Posts tagged ‘risk’

Uber Is About To Become A Much Worse Place To Work

Here are some cool things about working for Uber:

  • You can work any time you want, for as long as you want.  You can work from 2-4 in the morning if you like, and if there are no customers, that is your risk
  • You can work in any location you choose.  You can park at your house and sit in your living room and take any jobs that come up, and then ignore new jobs until you get back home (I actually have a neighbor who is retired who does just this, he has driven me about 6 times now).
  • The company has no productivity metrics or expectations.  As long as your driver rating is good and you follow the rules, you are fine.

All of this is going to change.  Why?  Due to lawsuits in most countries that seek to redefine Uber drivers as employees rather than contractors.  One such suit just succeeded in England:

Is Uber a taxi firm or a technology company, and are its drivers self-employed or mistreated employees? These questions are being asked of Uber the world over, and last year an employment tribunal case in the UK concluded two drivers were, in fact, entitled to minimum wage, holiday pay and other benefits. The ride-hailing service contested this potentially precedent-setting decision, as you'd expect, but today Uber lost its appeal. In other words, the appeal tribunal upheld the original ruling that drivers should be classed as workers rather than self-employed.

The appeal tribunal agreed that when a driver is logged in and waiting for a job, that's still tantamount to "working time." Working time they aren't getting paid for, of course. Interestingly, the ruling also noted that Uber basically has a monopoly on private hire via an app. Therefore, drivers are beholden to them and can't reasonably engage in other work while also being at Uber's disposal.

GMB, the union for professional drivers that's behind the original case, is calling it "a landmark victory." Naturally, the law firm representing the GMB and Uber drivers feels much the same. No points for guessing who has a slightly different opinion.

Despite Engadget's usual economic ignorance that this must be all good for drivers, in fact this is going to destroy about everything that makes Uber attractive as compared to 9-5 office jobs.  That is, if rulings like this don't kill the company entirely, as I have previously prophesied.

This is going to add a new cost for Uber, forcing them to pay money to drivers for dead time when they are not actually driving a passenger.  Let's make the reasonable assumption that Uber's first response to this is to A) stay in business and B) attempt to keep prices to customers from rising.  The only way they can do this is to minimize dead time.

Want to park at your house in an unpromising neighborhood with little business?  Forget it, Uber can't allow that in the future.  Want to work at an unproductive hour of your choosing?  Forget it.  Uber is going to have to set quotas on certain regions and hours of the day that are less productive and find a way to ban drivers from working those times.   In addition, they are likely to institute some sort of productivity metric for drivers, ie something like revenue minutes as a percent of total, and then they are going to rank all the drivers and start cutting drivers from the bottom of the list.  If Uber survives, it is going to be a very different company to work for, and is going to feel much more like a regular office job with a boss hanging around your cubicle pestering you about TPS reports.

Engadget Is My Go-To Source For Bad Economic Analysis. Today's Lesson: Apparently Items Are More Valuable If You Can't Resell Them

The following from Endadget may be clearer if you translate the British "touts" to the American "scalpers"

Touts are unnecessary middlemen, inflating ticket prices purely to create a cut for themselves. Gig-goers hate them, artists hate them, and the government isn't too keen either. The use of automated online bots to hoover up tickets (that are later listed on resale sites with a mark-up) is set to become a criminal offence thanks to the Digital Economy Act. The government has also implored venues and resale sites to address the ways they might be enabling touts. Sure, we might be lose the stub souvenir, but can we just make digital-only ticketing mandatory and kill all the birds with one stone already?

This view of scalpers as leeching middlemen with no economic value but rather as rent-seekers who merely mark up tickets and pocket the money is unfortunately common.  But they are in fact a perfectly normal functioning of markets.  They perform at least two economic functions

  1.  Events often are mispriced for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes they charge too much, as in the recent McGregor-Mayweather fight, and the arena is half-empty.  The market can't do much to fix this.  But sometimes events are under-priced, and the demand far exceeds the available supply of tickets.  When this happens, some method of rationing must occur.  Back in my day rationing was by who was lucky enough to dial in at the exact right moment or who was willing to camp out all night.  Resale markets, including scalpers, where tickets are resold well above face value are another approach.  Scalpers don't make money taking some sort of middleman fee, they make money buying tickets at face and then taking the risk that they can resell them later at a higher price.  They are not always successful.  I have sold a number of tickets I could no longer use under face to get rid of them, taking a loss.
  2. If you cannot resell a ticket to the person you want for the price you like, you lose some of your property rights in that ticket and it is less valuable to you.  Look at airline tickets, which are all electronic today and cannot be resold or transferred.  Are you better off as a consumer not having a secondary market for airline tickets?  Do you really like tickets that are use-them-or-lose-them propositions?  The contention in this article that consumers are better off if their concert tickets worked more like airline tickets is simply nonsense.  Scalpers increase our consumer sovereignty.

It should be noted that a digital ticket does not automatically mean loss of property rights in that ticket.  I bought Dallas Cowboys playoff tickets and Hamilton tickets on a secondary market and got them transferred to me electronically.  The Ticketmaster electronic app, at least currently, allows you to transfer the ticket to someone else and so digital ticketing platforms don't have to mean scalpers go away -- one could easily imagine two guys in a parking lot can still transact in tickets from their cell phones.  But the danger, of course, is that unlike with paper tickets this right of resale can be taken away any time by simply blocking the transfer function.  The article does not make this clear but I assume they are promoting a platform where once you buy the ticket you can only resell it back via the original seller (if at all), or else the entire article would be complete nonsense (always a possibility on engadget).

Artists and producers are complete hypocrites on this issue.  They are jealous because they would like to charge what the market could bear for their tickets but fear fan backlash if they do.  So they keep prices low so they can claim to be the fan's friend, but with a catch -- they hold back a ton of inventory in the hottest shows and do not offer that to the public at the published low price.  They sell this inventory at high prices to sponsors and other special groups or even sell it themselves at high market rates on the same 3rd party resale sites they publicly criticize.   What these folks really want is for there only to be secondary markets that they control. They don't want competition from third parties, and this lack of competition is only going to be worse for the consumer.  Think of it this way -- what if by law you could only resell your car to the dealer you bought it from.  Would you get as good of a price.  Hah!

 

Employing People in California Really is Harder

California is a uniquely difficult place for companies trying to actually employ people rather than robots.   Owning a business in that state, you could be forgiven that the legislation actually embarked on a program to explicitly punish companies for hiring people.  The state has spent the last ten or twenty years defining a myriad of micro offenses employees for which  may sue employers and make large recoveries -- everything from having to work through lunch to having the wrong chair and not getting to sit in that chair at the right times of day.

To illustrate this, I want to show you the insurance application I just received.  Most companies have something called employment practices liability insurance.  This insurance helps pay legal and some settlement expenses if and (nowadays) when a company is sued by an employee for things like discrimination or harassment or any of the variety of sue-your-boss offenses California has established.  In that multi-page application, after the opening section about name and address, the very first risk-related question asks this:

They specifically ask about your California employment, and no other state, in order to evaluate your risk.

The other insurance-related result of California's regulatory enviroment is that if one is in California, it is almost impossible to get an employee practices insurance deductible under $25,000.  This turns out to be just about exactly the amount of legal costs it takes to get a nuisance suit filed with no real grounding dismissed.  It essentially means that any disgruntled ex-employee, particularly one in a protected class, can point their finger at a company without any evidence whatsoever and cost that company about $25,000 in legal expenses.  Rising minimum wages is not the only reason MacDonald's is investing so much in robotics.

Public vs. Private Management: Marketing Videos and Hot Dogs

One of the more popular features we have been experimenting with is adding aerial video of campgrounds we operate shot from small drones.  Customers love these and find them a great way to experience the campground before the commit to a visit.  Here is an example:

We have done this for all the campgrounds where we have a long-term lease and substantial leeway in operating the park.  However, we have not yet done any videos for the scores of Forest Service.  Perhaps this is why -- here is what I have to do to film a campground the FS has already contracted us to operate and market:

We ask for at least 2 weeks advance notice in order to prepare a permit and have the documentation reviewed by our aviation staff.  The proposal would need to include how your drone operations would address public safety and impacts to users in the campgrounds (I believe that you have to have people’s permission to film them so how to avoid that).  Also as you stated all activities would stay above your sites – no flights above Wilderness or the creek or adjacent canyons.   Due to listed species in the canyon, drone activity would need to occur after September 1 which is after the spotted owl breeding season.  The drone would need to be operated by a FAA licensed commercial drone operator and we would need documentation of a FAA Part 107 Remote pilots license or COA from the FAA.  In addition, we would need to have the operator coordinate with our aviation manager and provide the below information, with direction to be included in a  permit so they can get the information out to our aviation assets in the area:

All approved areas on the forest are to be used at your own risk while adhering to all FAA rules and regulations for UAS operations. Notification to the Forest Interagency Aviation Officer at least 24 hours prior to operations is required to help de-conflict airspace with fire aircraft and other forest aviation assets. Include in your notification:

  • Date, time and location of flight
  • Names and contact information of pilot(s)
  • Make and model of UAS

Fees are based on crew size, 1-10 people for video is $150/day.

