24 hours, and the hypothesized shortage becomes a reality.

Postscript:  By the way, the question of whether to run out and fill your tank tonight is a classic prisnoners dilemma game.  We are all better off if no one does it, but each invidividual probably maximizes his or her well-being by deciding to fill up, so everyone does it.

Flying on 9/11

Seven years ago today, my wife came down to my hotel breakfast meeting at a midtown Manhattan hotel and told us that there was something we needed to see.  We went upstairs to one of my investor's rooms, which had a balcony, and watched the disaster unfold.  Several of our friends died that day, though we wouldn't know that for weeks.  In between was a bizarre cross-country drive from Manhattan to Seattle.

I am on the road again today, and will observe that the airport is pretty empty today.  I don't know if this is an anomaly, or a general reluctance to fly on 9/11.

PS- Ironically, I was making a presentation that morning to potential investors telling them that the commercial airline business, on which our small company depended, was due for a turnaround.  Oops.

Cool Gear

These are really expensive and the performance is limited, but hey, what else would a bleeding-edge buyer expect?   They are super-small LCD projectors to take on the road for presentations and such, and they are barely bigger than an iPod.

Led_projector_toshiba

Local Papers and the Growth of Government

In some sort of synergistic relationship I haven't fully figured out, local newspapers love to cheerlead the expansion of government programs.  Here is a great example, via Rick Perry.  The headline in the Detroit Free Press web site reads:

State venture capital funds starting to pay off

But then we go on to read:

Michigan's two venture capital investment funds are starting to generate results, state economic  officials said Monday.

Since their formation in 2006, the $95-million Venture Michigan Fund
and the $109-million Michigan 21st Century Investment Fund have
invested in six venture capital firms with either a headquarters or an office
in the state. These firms have used the money and other capital to
invest in 11 fledgling Michigan companies that have added 40 workers in
recent years.

The two funds have made investment commitments of $116.3 million, or slightly more than half of their total capital.

So out of $204 million in taxpayer funds (why the state has entered the venture capital business with state funds is anybody's guess) the state has invested $116 million to create 40 jobs.  Given that the notion of the government venture fund was to create state jobs, its not clear how $3 million per job is a really good return.  Further, there is no mention of the government has gotten any kind of financial return from this investment, so I will presume it has not. So how can the paper possibly with a straight face say that the funds are "starting to pay off?" 

Eleven companies with an average of 3 employees each somehow each got $10 million in state funds.  I bet it would be fascinating to see just who these 11 companies are, and how their owners are connected into the political power structure.