Posts tagged ‘trillion dollars’

Why Aren't The Chinese Ticked Off About Subsidizing American Consumers? And Why Aren't We Happy About It?

Ten years ago, we published an editorial from our Chinese sister publication Panda Blog.  Though some of the details of their government's financial actions have changed since then, the gist of it is still correct -- the Chinese government still engages in actions that they call "export promotion" and President Trump calls "currency manipulation".  So I think this editorial from the perspective of the Chinese consumer is still relevant:

Our Chinese government continues to pursue a policy of export promotion, patting itself on the back for its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the United States.  The Chinese government does so through a number of avenues, including:

  • Limiting yuan convertibility, and keeping the yuan's value artificially low
  • Imposing strict capital controls that limit dollar reinvestment to low-yield securities like US government T-bills
  • Selling exports below cost and well below domestic prices (what the Americans call "dumping") and subsidizing products for export

It is important to note that each and every one of these government interventions subsidizes US citizens and consumers at the expense of Chinese citizens and consumers.  A low yuan makes Chinese products cheap for Americans but makes imports relatively dear for Chinese.  So-called "dumping" represents an even clearer direct subsidy of American consumers over their Chinese counterparts.  And limiting foreign exchange re-investments to low-yield government bonds has acted as a direct subsidy of American taxpayers and the American government, saddling China with extraordinarily low yields on our nearly $1 trillion in foreign exchange.   Every single step China takes to promote exports is in effect a subsidy of American consumers by Chinese citizens.

This policy of raping the domestic market in pursuit of exports and trade surpluses was one that Japan followed in the seventies and eighties.  It sacrificed its own consumers, protecting local producers in the domestic market while subsidizing exports.  Japanese consumers had to live with some of the highest prices in the world, so that Americans could get some of the lowest prices on those same goods.  Japanese customers endured limited product choices and a horrendously outdated retail sector that were all protected by government regulation, all in the name of creating trade surpluses.  And surpluses they did create.  Japan achieved massive trade surpluses with the US, and built the largest accumulation of foreign exchange (mostly dollars) in the world.  And what did this get them?  Fifteen years of recession, from which the country is only now emerging, while the US economy happily continued to grow and create wealth in astonishing proportions, seemingly unaware that is was supposed to have been "defeated" by Japan.

We at Panda Blog believe it is insane for our Chinese government to continue to chase the chimera of ever-growing foreign exchange and trade surpluses.  These achieved nothing lasting for Japan and they will achieve nothing for China.  In fact, the only thing that amazes us more than China's subsidize-Americans strategy is that the Americans seem to complain about it so much.  They complain about their trade deficits, which are nothing more than a reflection of their incredible wealth.  They complain about the yuan exchange rate, which is set today to give discounts to Americans and price premiums to Chinese.  They complain about China buying their government bonds, which does nothing more than reduce the costs of their Congress's insane deficit spending.  They even complain about dumping, which is nothing more than a direct subsidy by China of lower prices for American consumers.

And, incredibly, the Americans complain that it is they that run a security risk with their current trade deficit with China!  This claim is so crazy, we at Panda Blog have come to the conclusion that it must be the result of a misdirection campaign by CIA-controlled American media.  After all, the fact that China exports more to the US than the US does to China means that by definition, more of China's economic production is dependent on the well-being of the American economy than vice-versa.  And, with nearly a trillion dollars in foreign exchange invested heavily in US government bonds, it is China that has the most riding on the continued stability of the American government, rather than the reverse.  American commentators invent scenarios where the Chinese could hurt the American economy, which we could, but only at the cost of hurting ourselves worse.  Mutual Assured Destruction is alive and well, but today it is not just a feature of nuclear strategy but a fact of the global economy.

China Slashes Costs for American Consumers

My headline is probably the most accurate description of how China's devaluation of the yuan yesterday affects this country.  But I bet you will not see it portrayed that way in any other media.  What you are going to see, particularly as the Presidential election races heat up, are multiple calls to bash China in some way to punish it for being so generous to American consumers.  Why?  Because the devaluation of the yuan will negatively affect the bottom line of a few export sensitive companies.  And if we have learned anything from the Ex-Im battle, things that GE and Boeing like or hate are much more likely to affect policy than things that benefit 300 million consumers.  Make no mistake, protectionist measures are the worst sort of cronyism, benefiting a few companies and workers and hurting everyone else (look up concentrated benefits, dispersed costs).

By the way, aren't the worldwide competitive devaluation sweepstakes amazing?  If everyone is doing it, then devaluations have no substantive effect on trade (except to perhaps decrease its magnitude in total), which just adds to the utter pointlessness of the game.  And it is hilarious to me to see US elected officials criticizing China for "manipulating" its currency, as if the US Fed hasn't added several trillion dollars to its balance sheet over the last few years in a heroic attempt to manipulate the value (downwards) of our own currency.

Low Oil Prices and Prosperity

I continue to see reports about how bad falling oil prices are for the economy -- most recently some layoffs in the steel industry were blamed on the looming drop (or crash) in oil drilling and exploration driven by substantially lower prices.

