Posts tagged ‘risks’

The Virtues of Short-Selling

Is there anything that rankles populists who are "anti-speculator" more than the ability to short stocks?  From time to time countries that are upset about falling markets will ban short-selling.  But I have defended stock (and other asset shorting) as a critical market mechanism that helps to limit damaging bubbles.  I wrote waaaaaay back in 2008, after the US temporarily banned short selling of certain assets:

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

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

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

I am remembering this old post because Arnold Kling links an interesting bit on economists discussing the Big Short, who among a number of interesting things say this:

Shorting the market in the way they did is very risky, and one has to be very confident, perhaps overconfident, in one’s forecast to take such risks. As a consequence, many people who were pessimistic about the housing market simply stayed on the sidelines—which in turn meant that for a while, valuations in the market primarily reflected the beliefs of optimists.

The timing issue is key.  I have been right probably in 4 of out the 5 major market shorting opportunities I have identified in the last 10 years, but have been on average 2 years early with all of them, meaning I lost money on most of them, or made money after enduring some really big paper losses for a while.

California Creates Another Setback of Unskilled Workers -- And Possibly A Setback for Immigrant Integation

It appears that California is going to increase its state minimum wage to $15 in steps over the next five or six years.  This is yet another body blow for unskilled workers in the state.  As I wrote a while back, it is already overly difficult to build a business based on unskilled labor in that state, and increasing the price people have to pay for that labor by 50% is only going to make things worse.  It is possible low-skill workers in large wealthy cities like San Francisco will be OK, as service businesses are still going to want to be there to access all that wealth, and will just raise their prices even higher to account for the higher wages.   For laborers in rural areas that are already suffering from high unemployment, the prospects are not very bright.

As most readers know, we run a service business operating campgrounds across the country, including a number in California.  Over the last  years, due to past regulation and minimum wage increases, and in anticipation of further goofiness of this sort, we exited about 2/3 of our business in California.

Our problem going forward is that in rural locations, sometimes without even electricity or cell phone service on site, we have simply exhausted all the productivity measures I can think of.  There appears to be a minimum amount of labor required to clean a bathroom and do landscaping.  Which leaves us the options of exiting more businesses or raising prices.  Most of our customers in California are blue collar rural folks whose lot is only going to be worse as a result of these minimum wage increases, and so I am not sure how far they will be able to bear the price increases we will need to cover our higher costs.   Likely we will keep raising prices until customers can bear no more, and then exit.

By the way, the 5-6 year implementation time is a frank admission by the authors of the law, not matter what they say in pubic to the contrary, that they know there will be substantial negative employment effects from the minimum wage increase.   They are hoping that by spreading it out over several years, those negative effects will lost in the noise of economic fluctuations.  The Leftist playbook is to do something like this that trashes the earnings of the most vulnerable low-skilled workers, and then later point to the income inequality of those low-skilled workers as a failure of free markets.

On a related note, one of the more interesting things I have read lately is this comparison of successful integration of Muslim immigrants in the US vs. poor integration in Europe.  Alex Tabarrok raises the hypothesis that high minimum wages and labor market rigidity in Europe may be an important factor in reducing immigrant integration.  He quotes from the OECD:

Belgian labour market settings are generally unfavourable to the employment outcomes of low-skilled workers. Reduced employment rates stem from high labour costs, which deter demand for low-productivity workers…Furthermore, labour market segmentation and rigidity weigh on the wages and progression prospects of outsiders. With immigrants over-represented among low-wage, vulnerable workers, labour market settings likely hurt the foreign-born disproportionately.

…Minimum wages can create a barrier to employment of low-skilled immigrants, especially for youth. As a proportion of the median wage, the Belgian statutory minimum wage is on the high side in international comparison and sectoral agreements generally provide for even higher minima. This helps to prevent in-work poverty…but risks pricing low-skilled workers out of the labour market (Neumark and Wascher, 2006). Groups with further real or perceived productivity handicaps, such as youth or immigrants, will be among the most affected.

In 2012, the overall unemployment rate in Belgium was 7.6% (15-64 age group), rising to 19.8% for those in the labour force aged under 25, and, among these, reaching 29.3% and 27.9% for immigrants and their native-born offspring, respectively.

Wow, I guess it is sure lucky California does not have a very large immigrant population.  Oh, wait....

Hey! Don't Overreact to That Issue, Overreact to My Issue

Nicholas Kristof urges us not to exaggerate or overreact to the risk of terrorism based on a few high-profile but isolated and nearly-impossible-to-control events, particularly since there is no upward trend in terrorism deaths.

He urges us instead to exaggerate and overreact to the risk of catastrophic man-made climate change based on a few high-profile but isolated and nearly-impossible-to-control weather events for which data show there is no actual upward trend (e.g. hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, heat waves, etc).

Everyone today seems to be trying to stampede everyone else into some kind of fear based on overblown risks, whether it be to terrorism or climate change or immigrant-related crime or vaccine-caused autism or, uh, whatever is supposed to be bad that is caused by GMO's.  It is all a quest for power.  They hope that fear will cause you to write them a blank check for exercising power over you.  Don't give it to them.

JJ Abrams is World's Greatest Producer of Fan Fic

[no spoilers]  I don't mean the title negatively -- I liked the reboots of both Star Trek and Star Wars that he wrote and directed.  Given the long absence of each franchise, there is no problem in my mind restarting the series with an homage to the old series and characters.  In particular, Abrams is great at peppering the movie with little shout-outs and inside jokes for the fan base.  And both are reasonably good adventure movies with beautiful action scenes.

The problems comes with the second movie, and moving the series into new territory.  The second Star Trek movie (Into the Darkness) couldn't seem to extricate itself from fan fic mode, retelling the Kahn story for the third time, with cute little reverses like Kirk dying and Spock screaming "Kahn.....", the opposite from The Wrath of Khan.

I understand the pressure.  The fan base of both franchises was ready to strangle Abrams at the first hint of heresy to the original material.  But for God sakes the Star Wars loyalists, of which I consider myself one, endured Jar Jar.  The new Star Wars movie has some flaws, but it is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable reboot.  Now it's time to take some risks with it.

