Posts tagged ‘Argentina’

Everything Looks Like a Nail When You Have A Hammer

Kevin Drum quotes Hugo Dixon on the Greek recovery:

Greece is undergoing an astonishing financial rebound. Two years ago, the country looked like it was set for a messy default and exit from the euro. Now it is on the verge of returning to the bond market with the issue of 2 billion euros of five-year paper.

There are still political risks, and the real economy is only now starting to turn. But the financial recovery is impressive. The 10-year bond yield, which hit 30 percent after the debt restructuring of two years ago, is now 6.2 percent....The changed mood in the markets is mainly down to external factors: the European Central Bank’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro two years ago; and the more recent end of investors’ love affair with emerging markets, meaning the liquidity sloshing around the global economy has been hunting for bargains in other places such as Greece.

That said, the centre-right government of Antonis Samaras has surprised observers at home and abroad by its ability to continue with the fiscal and structural reforms started by his predecessors. The most important successes have been reform of the labour market, which has restored Greece’s competiveness, and the achievement last year of a “primary” budgetary surplus before interest payments.

Color me suspicious.  Both the media and investors fall for this kind of thing all the time -- the dead cat bounce masquerading as a structural improvement.  I hope like hell Greece has gotten its act together, but I would not bet my own money on it.

Anyway, that is a bit beside the point.  I found Drum's conclusion from all this odd:

If this keeps up—and that's still a big if—it also might be a lesson in the virtue of kicking the can down the road. Back in 2012, lots of commenters, including me, believed that the eurozone had deep structural problems that couldn't be solved by running fire drills every six months or so and then hoping against hope that things would get better. But maybe they will! This probably still wasn't the best way of forging a recovery of the eurozone, but so far, it seems to have worked at least a little better than the pessimists imagined. Maybe sometimes kicking the can is a good idea after all.

For those that are not frequent readers of his, I need to tell you that one of the themes he has been pounding on of late is that the US should not be worried about either its debt levels or inflation -- attempting to rebut the most obvious critiques of his strong support for more deficit spending and monetary stimulus.

I would have thought the obvious moral of this story was that austerity and dismantling all sorts of progressive labor market claptrap led to a recovery far faster than expected**.  But since Drum opposes all those steps, his  conclusion seems to be simply a return to his frequent theme that debt is A-OK and we shouldn't be worried about addressing it any time soon.

** I don't believe for a moment that Greece has really changed the worst of its structural labor market, regulatory,  and taxation issues.  This story gets written all the time about countries like, say, Argentina.  Sustained incompetence is not really newsworthy, which is likely one reason we get so few African stories.  They would all be like "Nigeria still a mess."  A false recovery story gives the media two story cycles, one for the false recovery and one for the inevitable sinking back into the pit.

If It Was Good Enough For Diocletian....

Price controls, like those famously instituted by Diocletian, are something like 0 for 162,000 in their success rate at "fixing" inflation.

So of course, Argentina has instituted price controls on supermarkets.  Argentina, meet Zimbabwe.  Another agricultural powerhouse that will soon see food shortages.

The Next Step Past "Unexpected"

What does a statist government do when attaching "unexpected" to all negative economic numbers does not provide the necessary political cover?

Argentina’s government has filed criminal charges against the managers of an economic consulting firm, escalating its persecution of independent economists.

…The government is charging MyS Consultores with “publishing false information about inflation data” to benefit themselves and their clients. The criminal complaint alleges that MyS’s data also lead to speculative behavior in Argentina’s bond market.

…Consumer prices rose 9.7% in May from a year ago, according to the national statistics agency, Indec. But virtually all economists say annual inflation surpasses 20%—one of the world’s highest rates—angering government officials who dismiss inflation as a problem.

…So far this year, the Secretariat has fined at least nine economic research firms 500,000 pesos ($122,000) each. This week, the Secretariat also slapped a second fine on Orlando J Ferreres & Asociados.

“They fine us for saying how much prices have risen,” Mr. Ferreres, director of his eponymous firm, said. “They could seek criminal charges against all of us. We don’t know how far they’re willing to go.”