I find this exasperating, a classic seen-and-unseen type failure whose description goes back at least to the mid-19th century and Bastiat and essentially constituted most of Hazlitt's one lesson on economics.  Yes, very visibly, relatively high-paid steel and oil workers are going to lose their jobs.  They will have less money to spend.  The oil industry will have less capital spending.

But the world will pay over a trillion dollars less this year for oil than it did last year (if current prices hold).  That is a huge amount of money that can be spent on or invested in something else.  Instead of just getting oil with those trillion dollars, we will still have our oil and a trillion dollars left over to spend.   We may never know exactly who benefits, but those benefits are definitely there, somewhere.  Just because they cannot be seen or portrayed in short visual anecdotes on the network news does not mean they don't exist.

Ugh, this is just beyond frustrating.  I would have bet that at least with oil people would have understood the unseen benefit, since we get so much media reportage and general angst when gas prices go up that people would be thrilled at their going down.  But I guess not.

I explained in simple terms why the world, mathematically, HAS to be better off with lower oil prices here.

How Is This Even A Question? Oil Price Drop is Great

The recent drop in oil prices has been met with a surprising amount of negativity, as if something bad is happening.  This strikes me as insane.  The world uses 90 or so million barrels of oil a day.  The recent $30+ price drop in oil thus equals a world savings of $1 trillion a year.

Sure, oil companies and their suppliers are worse off (and believe me, I care -- a lot of my portfolio was invested in such things when oil started dropping).  But the economy as a whole is clearly better off and wealthier.

To understand why, the analysis we need to undertake is an exact parallel of the broken window fallacy analysis.  Its sort of a healing window analysis.

After the oil price drop, consumers have a trillion dollars more and oil producers have a trillion dollars less.  Even right?  Actually, not.  Because consumers then spend that trillion on other things.  Those other manufacturers and producers get the trillion dollars lost to the oil industry.  Still even, right?  No.  Think of it this way:

Before the price drop

  • Oil companies have $1 trillion extra revenue
  • Other producers have no extra revenue
  • Consumers have 90 million barrels a day of oil

After the price drop

  • Oil companies have no extra revenue
  • Other producers have $1 trillion extra revenue
  • Consumers have 90 million barrels a day of oil AND $1 trillion of extra stuff (goods, service, savings, etc)

The world in the second case is wealthier.  And this is assuming all the people involved are private parties.   In fact, much of the oil revenue drop comes out of the hands of  value-destroying governments so that in fact the wealth increase in the price drop scenario is actually likely even greater than in this simplistic analysis.

Postscript:  OK, yes I am ignoring any cost of carbon pollution.  But the market is not set up to price that, and readers will know that I am skeptical that the cost is that high.  Never-the-less, this is a separate issue that if it needs to be dealt with should be dealt with as a carbon tax on fuels.  The price drop should not affect the value of that tax.  Or another way to put it, if one thinks the tax should be $30 per ton based on a $30 cost of carbon, it should be $30 per ton at $100 oil and $30 per ton at $60 oil.

A Slightly Different Take on High Frequency Trading (HFT)

My guess is that HFT will soon become one of those bogeyman words that people automatically associate with "bad stuff" without ever actually understanding what it means.  But it is worth understanding the underlying problem, and that problem is not high speed or frequency per se.

As I understand it, when an order to buy, say, 10,000 shares of Exxon gets placed, the purchase will get pieced together by searching across multiple servers where offers are listed and putting together the 10,000 shares in bits and pieces from these various servers.  What HFT's are doing (and I am sure this is grossly oversimplified) is that once it sees this order pinging  a server, it runs ahead at high speed to other servers and buys up blocks of Exxon at price A and then offers it up to the pokey buying search when it finally arrives at those servers at A+a bit more.  That "a bit more" may be less than a penny, but the pennies add up and if done right, there is almost no trading risk.

This is bad, though generally not for us small investors but for our mutual fund companies.  For my little trade of 100 shares that might be cleared on the first server, HFT's have no opportunity to play.  Moreover, I may not even notice a penny or two difference in the price I get.  This is a much bigger deal for mutual fund companies and large investors clearing larger trades, where a few pennies can add up to a lot of money.

An exchange always has to be really careful to maintain its image of fairness, and systematically allowing such behavior, called front-running, is not good for the health of the market.   Which is why you are hearing a lot about this.

Here is what you are not hearing, and I will admit that it is all a hypothesis of mine.  But it may well be possible that HFT's actually reduce the total cost of front-running to investors.  It may be that HFT's real crime is that what they are doing is more transparent and visible than what market makers were doing in the past -- ie they are not increasing the volume of front-running, they are just making it more obvious.   I would not be at all surprised if such front-running always existed in market-making (certainly Goldman Sachs has been accused of it) and that HFT's are actually the Wal-Mart or Amazon of front-running -- not doing anything new but doing it cheaper on tighter margins.   Kind of ironically, I suppose this is what efficient markets theory would predict for the market in front-running.

If this is the case, while we would rather see front-running eliminated entirely, HFT's may actually be reducing the cost of front-running and making things more rather than less efficient.

Most Unsurprising Headline of the Year

Via the AZ Republic:

The pay gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of America widened to a record last year.