Postscript:  Is there a handbook of Star Wars Imperial architecture?  Is it driven entirely by creating movie aesthetics or have directors started to work a running gag here?  In the new movie -- I promise this is not really a spoiler -- there is a scene with one of those classic Imperial rooms with the infinitely deep hole in it, featuring tiny narrow walkways without handrails  (I consider this not a spoiler since at least one such room has probably been featured in every Star Wars movie).  Anyway, one of the characters finds themselves clinging to the walls of said infinite drop some 12 or 15 fee below the nearest walkway.  And what do you know, there is some sort of switch lever there.  There are wall switches in my house that I think are located inconveniently, but wtf?  Who designs these places?

By the way, the movie Galaxy Quest, which I still love, had a great parody of this sort of sci fi architecture.  John Scalzi's Redshirts also touches on this territory as well.

I Have Been Wondering This Same Thing

In an article on an incipient bank run in Greece, Zero Hedge wonders, "What is perhaps more shocking is that anyone still had money in Greek banks at all..."  I agree.  With talk for weeks of capital controls and the example of raids on depositor funds (even supposedly insured deposits) in Cyprus, my money would have been long gone.  Even in the US in 2008-2010, I took our corporate funds out of the main Bank of America account and spread them all over.  It was a pain in the butt to manage but even facing much smaller risks than in Greece, I thought it was worth it.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

If you want proof that folks are using the phrase "sexual assault" differently than you likely are, check this out:

In California, a new bill would require colleges and universities to impose a mandatory minimum sentence for campus sexual assault: two years school suspension. The rule would apply to both public and private colleges that rely on state funds for student financial aid, the same way California's affirmative consent measure operates.

My definition of sexual assault is rape, that is either using force to have sex with a person who is unwilling or having sex with someone who is physically incapacitated.  By my definition, the penalties established by the California bill are absurdly lenient, particularly since California law already establishes a penalty of 3-8 years in prison for rape.

What is going on here is that opponents of certain other behaviors -- sex while drunk, sex that is regretted later, and possibly even speech that is hurtful to women -- have lumped these behaviors into the term "sexual assault" in order to try to increase the punishment for these things.  In California (on campus but nowhere else) sexual assault is "a failure to obtain ongoing, enthusiastic, affirmative consent at each stage of a sexual encounter"

This is a verbal tactic is increasingly common -- note the trend to many colleges to try to label unwelcome speech with which one disagrees as a physical assault or threat.  But it has decided risks.  While the intention is to increase the punishment for unenthusiastic sex to rape levels, the effect can easily just be the opposite -- to reduce concern and punishment of rape by watering down its definition.

Q: What's The Difference Between GE and Enron? A: GE Got Bailed Out

I am going to oversimplify, but the essence of bank risk is that they borrow short-term and invest/lend long-term.   This is a money-making strategy in that one can often borrow short-term much cheaper than one can borrow long term.  This spread between long and short term rates is due to people valuing liquidity.  You probably have experienced it yourself when buying a certificate of deposit (CD).  The rates for 5 or 10 year CD's are higher, but do you really want to tie your money up for so long?  What if rates improve and you find yourself locked into a CD with lower rates?  What if you need the money for an emergency?  Your concern for having your money locked up is what a preference for liquidity means.

So banks live off this spread.   But there are risks, just like you understood there are risks to locking your money in a long-term CD.  Imagine the bank is lending for mortgages and AAA corporate customers at 6%.  To fund that, they have some shareholder money, which is a long-term investment.  But they make the rest up with things like deposits and commercial paper (essentially 90-day or shorter notes).  We will leave the Fed out for this.  There are two main risks

  1. Short term interest rates rise, such that the spread between their short term borrowing and long-term investments narrows, or even reverses to negative
  2. Worse, the short term money can just disappear.  In panics, as we saw in the last financial crisis, the commercial paper market essentially dries up and depositors withdraw their money at the first sign of trouble (this is mitigated for small depositors by deposit insurance but not for large depositors who are not 100% covered).

These risks are made worse when banks or bank-like institutions try to improve the spread they are earning by making riskier investments, thus increasing the spread between their borrowing and investing, but also increasing risk.  This is particularly so because these risky investments tend to go south at the same time that short-term credit markets dry up.  In fact, the two are closely related.

This is exactly what happened to GE.  Via MarketWatch:

GE’s news release announcing its latest and greatest reduction of GE Capital summed up the move beautifully, saying “the business model for large wholesale-funded financial companies has changed, making it increasingly difficult to generate acceptable returns going forward.”

“Wholesale-funded” refers to GE Capital’s traditional reliance on the commercial paper market for liquidity. The problem with this short-term funding model for a balance sheet with long-term assets is that during a financial crisis, overnight liquidity tends to dry up as it did for GE late in 2008. When the company had difficulty finding buyers for its paper, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stepped in and through its Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP) was covering $21.8 billion of GE commercial paper. GE Capital registered for up to $126 billion in commercial-paper guarantees under the TLGP.

If you have a AAA credit rating, you can always, always make money in the good times borrowing short and investing long.  You can make even more money borrowing short and investing long and risky.  GE made their money in the good times, and then when the model absolutely inevitably fell on its face in the bad times, we taxpayers bailed them out.

Which leads me to think back to Enron.  Enron is associated in most people's minds with fraud, and Enron played a lot of funky accounting games to disguise its true financial position from its owners.  But at the end of the day, that fraud was not why it failed.  Enron failed because it was essentially a bank that was borrowing short and investing long.  When the liquidity crisis arrived and they couldn't borrow short any more, they went bankrupt.   Jeff Skilling didn't actually go to jail for accounting fraud, he went to jail for making potentially inaccurate positive statements to shareholders to try to head off the crisis of confidence (and the resulting liquidity crisis).  Something every CEO in history has done in a liquidity crisis (back in 2008 I wrote an article comparing Bear Stearns crash and the actions of its CEO to Enron's; two days later the Economist went into great depth on the same topic).

So the difference between GE and Enron?  The government bailed out GE by guaranteeing its commercial paper (thus solving its problem of access to short term funding) and did nothing for Enron.  Obviously the time and place and government officials involved differed, but I would also offer up two differences:

  • Few really understood what mad genius Jeff Skilling was doing at Enron (I can call him that because I actually worked with him briefly at McKinsey, which you can also take as a disclosure).  With Enron so opaque to outsiders, for which a lot of the blame has to be put on Enron managers for making it that way, it was far easier to ascribe its problems to fraud rather than the liquidity crisis that was well-understood at Bear or Lehman or GE.
  • Enron failed to convince the world it posed systematic risk, which in hindsight it did not.  GE and other big banks survived 2008 and got bailed out because they convinced the government they would take everyone down with them.  They followed the strategy of the Joker in The Dark Knight, who revealed to a hostile room a coat full of grenades with this finger ready to pull the pins if they didn't let him out alive.