Several years ago, I was at a meeting in Washington with senior leaders in the Department of Agriculture, including from the Forest Service, and from a number of other recreation agencies. (You never thought of the Department of Agriculture as a recreation agency did you?  They may have more total recreation sites (not visitation, but absolute number of locations) than Department of Interior.  Anyway, these senior leaders were talking about being more visitor-focused.  They were talking about sophisticated programs to provide all sorts of innovative visitor services, and after a while I just started laughing.  They asked me why, and I pulled up on my tablet a letter I had just received from a Forest Service District Ranger (the lowest level line officer) who denied my request to make and sell hot dogs at a store next to a busy Florida swimming hole we run.

While we appreciate your attempt to provide additional services to recreationists, this service is not consistent with current services offered in other recreation areas.  As a Forest, we would like to provide recreationists with the bare necessities to ensure that their visit is enjoyable.  The sale of hot dogs and nachos is out of that scope.

Business Ethics Discussion Topic -- Public Accommodation and the Sex Offender Registry

My company operates campgrounds on public lands under contract with various public agencies.  Over the past several years, there has been a lot of discussion about public accommodation (e.g. can a private photographer choose not to serve a gay wedding).  This has never really been a big issue for me in my business, both due to my personal tolerance of just about anyone and the fact that we operate on public lands, which gives us an extra responsibility for broad accommodation.

Yesterday a sheriff's deputy in Arizona comes by one of the campgrounds we operate and gave a flyer to our manager.  It says that so-and-so, we will call him Mr. Smith, is in the area and is registered as a level 3 high-risk sex offender ("level 3 is the highest level and considered the highest risk to reoffense").  The deputy lets my folks know that it would be better not to do business with this guy.

Now personally, I have a lot of skepticism for the sex offender registry.  These lists sweep up a lot of people whose crimes are trivial (e.g. teenagers who had sex together or texted pictures with their girlfriends).  They assume high risk of recidivism without evidence.  Their existence dates back to a variety of molestation panics that were grossly exaggerated, and play on what I think are irrational public fears.  They can act as a substantial extra punishment beyond what they might have been charged with in court.  And they can be harsh, making it nearly impossible for someone to try to live a normal life in any community.

So the dilemma arises because this gentleman was staying in our campground at the time we received the notice.  My female manager wanted him out, as did most of my employees.  My guess is that if I polled the guests, most of them would want this guy out.  Because many people in a campground are in tents without any door or lock, they can feel particularly vulnerable.  I had never really thought about this much until we added cabins with locking doors to a campground and the early customers were disproportionately single women and women on their own with their kids.  They liked the lock.

My most telling problem is one of liability.  The state of Arizona has officially notified me that in the state's opinion this person is high-risk (whatever I might suspect his true risk may be).  If some incident were to happen, this notification would be exhibit one in the trial suing me into bankruptcy, arguing that I callously and knowingly allowed this risk to remain when I had it in my power to remove it.  I suppose one could argue that I probably always have people on the sex offender list in one of our campgrounds almost every day since there is no reasonable way to check on such things.  But in this case I have been notified in writing by an agent of the state that this person is considered high risk -- this knowledge gives me added responsibility.

I made my decision already, because part of the joy of running a 24/7/365 service business with 2.5 million customers a year is that I have many decisions like this and I have to make a choice and move on.  But I am curious what your decision would be.  Discuss.

Update:  wow, the discussion here is just tremendously useful.   The commenter who observed that I could probably be sued either way successfully captured the flavor of my frustrations trying to run a business in the modern legal environment.

It struck me later that I might not even have a decision to make.   The Forest Service which owns the land may not even allow such folks to be excluded from public lands.  If this is the case, I can get that in writing and do what I prefer (ie not participate in the further punishment of this gentleman) but have some coverage against legal liability in the future.

How The Media Exaggerates to Scare You -- Often In Support of Growing the State

I find the WSJ to be more readable than most modern newspapers, but that does not mean it doesn't play exactly the same silly media games every other media outlet does.

This article is about a legitimately dangerous dam in California that is being rebuilt to accommodate new learning about how earthen dams behave in seismic events.  The authors attempt to extrapolate from this example to highlight a larger threat to the nation.  They use this chart:

A reader who is not careful and does not read the fine print, which means probably most all of them, will assume that "dangerous" and "hazardous" as used in this chart refers to dams that are somehow deficient.  But in fact, these terms in this chart refer only to the fact that IF a particular dam were to fail, people and property might be at risk.  The data here say nothing about whether these dams are somehow deficient.  Actually, if anything, I am surprised the number by this definition is as small as 30%.

The actual number of deficient dams that are dangerous to human life is actually an order of magnitude smaller than these numbers, as given in the text:

An estimated 27,380 or 30% of the 90,580 dams listed in the latest 2016 National Inventory of Dams are rated as posing a high or significant hazard. Of those, more than 2,170 are considered deficient and in need of upgrading, according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The inventory by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t break out which ones are deficient.

So if we accept the ASCE numbers as valid (and I am always skeptical of their numbers, they tend to exaggerate in order to try to generate business for their profession) the actual numbers of dams that are really hazardous is no more than 2,170.  That strikes me as a reasonably high number, and certainly a good enough reason to write a story, but the media simply cannot help themselves and insist on exaggerating every risk higher than it is.

Update on My Letter to Princeton

Part of what I wrote to Princeton:

left-leaning kids ... today can sail through 16 years of education without ever encountering a contrary point of view. Ironically, it is kids on the Left who are being let down the most, raised intellectually as the equivalent of gazelles in a petting zoo rather than wild on the Serengeti.

Princeton gazelle student writing in the Daily Princetonian:

In the morning, I woke up to a New York Times news alert and social media feeds filled with disappointment. The United States had democratically elected a man who, among so many other despicable qualities and policies, is accused of and boasts about committing sexual assault. As a woman passionate about gender equality, women’s leadership, and ending sexual violence; as someone dedicated to the Clinton campaign and ready to make history; and, quite frankly, as a human being, I didn’t know how to process this. I still don’t. I felt for my friends and anyone who feels that this result puts their safety and their loved ones’ safety at risk, acknowledging that I am not the person this outcome will affect the most.

I didn’t leave my room Wednesday morning. I sat and sobbed and I still have the tissues all over my floor to prove it. When I absolutely had to get up for class, I put on my “Dare to say the F-word: Feminism” t-shirt and my “A woman belongs in the House and the Senate” sweatshirt to make myself feel stronger. Still crying, I left my room.

After hearing the election results, I had expected that the vandal would have torn down my angry note or left some snide comment. To my surprise, it was still there, and people had left supportive notes beside it. I have no idea whether the vandal is a Trump supporter or a misguided prankster unable to fathom the negative impact that a Trump presidency will have on so many people. But I know that the love and kindness others anonymously left gave me the support I needed Wednesday morning.

In every election since I was about 18 years old, I woke up on the day after the election to a President-elect I did not support, one who championed policies I thought to be misguided or even dangerous.   But I had the mental health to go on with my life;  and I had the knowledge, from a quality western history education (which no longer seems to be taught in high school or at Princeton), that our government was set up to be relatively robust to bad presidents; and I had the understanding, because I ate and drank and went to class and lived with many other students with whom I disagreed (rather than hiding in rubber room safe spaces created by my tribe), that supporters of other political parties were not demons, but were good and well-intentioned people with whom I disagreed.