Last year, the incomes of the top 1 percent rose 19.6 percent compared with a 1 percent increase for the remaining 99 percent.


But since the recession officially ended in June 2009, the top 1 percent have enjoyed the benefits of rising corporate profits and stock prices: 95 percent of the income gains reported since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent.

That compares with a 45 percent share for the top 1 percent in the economic expansion of the 1990s and a 65 percent share from the expansion that followed the 2001 recession.

The Federal Reserve is pumping over a half trillion dollars of printed money into inflating a bubble in financial assets (stocks, bonds, real estate, etc).  It should be zero surprise that the rich, who disproportionately get their income and wealth from such financial assets, should benefit the most.   QE is the greatest bit of cronyism the government has yet to invent.

(yes, I understand that there are many reasons for this one-year result, including tax changes that encouraged income to be moved forward into last year and the fact it was a recovery off of a low base.  Never-the-less, despite decades of Progressive derision for "trickle down" economics, this Administration has pursue the theory that creating an asset bubble that makes the rich much richer will in the long term help the economy via the "wealth effect.")

Can I Have Some of Those Drugs?

Kevin Drum apparently believes the reason Republicans are not passing further stimulus spending is because such a stimulus would be too likely to have immediate results improving the economy and thus will help Democrats in the next election.

This is the kind of politcal bullshit that drives me right out of the system.  I am perfectly capable of believing Drum honestly thinks that further deficit spending will improve the economy this year.  I think he's nuts, and working against all historic evidence, but never-the-less I believe he is sincere, and not merely pushing the idea as part of some dark donkey-team conspiracy.  Why is it that he and his ilk, from both sides of the aisle, find it impossible to believe that their opponents have similarly honest intentions?

I mean, is it really so hard to believe -- after spending a trillion dollars to no visible effect, after seeing Europe bankrupt itself, and after seeing the American economy begin to recover only after crazy stimulus programs have mostly stopped -- that some folks have an honest desire to see economic improvement and think further stimulus programs are a bad idea?

Stimulus Accounting Still Meaningless

Via Hit and Run, this can't be said too many times

according to the CBO’s top official, the figures in this report and previous mandatory stimulus don’t actually tell us whether or not the stimulus created jobs. That’s because, as  I’venotedsomanytimesbefore, the reports rerun slightly updated versions of the same models of that were used to estimate that the stimulus would create jobs prior to the law’s passage. And lo and behold, if you create a model that predicts the law will create jobs, and then you rerun a mild variation of that model a few years later using updated figures about what money was actually spent, it still reports that the stimulus created jobs. But there’s no counting here, no real-world attempt to assess the reality of the stimulus—just a model that assumes that stimulus spending will create jobs and therefore reports that stimulus spending has in fact created jobs. As CBO director Douglas Elmendorf confirmed on the record last year in response to a question, “if the stimulus bill did not do what it was originally forecast to do, then that would not have been detected by the subsequent analysis.”

Further, the fact that we can count individual jobs in stimulus programs (of which there are all too few, which is why the Administration doesn't do this), we still have to take into account an offset effect.  The trillion dollars came from somewhere, and in effect were diverted from private to public hands.  To justify the stimulus, one needs to be able to argue that the public use of these funds created more jobs than the private use of these funds.  Good luck with that.

Regime Uncertainty

Kevin Drum doesn't buy the regime uncertainty argument as a partial explanation of the slow recovery.

Here's what's remarkable: Carter, a law professor at Yale, apparently never once bothered to ask this guy just what regulations he's talking about. Is he concerned with general stuff like the healthcare law? Or something highly specific to his industry? Or what?

Regardless, I've heard this kind of blowhard conversation too often to take it seriously. Sure, it's possible this guy manufactures canisters for nuclear waste or something, and there's a big regulatory change for nuclear waste storage that's been in the works for years and has been causing everyone in the industry heartburn for as long as they can remember. But the simple fact is that regulatory uncertainty is no greater today than it's ever been. Financialuncertainty is high, but the Obama adminstration just hasn't been overhauling regs that affect the cost of new workers any more than usual. The only substantial exception is the new healthcare law, and if you oppose it that's fine. But it was passed over a year ago and its effects are pretty easy to project.

First, the costs of the health care law are NOT easy to project, and are made even harder when your company might or might not get waivers from certain provisions.    Second, he seems to forget cap and trade, first by law and then by executive fiat; the NLRB's new veto power over corporate relocations it exercised with Boeing; the absurdly turbulent tax/regulatory/permitting regime in the energy field, and particularly oil and gas.  How about trillion dollar stimulus projects, that until very recently Obama was still talking about replicating (and Krugman begs for to this day).  I could go on and on.  This is spoke just like a person who never had to run a business.

Further, I wrote this in the comments section:

I think you are both right and wrong.  I am sure the discussion about this is to some extent overblown.  But you are thinking about business and hiring much too narrowly.

You seem to have a mental model of business showing up at the door, and someone turning that business down because they don't want to hire an employee to serve it (or out of sheer petulance because Fox News told them to sit on their hands, lol).  You find it unlikely anyone would refuse the business, and so do I.