Artist's rendering of 2008 business strategy of GE Capital, Citicorp, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, GMAC, etc.









Postscript:  For those not clicking through, I though this bit from the 2008 Economist article was pretty thought-provoking:

For many people, the mere fact of Enron's collapse is evidence that Mr Skilling and his old mentor and boss, Ken Lay, who died between hisconviction and sentencing, presided over a fraudulent house of cards. Yet Mr Skilling has always argued that Enron's collapse largely resulted from a loss of trust in the firm by its financial-market counterparties, who engaged in the equivalent of a bank run. Certainly, the amounts of money involved in the specific frauds identified at Enron were small compared to the amount of shareholder value that was ultimately destroyed when it plunged into bankruptcy.

Yet recent events in the financial markets add some weight to Mr Skilling's story"”though nobody is (yet) alleging the sort of fraudulentbehaviour on Wall Street that apparently took place at Enron. The hastily arranged purchase of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase is the result of exactly such a bank run on the bank, as Bear's counterparties lost faith in it. This has seen the destruction of most of its roughly $20-billion market capitalisation since January 2007. By comparison, $65 billion was wiped out at Enron, and $190 billion at Citigroup since May 2007, as the credit crunch turned into a crisis in capitalism.

Mr Skilling's defence team unearthed another apparent inconsistency in Mr Fastow's testimony that resonates with today's events. As Enronentered its death spiral, Mr Lay held a meeting to reassure employees that the firm was still in good shape, and that its "liquidity was strong". The composite suggested that Mr Fastow "felt [Mr Lay's comment] was an overstatement" stemming from Mr Lay's need to "increase public confidence" in the firm.

The original FBI notes say that Mr Fastow thought the comment "fair". The jury found Mr Lay guilty of fraud at least partly because it believed the government's allegations that Mr Lay knew such bullish statements were false when he made them.

As recently as March 12th, Alan Schwartz, the chief executive of Bear Stearns, issued a statement responding to rumours that it was introuble, saying that "we don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis." Two days later, only an emergency credit line arranged by the Federal Reserve was keeping the investment bank alive. (Meanwhile, as its share price tumbled on rumours of trouble onMarch 17th, Lehman Brothers issued a statement confirming that its "liquidity is very strong.")

Although it can do nothing for Mr Lay, the fate of Bear Stearns illustrates how fast quickly a firm's prospects can go from promising to non-existent when counterparties lose confidence in it. The rapid loss of market value so soon after a bullish comment from a chief executive may, judging by one reading of Enron's experience, get prosecutorial juices going, should the financial crisis get so bad that the public demands locking up some prominent Wall Streeters.

Our securities laws are written to protect shareholders and rightly take a dim view of CEO's make false statements about the condition of a company.  But if you owned stock in a company facing such a crisis, what would you want your CEO saying?  "Everything is fine, nothing to see here" or "We're toast, call Blackstone to pick up the carcass"?

Inability to Evaluate Risk in A Mature and Reasoned Fashion

A while back I wrote a long post on topics like climate change, vaccinations, and GMO foods where I discussed the systematic problems many in the political-media complex have in evaluating risks in a reasoned manner.

I didn't have any idea who the "Food Babe" was but from this article she sure seems to be yet another example.  If you want to see an absolute classic of food babe "thinking", check out this article on flying.   Seriously, I seldom insist you go read something but it is relatively short and you will find yourself laughing, I guarantee it.

Postscript:  I had someone tell me the other day that I was inconsistent.  I was on the side of science (being pro-vaccination) but against science (being pro-fossil fuel use).   I have heard this or something like it come up in the vaccination debate a number of times, so a few thoughts:

  1. The commenter is assuming their conclusion.  Most people don't actually look at the science, so saying you are for or against science is their way of saying you are right or wrong.
  2. The Luddites are indeed taking a consistent position here, and both "Food babe" and RFK Jr. represent that position -- they ascribe large, unproveable risks to mundane manmade items and totally discount the benefits of these items.  This includes vaccines, fossil fuels, GMO foods, cell phones, etc.
  3. I am actually with the science on global warming, it is just what the science says is not well-portrayed in the media.  The famous 97% of scientists actually agreed with two propositions:  That the world has warmed over the last century and that man has contributed to that warming.  The science is pretty clear on these propositions and I agree with them.  What I disagree with is that temperature sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 concentrations is catastrophic, on the order of 4 or 5C or higher, as many alarmist believe, driven by absurdly high assumptions of positive feedback in the climate system.   But the science is very much in dispute about these feedback assumptions and thus on the amount of warming we should expect in the future -- in fact the estimates in scientific papers and the IPCC keep declining each year heading steadily for my position of 1.5C.  Also, I dispute that things like recent hurricanes and the California drought can be tied to manmade CO2, and in fact the NOAA and many others have denied that these can be linked.  In being skeptical of all these crazy links to global warming (e.g. Obama claims global warming caused his daughter's asthma attack), I am totally with science.  Scientists are not linking these things, talking heads in the media are.

Bill Maher, Living in an Echo Chamber

I refuse to assume (contrary to the modern practice) that someone who disagrees with me is either stupid or ill-intentioned or both [OK, I did call people idiots here -- sorry, I was ranting].  Intelligent people of goodwill can disagree with each other, and the world would be a better place if more people embraced that simple notion.

Anyway, I won't blame lack of intelligence or bad motivations for the following statement from Bill Maher.  He seems to be a smart guy who is honestly motivated by what he says motivates him.  But this statement is just so ignorant and provably false that it must be the result of living in a very powerful echo chamber where no voices other than ones that agree with him are allowed.

HBO’s Bill Maher complained that comparing climate change skepticism to vaccine skepticism was unfair to vaccine skeptics before attacking GMOs on Friday’s “Real Time.”

“The analogy that I see all the time is that if you ask any questions [about vaccines], you are the same thing as a global warming denier. I think this is a very bad analogy, because I don’t think all science is alike. I think climate science is rather straightforward because you’re dealing with the earth, it’s a rock…climate scientists, from the very beginning, have pretty much said the same thing, and their predictions have pretty much come true. It’s atmospherics, and it’s geology, and chemistry. That’s not true of the medical industry. I mean, they’ve had to retract a million things because the human body is infinitely more mysterious” he stated.

