Tag: Wall Street

Visual Credit crisis —

Mar 10

Have a look at this!  it is a rather nice account of the credit crisis

How the crash is reshaping economics

Feb 20

In a story that just appeared in The Atlantic, Gregory Clark, a professor of economics at the University of California at Davis, described some of his concerns with the profession of Academic Economists.
In this story he also used a paper on online dating (one of mine) to show how economists are working on irrelevant topics.  And while I think that the dating market is an important topic to study, and even more to try and improve, I think that his overall criticism is worth paying attention to.

Here is the text:

Dismal scientists: how the crash is reshaping economics
With the chattering classes consumed by concern for the devastated value of their 401K funds, and their suddenly precarious lifestyles, there has been much anger and scorn directed at those former masters of the universe, financiers.

But the shock to the world of finance has been echoed by a shock to the world of academic economics that is just as profound.

In the long post WWII boom, as free market ideology triumphed, economists have won for themselves a privileged place inside academia.

First there is the cash. It astonished some when Washington University, a school with an economics department of modest prestige, hired economists David Levine and Michele Boldrin by offering salaries well in excess of $500,000.  But most high ranked economics departments have professors earning in excess of $300,000.  Not much by the pornographic standards of finance, but a fat paycheck compared to your average English or Physics professor.

It is not just the stars.  Journeyman assistant professors in economics routinely come in at $100,000 or more. And, unlike the hard sciences, they do this fresh from their PhDs, without a publication to their name and without years of low pay as post-docs.

The high salaries have been accompanied by dramatic declines in the teaching burden.  The research demands of our advanced science leave little time for the classroom.  In good universities faculty typically teach only two courses a year – one of which has to be a graduate seminar.  The masses in the Econ 1 classes are often abandoned to the tender mercies of graduate students.

Then there is the economics “Nobel” Prize.  Not a real Nobel, but a prize funded by the Bank of Sweden in honor of Alfred Nobel, with all the royal trappings of the Nobel.  That makes economics star players really attractive to universities.  When Edward Prescott of Arizona State won the Nobel he was paraded at half time at a football game.  There is nothing like a Nobel for luster and fund-raising.

Why did academic economics generate so much prestige? Sure, modern economics is technically demanding.  But so, for example, are theoretical physics and archeology, and physics and archeology professors are (relatively) dirt poor.

The technical demands helped limit the supply of economists. But what drove demand was the unquenchable thirst for economists by banks, government agencies, and business schools – the Feds, the Treasury, the IMF, the World Bank, the ECB.  Economics had powerful insights to offer the world, insights worth a lot of treasure.  Economics was powerful voodoo.  Any major university or research institute wanted to arm itself with this potency.

The current recession has revealed the weaknesses in the structures of modern capitalism.  But it also revealed as useless the mathematical contortions of academic economics.  There is no totemic power.  This for two reasons:

(1) Almost no-one predicted the world wide downtown.  Academic economists were confident that episodes like the Great Depression had been confined to the dust bins of history.  There was indeed much recent debate about the sources of “The Great Moderation” in modern economies, the declining significance of business cycles.

Indeed as we have seen this year on the academic job market, macroeconomists had turned their considerable talents to a bizarre variety of rococo academic elaborations.  With nothing of importance to explain, why not turn to the mysteries of online dating, for example.

I myself was so confident of the consensus of the end of the business cycle that I persuaded by wife after the collapse of Lehman Brothers to invest all her retirement savings in the stock market, confident that the Fed would soon make things right and we could profit from the panic of a gullible public.  The line “Where is my money, idiot?” is her’s.

(2) The debate about the bank bailout, and the stimulus package, has all revolved around issues that are entirely at the level of Econ 1.  What is the multiplier from government spending?  Does government spending crowd out private spending?  How quickly can you increase government spending? If you got a A in college in Econ 1 you are an expert in this debate: fully an equal of Summers and Geithner.

The bailout debate has also been conducted in terms that would be quite familiar to economists in the 1920s and 1930s.  There has essentially been no advance in our knowledge in 80 years.

It has seen people like Brad De Long accuse distinguished macro-economists like Eugene Fama and John Cochrane of the University of Chicago of at least one “elementary, freshman mistake.”

It has seen Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, guided by Larry Summers, one of the most respected economists of our time, produce a bailout plan for the US financial system stunning in its faltering vagueness.

Bizarrely, suddenly everyone is interested in economics, but most academic economists are ill-equipped to address these issues.

Recently a group of economists affiliated with the Cato Institute ran an ad in the New York Times opposing the Obama’s stimulus plan.  As chair of my department I tried to arrange a public debate between one of the signatories and a proponent of fiscal stimulus — thinking that would be a timely and lively session.  But the signatory, a fully accredited university macroeconomist, declined the opportunity for public defense of his position on the grounds that “all I know on this issue I got from Greg Mankiw’s blog — I really am not equipped to debate this with anyone.”

Academic economics will no doubt survive this shock to its prestige.

Will we be as well paid?  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests the days of the $500,000 economics professor may have passed.

But more importantly, will the focus of academic economics change?  That is hard to tell.  But I would rate the chances of Chrysler producing once again a competitive US automobile at least as high as the chances of academic economics learning any lesson from this downturn.  (What was the price of that Chrysler stock we bought, dear?)

Bankers’ salaries

Feb 15

In the wake of all this public anger over bankers’ salaries, and within weeks of taking office, Barack Obama is proposing “common sense” executive pay guidelines—at least in companies receiving government money. These measures call for executive salaries not to exceed $500,000; any further compensation could only be in the form of stocks, which can’t be sold until the government is paid back. No doubt this makes us feel better to some extent, but the question is, will it work?

