When I studied Economics and Finance in business school, I learned many useful things about investing, but over time I have discovered that they were not nearly enough. Here are the exceptions to what I learned in graduate school, as well as some new realizations. Sometimes, what you think you know is incomplete or just plain wrong. And sometimes, you learn things you never knew you never knew.
Yes, Virginia, bubbles do exist. Years ago my professors downplayed the importance of speculative bubbles, but I think the evidence is clear. In the last 15 years I would argue that we have had (at least) four separate bubbles. Two of those bubbles have already popped, and of those I am sure there will be no disagreement. Bubble #1 was technology stocks (remember all of the dot-com companies?) of the 1990s and bubble #2, housing prices, which from 2001 – 2006 went sky high, simply because people fell in love with the sure-fire benefits of owning them.
Now, I cannot prove it yet, because prices are still high, but I believe we have had a bubble in gold, and to some extent, silver prices. (I wrote about this last November.) The phrase “as good as gold” has a long history and a certain charm, but I would not bet my own money, nor my clients’ money for that matter, on whether gold will continue to do so well.
A Bond Bubble?
I believe that we have also had a bubble in bonds. Admittedly, bonds have done extremely well in the past, but you don’t win a race by looking backwards. Are too many people flocking to the supposed “safety” of bonds? We will see.
Diversification works, but not always. It is foolish to concentrate your investments in a narrow selection of securities. Because we cannot predict the future, we diversify. But in a crisis, when investors are panicking, most assets fall, in lock step.
There have been some exceptions; we can count on cash to be stable, and money market funds have been a safe, if not very profitable, bet. U.S. Treasury bonds usually rise when other riskier assets are falling, but even this may change at some point in time.
A fairly quick recovery of the economy usually follows a recession, but not if it is caused by a financial crisis. This is something Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff demonstrate in their book: This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. We are living through a very slow recovery, which should not surprise us, given the financial crisis that started the Great Recession.
Decisions by the Federal Reserve are very important but not a sure thing and, certainly, not always the right thing. The Fed can influence interest rates, the economy and people’s expectations. They can slow the economy down when it is overheated, and they can give it a boost when the economy is not growing, but there are limits to just how much they can accomplish. We will learn more about this in the next few years, as events are still unfolding and history is still being written. And, speaking of history, it has shown us (witness the Great Depression) that the Fed’s decisions are not always the right ones. The hope of course, is that they, and other central banks, have learned from past mistakes.
Those in the know, don’t always know. Economists are not very good at predicting anything useful: the growth in the economy, interest rates, exchange rates, stock prices. Top management of a publicly traded stock may be buying their company’s shares like there is no tomorrow, but they can be wrong. Hedge fund managers who have had spectacular results can make bets that turn out spectacularly wrong. Investment “experts” are right some of the time, but are wrong frequently. (See this post.)
Investor behavior is more important than investment returns. To get the long term returns that stocks have delivered over time, you cannot periodically panic, sell your stock investments, and “go to cash.” If your strategy is to “get back in” at a safer time, you will undoubtedly miss the rebound in stock prices. (If you were out of the stock market in 2003 or 2009, you cannot get those large returns back.) Just because the media and your friends are telling you how terrible things are, don’t go along with the “end of the world” story. (See this post.) If you do panic, you will almost certainly hurt your results.
I am thankful that I learned Micro Economics, Macro Economics and Monetary Economics from some wonderful professors. Knowing what incentives drive producers and consumers and how markets work is very helpful. But it is not enough.
In graduate school, I loved studying Modern Portfolio Theory. MPT was so new that we read the original groundbreaking work, before it was even in textbooks. But I am always looking for practical ways to implement it.
Understanding risk premiums and historical returns of various investments is useful, but it is not sufficient. Mathematical models are helpful, but they are not foolproof. To me Portfolio Optimization is a useful framework in theory, but not very practical in application.
We should always remember that people and events are not as predictable as we would like to think. Economics is a social science not a physical science. Psychology frequently plays an important and changeable role. We should not forget that our crystal ball is always cloudy.
Gold – among the most precious of all metals – has been on a tear, having gone up 18% in just the last three months. Over the last decade, gold prices soared more than 300%. Should you jump on this gilded bandwagon and attempt to capture possibly even greater returns in the future?
You have heard it said time and time again: There are no sure things in investing. This year you cannot even count on death and (estate) taxes going together. But, in general, you cannot win a race looking backwards. Past returns are, well, in the past.
There are several reasons why gold is bought. There is an industrial demand for it, and manufacturers use it to make jewelry. The recent high interest and demand in gold is because it is perceived as a better store of value and the ultimate insurance for really bad economic times, as in a depression or hyperinflation. Furthermore, some investors now consider gold as an asset that can help diversify a portfolio comprised of stocks, bonds, and real estate. (In my opinion, the addition of an asset class usually happens after a sharp rise in its price.)
Looking at not just the recent past but putting gold prices into the historical context of the last 30 years tells a much less favorable story.
The last time we witnessed such high interest in gold was back in November 1979, when the price of gold rose from $400 an ounce to $850 by mid-January 1980. Investors who poured in – expecting more of the same – were sorely disappointed. By the end of March 1980, gold was back to selling at less than $500 an ounce, leaving investors who bought at the peak holding a stunning 40% loss for the quarter. Ouch.
Holding onto it didn’t help either. By the end of the stock market run-up in early 2000, a single ounce of gold was selling for under $300 on the spot markets.
Today, of course, gold is hot; the shiny metal has tested all-time highs almost monthly, leaping from a little over $1,150 an ounce in late July to its latest all-time high, just over $1,365 in the middle of October. Is it time to jump on this bandwagon and ride the gains up (according to some bullish newsletters) to $2,000 an ounce or higher? Or is gold an overpriced investment ready to go bust?