But I run a small to medium size business, and a lot of hiring decisions don't work that way.    I do have some situations that fit your model - I have a campground that is really busy this year, so we hired more people to serve the volume.   No problem.

But most of my hiring decisions are effectively investments.  I am going to create a new position, pay money to train that person, and pay their wage for a while in advance of demand.  Or I am going to open a new site or department or location and make a lot of investment, and the return on investment may be very sensitive to small changes in labor or regulatory costs.

For our business, with labor costs over 50% of costs, the issue is definitely labor costs.  Our pre-tax margins are in the 6-7% range.  So if labor costs are 60% of revenues, then a 10% change in labor costs might wipe out the margin entirely, and a much smaller change in costs might flip the investment from making sense to not making sense.

We run a seasonal business with part-time workers who are older and on Medicare.  Regulations about exactly how much we will have to pay under Obamacare have not been written, so we have no idea how much our employment costs will go up in 2014, so we sit and wait.  I have cancelled two planned campground construction projects in the last 6 months because we have no freaking idea if they will make money.

If I am having trouble with just this one law figuring out whether to make investments, what are, say, oil companies doing in evaluating investments when they have absolutely no idea what their taxes will be, whether they will be permitted or not to drill, or whether they will be subject to cap and trade?

One other thought, it strikes me that there is a lot of good scholarship that suggests that the Great Depression was extended by just this kind of regime uncertainty.  Now, of course, the proposed structural changes to the economy being proposed at the time were more radical than anything on the table today.  The National Industrial Recovery Act was essentially an experiment in Mussolini-style economic corporatism, until most of it was struck down by the Supreme Court.   Nothing so radical is being proposed (unless you work in health care).

Look, I know the Left has convinced itself that only consumer demand matters in an economy, but business investment has simply got to matter in a recovery.   If the returns on future investments are harder to predict, and therefore riskier, businesses are going to apply a higher hurdle rate to new investments, meaning they don't stop entirely, but do invest less.

One interesting may to confirm this some day would be to look back and see if larger corporations with political access invested more than smaller ones or ones with less access.  Did GE, who clearly can get whatever it wants right now from the government, invest more than a small company or even than Exxon, which is on the political outs?  If so, this in my mind would confirm the regime uncertainty hypothesis, because it means that the companies doing most of the investing were the ones confident that they could shape the mandates coming out of the government in their favor.

Beyond regime uncertainty, if you want to talk about Obama and the recovery, you have to mention that a trillion dollars was diverted from private hands to public hands.  Does anyone believe that taking a trillion dollars out of whatever investments private actors would have used the money for and diverting most of it to help maintain government payrolls is really the way to increase the strength and productivity of the economy?

Not Just Leadership, But Anti-Leadership

My column this week in Forbes is a response to yesterday's Presidential budget speech.  An excerpt:

President Obama is working from the assumption that the political leader who suggests painful but necessary budget cuts first, loses.   He had every opportunity to propose and pass a budget when he had Democratic majorities in Congress.   But Democrats feared that showing leadership on the hard budget choices they faced would hurt them in the November election, so they punted.

Even when Obama did produce a budget, it was the closest thing to a non-entity as could be imagined.   A budget that doubles government debt over 10 years and raises interest costs (under optimistic assumptions) to a trillion dollars a year would likely be controversial in any year, but is a non-starter given fresh memories of debt crises in Greece, Ireland and a number of other countries.

Of course there is an 800-lb gorilla in the room that no one wants to acknowledge:  Three programs —  Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — grow in the next 10 years under current rules to at least $2.7 trillion dollars a year.  Recognize that this figure excludes all the other so-called non-discretionary payments (unemployment, food stamps, etc.) as well as everything else the government does including the military and Obamacare. The 2021 spending on just those three programs is 25% higher than the total revenue of the federal government from all sources in 2011.

Later in the article, I suggest ten principles that should be the foundation of a budget deal.

Quantitative Easing: Wacky Progressive Economics or Financial Annealing?

This post is based on playing around with some analogies to try to understand quantitative easing in my own mind.  I can't decide if this approach is helpful or just wanking.  I fear it is the latter, but if we banned all banned all intellectual wanking in blogs,  my feed reader would be virtually empty.

I haven't really written much about the Fed's latest round of quantitative easing, dubbed QE2.  Basically they plan to print some significant fraction (I see different numbers in different articles) of a trillion dollars and use the newly created money to buy government bonds  (they don't actually print the money but create it out of thin air in the memory banks of computers).  As I understand it, the theory is that this will boost the price (and thus reduce yields) on the government bonds on the balance sheets of private banks.  This will in turn have two effects:  improve (at least on paper) the balance sheets of banks, hopefully making it more likely to lend; and it will reduce the yield on the bonds on their balance sheets, hopefully making private loans look like a better investment in comparison.

I am not an economist, and so won't get embroiled in issues I don't understand, but it strikes me that even if one accepts the theory of QE, it will be difficult to have any measurable impact as long as Congress  and the administration keeps generating new debt at astounding rates.