Climate science is astoundingly complex with thousands or millions of variables interacting chaotically.  Separating cause and effect is a nightmare, because controlled experiments are impossible.  It is stupendously laughable that he could think this task somehow straightforward, or easier than running a double-blind medical study  (By the way, this is one reason for the retractions in medicine vs. climate -- medical studies are straightforward enough they can be easily replicated... or not, and thus retracted.  Proving cause and effect in climate is so hard that studies may be of low quality, but they are also hard to absolutely disprove).

It is funny of course that he would also say that all of climate scientists predictions have come true.  Pretty much none have come true.  They expected  rapidly rising temperatures and they have in fact risen only modestly, if at all, over the last 20 years or so.  They expected more hurricanes and there have been fewer.  They called for more tornadoes and there have been fewer.  The only reason any have been right at all is that climate scientists have separately forecasts opposite occurrences (e.g. more snow / less snow) so someone has to be right, though this state of affairs hardly argues for the certainty of climate predictions.

By the way, the assumption that Bill Maher is an intelligent person of goodwill who simply disagrees with me on things like climate and vaccines and GMO's is apparently not one he is willing to make himself about his critics.  e.g.:

Weekly Standard Senior Writer John McCormack then pointed out that there are legitimate scientists, such as Dr. Richard Lindzen, who are skeptical of man-made climate change theories, but that there were no serious vaccine-skeptic professors, to which Maher rebutted “the ones who are skeptics [on climate change], usually are paid off by the oil industry.”

I will point out to you that the Left's positions on climate, vaccines, and GMO's have many things in common, as I wrote in a long article on evaluating risks here.

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.

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."

State Science Institute Issues Report on Rearden Metal, err, Fracking

The similarity between the the text of the recent NY report on fracking and the fictional state attack on Rearden Metal in Atlas Shrugged is just amazing.

Here is the cowardly State Science Institute report on Rearden Metal from Atlas Shrugged, where a state agency attempts to use vague concerns of unproven potential issues to ban the product for what are essentially political reasons (well-connected incumbents in the industry don't want this sort of competition).  From page 173 of the Kindle version:

[Eddie] pointed to the newspaper he had left on her desk. “They [the State Science Institute, in their report on Rearden Metal] haven’t said that Rearden Metal is bad. They haven’t said that it’s unsafe. What they’ve done is . . .” His hands spread and dropped in a gesture of futility. [Dagny] saw at a glance what they had done.

She saw the sentences: “It may be possible that after a period of heavy usage, a sudden fissure may appear, though the length of this period cannot be predicted. . . . The possibility of a molecular reaction, at present unknown, cannot be entirely discounted. . . . Although the tensile strength of the metal is obviously demonstrable, certain questions in regard to its behavior under unusual stress are not to be ruled out. . . . Although there is no evidence to support the contention that the use of the metal should be prohibited, a further study of its properties would be of value.”

“We can’t fight it. It can’t be answered,” Eddie was saying slowly. “We can’t demand a retraction. We can’t show them our tests or prove anything. They’ve said nothing. They haven’t said a thing that could be refuted and embarrass them professionally. It’s the job of a coward.

From the recent study used by the State of New York to ban fracking (a process that has been used in the oil field for 60 years or so)

Based on this review, it is apparent that the science surrounding HVHF [high volume hydraulic fracturing] activity is limited, only just beginning to emerge, and largely suggests only hypotheses about potential public health impacts that need further evaluation....

...the overall weight of the evidence from the cumulative body of information contained in this Public Health Review demonstrates that there are significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF, the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impacts which could adversely affect public health. Until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to public health from HVHF to all New Yorkers and whether the risks can be adequately managed, DOH recommends that HVHF should not proceed in New York State....

The actual degree and extent of these environmental impacts, as well as the extent to which they might contribute to adverse public health impacts are largely unknown. Nevertheless, the existing studies raise substantial questions about whether the public health risks of HVHF activities are sufficiently understood so that they can be adequately managed.

Why is it the Left readily applies the (silly) precautionary principle to every new beneficial technology or business model but never applies it to sweeping authoritarian legislation (e.g. Obamacare)?

The Real Money in the Climate Debate

I have yet to meet a skeptic who reports getting any money from mysterious climate skeptics.  A few years ago Greenpeace had a press release that was picked up everywhere about how Exxon was spending big money on climate denialism, with numbers that turned out to be in the tens of thousands of dollars a year.

The big money has always been in climate alarmism.  Climate skeptics are outspent a thousand to one.  Here is just one example

It sounds like the makings of a political-action thriller. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) has awarded Arizona State University a five-year, $20 million agreement to research the effects of climate change and its propensity to cause civil and political unrest.

The agreement is known as the Foresight Initiative. The goal is to understand how climate-caused disruptions and the depletion of natural resources including water, land and energy will impact political instability.

The plan is to create visually appealing computer models and simulations using large quantities of real-time data to guide policymakers in their decisions.

To understand the impacts of climate change, ASU is using the latest advances in cloud computing and storage technologies, natural user interfaces and machine learning to create real-time computer models and simulations, said Nadya Bliss, principal investigator for the Foresight Initiative and assistant vice president with ASU's Office of Knowledge and Development.

I can tell you the answer to this study already.  How do I know?  If they say the security risks are minimal, there will be zero follow-up funding.  If they say the security risks are huge, it will almost demand more and larger follow-up studies.  What is your guess of the results, especially since the results will all be based on opaque computer models whose results will be extremely sensitive to small changes in certain inputs?

Postscript:  I can just imagine a practical joke where the researchers give university officials a preview of results.  They say that the dangers are minimal.  It would be hilarious to see the disappointment in the eyes of all the University administrators.  Never in history would such a positive result be received with so much depression.  And then the researchers would say "Just kidding, of course it will be a catastrophe, it will be much worse than predicted, the badness will be accelerating, etc."

Another Reason for Declining Business Formation

I often criticize others for attributing 100% of any bad trend to their personal pet peeve.  To some extent I am guilty of that in my last post, where I blamed declining business formation on increasingly complex regulation and licensing.  I think there are good reasons for doing so -- I have spent the last 6 months passing up on business growth opportunities because I was too consumed with catching up on regulatory compliance minutia, particularly in California.  And I have watched as many of my smaller competitors who have fewer resources to dedicate to such compliance issues have left the business, telling me they could no longer keep up with all the requirements.

But there is seldom just one single cause for any trend in a complex, chaotic system (e.g. climate, but economics as well).  One other reason business formation may have dropped is the crash of the housing market and specifically in the equity many have in their homes.