Of course no one really knows. Obviously people disagree, as every time someone buys gold, someone else is selling it.
Things to consider
It isn’t real intrinsic demand driving the price of gold higher. Rather, it is investors (or speculators) who are buying at far higher prices than it costs to produce an ounce of gold.
There is no “shortage” of gold, as production over the past five years has been relatively stable at about 2,485 tons per year. In general, new mines are replacing the depleting production of current ones, so there has been little significant expansion in global output.
As prices rise, the market will probably see more recycled or scrap gold – a category which includes people selling gold jewelry. Between 2004 and 2008, recycled gold contributed 28% to annual supply flows.
There is no economic supply/demand imbalance, unless you count thousands of eager investors looking for more price run-ups or a hedge against inflation.
Is gold a reliable hedge against inflation? Since gold’s peak in the early 1980s, the annual inflation rate dropped, but cumulative inflation increased – just as gold was falling in value through the next two decades. According to InflationData.com, gold’s 1980 peak price on the spot market reached $2,250 if it were measured in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars, and the price fell to an inflation-adjusted $370 just two decades later. If gold had been an effective inflation hedge during that 20-year period, the price would have remained the same in inflation-adjusted terms.
So the numbers indicate that for long periods of time (but not always), gold can be a poor inflation hedge. However, it does appear to be a pretty good “crisis hedge.” When people are concerned about a global liquidity crisis and/or an economic hangover (as they have been for the past couple of years), gold takes off. When the panic subsides, it is reasonable to expect that the price of the precious metal will decline.
Kenneth Rogoff is certainly not a “gold bug”, and he covers both sides of the argument in his article $10,000 Gold?
“In my view, the most powerful argument to justify today’s high price of gold is the dramatic emergence of Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East into the global economy. As legions of new consumers gain purchasing power, demand inevitably rises, driving up the price of scarce commodities.”
“Gold prices are extremely sensitive to global interest-rate movements. After all, gold pays no interest and even costs something to store. Today, with interest rates near or at record lows in many countries, it is relatively cheap to speculate in gold instead of investing in bonds. But if real interest rates rise significantly, as well they might someday, gold prices could plummet.”
As Martin Feldstein wrote, “ Unlike common stock, bonds, and real estate, the value of gold does not reflect underlying earnings. Gold is a purely speculative investment. Over the next few years, it may fall to $500 an ounce or rise to $2,000 an ounce. There is no way to know which it will be. Caveat emptor.”
I certainly cannot predict whether the current fears will continue to drive gold higher. But history suggests that as soon as people start feeling more secure about the world situation, gold will suddenly lose its luster and leave its investors with significant losses.
If you buy gold now, are you investing or speculating? If you are speculating, is the best time to do it at near-record high prices?
Late last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Goldman Sachs with investor fraud. It seems that they chose not to disclose all of the terms of one of their own financial products. After reading the analysis of the events, I have just got to ask: Are these bankers or bookies? Goldman Sachs, among other large Wall Street firms, appears to be running a legal bookie operation, catering to clients who wanted to place large bets on the outcome of certain financial events. You’ve heard the expression, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck… The real question: was the game rigged? We’ll have to wait and see.
Last month, in a post about Greed and Delusion on Wall Street, I said
It’s difficult to appreciate the amount of backstabbing, mistrust and cynicism that is endemic at Wall Street firms. “Wall Street doesn’t care what it sells.” Investment banks exploited their institutional customers (pension funds, mutual funds, banks). The same firm that is advising them on what to invest in (the sell side) also has an in-house operation that is trading for its own account. Why is this blatant conflict of interest allowed?
Incredibly, I may have actually understated the problem! It seems to me that it is patently impossible to be cynical enough, at least about some Wall Street firms.
Why do I say that? Well, the suit filed by the SEC alleges that Goldman Sachs put together a package of derivatives based on subprime mortgages and did not disclose that the components were selected by the party who wanted to bet against the investment, i.e. sell short. The claim is that the security was “designed to fail.” Please take note of the word “alleged,” meaning that they may or may not have done something illegal. Because it’s a civil lawsuit which may take years to adjudicate, Goldman Sachs will have ample opportunity to present its side of the story. I have complete confidence that they will hire the best lawyers that megabucks can buy.
Even if Goldman Sachs “wins” that lawsuit, they may have lost something infinitely more valuable – their reputation. To my mind, this is no small thing, since confidence in your advisor is (or should be) of paramount importance to investment bankers, including Goldman Sachs. I am compelled to ask one more question, though, did these bankers aim to protect investors’ interests or were they just determined to make a profit at all costs?
What Is the Public Value of Trading in Synthetic Securities?
But as investors and citizens, it is worth pondering whether all of this trading activity has a social purpose or is it merely gambling in a more refined form. The topic of synthetic financial derivatives is highly complex and difficult for most ordinary mortals to understand. But Roger Lowenstein’s column, Gambling With the Economy in the April 20th edition of The New York Times, offers an excellent summary of the arguments:
Wall Street’s purpose, you will recall, is to raise money for industry: to finance steel mills and technology companies and, yes, even mortgages. But the collateralized debt obligations involved in the Goldman trades, like billions of dollars of similar trades sponsored by most every Wall Street firm, raised nothing for nobody. In essence, they were simply a side bet — like those in a casino — that allowed speculators to increase society’s mortgage wager without financing a single house.
The mortgage investment that is the focus of the S.E.C.’s civil lawsuit against Goldman, Abacus 2007-AC1, didn’t contain any actual mortgage bonds. Rather, it was made up of credit default swaps that “referenced” such bonds. Thus the investors weren’t truly “investing” — they were gambling on the success or failure of the bonds that actually did own mortgages. Some parties bet that the mortgage bonds would pay off; others (notably the hedge fund manager John Paulson) bet that they would fail. But no actual bonds — and no actual mortgages — were created or owned by the parties involved.