But what is really happening here is that the dollar is being devalued.  This is one of the semantic quirks that make me laugh -- when Argentina or Zimbabwe do this, its called devaluation.  When a western nation does it, it is called quantitative easing.  Because, uh, we are much smarter or something.   But I have to believe that a lot of progressives have hitched their wagon to QE2 out of the hope for some inflation (wow, the revenge of William Jennings Bryant).   Because inflation and dollar devaluation would nominally achieve some of the goals they are hoping for, including:

  • making Chinese imports more expensive, creating a wealth transfer from consumers to a few politically powerful exporters
  • re-inflating the housing bubble while devaluing long-term fixed rate mortgages, creating a wealth transfer from creditors to debtors
  • continuing the wealth transfer from average workers (who typically don't have COLA's) to government and union workers (who typically do have COLA's)
  • acts as wealth transfer from individuals to government since it creates an effective income tax rate increase, as key income levels in the tax tables, particularly where AMT kicks in, are not indexed for inflation

It is impossible to argue that devaluing a currency is a path to wealth generation.  It can't be, though progressives, as always, are willing to tolerate a total reduction of wealth as the price for the type of re-distributions discussed above.

But excepting the re-distribution arguments, it strikes me that the only possible argument for this devaluation is that the economy is somehow trapped in a local minima from which the escape energy is too high.  This would make QE a bit like annealing in a metal, where metal that is heated up and cooled too fast can be hard and brittle.  The only way to get it to be ductile is to re-heat it and then allow it to cool slower.

This is kind of a pretty comparison, but in large part it is probably BS.  The economy is way, way, way more complex and multi-variate than crystallization in a metal.  Even if we were trapped in a local minima, which by the way it is pretty much impossible to determine, we don't know what kind of energy should be applied to the system to move it out.  In fact, if we wanted to use this analogy, it would make far more sense to me to remove barriers to entrepreneurship and wealth creation which likely form a large part of the energy barrier that keeps us in such a local minima.  In fact, the annealing analogy would likely point one in the direction of decalcifying markets and increasing labor mobility rather than massive government interventionism.  It is much easier for me to argue that the missing energy is entrepreneurship rather than liquidity.  Apparently, the German finance minister agrees with me:

The American growth model, on the other hand, is in a deep crisis. The United States lived on borrowed money for too long, inflating its financial sector unnecessarily and neglecting its small and mid-sized industrial companies. "¦I seriously doubt that it makes sense to pump unlimited amounts of money into the markets. There is no lack of liquidity in the US economy, which is why I don't recognize the economic argument behind this measure. "¦The Fed's decisions bring more uncertainty to the global economy. "¦It's inconsistent for the Americans to accuse the Chinese of manipulating exchange rates and then to artificially depress the dollar exchange rate by printing money.

Update: Chinese bond rating agency downgrades US treasuries

The United States has lost its double-A credit rating with Dagong Global Credit Rating Co., Ltd., the first domestic rating agency in China, due to its new round of quantitative easing policy. Dagong Global on Tuesday downgraded the local and foreign currency long-term sovereign credit rating of the US by one level to A+ from previous AA with "negative" outlook.

But They Are Politicians

Jacob Sullum writes about the gnashing of teeth among Arizona politicians that suddenly must rely on voluntary contributions rather than campaign funds taken by force from taxpayers who may not even support them.  I liked this quote from Goldwater:

"If they behaved reasonably," they would have a contingency plan," Dranias said. "After 19 months of rulings from the district court saying this is unconstitutional, no serious candidate would not be prepared for this contingency."

Added Bolick, "People who gambled that public subsidies would be available to them now are reaping the folly of such a gamble."

But if they were reasonable people who considered long-term consequences and took responsibility for their own actions, would they even be politicians.  Is it any surprise that a class of human beings who, in response to looming bankruptcy in Medicare, pass a trillion dollars of new health care spending commitments closed their eyes to what would likely happen when this campaign finance law reached the Supreme Court?

By the way, I met Clint's Bolick's wife Shawna who is running for the Republican nomination in District 11 for the state House.  I am not registered and refuse to register with a party so I can't vote, but if you are looking for someone to support she seemed pretty sharp.

Green Rent Seeking Update

More here on the failure of European green energy subsidies.

At a speech a while ago, I told this to an investing group a while back:  Do the math.  You can't build a growth company on public subsidies.  It may be possible to grow at first when the subsidized activity (e.g. solar) is a tiny percentage of the market.  But once it starts to grow, the projected subsidies are astronomical.  The German solar subsidy is something like 50 cents per KwH -- to give one a sense of scale, the typical electricity price from fossil fuels there or here is something like 8-10 cents per KwH.  Subsidizing just 20% of US electricity production at this kind of rate would cost $50 billion a year.  Subsidizing all production would cost a quarter of a trillion dollars a year.

Take a company dependent on subsidies, figure out what their implied size is in 10 years based on current stock multiples, and then calculate what the public subsidy at current rates would have to be to support that size and a reasonable market share (because competitors are following the same model).  Investors who do this will quickly figure out that the subsidies needed to support their favored company are unsustainable.  Phoenix-based FirstSolar, a sometimes-darling of Wall Street, has had  a rocky year.  Its stock price has had several steep falls, each one just after rumors that Germany would cut its solar subsidy rate (actually its feed-in tariff, but the same idea).