Home equity has historically been an important source of capital for small business formation.  My first large investment in my company was funded with a loan that was secured by the equity in my home.  What outsiders may not realize about small business banking nowadays is that it is nothing like how banking is taught in high school civics.  In that model, the small business person goes to her local banker and presents a business plan, which the banker may fund if they think it is a good risk.

In the real world, trying to get such an unsecured loan from a bank as a small business will at best result in laughter.  My company is no longer what many would call "small" -- we will do millions in revenue this year.  But there is no way in the world that my banker of over 10 years will lend to my business unsecured -- they will demand some asset they can put a lien on.  So we can get financing of equipment purchases (as a capital lease on the equipment) and on factored receivables and inventory.  But without any of that stuff, a new business that just needs cash for startup cash flow is out of luck -- unless the owner has a personal asset, typically a house, on which the banker can place a lien.

So, without home equity, one of the two top sources of capital for small business formation disappears (the other top source is loans from friends and family, which one might also expect to dry up in a tough economy).

Postscript:  Banks will make cash flow loans if guaranteed by the SBA.  This is another whole can of worms, which I will not discuss today.  SBA loans are expensive and difficult to get, and the SBA has a tendency to turn the money spigot on and off at random times.  I have often wondered if the SBA helped to kill cash flow lending by banks.  First, why make risky small unsecured loans when you can get a government guarantee?  And second, with more formulaic lending criteria, SBA lending eliminated the need for loan officers who were good at evaluating business risks.  I can say from personal experience that the folks who can intelligently discuss a business plan and its risks are all gone from banks now (at least in the small business market).

Occupational Licensing and Goldilocks

Don Boudreax has a good editorial up on occupational licensing

The first hint that the real goal of occupational licensing isn't to protect consumers' health and welfare is that far too many of the professions that are licensed pose practically zero risks to ordinary people. Among the professions that are licensed in various U.S. states are florists, hair braiders and casket sellers. What are the chances that consumers will be wounded by poorly arranged bouquets of flowers or that corpses will be made more dead by defective caskets?

The real goal of occupational licensing is to protect not consumers, but incumbent suppliers. Most occupational-licensing schemes require entrants into a trade to pass exams — exams designed and graded by representatives of incumbent suppliers....

But what about more “significant” professions, such as doctors and lawyers?

The case for licensing these professions is no stronger than is the case for licensing florists and hair braiders. The reasons are many. Here are just two.

First, precisely because medical care and legal counsel are especially important services, it's especially important that competition to supply these services be as intense as possible. If the price of flowers is unnecessarily high or the quality poor, that's unfortunate but hardly tragic. Not so for the prices and quality of the services of doctors and lawyers.

Too high a price for medical visits will cause too many people to resort to self-diagnosis and self-medication. Too high a price for legal services will cause too many people to write their own wills or negotiate their own divorce settlements. Getting matters wrong on these fronts can be quite serious.

Won't, though, the absence of licensing allow large numbers of unqualified doctors and lawyers to practice? No.

People are not generally stupid when spending their own money on themselves and their loved ones. Without government licensing, people will demand — and other people will supply — information on different physicians and attorneys. Websites and smartphone apps will be created that, for a small fee, collect and distribute unbiased information on doctors and lawyers. People in need of medical care or legal advice will be free to consult this information and to use it as they, rather than some distant bureaucrat, choose

One thing I think sometimes gets lost -- the critique of licensing often focuses on where licensing is too restrictive - e.g. hair braiding or taxis or simple medical procedures.

But it is just as likely to fail because it is insufficiently restrictive. People will always say to me that they certainly want their brain surgeon to be a licensed physician, implying that licensing is appropriate for certain extreme skills. But would you really choose a brain surgeon merely because he or she was licensed? I would do a ton of research in choosing a brain surgeon, research that would go well beyond their having managed to pass some tests 20 years ago.

The same applies for restaurants - my standards go way beyond whether they have a 3 basin cleanup sink and have sufficiently high temperatures in their dishwasher.

The criteria for licensing is never "just right". Either it is too restrictive and eliminates competition that would provide me value; or else it is insufficiently stringent such that I have to perform the same due diligence I would have in the absence of any licensing regime (though perhaps with less robust tools since licensing likely stunts development of such consumer tools). And even if it happened to be well-calibrated for me, it will not be well-calibrated for my neighbor who will have a different set of criteria and preferences.

How Did Obamacare Authors Ever Fool Themselves Into Believing They Were "Bending the Cost Curve" With These Kind of Incentives?

I guess I never really paid much attention to how the Obamacare "risk corridors" work.  These are the reinsurance program that were meant to equalize the risks of various insurers in the exchanges -- but as exchange customers prove to be less healthy than predicted, they are more likely to become a government subsidy program for insurers.

I never knew how they worked.  Check out the incentives here:

According to the text of Obamacare, the health law's risk corridors—the insurance industry backstop that’s been dubbed a bailout—are only supposed to last through 2016. For the first three years of the exchanges, insurers who spend 3 percent more on health costs than expected will be reimbursed by the federal government. It’s symmetrical, so insurers who spend less will pay in, but there’s no requirement that the program be revenue neutral

So what, exactly, are the incentives for cost control?  If you lose control of your costs, the government simply pays for the amount you overspent.  Combine this with the fact that Obamacare puts caps on insurer non-patient-cost overhead spending, and I don't think you are going to see a lot of passion for claims management and reduction.  Note after a point, excess claims do not hurt profits (via the risk corridor) but more money spent on claims reduction and management does reduce profits (due to the overhead caps).

Nice incentives.

Postscript:  There is one flaw with my analysis -- 3% is a LOT of money, at least historically, for health insurers.  Why?  Because their margins are so thin.  I know this will come as a surprise with all the Obama demonization of insurance profits, but health insurers make something like 3-5% of revenues as net income.  My Boston mother-in-law, who is a very reliable gauge of opinion on the Left, thinks I am lying to her when I say this, even when I show her the Google finance pages for insurers, so convinced is she by the NYT and PBS that health insurer profits consume a huge portion of health care spending.

All that being said, I am pretty sure if I were an insurer, I could raise prices slightly, cut back on claims overhead, and make a guaranteed profit all while the government absorbs larger and larger losses.

Your Health Insurance Got Cancelled For These People

I had fun photoshopping (here, here) the first batch of these ads.  But now they seem to have entered the realm of self-parody, so here are some of the actual ads, without modification (source).