The S.E.C. suit charges that the bonds referenced in Goldman’s Abacus deal were hand-picked (by Mr. Paulson) to fail. Goldman says that Abacus merely allowed Mr. Paulson to bet one way and investors to bet the other. But either way, is this the proper function of Wall Street? Is this the sort of activity we want within regulated (and implicitly Federal Reserve-protected) banks like Goldman?
While such investments added nothing of value to the mortgage industry, they weren’t harmless. They were one reason the housing bust turned out to be more destructive than anyone predicted. Initially, remember, the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, and others insisted that the damage would be confined largely to subprime loans, which made up only a small part of the mortgage market. But credit default swaps greatly multiplied the subprime bet. In some cases, a single mortgage bond was referenced in dozens of synthetic securities. The net effect: investments like Abacus raised society’s risk for no productive gain.
I find Lowenstein’s points very convincing, and I totally agree with his recommendations.
“ …the financial bailout has demonstrated that big Wall Street banks … (have) implicit bailout protection. Protected entities should not be using (potentially) public capital to run non-productive gambling tables.
… Congress should take up the question of whether parties with no stake in the underlying instrument should be allowed to buy or sell credit default swaps. If it doesn’t ban the practice, it should at least mandate that regulators set stiff capital requirements on swaps for such parties so that they will not overleverage themselves again to society’s detriment. …”
Proposed reforms by the Obama administration will hopefully rein in the questionable activities of Wall Street bankers, although, Wall Street lobbyists will naturally attempt to defeat any such reform. As I said previously, we’ll have to wait and see, but nearly a week later, no further charges from the SEC have been forthcoming. Of note, however, several European countries have commenced the filing of similar charges against Goldman Sachs.
Derivatives (complex financial instruments) are time bombs and “financial weapons of mass destruction” that could harm not only their buyers and sellers, but the whole economic system.
“Derivatives generate reported earnings that are often wildly overstated and based on estimates whose inaccuracy may not be exposed for many years.”
After seeing Michael Lewis on both 60 Minutes and The Charlie Rose Show last week, I had to read The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the just released book by Lewis about the subprime mortgage disaster. Lewis is a fabulous story teller, and I cannot recommend this book enough.
He tells how the subprime mortgage market was created, who benefited, who lost, the cons, the dupes and the dopes and “how some of Wall Street’s finest minds managed to destroy $1.75 trillion of wealth in the subprime mortgage markets” and created the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Essentially billions of dollars were lent to people who had very little chance of ever paying it back. And Wall Street firms earned billions of dollars creating, packaging and betting on complex financial instruments whose raw material was the risky mortgage loans they created. And that was just the beginning.
Tremendous leverage (using borrowed money to magnify possible returns) increased the risk of destroying entire firms.
Lewis follows a few very colorful individuals who gradually figured out just how corrupt the entire risky mortgage system was. These investors made billions by betting against the subprime market by selling short.
Note that “selling short” is an entirely legal transaction, but generally considered a high risk one that involves betting against something, i.e. a stock, bond, or currency, for example, which isn’t “actually” owned by the investor. Selling short requires astuteness, foresight, excellent timing and staying power. Being “right” too soon can be both nerve wracking and very costly, because until the market agrees with your assessment, you are at risk of losing a great deal of money. (Disclosure: I do not sell short.)
In reading Lewis’s gripping story, I alternated between nodding my head in recognition of the self-serving greed that categorized Wall Street to shaking my head in disbelief that Wall Street bankers could have been so deluded that they ended up believing their own lies, I mean “models.” As I read, I found myself laughing out loud more times than I can count – truly, Lewis has a way with words.
To give you some background info, in the “old” days, a bank lent money to a home buyer and they held the mortgage. The bank was very serious about getting repaid, so before they agreed to fund the loan, they did some rather basic things like verify the borrowers’ creditworthiness, check their employment and salary history and retain an appraiser to assess the value of the property being bought. A good credit history, a stable job and a property value that would support the loan were enough incentive for banks, back in the “old” days, to grant a loan request.
But when banks started selling the mortgage to a Wall Street firm who repackaged the loan and then sold the package to investors, the incentives became very different. It was like the Wild West before the Marshall came to town to establish law and order.
The acronym IBGYBG came into being. The brokers who made more money than they ever imagined said, “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone” so let’s not worry about the suckers who will probably lose their homes or the gullible institutions that bought the crappy investments in the purposely opaque financial instruments. And it was easy to rationalize the sleazy behavior, because, after all, it was possible that this will all work out, if home prices keep rising. That was a big IF.
It was really a mammoth legal Ponzi scheme, or as Lewis called it a “mass delusion.”
The individual characters’ stories are fascinating, but I will not try to summarize them. Instead, here are some observations that emphasize the need for fundamental financial regulation of Wall Street firms.
- No one goes to Wall Street investment banks to make the world a better place. “Greed on Wall Street is assumed – almost an obligation. The problem was the system of incentives that channeled the greed.”
- People see what they have an incentive to see. Wall Street employees, managers and CEOs had an incentive (i.e. huge bonuses – surely, you’ve heard about them) not to see the truth.
- When Wall Street firms were partnerships and the principals had their own money at risk, they had a sane long-term approach to their business operations. When these same firms became publicly traded corporations, risk was transferred to the shareholders. But, of course, huge bonuses were paid to successful traders based on one year’s results. In the short term, traders had every incentive to take large risks. “Heads I win, tails someone else loses, perhaps some time in the future.”
- The fixed income (bonds) world dwarfs the equity (stocks) world in size. The stock market is transparent and heavily policed. On the other hand, “bond salesmen could say and do anything without worrying that they would be caught. Bond technicians could dream up ever more complicated securities without worrying too much about government regulation – one reason why so many derivatives had been derived, one way or another, from bonds.”