My advice to the group was that if you were investing in green energy, either your company had a three year plan to reduce costs to be able to compete profitably in a subsidy-free environment, or else you are investing in

Update: If you have Nancy Pelosi's husband on your board, you can probably extend your window to five years.

In Search of Skepticism

PHP4B5A1EED0E9E1Why can't our newspaper here in Arizona apply any skepticism to alternate energy technologies?  Sure, I think this technology is cool, where large solar dishes concentrate heat on what appears to be Stirling cycle engines  (the article, true to form, does not explain the technology, but a few hints plus the name of the company "Stirling Energy Systems" seems to point to that answer).  Other concentrator technologies focus on boiling water, so this a new approach to me.

However, why can't the article actually address real issues, like "how does this technology stack up, based on cost and efficiency, vs. other solar technologies."  It says it uses less water than other concentrator technologies, but is it more or less efficient?  No answer.

We can figure a few things out.  First, as with many "renewable" energy technologies, the company selling it engages in nameplate capacity abuse.  A 1MW coal plant produces 1MW all day long.  A 1MW wind plant produces 1MW when the wind is blowing hard, and less at other times.  And a solar plant produces 1MW when the sun is at its peak.   We can address this latter because folks have calculated sun equivalent hours, the number equivalent max sun-hours per day a site gets through the year.  For the best desert sites in the US, this number is around 6.  This means that the actual capacity of this plant is not 1.5MW, as stated in the article, but about a fourth of that, or  0.375MW.

This matters for a couple of reasons.  They state their build cost as $2.8 million per MW, which seems competitive to coal plants which cost $1.0-2.0 per MW, but in fact the reference number for this solar based on an apples to apples capacity comparison is actually  $11.2 million per MW.   The solar plant gets some credit for having no fuel costs, so it might be possible still for its power to be competitive, but it appears form the limited information in the article that it is not:

Singleton would not disclose what SRP will pay for the electricity, but said the utility will pay a premium for the environmental benefits of the power, and that the price is competitive with other sustainable-energy sources such as wind and geothermal power.

In other words, it is not competitive, so much so that they will not even reveal the price, and only subsidies and government mandates make it possible for a power company to buy the power.

Let's do a reality check.  At best, they get 8 dishes per acre, and 25Kw per dish at max sun.  So this is 8 x 25 x 6/24 = 50Kw per acre.   Lets say we want to get rid of coal.  The US generating capacity of coal plants is about 336,000 MW, or 336,000,000 KW.  To replace it with this solar technology would require 6,720,000 acres (10,500 sq miles or 10% of the state of Arizona) and cost $3.76 trillion dollars if located in the best possible solar areas.   This is not cheap but is not awful.

If I am doing the math right, I get something like $70,000 per dish   (1 dish = 25Kw, $2.8 million per MW).  I would think there are a lot of rich folks with some acreage that would pay $70,000 for one of these bad boys.  It would look much cooler than solar panels on the roof.

Answer: Zero

Here is the question:  In estimating the number of net jobs created by the stimulus package, how many jobs did the Administration assume were lost when hundreds of billions of dollars were pulled out of private hands and distributed by public authorities?

And the answer to that question is just one reason the analysis is absurd.  I have seen a lot of good critiques about accounting in the jobs numbers.  But the biggest single problem is that it is assumed that the trillion dollars Obama has pulled out of private capital markets (via deficit spending) wasn't really doing anything productive, so that redirecting it into pork-barrel programs chosen by Congress based on their campaign donor lists and run by government bureaucrats would use the money much better.

Anyone believe this?  So why have I not seen a single reporter ask the question, "But how many jobs were lost from where these funds were taken?"  Just because they are invisible or hard to count does not mean they don't exist.

Health Care Budget Games

Bruce McQuain points out something I think has not gotten enough attention in the health care bill.  The new taxes being proposed start in 2010, but the benefits don't begin until 2013 and are phased in through something like 2018.  That means for any 10-year budget look, there are 10 years of taxes but only 6-7 years of benefits.  And even with this trick, the plan STILL adds a trillion dollars to the deficit, even before the certainly more pessimistic CBO numbers come in.

The Next Crisis-Emergency-Rush

I have been trying to find a word to describe the legislative style we have seen prominently over the last 9 months (though it was used long before this administration -- the Patriot Act comes to mind).   Unable to think of any other name, an in homage to "murder-death-kill" in "Demolition Man,"  I am going to call it Crisis-Emergency-Rush.

TARP was a Crisis-Emergency-Rush.  As was the Stimulus bill, Waxman-Markey, and now Health Care.  (The last two are particularly hilarious when one needs to evaluate the need to rush.   Waxman-Markey is implemented over decades, and the health care bills as currently written don't really begin to take effect until 2013).

So here is my prediction for the next Crisis-Emergency-Rush:  Raising taxes.  Obama already has his boys out sending trial balloons about new taxes, even beyond those required in Waxman-Markey and to fund the health care bill.  Having spent over a trillion dollars on useless spending to support favored political constituencies, Obama will now declare a fiscal crisis that can only be solved by increased taxes on his non-favored constituencies.