Mr. Ferreres said the legal actions are part of a strategy to prevent independent economists from publishing potentially negative information during an election year…

Government officials say they hoped the fines would deter economists from “deceiving” the public into making poor financial decisions by publishing inflation estimates that differ considerably from Indec’s consumer price index.

It is sad to see how far Argentina has fallen.  In the past it has been one of my favorite countries in the world to visit.

Great Minds Think Alike

Coyote, November 10

But what is really happening here is that the dollar is being devalued.  This is one of the semantic quirks that make me laugh "” when Argentina or Zimbabwe do this, its called devaluation.  When a western nation does it, it is called quantitative easing.

Don Boudreaux today:

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, fresh from injecting hundreds of billions of new U.S. currency units into the economy "“ and from planning the injection of yet an additional 600 billion such units "“ criticizes the Chinese government for injecting hundreds of billions of new Chinese currency units into the economy ("Bernanke Takes Aim at China," Nov. 18).  Apparently, when Beijing increases the supply of Chinese currency it does so as part of what Prof. Bernanke ominously labels a "strategy of currency undervaluation," but when Uncle Sam does the same thing with U.S. currency units it's called "quantitative easing" and "a move in the right direction."

Risk and CDO's

This is one of the better simple explanations of both the appeal and hidden risk of CDO's. The example, which is short and is worth working through, ends this way:

Suppose that we misspecified the underlying probability of mortgage default and we later discover the true probability is not .05 but .06.  In terms of our original mortgages the true default rate is 20 percent higher than we thought--not good but not deadly either.  However, with this small error, the probability of default in the 10 tranche jumps from p=.0282 to p=.0775, a 175% increase.  Moreover, the probability of default of the CDO jumps from p=.0005 to p=.247, a 45,000% increase!

The dark magic of structured finance conjured many low-risk securities out of many risky securities.  Like all dark magic, however, the conjuring came at a price because if you didn't get the spell exactly correct it was easy to create something much more risky and dangerous than you were likely to have ever imagined.

As an ex-engineer who used to do a lot of operations analysis as well as post-disaster failure analysis, this shares a central theme that I have found in many such failures -- people tend to overestimate their own knowledge.

Coming in to a class at HBS, the professor had us all do a 20 question survey.  It asked us questions like "what is the population of Argentina" and then asked us to give the lowest and highest number we thought it would be such that the answer had a 95% chance of being in that range.  Based on this, only one of our 20 answers should have been out of my limits.  About eight of the answers were out of my ranges.  It was a really good lesson in overestimating one's knowledge.

Which leaves me with a thought -- if we define a large part of the problem as overestimating our understanding of a certain phenomenon, from your observation of the Obama administration and its personalities, what gives you any confidence that a new lager of government regulators will solve this problem?

The Timeless Appeal of Triumphalism

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects?  Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.  First it was Thomas Friedman, and now its Joel Epstein in the Huffpo, eulogizing China.    These are the same folks who tried, disastrously, to emulate Mussolini's "forward-thinking" economic regime in the National Industrial Recovery Act.    These are the same folks who wanted to emulate MITI's management of the Japanese economy (which drove them right into a 20-year recession).  These are the same folks who oohed and ahhed over the multi-billion dollar Beijing Olympics venues while ignoring the air that was unbreathable.  These are the same folks who actually believed the one Cuban health clinic in Sicko actually represented the standard of care received by average citizens.  To outsiders, the costs of these triumphal programs are often not visible, at least not until years or decades later when the rubes have moved on to new man crushes.

Epstein, like Friedman, seems to think that the US is somehow being left behind by China because its government builds much more stuff.  We are "asleep."  Well, I have a big clue for him.  Most of the great progress in this country was built when the government was asleep.  The railroads, the steel industry, the auto industry, the computer industry  -  all were built by individuals when the government was at best uninvolved and at worst fighting their progress at every step.