- The world of mortgage-backed securities (pooled investments backed by mortgages) and derivatives (financial instruments created by Wall Street) were intentionally difficult to understand, so no one even bothered to try. The book describes the nature of asset-backed securities, tranches, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, etc. You, dear reader, can safely skip those portions if you want to. The horse is already out of the barn.
- It’s difficult to appreciate the amount of backstabbing, mistrust and cynicism that is endemic at Wall Street firms. “Wall Street doesn’t care what it sells.” Investment banks exploited their institutional customers (pension funds, mutual funds, banks). The same firm that is advising them on what to invest in (the sell side) also has an in-house operation that is trading for its own account. Why is this blatant conflict of interest allowed?
- While there may have been some criminal behavior, in the end, group think, mass delusion and incompetence were more important factors. Wall Street firms did not understand the money-making machine they had created or the risks they had taken.
- When lenders ran out of customers who would qualify for a normal mortgage, they dreamt up new ways to lend to people who could not afford to pay the old fashioned way. Hence the introduction of “interest-only negative-amortizing adjustable-rate subprime mortgages.” Translation: you don’t have to pay any principal or any interest on your new mortgage; we’ll just keep adding that to the amount you owe.
- Amazingly enough, Wall Street firms convinced bond ratings agencies (Moody’s, S&P) to give such garbage a Triple A rating. That credit rating agencies are “educated” by and paid by the issuers of the bonds is quite a conflict of interest! And it still exists.
- Lewis asserts that today “nobody believes that Wall Street knows what it is doing.” He understands why Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, for example, want a say in how they are regulated. He wonders why anyone would listen to them.
The greed and miscalculation of Wall Street firms caused the near collapse of the world economy. Governments around the world felt forced to commit trillions of dollars to resuscitate the banks.
Regulation of firms and people which have fundamentally the wrong incentives will not be easy. Regulatory reform of institutions that are too well connected to fail will not be easy. Change is never easy. But it is absolutely essential or we will all be at risk of a repeat performance of the last financial crisis. Without reform, the investment banking system can crash again, taking with it jobs, savings and U.S. tax payer dollars.
There are many reasons why people listen to Warren Buffett. Besides being the second richest American (right after Bill Gates of Microsoft), Buffett is widely considered the most respected (i.e. best) investor there has ever been.
But there are other compelling reasons for listening to him; simply put, he speaks in a way that anyone can understand. It’s a Midwestern common sense, seasoned with well-earned and certainly, much deserved, confidence. He’s cheerful, loves what he does, and apparently cares very little about consumption. He is extremely grateful for the opportunity he has had in the United States and the life that he has lived. He has already given away billions and plans to give away still more to charitable foundations.
Buffett was a guest on the November 13th episode of the Charlie Rose TV show. Unfortunately, only excerpts of that show are available for online viewing. Go to the Charlie Rose website and search for Warren Buffett. What you’ll find are his ideas on financial regulation, his reasons why he bought the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, and his assessment of the global economy. There is also a “Web Exclusive” interview.
A full written transcript is available here.
I’d like to focus on his basic optimism about the future of the United States, because in my opinion, you need three things to be a successful long-term investor.
- Faith in the future.
Here are some relevant quotes from the November 13th program.
(Regarding consumer demand) Well, it will come back eventually. … Our system will still work. … We talked last year about the patient, you know, being on the floor with a cardiac arrest … and we’re not out of the hospital yet. But we will come out of the hospital. This — the things that made America what it is have not disappeared, and they will — they will assert themselves with time.
The American economy will come back. It won’t be tomorrow, and, you know, it won’t be exactly the same. But in the end, we have not — we’ve not changed the American people in their capacity to innovate or their excitement about — about becoming more prosperous, and coming up with new ideas. Businesses will be formed. Businesses will expand. But not much tomorrow.
If you look back a couple of hundred years, we’ve gotten where we are not because we’ve gotten smarter or not because we work harder. We’ve got it because we found ways to unleash more of the human potential. And what does that? Well, a rule of law helps. A market system helps. Equality of opportunity helps. All of these things that are still a fundamental part of the American system. As a matter of fact, the American system is now better than it was a couple of hundred years ago, because until the 19th Amendment, you know, we’ve had half the talent in the United States that wasn’t entitled to do much. So we’ve got a great system. (Emphasis added.)
Well, I have everything I want in life, so there’s nothing to spend it on. I mean, I could have 10 houses instead of one, would I be happier? No way. I could have 10 cars instead of, you know, two in the house. I wouldn’t be happier. You know, it would drive me crazy. I could have a 400-foot boat, you know, and then I’ve got to have a crew of 50 or 60, and some of them (inaudible), sleeping together — I mean, who knows what would be going on. So I don’t — if I wanted to be a ship’s captain, you know, I’d have gone into a different profession. I have everything in life I want.
I love working — I love working with the people I work with. I love just viewing the human scene, but I mean, I have an ideal life. I get to do what I want to do every day. So, you know, and money can’t — can’t buy any more than that.
As I said earlier, you need three things to be a successful investor:
Faith in the future. Optimism is the only realistic attitude; you cannot be fearful and succeed as an investor.
Patience. Moving in and out of the market or among various investments does not accomplish anything.
Discipline. Do not be driven by headlines or events. Ask not, “What’s working now?” Ask, “What always works?”
I believe Warren Buffett to be instructive and inspirational on all three counts.
Walt Handelsman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist and animator, has some fun with the songs of the classic musical, which is in revival on Broadway. I think you’ll find his version of West Side Story much more current, and funny to boot.
You are encouraged to sing along, if the spirit moves you.
To get to the web site, click here.
Sunday’s New York Times article, After the Great Recession, gives us rare insight into President Obama’s thinking and thought processes concerning a host of issues and “why he was taking on so many economic issues so early in his administration.”