Nothing To See Here, Move Along

Kevin Drum, echoing Paul Krugman, looks at rising interest rates on Treasuries and decides that there is nothing to see here, move along.   You will all be relieved to know that these rising interest rates have nothing to do with a couple of trillion dollars in new government borrowing, and the effect that this borrowing (and wild money printing) might have on

  • Inflation
  • Sovereign risk
  • Supply and demand for credit

Boy, do I feel better.

PS - And remember, if interest rates do start exceeding historical norms, Krugman will discover that it is Bush's fault.

Obama's Programming of the Press Has Unintended Consequences

Kevin Drum posts (sorry, I have to quote the whole post or it won't make sense):

From a Washington Post story about wage cutbacks:

Members and employees of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra are bracing for more hard times. The orchestra has had to contend with a $1.5 billion debt....The musicians were furloughed, and the administrative staff, including Johnson, took a 20 percent pay cut. The two moves saved the VSO about $500,000.

Not bad!  At that rate they should have their debt paid off in another 3,000 years.

I know I'm being sort of prickish for even bringing this up, but seriously: at least one reporter and two editors worked on this piece, and apparently none of them were taken aback by the idea of a regional orchestra being $1.5 billion in debt.  At any rate, not taken aback enough to wonder idly if maybe it was $1.5 million instead.  Sheesh.

I don't know, Kevin.   Your guy Obama proposed to deal with a trillion dollars of deficit by seeking $100 million of savings, and everyone in the press nodded their head and said how wonderful that Obama guy is.  On a percentage basis, a $500,000 cut in a $1.5 billion debt is actually three times more impactful than what Obama proposed.   Is it any wonder the press accepted these numbers without skepticism?  Obama has trained them well.

A Trillion Dollars? No Problem

The answer to all of Obama's spending in trillion dollar chunks is obvious.  All we have to do is make our currency work just like that of Zimbabwe, and we will be fine.  We could pay off a trillion dollars with 10 bank notes (I bought just one the other day on eBay for $30 or so).


The problem, of course, is that this is what the Obama administration actually appears to be doing.

Students Make $100 Financial Mistake: Very Alarming!

This story comes from the Arizona Republic as part of the general effort to maintain the ban on payday loan companies passed earlier this year (their is a proposition on the ballot in November to overturn the ban).

At least 5 percent of last year's freshmen at the University of Arizona obtained a payday loan, a figure the surveyor described as "very alarming."

Arizona's Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences conducted
the survey, which measured the financial habits of 2,172 freshmen -
about a third of the class - who enrolled in fall 2007.

Student use of payday loans
more than doubled based on a survey taken a year ago that included
freshmen through seniors, said professor Soyeon Shim, the group's

"As consumers, students shouldn't be using payday loans as a resort to deal with financial stress," Shim said.

I wouldn't really recommend that students use this expensive form of ready cash, but I can't say I am particularly alarmed.  How can any of us know what pressures they are under.  In most circumstances, paying a 30% interest rate seems too high.  But I know, from personal experience, there are times when short term liquidity is so valuable you might pay anything for it  (just look - the American taxpayers are paying about a trillion dollars this year just for short-term liquidity).

In fact, if students have a bad experience, it's probably better to learn a $100 life lesson in college rather than a $500,000 life lesson later flipping condos on interest-only loans.  I personally had my own caveat emptor eye-opener with Columbia House Records in college.  Nothing like getting stuck with a couple of over-priced America albums to teach financial horse sense.  Muskrat Love... aaaarrrggghhh!

Anyway, the effort to ban payday loans altogether is one of those elitist, snobby, holier-than-thou, we're smarter than you unwashed masses issues.  Middle class homeowners who are upside down in their mortgages are not calling for inexpensive mortgages to be banned, they just want a government bailout.  The government may spend a trillion dollars in the end supporting the mortgage market.  But if poor people pay a high fee for a $100 loan, we have to ban the whole industry. 

The fact is that there is always a demand for ready cash at high interest rates, and if you drive it under ground, people just go to Tony Soprano instead. 

Oh, but you are not for banning payday loans, you just think the interest rates are too high, and that what is needed is government regulation of the rates?  Uh, OK, I'm sure that will go well.  Past government efforts to reduce the interest rate premium for risk have worked out really well *cough* mortgages *cough*. 

But, if you are still thinking that you are much smarter in money management than people who go to payday loan stores and you really want to use the coercive power of government to force poor people to make the same decisions you would, here's this:

However, for those who think they are ever so much smarter than payday
loan customers, who are charged a lot of money for small liquidity
boosts, consider this:  Let's say you take out $40 each week from an
ATM to keep you liquid and that the ATM fee is $1.50.  You are
therefore spending $1.50 or 3.75% for a one week liquidity boost of
$40, which you must again refresh next week.  Annualized, you are
effectively paying 195% to get liquid with your own money.  For this kind of vig, at least payday loan customers are getting the use of someone else's money.