What Uber Drivers Seeking Minimum Wage Are Missing

Via Engadget:

Uber drivers have won an employment tribunal case in the UK, making them entitled to holiday pay, paid rest breaks and the National Minimum Wage. The ride-hailing company has long argued that its chauffeurs are self-employed contractors, not employees; the tribunal disagreed, however, setting a major precedent for the company and its relationship with workers. GMB, the union for professional drivers in the UK, initiated the two "test cases" in July. It's described the decision as a "monumental victory" that will impact "over 30,000 drivers" in England and Wales.

"Uber drivers and thousands of others caught in the bogus self-employment trap will now enjoy the same rights as employees," Maria Ludkin, GMB's legal director said. "This outcome will be good for passengers too. Properly rewarded drivers are the same side of the coin as drivers who are properly licensed and driving well maintained and insured vehicles."

This misses a couple of things

  1. This might well kill Uber, such that the only "victory" here is that drivers have one less employment option and choice of work style.  The latter is perhaps the most important -- why does every single job have to be punch-in-punch-out with standard benefits and holidays and work hours and work rules?  Why is there no room for a diversity of work experiences from which to choose?
  2. One of the things that many Uber drivers like about Uber is that there are no set work hours or productivity expectations.  Well, that goes out the window with these rules.  Today, if Uber pays drivers only based on what they work, they don't really care how hard they work or how many jobs they take or where they choose to cruise or even if they choose to cruise at unproductive hours, like 5AM.  Currently, if you want to drive back and forth on a country lane at 4:30AM waiting for a fare, you can go for it -- you are taking the risk.  But if the company is paying minimum wage per hour, everything changes.  Suddenly they must now demand minimum productivity expectations, which will include limits on working in unproductive locations or at unproductive hours.  The company will start to rank drivers and cut the lowest productivity / lowest activity ones.

I went into these issues in more depth here.

Leveraging Up The World in Good Times -- The Madness of Modern Central Banking

From the WSJ:

The European Central Bank’s corporate-bond-buying program has stirred so much action in credit markets that some investment banks and companies are creating new debt especially for the central bank to buy.

In two instances, the ECB has bought bonds directly from European companies through so-called private placements, in which debt is sold to a tight circle of buyers without the formality of a wider auction.

It is a startling example of how banks and companies are quickly adapting to the extremes of monetary policy in what is an already unconventional age. In the past decade, wide-scale purchases of government bonds—a bid to lower the cost of borrowing in the economy and persuade investors to take more risk—have become commonplace. Central banks more recently have moved to negative interest rates, flipping on their head the ancient customs of money lending. Now, they are all but inviting private actors to concoct specific things for them to buy so they can continue pumping money into the financial system.

The ECB doesn’t directly instruct companies to create specific bonds. But it makes plain that it is an eager purchaser, and it lays out the specifics of its wish list. And the ECB isn’t alone: The Bank of Japan said late last year it would buy exchange-traded funds comprising shares of companies that spend a growing amount on “physical and human capital,” essentially steering fund managers to make such ETFs available to buy.

Note that none of the criteria for the debt purchases is anything like, "the company has sensible plans for investing the money."  It is merely buying debt for debt's sake.  In the US, private companies are using most of their debt issues to buy back stock, a nearly pointless exercise that channels money from central banks to propping up equity valuations.  I wouldn't be surprised if European companies do the same.

Folks, it may not feel like it, but we are at the top of the economic cycle.   We have negative interest rates and central banks buying up every available debt issues in relatively good times, when these were formerly considered tools for the deepest point in a recession.  I am not a big believer in government stimulus, but these folks are.  What are they counting on in the bad times, when nothing will be left in the tank?

But now, we see central banks going one step further, encouraging private companies to lever up at the top of the business cycle.   Historically, this has been a formula for disaster.  The oil industry has been a preview of this.  Take ExxonMobil (XOM).  XOM, given its size, has never been very good at developing certain sorts of plays (e.g. the shale boom).  What it has done historically is use its size and balance sheet to swoop in during inevitable periods of low oil prices and producer losses to buy up developed fields at good prices.  But this time around, XOM has only had limited ability to do this, because it spent the boom years levering up its balance sheet and buying back stock.  Other large oil companies are in even more dire straights, facing real cash flow crises because, again, they levered up to repurchase stock when they should have been cleaning up their balance sheet.

China Doesn't Kill American Jobs, Politicians Do

I am simply exhausted with the notion that seems to have taken over both political parties that trade with China is somehow the source of US economic woes.

Remember that voluntary trade can't happen unless both parties are benefiting from each trade.  Remember the masses of academic evidence that the (largely hard to see) benefits of trade in terms of lower costs and more choice tend to be greater than the (easier to see) job losses in a few trade-affected industries.  But even if none of that is compelling to you, consider that our trade deficit with China is just 2% of GDP.  It's almost a rounding error.

If politicians want to know why lower-skilled laborers struggle to find employment, they need to look past imports from China and Mexican immigration and look at their own policies that are making it more and more expensive for businesses to hire people in this country.   I have written about this many times before, but some of the most prominent include:

  • minimum wage laws, rising to $15 an hour in many parts of the country, and increasingly draconian overtime rules, both of which substantially raise the cost of hiring someone.
  • minimum benefit laws, including expensive health care requirements in Obamacare and a myriad of other state-level requirements such as mandatory paid sick leave or family leave
  • payroll taxes that act as sales taxes on labor  -- we understand that cigarette taxes are supposed to reduce cigarette purchases but don't understand that payroll taxes reduce purchases of labor?
  • employment regulations, such as chair laws and break laws in California, that make employing people more expensive and risky
  • employer liability laws, that make employers financially responsible for any knuckleheaded thing their employees do, even when these actions violate company policy (e.g. making racist or sexist statements)**
  • laws that make hiring far more risk, including those that limit the ability to do due diligence on potential employees (e.g. ban the box) and those that limit the ability of employers to fire poor performing employees.

And this is just employment law -- we could go on all day with regulations that make life difficult for lower income workers, such as the numerous laws that restrict the housing stock and drive up housing prices and rents for these same folks who are struggling to find a job.

Let's say you live in California.  Who has killed more jobs in your state -- China or the California legislature?  The answer is no contest.   The California legislature wins the job destruction race in a landslide.   While California's high-tech community enjoys a symbiotic relationship with China that has created immense wealth, the California legislature works overtime to make sure low-skilled workers in the state don't benefit.

 

**Postscript:  Of all the factors here, I won't say that this is the largest but I think it is the most underrated and least discussed.  But think about it.  If you are going to be personally financially libel for ignorant, insensitive, or uncouth remarks made by your employees, even when you have explicitly banned such behavior in company rules and don't personally tolerate it, how likely are you going to be to hire a high school dropout without a good work history to interact with customers?

Tesla and SolarCity: Two Drunks Propping Each Other Up

This is honestly one of the weirdest acquisition proposals I have seen in a long time:  Elon Musk's Tesla offers to buy Elon Musk's Solar City.

This makes zero business sense to me.    This is from the press release:

We would be the world’s only vertically integrated energy company offering end-to-end clean energy products to our customers. This would start with the car that you drive and the energy that you use to charge it, and would extend to how everything else in your home or business is powered. With your Model S, Model X, or Model 3, your solar panel system, and your Powerwall all in place, you would be able to deploy and consume energy in the most efficient and sustainable way possible, lowering your costs and minimizing your dependence on fossil fuels and the grid.

I am sure there are probably some hippy-dippy green types that nod their head and say that this is an amazing idea, but any business person is going to say this is madness.  It makes no more sense than to say GM should buy an oil production company.  These companies reach customers through different channels, they have completely different sales models, and people buy their products at completely different times and have no need to integrate these two purchases.  It is possible there may be some overlap in customers (virtue-signalling rich people) but you could get at this by having some joint marketing agreements, you don't need an acquisition.  Besides, probably the last thing that people's solar panels will ever be used for is charging cars, since cars tend to charge in the garage at night when solar isn't producing.

One might argue that some of the technologies are the same, and I suppose some of the battery and electricity management tech overlaps.  But again, a simple sourcing agreement or a battery JV would likely be sufficient.

So what do these companies share?  I can think of three things.

The first is Elon Musk.   When one sees a deal like this, one is immediately suspicious that there is some kind of game going on where the owner combines holding A with holding B and somehow in the combination ends up with more wealth.  This is a game conglomerates played in the 1960's -- you could create a lot of (paper) value if you had a high PE (stock price to earnings ratio) company and went around buying low PE companies, instantly creating paper wealth if you could buy their earnings cheap and then have them suddenly valued at your higher PE.   Its hard to guess if this sort of game is going on here, as neither company has earnings (or rather both lose a lot of money).   Further, I have no read on Mr. Musk's personal ethics.  If this were Donald Trump, we would all immediately be suspicious such a game was at play.