The interview, conducted by David Leonhardt, covers several economic issues including the role of financial institutions, the need for new financial regulation, making education relevant, how to improve global competitiveness, how to achieve greater gender and employment equality, and the need and difficulty of achieving health care reform.
Whew! Just writing that sentence makes me gasp.
While After the Great Recession is a very long (two cups of coffee) article, I believe it is well worth reading, in its entirety. Whether or not you supported Barack Obama in the presidential election last November, I think it’s important to understand where he plans to take the country.
If you don’t have time to read the entire article, here are some relevant quotes.
I. The Future of Finance
Leonhardt: I wonder if you would be willing to describe a little bit of your learning curve about finance, and what you envision finance being in tomorrow’s economy: Does it need to be smaller? Will it inevitably be smaller?
THE PRESIDENT: …What I think will change, what I think was an aberration, was a situation where corporate profits in the financial sector were such a heavy part of our overall profitability over the last decade. That I think will change. And so part of that has to do with the effects of regulation that will inhibit some of the massive leveraging and the massive risk-taking that had become so common.
Now, in some ways, I think it’s important to understand that some of that wealth was illusory in the first place.
… Wall Street will remain a big, important part of our economy, just as it was in the ’70s and the ’80s. It just won’t be half of our economy. And that means that more talent, more resources will be going to other sectors of the economy. And I actually think that’s healthy. We don’t want every single college grad with mathematical aptitude to become a derivatives trader. We want some of them to go into engineering, and we want some of them to be going into computer design.
And so I think what you’ll see is some shift, but I don’t think that we will lose the enormous advantages that come from transparency, openness, the reliability of our markets. If anything, a more vigorous regulatory regime, I think, will help restore confidence, and you’re still going to see a lot of global capital wanting to park itself in the United States.
Leonhardt: There was this great debate among F.D.R.’s advisers about whether you had to split up companies — not just banks — you had to split up companies in order to regulate them effectively, or whether it was possible to have big, huge, sprawling, powerful companies — even not just possible, but better — and then have strong regulators. And it seems to me there’s an analogy of that debate now. Which is, do you think it is O.K. to have these “supermarkets” regulated by strong regulators actually trying to regulate, or do we need some very different modern version of Glass-Steagall.
THE PRESIDENT: You know, I’ve looked at the evidence so far that indicates that other countries that have not seen some of the problems in their financial markets that we have nevertheless don’t separate between investment banks and commercial banks, for example. They have a “supermarket” model that they’ve got strong regulation of.
But when it comes to something like investment banking versus commercial banking, the experience in a country like Canada would indicate that good, strong regulation that focuses less on the legal form of the institution and more on the functions that they’re carrying out is probably the right approach to take.
II. The Ticket to the Middle Class
Leonhardt: I’m curious what you think today’s ticket to the middle class is. Do you want everybody aspiring to a four-year-college degree? Is a two-year or vocational degree enough? Or is simply attending college, whether or not you graduate, sufficient to reach the middle class?
THE PRESIDENT: We set out a goal in my speech to the joint session that said everybody should have at least one year of post-high-school training. And I think it would be too rigid to say everybody needs a four-year-college degree. I think everybody needs enough post-high-school training that they are competent in fields that require technical expertise, because it’s very hard to imagine getting a job that pays a living wage without that — or it’s very hard at least to envision a steady job in the absence of that.
And so to the extent that we can upgrade not only our high schools but also our community colleges to provide a sound technical basis for being able to perform complicated tasks in a 21st-century economy, then I think that not only is that good for the individuals, but that’s going to be critical for the economy as a whole.
But, again, I think the big challenge that we’ve got on education is making sure that … you are actually learning the kinds of skills that make you competitive and productive in a modern, technological economy.
That’s why I don’t just want to see more college graduates; I also want to specifically see more math and science graduates, I specifically want to see more folks in engineering.
But the broader point is that if you look at who our long-term competition will be in the global economy — China, India, the E.U., Brazil, Korea — the countries that are producing the best-educated work force, whose education system emphasizes the sciences and mathematics, who can translate those technology backgrounds or those science backgrounds into technological applications, they are going to have a significant advantage in the economy. And I think that we’ve got to have enough of that in order to maintain our economic strength.
III. The New Gender Gap
Leonhardt: There is still sexism, there’s still a pay gap, clearly, but the pay of men has stagnated, and the pay of women has gone up.
I think there are a lot of men out there today, working at G.M. and Chrysler and other places, who feel the same kind of dejection that your grandfather did. What do you think the future of work looks like for men?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it’s an interesting question, because as I said, you know, you go in to factories all across the Midwest and you talk to the men who work there — they’ve got extraordinary skill and extraordinary pride in what they make. And I think that for them, the loss of manufacturing is a loss of a way of life and not just a loss of income.
I think a healthy economy is going to have a broad mix of jobs, and there has to be a place for somebody with terrific mechanical aptitude who can perform highly skilled tasks with his hands, whether it’s in construction or manufacturing. And I don’t think that those jobs should vanish. I do think that they will constitute a smaller percentage of the overall economy.
I mean, nursing, teaching are all areas where we need more men. I’ve always said if we can get more men in the classroom, particularly in inner cities where a lot of young people don’t have fathers, that could be of enormous benefit.
IV. Where the Economists are Coming From
Leonhardt: When you and I spoke during the campaign, you made it clear that you had thought a lot about the economic debates within the Clinton administration. And you said that you wanted to have a Robert Rubin type and a Robert Reich type having a vigorous debate in front of you. And clearly you have a spectrum of Democrats within your economic-policy team.
THE PRESIDENT: … I’ve been constantly searching for is a ruthless pragmatism when it comes to economic policy.