The Aid Conundrum

I think there are a lot of us who scratch our heads over foreign aid.  While open to helping starving kids, its not always clear how to do so without simultaneously reinforcing and strengthening despotic regimes and dysfunctional cultures that caused the problems in the first place.  At least not without sending in the US military along with a trillion dollars or so for a decade or more.

This question could lead to a fairly interesting discourse, but in reality it does not.  Expressing the above quandary merely gets one labeled as unfeeling and insensitive.  One of the problems with having a reasonable debate is that the people and groups in the West who most support aid also are philosophical supporters of many of the failed leftish regimes that caused the aid to be needed in the first place, or else they are strong advocates for cultural relativism that feel that it is wrong to criticize any non-western culture for any reason.

While he does not offer any answers to this question, it is nice to see Kevin Myers at least try to raise these complexities, especially at a time when Barack Obama is trying to make all these questions seem easy:

I am not innocent in all this. The people of Ireland remained in
ignorance of the reality of Africa because of cowardly journalists like
me. When I went to Ethiopia just over 20 years ago, I saw many things I
never reported -- such as the menacing effect of gangs of young men
with Kalashnikovs everywhere, while women did all the work. In the very
middle of starvation and death, men spent their time drinking the local
hooch in the boonabate shebeens. Alongside the boonabates were
shanty-brothels, to which drinkers would casually repair, to briefly
relieve themselves in the scarred orifice of some wretched prostitute
(whom God preserve and protect). I saw all this and did not report it,
nor the anger of the Irish aid workers at the sexual incontinence and
fecklessness of Ethiopian men. Why? Because I wanted to write
much-acclaimed, tear-jerkingly purple prose about wide-eyed,
fly-infested children -- not cold, unpopular and even "racist"
accusations about African male culpability.

Am I able to rebut good and honourable people like John O'Shea,
who are now warning us that once again, we must feed the starving
Ethiopian children? No, of course I'm not. But I am lost in awe at the
dreadful options open to us. This is the greatest moral quandary facing
the world. We cannot allow the starving children of Ethiopia to die.

the wide-eyed children of 1984-86, who were saved by western medicines
and foodstuffs, helped begin the greatest population explosion in human
history, which will bring Ethiopia's population to 170 million by 2050.
By that time, Nigeria's population will be 340 million, (up from just 19 million in 1930). The same is true over much of Africa.

we are heading towards a demographic holocaust, with a potential
premature loss of life far exceeding that of all the wars of the 20th
Century. This terrible truth cannot be ignored.

But back in
Ireland, there are sanctimonious ginger-groups, which yearn to prevent
discussion, and even to imprison those of us who try, however
imperfectly, to expose the truth about Africa. And of that saccharine,
sickly shower, more tomorrow.

via Maggies Farm.

By the way, does it seem odd to anyone else that we in America get accused of having "unsustainable" lifestyles and we are urged to return to simpler, less technological, less energy-intensive lives like those in Africa?  I would have argued that "sustainable" means to be able to support your own people with their own effort.  By this definition, the US is the most sustainable country in the world.  Our prospective efforts not only sustain us so well that even our poorest 20% live better than the upper middle class in African nations, but we also help sustain the rest of the world.  We create so much wealth that we are able to consistently import more than we export, creating jobs around the world.  And we send more aid to other countries than most of the rest of the world combined.

The World's Safe Haven

We have rising oil prices and falling housing prices.  Mortgages are defaulting and stocks have been falling of late.  The dollar is in the tank.  But at the end of the day, the world still sees the US as the safest and most productive place to invest its money:

Its odd to me that from time to time we go through periods of angst (e.g. the late 1980s panic that the Japanese were "buying up America") about this effect, but we should instead be assured by this vote of confidence from the rest of the world.  One might argue that folks are simply buying US assets today because they are cheap, and certainly the dollar's fall makes US assets relatively less expensive.  But assets are cheap in Russia and Nigeria and Venezuela too, and you don't see the world rushing to invest a few trillion dollars in those locales. 

Postscript:  This foreign ownership of US assets also makes the world a more stable place.  I am always stunned when people argue that Chinese ownership of a trillion dollars of US debt securities gives them power over us.  Huh?  Since when does holding someone's debt give you power?  I don't think Countrywide Mortgage is feeling too powerful today.  The fact is that holding our debt and owning US assets gives China (and other nations) a huge shared interest in our stbility and continued prosperity.

The State and Local Government Meltdown

I have written before that the government story of the next decade will be the financial meltdown that will ensue as state and local governments are forced to face up to the enormous unfunded pension and medical liabilities they have assumed for their state employees.  Largely, these liabilities are currently well-hidden and off the books, a trick even Jeff Skilling was unable to pull off at Enron. 

My previous prediction that the liabilities probably total over a trillion dollars now seems way low.  Just one state, Illinois, may have over $100 billion in such off-the-books liabilities, and this does not even include liabilities of local authorities like the city of Chicago:

The study puts the state's pension debt at $10 billion, its unfunded
pension costs at $46 billion, its unfunded employee health care costs
at $48 billion, and its unpaid Medicaid bills at $2 billion. The total
costs that will be pushed onto tomorrow's taxpayers without reforms is
an enormous $106 billion, or $8,800 per every person in the state of