The second thing these two companies share is that they have business models based on consuming massive amounts of government subsidies.  They get subsidies directly (each by selling various sorts of tax credits or fuel economy credits to power companies and auto makers), they have both gotten sweetheart deals from governments for production facilities, and their customers get subsidized as well in the purchase.  However, while there certainly are economies of scale for cronyism (large companies have the pull to get the loot), I shudder to think that there might be even more for these two companies to grab if they were larger.

The third thing these two companies share is that they both have huge financing needs, are losing lots of money, and are burning through tons of cash.   And here I think is the real heart of this deal, and if I am right, we may be able to answer the question on Elon Musk's ethics.  While both companies are burning through cash and are constantly going out to the market for more money, Tesla still has a (not totally justified in my mind) fabulous reputation with investors** and people seem to be falling over themselves to throw money at it.  With Apple languishing and Google old news, there is no hipper, trendier company out there.   On the other hand, SolarCity is starting to suck wind.  A few months back JP Morgan downgraded the stock:

SolarCity is having trouble attracting new investors, as the company has launched and canceled programs and altered its accounting methods, JPMorgan wrote in a note, according to MarketWatch.

Additionally, some of SolarCity's lower-income customers could be at risk of "slow-pay or default in the event of an economic downturn," the firm continued.

...SolarCity's weaknesses include its generally high debt management risk, weak operating cash flow, generally disappointing historical performance in the stock itself and poor profit margins.

They are also seeing more competition from local contractors and, perhaps most worrisome for their business model, various government subsidies are being scaled back and many states are changing their power metering rules to pay customers only the wholesale rate, rather than the retail rate, for power they put back in the grid.  They have said in most of their annual reports as a risk that their business model likely would not be viable (if it could be called that even today) without current or higher levels of government subsidies.

I have no inside information here, but this is the best hypothesis I can put together for this deal.  SolarCity has huge cash needs to continue to grow at the same time its operating margins are shrinking (or getting more negative).  They are having trouble finding investors to provide the cash.  But hey!  Our Chairman Elon Musk is also Chairman of this other company called Tesla whom investors line up to invest in.  Maybe Tesla can be our investor!

The reason I call this two drunks propping each other up is that Tesla also is also burning cash like crazy.  It is OK for now as long as it has access to the capital markets, but if it suddenly lost that, Tesla would survive less than 6 months on what it has on hand.  Remember, SolarCity was a golden child just 3 years ago, just like Tesla is today.  Or if you really don't believe that high-flying companies that depend on access to the capital markets can go belly up in the snap of a finger when they lose their luster with investors, I have one word for you:  Enron.

There is a substantial minority of the investment community that thinks that Tesla's headed for chapter 11, even before taking on the SolarCity albatross.  Here is one academic paper.  Here is another such opinion.  Non-GAAP reporting has proliferated like a cancer among public companies, with so many creative non-GAAP numbers that I am not sure the Enron folks would go to jail nowadays.  Tesla is a master of this game.    Even if Tesla is not headed for chapter 11, the absolute last thing Tesla needs to be doing is taking on a new acquisition that burns a lot of cash, while simultaneously diluting their management focus.

When I watch SpaceX launches, I so want to love Elon Musk.  But I am increasingly convinced that this is a terrible deal, an insider game he is playing to try to keep one of his investments alive.  I am seldom a fan of most minority shareholder lawsuits, but if I were a minority shareholder of Tesla I would be suing to block this acquisition.

By the way, many investors must be reading this the same way, because SolarCity stock prices are up and Tesla stock prices are down (at lot) today.

Disclosure:  I have been short Tesla for a while.  I shorted SolarCity this morning when the acquisition was announced, after its price popped up.  I consider this merger announcement as the moral equivalent of announcing that SolarCity is in financial distress.  These investments are tiny, the equivalent of a bar bet rather than any substantial investment on my part.

**Footnote:  I have to say this every time -- The Model S is a great car.  I would love to have one, if Santa put it under the tree for me.  But just because they have one great product does not mean that the company will be a success or is a great investment or that it is worth massive amounts of my tax money in subsidies.

Gruber & Rhodes: Lying Politicians Are Old News, But Bragging About it Seems To Be An Obama Innovation

Does Ben Rhodes victory lap bragging about how he pulled the wool over the eyes of a stupid and gullible America on Iran remind anyone else of Jonathon Gruber?  Remember these famous words from Gruber?

"You can't do it political, you just literally cannot do it. Transparent financing and also transparent spending. I mean, this bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes. If CBO scored the mandate as taxes the bill dies. Okay? So it’s written to do that," Gruber said. "In terms of risk rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in, you made explicit healthy people pay in and sick people get money, it would not have passed. Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really really critical to get for the thing to pass. Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not."

Even the justification is the same -- its OK to break the law and lie about it in order to break up gridlock.  (By the way, my mother-in-law -- who tends to be a reliable gauge of mainstream Democratic thinking -- argued the same thing with me, that extra-Constitutional Presidential actions were justified if Congress did not accomplish enough.   Asked about whether she was comfortable with the same power in a Trump administration, she was less sanguine about the idea).

While political lying is old as time, it strikes me that this bragging about it is a new phenomena.  It reminds me of the end of the movie "Wag the Dog", when the Dustin Hoffman character refused to accept that no one would ever know how he manipulated the public into believing there had been a war, and wanted to publicly take the credit.  In the movie, the Administration had Hoffman's character knocked off, because it was counter-productive to reveal the secret, but I wonder if in reality Obama is secretly pleased.

Probability of A Stock Market Correction

The Wall Street Journal has a good article on investor sentiment, relying heavily on the work by Robert Shiller.  He argues that investor sentiment looks much more like a hindcast than a forecast.  In other words, investors tend to be optimistic after the market just rose, and pessimistic after the market just fell.

The more stocks go up and the faster they rise, the more likely you become to expect more of the same. And when they go down, your expectations fall with them. Investors are often told not to get caught up in other people’s emotions — but it’s at least as important not to get swept away by your own.

New research hammers that point home. Finance professors William Goetzmann and Robert Shiller of Yale, along with Dasol Kim of Case Western Reserve University, have analyzed the Yale surveys and found that investors’ forecasts regularly look more like aftercasts — simple projections of the recent past into the future.

I have no reason not to believe this to be true.

But I think there is something a little wrong with this logic:

You can ask yourself one of the key questions: What are the odds of a one-day crash of at least 12% in the U.S. stock market over the next six months?

You probably answered at least 10% — even though that is roughly 10 times the likely chance of a disastrous daily crash in the coming six months, based on the historical record. (The 87 years from 1929 through 2015 consisted of 174 six-month periods. But, with only two single-day crashes of at least 12% over that span, such declines occurred in just over 1% of the half-year periods.)

Remarkably, professional investors exaggerate the odds almost as badly as individual investors do. Over time, both groups overall have tended to put the odds of a crash at around 20%, with the institutional investors’ estimates ranging only about one to three percentage points below that.

Again, I have no problem with the statement that most people, in a given year, overestimate the chance of a stock market crash.  20%, for any random year, is likely a high estimate.   But that is not the same as saying it is a high estimate for this year.  One could argue that we know more about our current year than to treat it simply as a random year.  For example:

  • We are in the midst of what is soon to be the 2nd longest bull market in the market's history.  Are the odds of a significant correction higher on a particular day 2500 days into a bull market than on a random day in history?
  • Stock prices have risen faster than earning for 5 years.  Is a market correction more likely in that environment than on a random day?
  • Shiller's CAPE is close to the third highest it has ever been, and at a level that has nearly always been followed by a large correction.  Should I treat today's risk of correction as just the last century's average or is it realistically higher?

I don't think 10-20% is a bad estimate given where we are.

Apparently Beats Headphones are Oppressive and Racist Now

Apparently Beats headphones are now a "symbol of oppression" and wearing them is grounds for being berated and perhaps attacked by protesters.

Now, I always thought Beats were over-priced and over-hyped, and thought they were mainly a marker for people who preferred brand signaling over performance (at the risk of angering some of you, I would put Louis Vuitton bags as the leader of this category of products).