Somebody who has enormous influence over my thinking is Paul Volcker, who is robust enough that, having presided over the Carter and Reagan years, he’s still sharp as a tack and able to give me huge advice and to provide some counterbalance.
When I first started having a round table of economic advisers, and Bob Reich was part of that, and he was sitting across the table from Bob Rubin and others, what you discovered was that some of the rifts that had existed back in the Clinton years had really narrowed drastically.
If anything, the only thing I notice, I think, that I do think is something of a carry-over from Bob Rubin — I see it in Larry, I see it in Tim — is a great appreciation of complexity.
… I think that one of the things that we all agree to is that the touchstone for economic policy is, does it allow the average American to find good employment and see their incomes rise; that we can’t just look at things in the aggregate, we do want to grow the pie, but we want to make sure that prosperity is spread across the spectrum of regions and occupations and genders and races; and that economic policy should focus on growing the pie, but it also has to make sure that everybody has got opportunity in that system.
I also think that there’s very little disagreement that there are lessons to be learned from this crisis in terms of the importance of regulation in the financial markets. And I think that this notion that there is somehow resistance to that — to those lessons within my economic team — just isn’t borne out by the discussions that I have every day.
… As we’re making economic policy, I think there is a certain humility about the consequences of the actions we take, intended and unintended, that may make some outside observers impatient. I mean, you’ll recall Geithner was just getting hammered for months. But he, I think, is very secure in saying we need to get these things right, and if we act too abruptly, we can end up doing more harm than good. Those are qualities that I think have been useful.
V. Postreform Health Care
Leonhardt: You have suggested that health care is now the No. 1 legislative priority. It seems to me this is only a small generalization — to say that the way the medical system works now is, people go to the doctor; the doctor tells them what treatments they need; they get those treatments, regardless of cost or, frankly, regardless of whether they’re effective. I wonder if you could talk to people about how going to the doctor will be different in the future; how they will experience medical care differently on the other side of health care reform.
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I do think consumers have gotten more active in their own treatments in a way that’s very useful. And I think that should continue to be encouraged, to the extent that we can provide consumers with more information about their own well-being — that, I think, can be helpful.
I have always said, though, that we should not overstate the degree to which consumers rather than doctors are going to be driving treatment, because, I just speak from my own experience, I’m a pretty-well-educated layperson when it comes to medical care; I know how to ask good questions of my doctor. But ultimately, he’s the guy with the medical degree. So, if he tells me, You know what, you’ve got such-and-such and you need to take such-and-such, I don’t go around arguing with him or go online to see if I can find a better opinion than his.
And so, in that sense, there’s always going to be an asymmetry of information between patient and provider. And part of what I think government can do effectively is to be an honest broker in assessing and evaluating treatment options. And certainly that’s true when it comes to Medicare and Medicaid, where the taxpayers are footing the bill and we have an obligation to get those costs under control.
So when Peter Orszag and I talk about the importance of using comparative-effectiveness studies as a way of reining in costs, that’s not an attempt to micromanage the doctor-patient relationship. It is an attempt to say to patients, you know what, we’ve looked at some objective studies out here, people who know about this stuff, concluding that the blue pill, which costs half as much as the red pill, is just as effective, and you might want to go ahead and get the blue one. And if a provider is pushing the red one on you, then you should at least ask some important questions.
Now, there are distortions in the system, everything from the drug salesmen and junkets to how reimbursements occur. Some of those things government has control over; some of those things are just more embedded in our medical culture. But the doctors I know — both ones who treat me as well as friends of mine — I think take their job very seriously and are thinking in terms of what’s best for the patient. They operate within particular incentive structures, like anybody else, and particular habits, like anybody else.
And so if it turns out that doctors in Florida are spending 25 percent more on treating their patients as doctors in Minnesota, and the doctors in Minnesota are getting outcomes that are just as good — then us going down to Florida and pointing out that this is how folks in Minnesota are doing it and they seem to be getting pretty good outcomes, and are there particular reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing? — I think that conversation will ultimately yield some significant savings and some significant benefits.
Now, I actually think that the tougher issue around medical care — it’s a related one — is what you do around things like end-of-life care —
So that’s where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues. But that’s also a huge driver of cost, right?
I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here.
Leonhardt: So how do you — how do we deal with it?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. It is very difficult to imagine the country making those decisions just through the normal political channels. And that’s part of why you have to have some independent group that can give you guidance. It’s not determinative, but I think has to be able to give you some guidance. And that’s part of what I suspect you’ll see emerging out of the various health care conversations that are taking place on the Hill right now.
VI. Out of the Rough?
Leonhardt: Do you think this recession is a big-enough event to make us as a country willing to make some of the sorts of hard choices that we need to make on health care, on taxes in the long term — which will not cover the cost of government — on energy? Traditionally those choices get made in times of depression or war, and I’m not sure whether this rises to that level.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, part of it will depend on leadership. So I’ve got to make some good arguments out there. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do since I came in, is to say now is the time for us to make some tough, big decisions.
The critics have said, you’re doing too much, you can’t do all this at once, Congress can’t digest everything. I just reject that. There’s nothing inherent in our political process that should prevent us from making these difficult decisions now, as opposed to 10 years from now or 20 years from now.
It is true that as tough an economic time as it is right now, we haven’t had 42 months of 20, 30 percent unemployment. And so the degree of desperation and the shock to the system may not be as great. And that means that there’s going to be more resistance to any of these steps: reforming the financial system or reforming our health care system or doing something about energy. On each of these things — you know, things aren’t so bad in the eyes of a lot of Americans that they say, “We’re willing to completely try something new.”
But part of my job I think is to bridge that gap between the status quo and what we know we have to do for our future.
Leonhardt: Are you worried that the economic cycle will make that much harder? I mean, Roosevelt took office four years after the stock market crashed. You took office four months after Lehman Brothers collapsed. At some point people may start saying, Hey, why aren’t things getting better?