I think not, and here’s why: if we were designing the stock market from scratch and offering people $500,000 a year plus stock incentives, I’m sure we would get lots of qualified people who would kill for this job, and not only for the salary but also as an important civil service to maintain the financial system on which we depend. But this is if we started from scratch, which we are most assuredly not. Instead we’re dealing with existing bankers who are accustomed to millions a year plus millions in stock options. These people have made up, over the years, a multitude of reasons why this is the least that they deserve for their efforts and skills (how many people can admit to being paid much more than they’re worth?). This is a problem of relativity. To these bankers, in view of their “normal” pay, it looks like an offensive and irresponsible offer. My guess is that they will not accept these conditions, or if they do, they’ll find other tricks to pay themselves what they think are “right” and fair wages, which is what they earned heretofore.

What would I have done if I’d been the financial czar in this situation? I would try to turn over a new leaf; incentivize the creation of new banks with a new pay structure; promote the idea that bankers are not greedy bastards but have a crucial social responsibility so that a whole new generation would take this approach and want these positions. The “old bankers” who feel they needed millions of dollars to do their jobs well could try and compete in this new market, but we’d see who actually wanted to bank with them when the alternative is a new bank with more idealistic underpinnings and a better, more realistic, and more transparent, salary structure.

Today I am working on an expan…

Feb 14

Today I am working on an expanded version of my book — I am going to include some ideas about the stock market and some other random ideas

This American Life and the financial fiasco

Jan 25

This American Life had a show a few months ago that I just discovered.  In my mind this is the best description of the financial fiasco I’ve heard.  it is worth listening to.
You can also download the transcript as a PDF.
It is just amazing to see what we end up doing to ourselves.

Irrationally yours


Bernard Madoff: a Financial Terrorist?

Dec 25

This week we learned that former Nasdaq chairman Madoff likely swindled investors out of $50 billion – arguably the largest financial fraud ever. And thinking about the gravity of the scam, it occurred to me that Madoff’s scam could be compared in terms of its effects to terrorism. Here’s how:

Consider that there was a time when terrorism wasn’t the big deal that it is now. This was before advances in technology, when terrorists only had recourse to low-level weaponry like stones and knives – which, while harmful on an individual level, are not quite weapons of mass destruction. In time, though, “better” technology came along, leading in turn to “better” terrorist tactics: suicide bombing and the like. Still peanuts, though, compared to what came later: 9/11 planes, bio terror – this is when things really got serious; now even one crazy person can cause a world of damage.

Now, I think Madoff’s case is equivalent in a financial sense. Whereas in the past one person’s monetary misdeeds could affect a handful of people at most, now there’s more at stake: a single person – like Madoff – can cause a whole lot of fiscal damage. And the reason lies in interconnections: when companies began investing with other companies, any fraud can spread and cause damage across many companies.

There’s one other similarity here. What makes terrorism so powerful are its randomness and intentionality: it can strike any time, and you never know when you’ll be a victim and it is done on purpose. Things that we can’t predict, control or at least think we can control make us more afraid. And that’s exactly the case with Madof’s scheme: the investers probably assumed that they were in control and all of a sudeen we all learned that we are much less in control, and that someone can do this to any of us.

If we view the stock market through this terrorism perspective, and we understand that just a few individuals can cause so much damage, it becomes clear that more regulation is needed – we do so much to check people at airports — shouldn’t we use the same level of security for hedge funds?

Dear Irrational (do we fall in love with our investments?)

Dec 05

Dear Irrational,

I am a partner in an asset management company whose purpose is to manage investments for individuals, families, and foundations.  The principles of Predictably Irrational made me think about the effectiveness of each component in our investment process.  My end in mind is: 1) to identify failure ingredients in my investment process and 2) engineer out their removal.
My question follows:

Is ‘falling in love’ with an investment hazardous to one’s financial health? Does ‘falling in love’ with an investment result in predictable behaviors (in me) that lower (or negate) what would otherwise have been an excellent investment performance?


Dear Investor,
We have not done any research directly on this question.  Nevertheless, I suspect that the answer is that we do get attached to investments, that it is not good for us, and that it has the potential to influence our judgment for the worse.

First, regarding ‘falling in love’ with an investment; I think that we would.  What we know about the endowment (ownership) effect is that people tend to fall in love with anything they happen to own (mugs, pens, cars, kids).  Once we have something, it becomes ours and we perceive it as special. As a consequence, we value it more.  I suspect that the same could occur with investments.
On top of that, in the current economy people are feeling like they are in a losing situation (if you don’t feel this way look at your retirement account) but losses in the stock market are not psychologically realized until they are truly realized.  So in people’s desire to hold on to what they have you might suspect that in this economy there is going to be an even stronger tendency to ‘fall in love’ with an investment.
Why is this not good for us?  Because the expected value of investment options are about their future potential and the past is just water under the bridge.

The good news is that you can do something about it, and advise your clients to do the same.  Imagine that at the start of every month you don’t look at your portfolio and instead you design your strategy and market positions as if you started from scratch.  The idea is that if you start from scratch you have a clean past with no commitments to past decisions.  I am not sure if the ‘falling in love’ with an investment sentiment will go away completely but I think this way it will be less powerful.
Irrationally yours

What’s the Value of a Big Bonus?

Nov 20

From the NYT op-ed
BY withholding bonuses from their top executives, Goldman Sachs and UBS may soften negative reaction from Congress and the public if their earnings reports in December are poor, as is expected. But will they also suffer because their executives, lacking the motivation that big bonuses are thought to provide, will not do their jobs well? Read the rest of this entry »

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