Apparently, making Dr. Dre wealthy(er) from his involvement as a co-founder of the product, and enriching the bank accounts of many other hip hop artists for their endorsements, is now "oppression."  Hmm.  Well, I am happy to do a public service here and take their endorsement checks and thus the burden of this oppression off their shoulders and on to myself.  Who says we libertarians are not public spirited?

So what is next?  I can't see any particular different between Dre's involvement with Beats and Michael Jordan's involvement with Nike -- are Air Jordans the next symbol of oppression?  What am I missing here?

1997 Prediction: "Monetary union, in the end, will result in a gigantic blackmailing operation"

Arnulf Baring in 1997

"They will be subsidizing scroungers, lounging in cafes on the Mediterranean beaches.

Monetary union, in the end, will result in a gigantic blackmailing operation.

When we Germans demand monetray discipline, other countries will blame their financial woes on that same discipline, and by extension, on us. More they will perceive us as a kind of economic policeman.

We risk once again becoming the most hated people in Europe."

If We Are Using Every Stimulus Tool in the Book at the Top of the Cycle, What Are We Going To Do In The Next Downturn?

From the Telegraph

The world will be unable to fight the next global financial crash as central banks have used up their ammunition trying to tackle the last crises, the Bank for International Settlements has warned.

The so-called central bank of central banks launched a scatching critique of global monetary policy in its annual report. The BIS claimed that central banks have backed themselves into a corner after repeatedly cutting interest rates to shore up their economies.

These low interest rates have in turn fuelled economic booms, encouraging excessive risk taking. Booms have then turned to busts, which policymakers have responded to with even lower rates....

“Rather than just reflecting the current weakness, [lower rates] may in part have contributed to it by fuelling costly financial booms and busts and delaying adjustment. The result is too much debt, too little growth and too low interest rates.

"In short, low rates beget lower rates."

The BIS warned that interest rates have now been so low for so long that central banks are unequipped to fight the next crises.

Greece's Lesson for Gold Bugs

I have been predicting for years that the only solution for the Greece problem is for it to exit the Euro, go through a horrible economic crisis and deal with substantial devaluation, and then hopefully move on with a cheaper currency that makes its tourist industry look better and plugs the hole between taxing and spending with inflation.  It appears we are closer than ever to this actually happening.  The Greeks would likely be moving forward now, like Iceland, if they had taken their medicine years ago rather than try to kick the can.  Now it is just going to be worse.

I have been enamored off and on with the idea of a gold standard but Megan McArdle made some powerful points today about how the Greek situation teaches us that a gold standard doesn't necessarily impose discipline on governments.

It's easy to moralize Greece's feckless borrowing, weak tax collection and long history of default, and hey, go ahead; I won't stop you. But whatever the nation's moral failures, what we're witnessing now shows the dangers of trying to cure the problems of weak fiscal discipline with some sort of externally imposed currency regime. Greek creditors and Brussels were not the only people to joyously embrace the belief that the euro would finally force Greece to keep its financial house in order; you hear the same arguments right here at home from American gold bugs. During the ardent height of Ron Paul's popularity, I tried to explain why this doesn't work: "You don't get anything out of a gold standard that you didn't bring with you. If your government is a credible steward of the money supply, you don't need it; and if it isn't, it won't be able to stay on it long anyway."

This goes double for fiscal discipline. Moving to a fixed exchange rate protects bond-holders from one specific sort of risk: the possibility that inflation will erode the real value of your bonds. But that doesn't remove the risk. It just transforms it. Now that the government can't inflate away its debt, you instead face the risk that they are going to run out of money to pay their bills and suddenly default. That's exactly what happened to Argentina, and many other nations on various other currency regimes, from the gold standard to a currency peg. The ability to inflate the currency had gone away, but the currency regime didn't fix any of the underlying institutional problems that previous governments had solved with inflation. So bondholders protected themselves from inflation, and instead took a catastrophic haircut.

Postscript #1:  I had one issue with McArdle's piece when she writes

The only people this will be good for is people who long to vacation on the Greek Islands. If Grexit actually happens, book those plane tickets now, but hold off on the hotel. It will be cheaper in six months. Then try to enjoy it as you remember that those fabulous savings are someone else's whole life evaporating.

Hey, if Grexit occurs, you have no reason to feel guilty about taking advantage of the weak currency and low prices for a Greek vacation.  There is nothing the Greeks need more than for you to do exactly that.   It is the single best thing you could do for the Greek people.

Postscript#2:  Here is why exiting the Euro, devalutation, and inflation are the only way out for Greece at this point. Creditors allow countries to run long-term deficits and keep lending despite rising debt (see: Japan) because of a combination of a) the country can always just print the money they need; b) the country can raise taxes and take the money it needs or c) the country can keep spending flat and grow their way out from the debt.

None of these are available to Greece. They can't print money, at least without running up new debts (excess printing of Euros is automatically added to Greece's debt to the ECB).  They can't raise taxes because their citizens don't pay the taxes that already exist.  And they can't grow their way out because there is zero support for austerity or market-based reforms that would be necessary, and besides a huge portion of Greek deficit spending is for inherently unproductive activities.  At this point Greece's only option is charity, that the other countries of the EU will forgive debt or write them new debt, either to be nice or to avoid bad precedents with other PIGS countries.  But  the EU seems at the end of its charity rope, and besides given zero prospects of any sort of Greek recovery, even after a major write-off of debt the EU would be in the position of still having to send Greece new money for its new debts.

Beware Credit Card Terminal Leasing, Particularly From Transfirst

We have about 20 retail locations with credit card terminals.  Typically, I have always bought the terminals because leasing is such a crazy bad deal.   For example, Transfirst will lease you (via their partner First Data Global Leasing, or FDGL) a Hypercom 4220 for about $32 a month on a 48-month lease.   That is about $1536 in payments total.  Right now you can buy the same Hypercom 4220 invthis lease for about $179.

But despite this,  I actually found myself talked into leasing a few of these Hypercom 4220 terminals.  I was told by Transfirst (the merchant company) that a technology transformation was coming (this was true) and that the advantage of leasing was that if the terminals become obsolete, they will be upgraded automatically (this turned out to be a lie).

Note that this was stupid, stupid, stupid on my part.  I admit it.  I could have still bought them and have been better off after 6 months, even if it became obsolete, than leasing.  Mea culpa.  My only excuse is that I had developed a lot of trust in my old processor Solveras and didn't realize how much their customer service would change for the worse when they got bought by Transfirst.

However, the really irritating part occurred when I got an email from Transfirst saying that my Hypercom 4220's would essentially be obsolete after October, 2015 because these terminals can't handle the new chip cards (technically I could still use them, but at a serious liability risk, which is not acceptable).  So I called Transfirst and asked them what was going to happen on my equipment they leased me that they now have told me is obsolete.  They said that I could upgrade the Hypercom's on my lease to Ingenico ICT220's for a $189 fee.

Well, it turns out that Ingenico ICT220's retail for about $160.  So here was the upgrade option they offered on my lease -- I could pay more than the retail price of a new terminal in order to substitute that new terminal on my account, and having just paid for the terminal, the terminal then would become property of the leasing company and must be returned at the end of the lease, which all the while is still charging me $32 a month.

I called my sales agent, the customer support staff, the equipment transition team -- they all said the same thing.  I could not believe it.  The deal was so bad that even one of their competitors, whom I had started talking to, urged me to check with Transfirst more carefully because they could not believe Transfirst were offering such an awful arrangement.  But they were.

So I am switching merchant companies and buying all new terminals.  I will return to Transfirst all their equipment and pay off the remaining months on the lease.  It is not often that a vendor of mine is so bad that I pay substantial money to get away from them, but getting away from Transfirst justified the cost.

By the way, for merchant companies reading this, please do not add yourself, based on this post, to the 3-4 calls a day I get trying to sell me credit card processing.  I have a good deal for half my business with Bank of American, have always been happy with their service, and am moving my Transfirst business to them.

Postscript:  One piece of advice on choosing a merchant account.  When I ask for quotes on merchant services, I ask now that the bid be quoted as a spread.  Basically MC/Visa have a set of rates they charge, sort of wholesale rates everyone must pay.  There are zillions of rates for various types of cards (for example those rewards cards you love can pay you because they get a higher fee from merchants for the same transaction).  If you just get a rate quote, you will get zillions of rates and it will be almost impossible to compare against another quote, particularly if you don't know your typical mix of card types.  If you ask for a spread, e.g. 10 basis points over wholesale on all cards, you know exactly what you are getting and that there are not any bad deals buried in that rate list.  It is also really easy to compare to other quotes.