THE PRESIDENT: It’s something that we think about. I knew even before the election that this was going to be a very difficult journey and that the economy had gone through a sufficient shock and that it wasn’t going to recover right away.
What I’m very confident about is that given the difficult options before us, we are making good, thoughtful decisions. I have enormous confidence that we are weighing all our options and we are making the best choices. That doesn’t mean that every choice is going to be right, is going to work exactly the way we want it to. But I wake up in the morning and go to bed at night feeling that the direction we are trying to move the economy toward is the right one and that the decisions we make are sound.
In watching political commentary on PBS TV, for example Charlie Rose’s interview with David Brooks, I have heard time and time again how confident President Obama is, how comfortable he is with debate within his administration, and how he is a supreme pragmatist. These are all good things.
The phrases that jumped out on me in the interview were: “ruthless pragmatism,” “a great appreciation of complexity,” and “a certain humility about the consequences of the actions we take, intended and unintended.”
Good. Boldness and supreme confidence seasoned with a dash of humility and a modicum of caution sounds like a good recipe to me.
That said, he certainly has more issues to deal with than any other president ever had. And this interview was only about economic issues, totaling omitting foreign affairs – “little” things like two wars, Iranian nuclear aspirations, the potential collapse of Pakistan’s government, etc., etc., etc.
Good luck, Mr. President.
Photo by Nadav Kander for The New York Times.
Last week, I had lunch with an old friend who told me that he was very upset because he had lost so much money on his investments. He said that he was of two minds about the people who caused his pain. On the one hand, he wanted to forgive them, but on the other hand, he wanted to get even. Both, perfectly natural feelings. Of course, the problem with the revenge approach is the he did not know exactly whom to blame. Like many people, he really didn’t understand how we got into this economic mess in the first place.
Well, as previous posts have discussed, it’s a complicated tale in that there are a lot of culprits and more than enough blame to go around, including lax government regulation, unscrupulous mortgage brokers and mortgage lenders, overoptimistic rating agencies and everyone who thought real estate prices could only go up. But focusing on the banking system tells a large part of the story.
Recently, David Brooks wrote a column, Greed and Stupidity, which references some very good articles and contrasts the two theories of why and how bankers screwed up. Here are some relevant quotes regarding the two explanations – greed and stupidity.
What happened to the global economy? We seemed to be chugging along, enjoying moderate business cycles and unprecedented global growth. All of a sudden, all hell broke loose.
There are many theories about what happened, but two general narratives seem to be gaining prominence, which we will call the greed narrative and the stupidity narrative. The two overlap, but they lead to different ways of thinking about where we go from here.
The best single encapsulation of the greed narrative is an essay called “The Quiet Coup,” by Simon Johnson in The Atlantic.
Johnson begins with a trend. Between 1973 and 1985, the U.S. financial sector accounted for about 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In the 1990s, it ranged from 21 percent to 30 percent. This decade, it soared to 41 percent.
In other words, Wall Street got huge. As it got huge, its prestige grew. Its compensation packages grew. Its political power grew as well. Wall Street and Washington merged as a flow of investment bankers went down to the White House and the Treasury Department.
The result was a string of legislation designed to further enhance the freedom and power of finance. Regulations separating commercial and investment banking were repealed. There were major increases in the amount of leverage allowed to investment banks.
The second and, to me, more persuasive theory revolves around ignorance and uncertainty. The primary problem is not the greed of a giant oligarchy. It’s that overconfident bankers didn’t know what they were doing.
Many writers have described elements of this intellectual hubris. Amar Bhidé has described the fallacy of diversification. Bankers thought that if they bundled slices of many assets into giant packages then they didn’t have to perform due diligence on each one.
Benoit Mandelbrot and Nassim Taleb have explained why extreme events are much more likely to disrupt financial markets than most bankers understood.
To me, the most interesting factor is the way instant communications lead to unconscious conformity. …Global communications seem to have led people in the financial subculture to adopt homogenous viewpoints. They made the same one-way bets at the same time.
Jerry Z. Muller wrote an indispensable version of the stupidity narrative in an essay called “Our Epistemological Depression” in The American magazine. … Banks got too big to manage. Instruments got too complex to understand. Too many people were good at math but ignorant of history.
The greed narrative leads to the conclusion that government should aggressively restructure the financial sector. The stupidity narrative is suspicious of that sort of radicalism. We’d just be trading the hubris of Wall Street for the hubris of Washington. The stupidity narrative suggests we should preserve the essential market structures, but make them more transparent, straightforward and comprehensible. Instead of rushing off to nationalize the banks, we should nurture and recapitalize what’s left of functioning markets.
Both schools agree on one thing, however. Both believe that banks are too big. Both narratives suggest we should return to the day when banks were focused institutions — when savings banks, insurance companies, brokerages and investment banks lived separate lives.
We can agree on that reform. Still, one has to choose a guiding theory. To my mind, we didn’t get into this crisis because inbred oligarchs grabbed power. We got into it because arrogant traders around the world were playing a high-stakes game they didn’t understand.
I agree with Brooks’ belief that the main cause of our economic meltdown was stupidity – not understanding the real risks in using “outsized” leverage to buy risky assets. On the other hand, investment bank managers were receiving “outsized” bonuses based on short-term results, and the long term risks and ramifications was someone else’s problem.
Who says we have to choose between greed and stupidity?
U.S. stocks declined yesterday to the lowest prices in more than 12 years. The Standard and Poor’s 500 closed at 700. You would think that now would be a very good time to have a reliable investment guru offer sage advice and words of wisdom. Times are tough, the economy is tanking and there is panic in the streets (Wall Street and Main Street, both). What is an investor to do? Should she buy, sell, hold? “Surely,” you think, “the ‘experts’ must know.” Unfortunately, you’d be thinking wrong; the correct answer is that he or she really doesn’t.