As a libertarian, I have no desire to grade the choices they are making.  I just don't want to subsidize them, though this seems to be the proud message of the ad campaign:  "Obamacare subsidizes bad choices and dangerous behavior".



This has to be one of the more bizarre moments in the history of insurance.  Never before has any insurance company likely ran ad campaigns aimed at attracting the worst risks.  The irony of course is that President Obama needs to sell this to young people precisely because most of them won't use it.

Trading $1 in Debt for 85 cents of Economic Activity

UPDATE:  Mea culpa.  One point in the original post was dead wrong.  It is possible, contrary to what I wrote below, to get something like a 0.7%  difference in annual growth rates with the assumptions he has in the chart below (Drum still exaggerated when he called it 1%).  I don't know if the model is valid (I have little faith in any macro models) but I was wrong on this claim.  Using the 0.7% and working more carefully by quarter we get a cumulative GDP addition a bit lower than the cumulative debt addition.  There is still obviously a reasonable question even at a multiplier near 1 whether $1 of economic activity today is worth $1 of debt repayment plus interest in the future.  

I am not a believer, obviously, in cyclical tweaking of the economy by the Feds.  To my thinking, the last recession was caused by a massive government-driven mis-allocation of capital so further heavy-handed government allocation of capital seems like a poor solution.  But what really drives me crazy is that most folks on the Left will seductively argue that now is not the time to reduce debt levels, implying sometime in the future when the economy is better will be the appropriate time.  But when, in any expansion, have you heard anyone on the Left say, "hey, its time to reduce spending and cut debt because we need the fiscal flexibility next time the economy goes wrong."

I will leave the stuff in error below in the post because I don't think it is right to disappear mistakes.  For transparency, my spreadsheet reconstruction both confirming the 0.7% and with the updated numbers below is here:   reconstruction.xls.


Kevin Drum is flogging the austerity horse again

I see that Macroecomic Advisors has produced a comprehensive estimate of the total effect of bad fiscal policies. Their conclusion: austerity policies since the start of 2011 have cut GDP growth by about 1 percentage point per year.

Something seemed odd to me -- when I opened up the linked study, it said the "lost" government discretionary spending is about 2% of GDP.  Is Drum really arguing that we should be spending 2% of GDP to increase GDP by 1%?

Of course, the math does not work quite this way given compounding and such, but it did cause me to check things out.  The first thing I learned is that Drum partook of some creative rounding.  The study actually said reductions in discretionary spending as a percent of GDP reduced GDP growth rates since the beginning of 2011 by 0.7% a year, not 1% (the study does mention a 1% number but this includes other effects as well).

But it is weirder than that, because here is the chart in the study that is supposed to support the 0.7% number:

click to enlarge

Note that in the quarterly data, only 2 quarters appear to show a 0.7% difference and all the others are less.  I understand that compounding can do weird things, but how can the string of numbers represented by the green bars net to 0.7%?  What it looks like they did is just read off the last bar, which would be appropriate if they were doing some sort of cumulative model, but that is not how the chart is built.  If we interpolate actual values and are relatively careful about getting the compounding right, the difference is actually about 0.45%.  So now we are down to less than half the number Drum quoted see update above (I sent an email to the study author for clarification but have not heard back.  Update:  he was nice enough to send me a quick email).

So let's accept this 0.45% 0.7% number for a moment.  If GDP started somewhere around 16 trillion in 2010, if we apply a 0.45% the quarterly growth numbers from his chart, we get an incremental economic activity from 2011 through 2013:Q2 of about $333 billion.

So now look at the spending side.  The source says that discretionary spending fell by about 2% of GDP over this period.  From the graph above, it seems to bite pretty early, but we will assume it fell 1/12 of this 2% figure each quarter, so that by the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014 we get a fall in spending by 2% of GDP.  Cumulatively, this would be a reduction in spending over the 2.5 years vs. some "non-austere" benchmark of $388 billion.

Thus, in exchange for running up $677 billion $388 billion in additional debt, we would have had $445 billion $333 billion in incremental economic activity.  A couple of reactions:

  1. Having the government borrow money and spend it definitely increases near-term GDP.  No one disputes that.  It is not even in question.  Those of us who favor reigning in government spending acknowledge this.  The question is, at what cost in terms of future obligations.  In fact, this very study Drum is quoting says

    Economists agree that failure to shrink prospective deficits and debt will bestow significant economic consequences and risks on future generations. Federal deficits drive up interest rates, “crowding out” private investment. If government borrowing supports consumption (e.g., through Social Security and major health programs) rather than public investment, the nation’s overall capital stock declines, undermining our standard of living. The process is slow but the eventual impact is large.2 In addition, accumulating debt raises the risk of a fiscal crisis. No one can say when this might occur but, unlike crowding out, a debt crisis could develop unexpectedly once debt reached high levels.

    High deficits and debt also undermine the efficacy of macroeconomic policies and reduce policymakers’ flexibility to respond to unexpected events. For example, in a recession, it would be harder to provide fiscal stimulus if deficits and debt already were high. Furthermore, fiscal stimulus might be less effective then. Additional deficit spending could be seen as pushing the nation closer to crisis, thereby forcing up interest rates and undercutting the effects of the stimulus. With fiscal policy hamstrung, the burden of counter-cyclical policy is thrust on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) but, particularly in a low interest-rate environment, the FOMC may be unable (or unwilling) to provide additional monetary

  2. I guess we have pretty much given up on the >1 multiplier, huh?  Beggaring our children for incremental economic growth today is a risky enough strategy, but particularly so with the implied .66 .85 multiplier here.

This is not the first time Drum has taken, uh, creative data approaches to cry "austerity" during a mad spending spree. 

Should I Resort to Civil Disobedience And Re-Open Our Privately-Funded Parks?

I have gotten a lot of mail with moral support from readers as we try to deal with the fact that the White House has ordered privately-funded parks in the National Forest to close, flying in the face of all precedent and budget logic.

Many, many emails have encouraged me to disobey the order and keep the parks open for the public.  There are three reasons why I have chosen not to do so.

1.  Respect for Contract:  In my 25 or so lease contracts with the US Forest Service (the USFS insists on calling them "special use permits" but legally they are essentially commercial leases), the contract language gives the Forest Supervisor of each Forest the right to suspend or terminate the contract for virtually any reason.  Yeah, I know, this is a crappy lop-sided contract provision, but welcome to the world of working with the Federal government.  So each Forest Supervisor has the right to suspend our lease.  BUT....

