Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ben Inker on the Non-Death of Equities

Ben Inker, of GMO, put out a piece last year that is one of the best things on equity investing I have read in a long time. Here is "Reports of the Death of Equities Have Been Greatly Exaggerated: Explaining Equity Returns."

I am sure there is a bit of GMO party line in it. However, the piece is so good that it does not really matter. Inker discusses the non-correlation (negative correlation, actually) of GDP growth and returns to equity holders; the nature of the equity risk premium (why it exists, and why it must continue to exist, long-run); how to infer the degree to which GAAP accounting overstates economic profit; and the width of profit margins.

Truly insightful and interesting.

[I updated this post on 2/14/14 with a live link to the Inker article; the link I used before had stopped working.]

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Stealth Jubilee

Central banks have been blowing a lot of air – should I say life? – into western economies. The U.S. and European central banks have used their fiat power to print trillions of dollars and euros, bailing out the banks here, and both banks and sovereigns there.

We can call this period a jubilee. Not a party for the Queen, but rather, I mean, the Biblical, once-in-fifty-year release of debtors from their obligations. With a modern twist: this is a stealth jubilee, low-grade and gradual. Short-term interest rates are being kept at the lower bound of zero, while inflation is around 2% per year. So the real rate of return to savers, at least savers with money in the bank or Treasury Bills, is negative. They earn about zero in nominal terms, and about negative 2% after taking account of inflation. Normally, T-bills would beat inflation.

This is a slow transfer of wealth from creditors to debtors, taking place through monetary policy rather than a rewriting of contracts. In theory, the same result could be achieved legislatively or judicially. We could just keep interest rates at natural (i.e. higher) levels, and then have all creditors pay 2% of the face value of the notes and bank deposits they hold into a pool, to be distributed pro-rata to debtors.

But we are doing it by Federal Reserve policy, instead. A jubilee via committee -- the Federal Open Market Committee, to be precise.

Is our stealthy, slow-mo jubilee a good thing, or a bad thing? The degree of jubilation this policy induces for you will likely depend on your politics, and what you think the world would look like if we did not do it.

At the risk of sounding too calculating: when I am thinking as an investor, rather than as a citizen, I just take a cue from Nietzsche and regard it as beyond good and evil. Either way, it is useful to see that it is happening.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Orlando, the Stock-Picking Cat, meets Nate Silver

A piece I wrote for Paul Solman's Making Sen$e page, at the PBS NewsHour site, is up today.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Against Writing

An excellent post from the blog Farnam Street, which I like, on the arguments against writing.

The basic idea is that writing and reading are not a good substitute for dialogue, and that is hard to disagree with. (Though even a monologue is better than nothing.)

The classic example of the literate non-writer is Socrates, whom we know through Plato rather than from his own writings.

The 20th Century philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser is a modern example, and his recorded quotations here are wonderful. One of my favorites of his, spoken on his death bed: "Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don't believe in him?"