Last month, in an article titled Why the Experts Missed the Crash, Money Magazine published an interview with UC Berkeley Haas Business School professor Philip Tetlock. The professor has spent his career evaluating experts and authorities in a variety of fields, and he is not at all surprised that the vast majority of financial “gurus” failed to predict the recent steep market decline.
Here is a summary of the article:
Despite everything, we can’t shake the belief that elite forecasters know better than the rest of us what the future holds.
The record, unfortunately, proves no such thing. And no one knows that record better than Philip Tetlock, 54, a professor of organizational behavior at the Haas Business School at the University of California-Berkeley. Tetlock is the world’s top expert on, well, top experts. Some 25 years ago, he began an experiment to quantify the forecasting skill of political experts.
Tetlock has analyzed “not just what the experts said but how they thought: how quickly they embraced contrary evidence, for example, or reacted when they were wrong. And wrong they usually were, barely beating out a random forecast generator.”
Why did so many experts miss the economic crash?
The people intimately involved in packaging [financial derivatives like] CDOs must have had some sense that they were unstable. But their superiors seem to have been lulled into complacency, partly because they were making a lot of money very fast and had no motivation to look closer. So greed played a role.
But hubris may have played a bigger one. … In this case the biggest source of hubris was the mathematical models that claimed you could turn iffy loans into investment-grade securities. The models rested on a misplaced faith in the law of large numbers and on wildly miscalculated estimates of the likelihood of a national collapse in real estate. But mathematics has a certain mystique. People get intimidated by it, and no one challenged the models.
Money has written about human mental quirks that lead ordinary folks to make investing mistakes. Do the same lapses affect experts’ judgment?
Of course. Like all of us, experts go wrong when they try to fit simple models to complex situations. (“It’s the Great Depression all over again!”) They go wrong when they leap to judgment or are too slow to change their minds in the face of contrary evidence.
An Alternative to Finding a Better Forecaster
A good part of the article explores the question “What makes some forecasters better than others?” Professor Tetlock has a detailed answer, which makes interesting reading. He recommends looking for “self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence, were doubtful of grand schemes and were rather modest about their predictive ability.”
But my answer to the same question is radically different. I believe that it is futile to rely on gurus who have been right more often than others. Various “experts” will be right or wrong at different times, and you cannot, regrettably, know in advance when that will be. So if in essence, the future is unknowable, and experts are so unreliable, you need to have a strategy that does not depend on “accurate” forecasts.
No one, yes no one, knows how markets will behave in the short term. Accordingly, my recommended approach has been and continues to be a disciplined long-term strategy. To understand why, it is absolutely necessary to have perspective on financial history:
- There have been many financial crises in the past; none have proven fatal.
- We have experienced a dozen other Bear Markets since World War II.
- Stock prices have rebounded from all previous declines, even steep ones.
- The stock market goes up in roughly 3 out of every 4 years.
- Stock market losses are temporary; stock market gains are permanent.
Furthermore, waiting for the “right time” to invest doesn’t work for most people, most of the time. The likelihood is that you will miss out on the really strong rebounds that happen when you least expect them. In other words, don’t wait until it looks safe to invest in stocks.
Accordingly, I leave forecasting to the “experts” who according to Professor Tetloc “barely beat random guesses – the statistical equivalent of a dart-throwing chimp – and proved no better than predictions of reasonably well-read nonexperts.”
I do believe in controlling what I can:
- Costs (through low cost mutual funds)
- Risk (through global diversification and sensible asset allocation).
I believe in staying the course so as to participate in the eventual and inevitable recovery.
In short, I do not have a forecast; I have a philosophy and an approach. It’s not perfect, nothing in this world is, but experience shows that it works better than any other approach.
I recently had dinner with my cousin who said, “I don’t understand how the economy was fine for so many years and now it isn’t fine. How did this happen? I don’t understand.”
Well, this is much too complicated a subject to discuss over just dinner, but I would imagine that many people feel the same way and are asking the same question as my cousin. “Why?”
Besides this blog, which has quite a few posts on this topic, I recommend checking out The Baseline Scenario, a web site whose tagline is “What happened to the global economy and what we can do about it.”
The founder of The Baseline Scenario is Simon Johnson, 46, currently a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. Previously, he was chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. Peter Boone and James Kwak also contribute to the site’s articles and posts.
Johnson is interviewed and quoted frequently, both in the mainstream media and on the internet. He has published many, many opinion pieces and articles on the global economic situation and possible solutions. He also writes for the New Republic and has been interviewed on NPR radio and the Charlie Rose program. Whew! It’s exhausting just following him around on the Internet!
In my opinion, The Baseline Scenario web site is so much more than just a simple blog. Rather, it’s a free online lesson on macro, monetary, and global economics.
The section, Financial Crisis for Beginners, quite effectively lessens the confusion. It covers pretty much everything, from old-fashioned bank runs to new-fangled credit default swaps. There are also very informative and helpful articles such as The Federal Reserve for Beginners and Interest Rates for Beginners. You’ll also find links to a thought-provoking article and radio interview, National Debt For Beginners.
Worth noting is the Japan’s Lost Decade article. While many economists, analysts and financial writers compare our current economic situation to the Great Depression, The Baseline Scenario suggests that “in many ways, a more relevant comparison may be the Japanese ‘lost decade’ of the 1990s, when the collapse of a bubble in real estate and stock prices led to over a decade of deflation and slow growth.”
It’s quite amazing that a single web site, and one ubiquitous observer, can have such an impact on the national debate. I highly recommend that you follow the articles and posts at The Baseline Scenario.
P.S. This is my 100th post. For some reason, this is supposed to be significant.