The other advantage of this is that when MC/Visa change their rates (always up) your rates just go up by the amount of the rate increase.  Without a spread deal, merchant processors can take advantage of MC/Visa rate changes to slip in a few more basis points for themselves.  How would you ever know?

Joe Arpaio and the Virtues of Dark Money

Robert Robb has an interesting piece in our paper today about the challenges in defeating even a deeply flawed Joe Arpaio in the Republican primary.  In doing so, he reminds us of some (but by no means all) of Arpaio's worst characteristics, and makes a good case for why dark money in elections makes sense:

The missing element in the anti-Arpaio coalition is actually the business community.

Arpaio's war chest doesn't have to be matched. But making the case against him would require a campaign in the $2-$3 million range, beyond the reach of what an opponent is going to be able to raise.

If Arpaio is to be defeated, the business community probably has to conclude that he's enough of a damaging menace to warrant funding an independent campaign in that range. But the money isn't the only hurdle.

With Arpaio, there's a risk of criminal investigations and bogus criminal charges if you oppose him. That's part of what makes him a damaging menace. So, any such independent campaign would likely have to be by a dark-money group that didn't disclose its contributors.

It would be fascinating to watch the dark-money scolds react to a dark-money campaign to defeat Arpaio while protecting donors against his documented retaliatory proclivities.

 

That Mysterious, Unavailable "Correct" Price

This quote from a hotel owner in Venezuela that now asks its patrons to bring their own toilet paper caught my eye:

Camacho says she refuses to buy toilet paper from the black market on principle.

“In the black market you have to pay 110 bolivares [$0.50] for a roll of toilet paper that usually costs 17 bolivares [$ 0.08] in the supermarket,” Camacho told Fusion. “We don’t want to participate in the corruption of the black market, and I don’t have four hours a day to line up for toilet paper” at a supermarket….

I see this all the time, the notion there is somehow a "correct" price that no one is willing to charge.   There is nothing real about the 17 bolivares price.  It is a fiction.  There are only two real prices in the market -- 110 bolivares PLUS any risk/penalty from breaking the law or 17 bolivares PLUS 4 hours of your personal time.  My sense is that if the legal risk of buying on the black market is low, and you knew the average order size and the value people placed on their own time, you would find these two prices converging.  But in any case, it is dumb to continue to insist that 17 bolivares is the "right" price.

Why Large Corporations Often Secretly Embrace Regulation

I wrote the other day about how Kevin Drum was confused at why broadband stocks might be rising in the wake of news that the government would regulate broadband companies as utilities.  I argued the reason was likely because investors know that such regulation blocks most innovation-based competition and tends to guarantee companies a minimum profit -- nothing to sneeze at in the Internet world where previous giants like AOL, Earthlink, and Mindspring are mostly toast.

James Taranto pointed today to an interesting Richard Eptstein quote along the same lines (though he was referring to hospitals under Obamacare):

Traditional public utility regulation applies to such services as gas, electric and water, which were supplied by natural monopolists. Left unregulated, they could charge excessive or discriminatory prices. The constitutional art of rate regulation sought to keep monopolists at competitive rates of return.

To control against the risk of confiscatory rates, the Supreme Court also required the state regulator to allow each firm to obtain a market rate of return on its invested capital, taking into account the inherent riskiness of the venture.

Skeptics: Please Relax on the Whole "Greatest Scientific Fraud of All Time" Thing

Climate skeptics are at risk of falling into the same exaggeration-trap as do alarmists.

I have written about the exaggeration of past warming by questionable manual adjustments to temperature records for almost a decade.  So I don't need to be convinced that these adjustments 1) need to be cleaned up and 2) likely exaggerate past warming.

However, this talk of the "Greatest Scientific Fraud of All Time" is just crazy.  If you are interested, I urge you read my piece from the other day for a more balanced view.  Don't stop reading without checking out #4.

These recent articles are making it sound like alarmist scientists are simply adding adjustments to past temperatures for no reason.  But there are many perfectly valid reasons surface temperature measurements have to be manually adjusted.  It is a required part of the process.  Just as the satellite data must be adjusted as well, though for different things.

So we should not be suspicious of adjustments per se.  We should be concerned about them, though, for a number of reasons:

  • In many parts of the world, like in the US, the manual adjustments equal or exceed the measured warming trend.  That means the"signal" we are measuring comes entirely from the adjustments.  That is, to put it lightly, not ideal.
  • The adjustments are extremely poorly documented and impossible for any third party to replicate (one reason the satellite record may be more trustworthy is all the adjustment code for the satellites is open source).
  • The adjustments may have a bias.  After all, most of the people doing the adjustments expect to see a warming trend historically, and so consider lack of such a trend to be an indicator the data is wrong and in need of adjustment.  This is not a conspiracy, but a normal human failing and the reason why the ability to replicate such work is important.
  • The adjustments do seem to be very aggressive in identifying any effects that might have artificially created a cooling trend but lax in finding and correcting effects that might have artificially created a warming trend.  First and foremost, the changing urban heat island effect in growing cities seems to be under-corrected  (Again there is debate on this -- the proprietors of the model believe they have fixed this with a geographic normalizing, correcting biases from nearby thermometers.  I and others believe all they are doing is mathematically smearing the error over a larger geography).

Again, I discussed all the pros and cons here.  If pushed to the wall, I would say perhaps half of the past warming in the surface temperature record is due to undercorrection of warming biases or overcorrection of cooling biases.

A Unified Theory of Poor Risk Management: What Climate Change Hysteria, the Anti-GMO Movement, and the Anti-Vaccination Movement Have in Common

After debating people online for years on issues from catastrophic man-made climate change to genetically-modified crops to common chemical hazards (e.g. BPA) to vaccination, I wanted to offer a couple quick thoughts on the common mistakes I see in evaluating risks.

1.  Poor Understanding of Risk, and of Studies that Evaluate Risk

First, people are really bad at thinking about incremental risk above and beyond the background risk  (e.g. not looking at "what is my risk of cancer" but "what is my incremental added risk from being exposed to X").  Frequently those incremental risks are tiny and hard to pick out of the background risk at any level of confidence.  They also tend to be small compared to everyday risks on which people seldom focus.  You have a far higher - almost two orders of magnitude - risk in the US of drowning in your own bathtub than you have in being subject to terrorism, but which do we obsess over?

Further, there are a lot of folks who seem all-to-ready to shoot off in a panic over any one scary study in the media.  And the media loves this, because it drives the meter on their earnings, so they bend over backwards to look for studies with scary results and then make them sound even scarier.  "Tater-tots Increase Risk of Ebola!"  But in reality, most of these scary studies never get replicated and turn out to be mistaken.  Why does this happen?

The problem is that every natural process is subject to random variation.  Even without changing the conditions of an experiment, there is going to be random variation in measurements.  For example, one population of white mice might have 6 cancers, but the next might have 12 and the next might have zero, all from natural variation.  So the challenge of most experiments is to determine whether the thing one is testing (e.g. exposure to a particular substance) is actually changing the measurements in a population, or whether that change is simply the result of random variation.  That is what the 95% confidence interval (that Naomi Oreskes wants to get rid of) really means.  It means there is only a 5% chance that the results measured were due to natural variation.

This is a useful test, but I hope you can see how it can fail.  Something like 5% of the time that one is measuring two things that actually are uncorrelated, the test is going to give you a false positive.  Let's say in a year that the world does 1000 studies to test links that don't actually exist.  Just from natural variation, 5% of these studies will still seem to show a link at the 95% confidence level.  We will have 50 studies that year broadcasting false links.  The media will proceed to scare the crap out of you over these 50 things.

I have never seen this explained better than in this XKCD cartoon (click to enlarge):

click to enlarge

All of this is just exacerbated when there is fraud involved, an unfortunate but not unknown occurrence when reputations and large academic grants are on the line.  This is why replication of the experiment is important.   Do the study a second time, and all but 2-3 of these 50 "false positive" studies will fail to replicate the original results.  Do it three times, and all will likely fail to replicate.   This, for example, is exactly what happened with the vaccine-autism link -- it came out in one study with a really small population and some evidence of fraud, and was never replicated.