The real question here is whether they have proper justification for doing so, or whether their suspension is arbitrary.  In another post I discuss why this action is arbitrary and unjustified:

Historically, the USFS has only rarely used this contract power, and its use has generally been in one of two situations:  a) an emergency, such as a forest fire, that threatens a particular recreation area or b) a situation where the recreation area cannot physically be used, such as when it has been destroyed by fire or when it is being refurbished.  Never, to my knowledge, has the USFS used this power to simultaneously close all concession operations, and in fact in past shutdowns like 1995 and 1996 most all concessionaires stayed open.

Budget considerations alone cannot justify the closure order, as USFS concessionaires do not use Federal funds and in fact pay money to the Treasury.  Closing us actually reduces the income to the Treasury as we pay our concession fees as a percentage of revenues.  Further, the USFS does not have any day-to-day administration responsibilities for these parks.  The only semi-regular duty is sometimes to provide law enforcement backup, but USFS law enforcement officers are still at work (we know this because they showed up to post our operations as closed).

The Administrative Procedure Act makes it illegal for a government agency to make a decision that is arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.  To this end, the USFS has not actually closed the Forests and still allows camping in the Forests.  Thus, the USFS considers it safe for people to be camping in the Forests and that doing so during the shutdown creates no risk of resource or property damage.  In contrast, the USFS has made the decision that it is not safe to allow camping in developed campsites run by private concessionaires.  The decision that developed campgrounds run by private companies must close, but undeveloped camping can continue, makes no sense and is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion.  If anything, closing developed areas but allowing dispersed camping increases risks to public safety and for resource damage as developed concession areas are staffed and trained to mitigate such risks (that's the whole point of having developed recreation in the first place).

While we feel good we have a winning argument, this is a complicated point that does not lend itself well to civil disobedience, but we are taking it to court and seeking an injunction to the closure.

2.  The wrong people would go to jail.  Civil disobedience has a long and honorable history in this country.  But the honor of such an act would quickly go out the window if I were to commit an act of defiance but others would have to go to jail.  We run over a hundred sites.  Telling my people to remain open would simply lead to getting my employees thrown in jail for trusting me and following my instructions.  That would be awful.  Just as bad, we can see from examples in the National Park Service that such disobedience would potentially subject my customers to legal harassment.  It's not brave or honorable for me to be defiant but to have others pay the cost.

3.  I could lose everything.  I don't want to seem weak-kneed here, but I would be dishonest not to also raise the small but critical point that I have almost every dollar I own tied up in this company, which does over half its business in the National Forest**.  My retirement and all my savings are in this one basket.   I would likely risk an arrest and a few hours in jail plus the price of bail and months of court appearances to make a point here.  I am not ready to go all-in with everything I own, not when there are other legal avenues still available.  If that makes me a wimp, so be it.


** you can be assured that the moment I have one minute of extra time we are going to be working on diversifying away from the US Forest Service as much as possible.

Why The Shutdown of Concessionaires is Arbitrary and Capricious

We are preparing to go to court to reopen privately-funded parks in the US Forest service that take no Federal money, yet have recently been closed due to budget shortfalls.

Our USFS contracts give the local Forest Supervisor the right to suspend the contract.  However, historically, the USFS has only rarely used this contract power, and its use has generally been in one of two situations:  a) an emergency, such as a forest fire, that threatens a particular recreation area or b) a situation where the recreation area cannot physically be used, such as when it has been destroyed by fire or when it is being refurbished.  Never, to my knowledge, has the USFS used this power to simultaneously close all concession operations, and in fact in past shutdowns like 1995 and 1996 most all concessionaires stayed open.

Budget considerations alone cannot justify the closure order, as USFS concessionaires do not use Federal funds and in fact pay money to the Treasury.  Closing us actually reduces the income to the Treasury as we pay our concession fees as a percentage of revenues.  Further, the USFS does not have any day-to-day administration responsibilities for these parks.  The only semi-regular duty is sometimes to provide law enforcement backup, but USFS law enforcement officers are still at work (we know this because they showed up to post our operations as closed).

The Administrative Procedure Act makes it illegal for a government agency to make a decision that is arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.  To this end, the USFS has not actually closed the Forests and still allows camping in the Forests.  Thus, the USFS considers it safe for people to be camping in the Forests and that doing so during the shutdown creates no risk of resource or property damage.  In contrast, the USFS has made the decision that it is not safe to allow camping in developed campsites run by private concessionaires.  The decision that developed campgrounds run by private companies must close, but undeveloped camping can continue, makes no sense and is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion.  If anything, closing developed areas but allowing dispersed camping increases risks to public safety and for resource damage as developed concession areas are staffed and trained to mitigate such risks (that's the whole point of having developed recreation in the first place).

Apparently No Mistakes Were Made in Yarnell Fire

The official report is out, and apparently absolutely no mistakes were made by anyone leading to the deaths of 19 in the Yarnell Hill fires.  Despite the fact that -- these 19 men were totally out of communication;  and no one knew where they were; and they entered a ridiculously dangerous patch of ground; and they were not pursuing any coherent goal anyone can name -- no one made any mistakes and there is nothing here to learn from.  Wow.

Here is my analysis of what is going on with this report:  Substantial mistakes were made by both the fire team and by their leaders.  Their leaders wrote the report, and certainly were not going to incriminate themselves, particularly given that they likely face years of litigation.  They could have perhaps outlined the mistakes the team made, but the families and supporters of the dead men would have raised a howl if the dead firefighters were blamed for mistakes while the leadership let themselves off the hook, and surely would have pushed back on the culpability of the firefighting effort's management.

So this report represents an implicit deal being offered to the families -- we will let your dead rest in peace by not highlighting the mistakes they made if you will lay off of us and the mistakes we made.   We will just blame it on God (I kid you not, see Prescott chief's statements here).  Most Arizonans I know seem willing to have these folks die as heroes who succumbed to the inherent risks of the profession, rather than stupid errors, so we may never have an honest assessment of what happened.  And yet again the opportunity to do a major housecleaning of wildland firefighting is missed.

Earth to California

From our paper this morning:

California regulators have launched an investigation into offshore hydraulic fracturing after revelations that the practice had quietly occurred off the coast for the past two decades.

The California Coastal Commission promised to look into the extent of so-called fracking in federal and state waters and any potential risks.

Hydraulic fracturing has been a standard tool for reinvigorating oil and gas wells for over 60 years.  While it gets headlines as something new, it decidedly is not.  What is new is its use in combination with horizontal drilling as a part of the initial well design, rather than as as a rework tool for an aging field.