Epstein in particular thinks we need to build more trains.  This is exactly the kind of gauzy non-fact-based wishful thinking that makes me extremely pleased that Epstein in fact does not have the dictatorial powers he longs for.   High speed rail is a terrible investment, a black hole for pouring away money, that has little net impact on efficiency or pollution.   But rail is a powerful example because it demonstrates exactly how this bias for high-profile triumphal projects causes people to miss the obvious.

Which is this:  The US rail system, unlike nearly every other system in the world, was built (mostly) by private individuals with private capital.  It is operated privately, and runs without taxpayer subsidies.    And, it is by far the greatest rail system in the world.  It has by far the cheapest rates in the world (1/2 of China's, 1/8 of Germany's).  But here is the real key:  it is almost all freight.

As a percentage, far more freight moves in the US by rail (vs. truck) than almost any other country in the world.  Europe is not even close.

modalsplieuusjapan (source)

You see, passenger rail is sexy and pretty and visible.  You can build grand stations and entertain visiting dignitaries on your high-speed trains.  This is why statist governments have invested so much in passenger rail -- not to be more efficient, but to awe their citizens and foreign observers.

But there is little efficiency improvement in moving passengers by rail vs. other modes.   Most of the energy consumed goes into hauling not the passengers themselves, but the weight of increasingly plush rail cars.  Trains have to be really, really full all the time to make an energy savings for high-speed rail vs. cars or even planes, and they seldom are full.  I had a lovely trip on the high speed rail last summer between London and Paris and back through the Chunnel -- especially nice because my son and I had the rail car entirely to ourselves both ways.

The real efficiency comes from moving freight.  More of the total energy budget is used moving the actual freight rather than the cars themselves.  Freight is far more efficient to move by rail than by road, but only the US moves a substantial amount of its freight by rail.    One reasons for this is that freight and high-speed passenger traffic have a variety of problems sharing the same rails, so systems that are optimized for one tend to struggle serving the other.

Freight is boring and un-sexy.  Its not a government function in the US.  So intellectuals tend to ignore it, even though it is the far more important, from and energy and environmental standpoint, portion of transport to put on the rails.  In fact, the US would actually probably have even a higher rail modal percentage if the US government had not enforced a regulatory regime (until the Staggers Act) that favored trucks over rail.   If the government really had been asleep the last century, we would be further along.

The US has not been "asleep"  -- at least the private individuals who drive progress have not.  We have had huge revolutions in transportation over the last decades during the same period that European nations were sinking billions of dollars into pretty high-speed passenger rails systems for wealthy business travelers.   One such revolution has been containerization, invented here in the US and quickly spreading around the world.  Containerization has revolutionized shipping, speeding schedules and reducing costs (and all the while every improvement step was fought by the US and certain local governments).  To the extent American businesses are not investing today, it has more to do with regime uncertainty, not knowing what new taxes or restrictions are coming next from Congress, than any lack of vision.

I would argue that the US has the world's largest commitment to rail where it really matters.  But that is what private actors do, make investments that actually make sense rather than just gain one prestige (anyone know the most recent company Warren Buffet has bought?)  The greens should be demanding that the world emulate us, rather than the other way around.  But the lure of shiny bullet trains and grand passenger concourses will always cause folks like Epstein to swoon.

Update #2: The author Joel Epstein emailed me a response to this post.  I will give it to you in its entirety:  "You should get out of the country more often."  Wow, he played the provincial American card on me.  Except that I have been to about 20 countries, from Singapore to Argentina to Hungary.  Besides, I really don't understand what the hell he means by this in the context of my post, except as a bid for some sort of intellectual superiority.   Anyone else understand?

Postscript

Boring, but environmentally friendly and cost-effective:

10.9.2004-04

Sexy, but environmentally useless (at best) and tremendously costly:

high-speed-rail21

So, explain to me what drives these guys investment thinking.  Can it be anything but triumphalism?

Update: Energy use comparison of passenger modes. Note how close rail transit and cars, both at average occupancies, are in this analysis.  The differences in freight are much larger:

transenergy