2.  The Precautionary Principle vs. the Unseen, with a Dollop of Privilege Thrown In

When pressed to the wall too hard about the size and quality of the risk assessment, most folks subject to these panics will fall back on the "precautionary principle".   I am not a big fan of the precautionary principle, so I will let Wikipedia define it so I don't create a straw man:

The precautionary principle or precautionary approach to risk management states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action.

I will observe that as written, this principle is inherently anti-progress.  The proposition requires that folks who want to introduce new innovations must prove a negative, and it is very hard to prove a negative -- how do I prove there are no invisible aliens in my closet who may come out and eat me someday, and how can I possibly get a scientific consensus to this fact?  As a result, by merely expressing that one "suspects" a risk (note there is no need listed for proof or justification of this suspicion), any advance may be stopped cold.  Had we followed such a principle consistently, we would still all be subsistence farmers, vassals to our feudal lord.

One other quick note before I proceed, it turns out that proponents of the precautionary principle are very selective as to where they apply the principle.  They feel like it absolutely must be applied to fossil fuel burning, or BPA use, or GMO's.  But precautionary principle supporters never apply it in turn to, say, major new government programs and regulations and economic interventions, despite many historically justified concerns about the risks of these programs.

But neither of these is necessarily the biggest problem with the precautionary principle.  The real problem is that it focuses on only one side of the equation -- it says that risks alone justify stopping any action or policy without any reference at all to benefits of that policy or opportunity costs of its avoidance.   A way of restating the precautionary principle is, "when faced with risks and benefits of a certain proposal, look only at the risks."

Since the precautionary principle really hit the mainstream with the climate change debate, I will use that as an example.  Contrary to media appellations of being a "denier," most science-based climate skeptics like myself accept that man is adding to greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and that those gasses have an incremental warming effect on the planet.  What we deny is the catastrophe -- we believe we have good evidence that catastrophic forecasts from computer models are exaggerating future warming, and greatly exaggerating resulting forecast climate changes.  Whenever I am fairly successful making this argument, the inevitable rejoinder is "well, the precautionary principle says that if we have even a small percentage chance that burning fossil fuels will lead to a climate disaster, then we have to limit their use immediately".

The problem with this statement is that it assumes there is no harm or risk to reducing fossil fuel use.  But fossil fuel use pays enormous benefits to everyone in the world.  Even if we could find near substitutes that don't create CO2 emissions (and it is every much open to debate if such substitutes currently exist), these substitutes tend to be much more expensive and much more infrastructure-intensive than are fossil fuels.  The negative impact to the economy would be substantial.  One could argue that one particular impact -- climate or economy -- outweighs the other, but it is outright fraud to refuse to discuss the trade-off altogether.   Particularly since catastrophic climate change may only be a low-percentage risk while economic dislocation from reduction in fossil fuel use is a near certainty.

My sense is that if the United States chose to cut way back on fossil fuel use in a concerted effort, we could manage it and survive the costs.  But that is because we are a uniquely rich nation.  I am not sure anyone in this country understands how rich.  I am not talking just about Warren Buffet.  Even the poorest countries have a few rich people at the top.  I am talking about everybody.  Our poorest 20% would actually be among the richest quintile in many nations of the world.   A worldwide effort to eliminate fossil fuel use or to substantially raise its costs or to force shifts to higher cost, less easily-used alternatives  would simply devastate many developing nations, which need every erg their limited resources can get their hands on.  We are at a unique moment in history when more than a billion people are in the process of emerging from poverty around the world, progress that would be stopped in its tracks by a concerted effort to limit CO2 output.   Why doesn't the precautionary principle apply to actions that affect their lives?

College kids have developed a popular rejoinder they use in arguments that states "check your privilege."  I thought at first it was an interesting phrase.  I used it in arguments a few times about third world "sweat shops".  I argued that those who wanted to close down the Nike factory paying $1 an hour in China needed to check their privilege -- they had no idea what alternatives those Chinese who took the Nike jobs were facing.  Yes, you middle class Americans would never take that job, but what if your alternative was 12 hours a day in a rice paddy somewhere that barely brought in enough food for your family to subsist?  Only later, I learned that "check your privilege" didn't mean what I thought it meant, and in fact in actual academic use it instead means "shut up, white guy."  In a way, though, this use is consistent with how the precautionary principle is often used -- in many of my arguments, "precautionary principle" is another way of saying "stop talking about the costs and trade-offs of what I am proposing."

Perhaps the best example of the damage that can be wrought by a combination of Western middle class privilege and the precautionary principle is the case of golden rice.  According to the World Health Organization between 250,000 to 500,000 children become blind every year due to vitamin A deficiency, half of whom die within a year of becoming blind. Millions of other people suffer from various debilitating conditions due to the lack of this essential nutrient.  Golden Rice is a genetically modified form of rice that, unlike conventional rice, contains beta-Carotene in the rice kernel, which is converted to vitamin A in humans.

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A–producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a non-profit organization, so there would be no resistance to the life-saving technology from GMO opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

Seems like a great idea.  Too bad its going nowhere, due to fierce opposition on the Left (particularly from Greenpeace) to hypothetical dangers from GMO's

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology. Now two agricultural economists, one from the Technical University of Munich, the other from the University of California, Berkeley, have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

Their study, published in the journalEnvironment and Development Economics, estimates that the delayed application of Golden Rice in India alone has cost 1,424,000 life years since 2002. That odd sounding metric – not just lives but ‘life years’ – accounts not only for those who died, but also for the blindness and other health disabilities that Vitamin A deficiency causes. The majority of those who went blind or died because they did not have access to Golden Rice were children.

Note this is exactly the sort of risk tradeoff the precautionary principle is meant to ignore.  The real situation is that a vague risk of unspecified and unproven problems with GMO's (which are typically driven more by a distrust on the Left of the for-profit corporations that produce GMO's rather than any good science) should be balanced with absolute certainty of people dying and going blind.  But the Greenpeace folks will just shout that because of the "precautionary principle", only the vague unproven risks should be considered and thus golden rice should be banned.

Risk and Post-Modernism

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Naomi Oreskes and the post-modern approach to science, where facts and proof take a back-seat to political narratives and the feelings and intuition of various social groups.  I hadn't really thought much about this post-modernist approach in the context of risk assessment, but I was struck by this comment by David Ropeik, who blogs for Scientific American.

The whole GMO issue is really just one example of a far more profound threat to your health and mine. The perception of risk is inescapably subjective, a matter of not just the facts, but how we feel about those facts. As pioneering risk perception psychologist Paul Slovic has said, “risk is a feeling.” So societal arguments over risk issues like Golden Rice and GMOs, or guns or climate change or vaccines, are not mostly about the evidence, though we wield the facts as our weapons. They are mostly about how we feel, and our values, and which group’s values win, not what will objectively do the most people the most good. That’s a dumb and dangerous way to make public risk management decisions.

Mr. Ropeik actually disagrees with me on the risk/harm tradeoffs of climate change (he obviously thinks the harms outweigh the costs of prevention -- I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he has actually thought about both sides of the equation).  Fine.  I would be thrilled for once to have a discussion with someone about climate change when we are really talking about costs and benefits on both sides of the equation (action and inaction).  Unfortunately that is all too rare.

Postscript:  To the extent the average person remembers Bjorn Lomborg at all, they could be excused for assuming he is some crazed right-wing climate denier, given how he was treated in the media.  In fact, Lomborg is very much a global warming believer.  He takes funding from Right-ish organizations now, but that is only because he has been disavowed by the Left, which was his original home.

What he did was write a book in which he looked at a number of environmental problems -- both their risks and costs as well as their potential mitigation costs -- and he ranked them on bang for the buck:  Where can we get the most environmental benefit and help the most people for the least investment.  The book talked about what he thought were the very real dangers of climate change, but it turned out climate change was way down this ranked list in terms of benefits vs. costs of solutions.

This is a point I have made before.  Why are we spending so much time, for example, harping on China to reduce CO2 when their air is poisonous?  We know how to have a modern technological economy and still have air without soot.  It is more uncertain if we can have a modern technological economy, yet, without CO2 production.   Lomborg thought about just this sort of thing, and made the kind of policy risk-reward tradeoffs based on scientific analysis that we would hope our policy makers were pursuing.  It was exactly the kind of analysis that Ropeik was advocating for above.