What California regulators are really saying is that they have known about and been comfortable with this process for decades**, but what has changed is not the technology but public opinion.  A small group of environmentalists have tried to, without much scientific basis, demonize this procedure not because they oppose it per se but because they are opposed to an expansion of hydrocarbon availability, which they variously blame for either CO2 and global warming or more generally the over-industrialization of the world.

So given this new body of public opinion, rather than saying that "sure, fracking has existed for decades and we have always been comfortable with it", the regulators instead act astonished and surprised -- "we are shocked, shocked that fracking is going on in this establishment" -- and run around in circles demonstrating their care and concern.  Next step is their inevitable trip to the capital to tell legislators that they desperately need more money and people to deal with their new responsibility to carefully scrutinize this decades-old process.


**Postscript:  If regulators are not familiar with basic oil-field processes, then one has to wonder what the hell they are going with their time.  It's not like anyone in the oil business had any reason to hide fracking activity -- only a handful of people in the country would have known what it was or cared until about 5 years ago.

Looking for Something to Short? Here's a Suggestion:

Via Zero Hedge and the WSJ:

The $604 million issue from consumer lender Springleaf Financial, the former American General Finance, will bundle together about $662 million of loans secured by assets such as cars, boats, furniture and jewelry into ABS, according to a term sheet. Some loans have no collateral.

Personal loans haven't been a part of the mainstream ABS market since securitizations from Conseco Finance Corp. in the late 1990s, according to Michael Dean, co-head of Fitch Ratings' ABS group. That market dried up as the recession hit and, under the weight of bad subprime loans, Conseco filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

Springleaf's issue comes as prices on traditional issues backed by auto loans, credit cards and student loans have soared as investors pile into debt with extra yield over Treasurys. As those yields fall, ABS investors have been giving unusual assets that were previously shunned a second look....

The 190,627 loans in the Springleaf deal have an average FICO credit score of 602, in line with many subprime auto ABS. But the average coupon of 25% on Springleaf's personal loans is above that on even "deep subprime" auto loans, probably because there is no collateral for 10% of the issue, an analyst said.

Bonus points for AIG's involvement in this offering  (btw, now that AIG has repaid obligations to taxpayer, expect a corporate name change in 3..2..1..)

We had a credit bubble in part where the market likely under-priced certain risks.  Bubble bursts and risks take their toll.   Economy floundered.  The Fed reduced interest rates to zero.  Frustrated with low interest rates, investors have begun seeking out risk, likely driving down the price of risky investment.  Repeat.

Capital Controls

I am not sure I understand Kevin Drum's argument for capital controls.  He seems to be arguing that these controls are a sort of financial speed limit and making an awkward analogy to highway speed limits to justify them.

In a world where I as a taxpayer have to bail out banks, I don't have a huge problem with capital requirements for banks, though this seemingly simply topic is rife with unintended consequences -- I have seen it argued persuasively that the pre-2008 Basil capital requirements helped fuel the housing bubble by giving special preference to MBS in computing capital.  In fact, one might argue the same for the sovereign debt crisis, that by creating a huge demand for sovereign debt for bank balance sheets it fueled an unsustainable expansion in such debt.

Anyway, the point of this post was capital controls.  Drum quotes this from an IMF report:

19. Indeed, as the recent global financial crisis has shown, large and volatile capital flows can pose risks even for countries that have long been open and drawn benefits from capital flows and that have highly developed financial markets. For example, in several advanced economies, financial supervision and regulation failed to prevent unsustainable asset bubbles and booms in domestic demand from developing that were partly fueled by cheap external financing. Rather than favoring closed capital accounts, these experiences highlight the need for policymakers to remain vigilant to the risks. In particular, there is a constant need for sound prudential frameworks to manage the risks that capital inflows can give rise to, which may be exacerbated by financial innovation.

The logic, then, is that bubbles are exacerbated by inflows of foreign capital so capital controls can keep bubbles from getting worse.  I have very little knowledge of international finance, but let me test three thoughts I have on this:

  1. Doesn't this cut both ways?  If bubbles can be inflated by capital inflows, can't they also be deflated by capital outflows?  Presumably, if people domestically see the bubble, they would logically look for other places to invest their money.  International investments outside of the overheated domestic market are a logical alternative, and such capital flows would act a s a safety valve to reduce pressure on the bubble.  So wouldn't capital controls just as likely make bubbles worse, by confining capital within the bubble, as make them better by preventing new capital from outside the country flowing in?
  2. The implication here is that the controls would be dynamic.  In other words, some smart person in government would close the gates when a bubble starts to build and open them at other times.  But does that not presupposed the ability to see the bubble when one is in it?  Certainly there were a few who pointed out the housing bubble before 2008, but few in power did so.  And even if they had seen it, what is the likelihood that they would have pointed it out or taken action?  Who wants to be the politician who pops the bubble?  Remember the grief Greenspan got for pointing to an earlier bubble?
  3. Controls on capital inflows tend to be anti-consumer.  Yeah, I know, no one in government ever seems to care when they pass protectionist laws that protect 100 tire workers at the cost of higher tires for 100 million drivers.  But limiting capital inflows would reduce the value of the dollar, and make anything imported (or made from imported parts or materials) more expensive.

Does This Make A Lick of Sense? Wikipedia Says No Inflation Risk in QE3

I know, I know -- this is Wikipedia.  But there is a line there in the quantitative easing article that makes even less sense than other political topics at that site:

It should be noted that mortagage-backed securities such as are being purchased as part of the QE3 program are not based on liquid assets, and their purchase [by the Fed] does not entail inflation risks

This makes zero sense to me.  But maybe I am missing something.

First, I don't understand why the fact that the assets purchased with the printed money are liquid or not liquid.  If anything, I would have assumed that purchasing less liquid assets would have more inflation risk than the other way around.  If one puts more currency into the economy, the more currency-like the asset one pulls off the market, ie the more liquid, the less the inflation risk, I would have thought.

Second, while mortgages may not be liquid, mortgage-backed securities are very liquid.  If liquidity of the asset matters here, I am not sure why the underlying asset would matter as much as the asset itself being purchased.   I mean, by this metric, treasuries are based on a really, really illiquid asset, simply the full faith and credit of the US government.

Third, printing of money would seem to always have inflation risk, no matter what the government is purchasing with the still-wet dollars.  (yeah, I know, it's all digital).