Lomborg must have expected that his work would be embraced by the environmental Left.  After all, it was scientific, it achnowleged the existence of a number of environmental issues that needed to be solved, and it advocated for a strong government-backed effort led by smart technocrats doing rational prioritizations.  But Lomborg was absolutely demonized by just about everyone in the environmental community and on the Left in general.  He was universally trashed.  He was called a climate denier when in fact he was no such thing -- he just pointed out that man-made climate change was way harder to solve than other equally harmful environmental issues.  Didn't he get the memo that the narrative was that global warming was the #1 environmental threat?  How dare he suggest a re-prioritization!

Lomborg's prioritization may well have been wrong, but no one was actually sitting down to make that case.  He was simply demonized from day one for getting the "wrong" answer, defined as the answer not fitting the preferred narrative.  We are a long, long way from any reasonable ability to assess and act on risks.

Good God, is There No Indignity Too Trivial For Government Officials to Regulate?

The Business Secretary of the UK is desperately worried that when travelling to other countries, Brits will encounter a different selection of Netflix programming from what they are used to at home.  This trivial issue seems to demand a whole new regulatory and copyright regime:

Vince Cable will risk a clash with the film and music industries on Tuesday by calling for the creation of a single EU market for digital services such as Netflix.

The Business Secretary will say in a speech in Brussels that such services should offer the same content in all EU member states, for services paid for in one country to be available in the same form in all countries and for pricing offers to be replicated across the continent.

At present Netflix and Spotify, which operates a subscription streaming service for music, offers different catalogues at different prices depending on where the customer is located.

Harmonising such services across the EU would require copyright holders to change the way they license their material, which is currently carefully segmented for different geographic markets to maximise sales

Whenever Euro-regulators suggest harmonization across countries, they always assume that harmonization will lead to everyone adopting whatever the lowest current rate and broadest service offering that  exists in any one country.  But why?  That pretty much never happens.  It is at least as likely that anyone getting harmonized will get worse service at a higher price.

Explaining the Financial Crisis: Government Creation of a Financial Investment Mono-culture

Arnold Kling on the recent financial crisis:

1. The facts are that one can just as easily blame the financial crash on an attempted tightening of regulation. That is, in the process of trying to rein in bank risk-taking by adopting risk-based capital regulations, regulators gave preference to highly-rated mortgage-backed securities, which in turn led to the manufacturing of such securities out of sub-prime loans.

2. The global imbalances that many of us thought were a bigger risk factor than the housing bubble did not in fact blow up the way that we thought that they would. The housing bubble blew up instead.

What he is referring to is a redefinition by governments in the Basel accords of how capital levels at banks should be calculated when determining capital sufficiency.  I will oversimplify here, but basically it categorized some assets as "safe" and some as "risky".  Those that were risky had their value cut in half for purposes of capital calculations, while those that were "safe" had their value counted at 100%.  So if a bank invested a million dollars in safe assets, that would count as a million dollar towards its capital requirements, but would count only $500,000 towards those requirements if it were invested in risky assets.  As a result, a bank that needed a billion dollars in capital would need a billion of safe assets or two billion of risky assets.

Well, this obviously created a strong incentive for banks to invest in assets deemed by the government as "safe".  Which of course was the whole point -- if we are going to have taxpayer-backed deposit insurance and bank bailouts, the prices of that is getting into banks' shorts about the risks they are taking with their investments.  This is the attempted tightening of regulation to which Kling refers.  Regulators were trying for tougher, not weaker standards.

But any libertarian could tell you the problem that is coming here -- the regulatory effort was substituting the risk judgement of thousands or millions of people (individual bank and financial investors) for the risk judgement of a few regulators.  There is no guarantee, in fact no reason to believe, the judgement of these regulators is any better than the judgement of the banks.  Their incentives might be different, but there is also not any guarantee the regulators' incentives are better (the notion they are driven by the "public good" is a cozy myth that never actually occurs in reality).

Anyway, what assets did the regulators choose as "safe"?  Again, we will simplify, but basically sovereign debt and mortgages (including the least risky tranches of mortgage-backed debt).  So you are a bank president in this new regime.  You only have enough capital to meet government requirements if you get 100% credit for your investments, so it must be invested in "safe" assets.  What do you tell your investment staff?  You tell them to go invest the money in the "safe" asset that has the highest return.

And for most banks, this was mortgage-backed securities.  So, using the word Brad DeLong applied to deregulation, there was an "orgy" of buying of mortgage-backed securities.  There was simply enormous demand.  You hear stories about fraud and people cooking up all kinds of crazy mortgage products and trying to shove as many people as possible into mortgages, and here is one reason -- banks needed these things.  For the average investor, most of us stayed out.   In the 1980's, mortgage-backed securities were a pretty good investment for individuals looking for a bit more yield, but these changing regulations meant that banks needed these things, so the prices got bid up (and thus yields bid down) until they only made sense for the financial institutions that had to have them.

It was like suddenly passing a law saying that the only food people on government assistance could buy with their food stamps was oranges and orange derivatives (e.g. orange juice).  Grocery stores would instantly be out of oranges and orange juice.  People around the world would be scrambling to find ways to get more oranges to market.  Fortunes would be made by clever people who could find more oranges.  Fraud would likely occur as people watered down their orange derivatives or slipped in some Tang.  Those of us not on government assistance would stay away from oranges and eat other things, since oranges were now incredibly expensive and would only be bought at their current prices by folks forced to do so.  Eventually, things would settle down as everyone who could do so started to grow oranges. And all would be fine again, that is until there was a bad freeze and the orange crop failed.

Government regulation -- completely well-intentioned -- had created a mono-culture.  The diversity of investment choices that might be present when every bank was making its own asset risk decisions was replaced by a regime where just a few regulators picked and chose the assets.  And like any biological mono-culture, the ecosystem might be stronger for a while if those choices were good ones, but it made the whole system vulnerable to anything that might undermine mortgages.  When the housing market got sick (and as Kling says government regulation had some blame there as well), the system was suddenly incredibly vulnerable because it was over-invested in this one type of asset.  The US banking industry was a mono-culture through which a new disease ravaged the population.

Postscript:  So with this experience in hand, banks moved out of mortage-backed securities and into the last "safe" asset, sovereign debt.  And again, bank presidents told their folks to get the best possible yield in "safe" assets.  So banks loaded up on sovereign debt, in particular increasing the demand for higher-yield debt from places like, say, Greece.  Which helps to explain why the market still keeps buying up PIIGS debt when any rational person would consider these countries close to default.  So these countries continue their deficit spending without any market check, because financial institutions keep buying this stuff because it is all they can buy.  Which is where we are today, with a new monoculture of government debt, which government officials swear is the last "safe" asset.  Stay tuned....

Postscript #2:  Every failure and crisis does not have to be due to fraud and/or gross negligence.  Certainly we had fraud and gross negligence, both by private and public parties.  But I am reminded of a quote which I use all the time but to this day I still do not know if it is real.  In the great mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", the actor playing astronaut Frank Borman says to a Congressional investigation, vis a vis the fatal Apollo 1 fire, that it was "a failure of imagination."  Engineers hadn't even considered the possibility of this kind of failure on the ground.

In the same way, for all the regulatory and private foibles associated with the 2008/9 financial crisis, there was also a failure of imagination.  There were people who thought housing was a bubble.  There were people who thought financial institutions were taking too much risk.  There were people who thought mortgage lending standards were too lax.  But with few exceptions, nobody from progressive Marxists to libertarian anarcho-capitalists, from regulators to bank risk managers, really believed there was substantial risk in the AAA tranches of mortgage securities.  Hopefully we know better now but I doubt it.

Update#1:  The LA Times attributes "failure of imagination" as a real quote from Borman.  Good, I love that quote.  When I was an engineer investigating actual failures of various sorts (in an oil refinery), the vast majority were human errors in procedure or the result of doing things unsafely that we really knew in advance to be unsafe.  But the biggest fire we had when I was there was truly a failure of imagination.  I won't go into it, but it resulted from a metallurgical failure that in turn resulted form a set of conditions that we never dreamed could have existed.

By the way, this is really off topic, but the current state of tort law has really killed quality safety discussion in companies of just this sort of thing.  Every company should be asking itself all the time, "is this unsafe?"  or "under what conditions might this be unsafe" or "what might happen if..."   Unfortunately, honest discussions of possible safety issues often end up as plaintiff's evidence in trials.  The attorney will say "the company KNEW it was unsafe and didn't do anything about it", often distorting what are honest and healthy internal discussions on safety that we should want occurring into evidence of evil malfeasance.  So companies now show employees videos like one I remember called, I kid you not, "don't write it down."