Links: Japan's tragedy and some of its implications

1. A lot of videos of the horrific damage from the tsunami are going around. This one shows how the wave wipes out villages (Warning: Graphic) as it approaches the shore, while this video shows just how destructive a large amount of water can be to a city even when it isn't moving at huge speeds.

2. Some people are wondering how Japan will be able to finance its reconstruction.  Peter Westaway of Nomura expects rating agencies will "cut Japan some slack" for humanitarian/public relations reasons. While this will reduce the need for some institutions with strict rules to keep their money out of Japan it also means that the market could move well before the ratings agencies do.

3.  The Bank of Japan is flooding the market with yen. Weighed against this move and the government's new fiscal position is the repatriation of Japanese household's foreign investments combined with expected insurance payments that will flow into the country. These inflows help explain why the yen hasn't moved very much and has actually slightly strengthened against the dollar despite the huge economic shock that has sent its stock market tumbling more than any other two day period since 1987.

4. There appears to be less looting in Japan than in other recent natural disasters. One politically incorrect explanation is that groups of people with high IQ's are more likely to cooperate in prisoner's dilemmas. (HT: Garrett Jones

5. The biggest impact of this tragedy on America's future might in how it seems to be scaring people away from nuclear power.  If the situation at Japan's power plants gets any worse the future of nuclear power in America will be very dim.

What a naive long China strategy misses

People who go long China's economic growth by buying their equity index will miss out on a lot China's growth. Via the Economist I came by this interesting fact:

"Qiao Liu and Alan Siu of the University of Hong Kong calculate that the average return on equity of unlisted private firms is fully ten percentage points higher than the modest 4% achieved by wholly or partly state-owned enterprises."

While looking at this, it is important to note that this is just state owned firms and not firms with ownership by government officials. But the outperformance of unlisted firms does suggest that the average investor looking to go long China's listed equities are not participating in a large portion of China's economic growth. Marc Faber anticipated this as far back as 2002 when he wrote Tomorrow's Gold and made the analogy between China today and the United States in the 1800's. The 19th century United States economy grew a lot, but the opportunities available to foreign investors, mostly railroad stocks, didn't give foreign investors corresponding returns.

The beginning of the end for low vol?

Eric Falkenstein wrote one of my favorite books on finance, Finding Alpha. In this book, he goes over the typical lifecycle of market inefficiencies. Markets might mis-price volatility or Eurodollars or under estimate stock market daily reversals for an extended time period, but once people find out about it and have the tools to easily trade it the alpha available to investors in the know decreases.  In the same book and on his blog he also promotes his pet investment thesis: low volatility stocks or avoiding high volatility stocks. If CAPM is wrong and people are basically envious rather than risk averse then their main goal is to outperform the benchmark. Low volatility stocks offer no hope of outperforming the benchmark and in fact consistently underperform it during bull markets. Because of this they are subsequently undervalued and massively outperform during market turbulence.  Their risk adjusted return across stock market cycles is better than the index as a whole by over a percent a year. This doesn't sound like much, but a one percent growth rate differential matters a lot over the long run.

Recently, Falkenblog has been pointing out all of the people coming around to this point of view. As someone who wants to take advantage of this strategy in scale this is worrisome (Even if the prospect of being able to choose to apply this strategy via ETFs is also convenient). It is starting to look like the strategy is going to get crowded. The low volatility strategy probably isn't crowded right now, but it looks like that this cycle might be the time that it finally becomes popular enough to impact returns. If that's true, than that means that this cycle will see low volatility stocks underperform to a much lower extent but also fail to outperform to the same extent during the next bear market.

It will be interesting to see how many low vol ETFs are introduced and their subsequent popularity.  Measuring the AUM of low vol ETFs and funds is a good way to track just how popular the idea is getting because mentions in press and conferences will only matter insofar as they are reflected by the choices investors are making in their portfolios.

Autocorrelated protests

I'm starting to wonder if any of the flame sparked by Tunisia's protesters will spread to the developed world in any form.  The current events in Wisconsin might be slightly related. The Wisconsin protests may have stemmed by opposition to the drastic but mostly necessary measures* proposed by Wisconsin's governor, but they also occurred because events in the Middle East have reminded people about the potential power of crowds. Some people may not realize it, but the protests are effective because there is an implicit threat that the protesters might turn angry. This is part of why it is considered very impolite to protest in front of someones private house

Comparing Wisconsin to the Middle East protests in general and Tunisia in particular seems a little silly at first.  Wisconsin is nowhere near as extreme as Tunisia, the privileges the union is trying to protect and their potential to turn into a scene of large scale destruction** is lower than anything going in the Middle East.  But they do have something in common with Tunisia, Wisconsin will give people feedback on how successfully they can manipulate the political system by mobilizing people for large scale protests.

In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to give their employees collective bargaining rights. They are going to be a trend setter again. The only question is whether they are setting the trend of disempowering public sector unions or increasing the power of public protests.

*The overall cuts seem reasonable in light of their budget and banning collective bargaining is either to allow local government to more easily balance their budgets or it is a clever ploy to eventually give the unions something that looks like a major victory even after the governor got all of the pension and health care concessions he wanted.  It can also be a threat that is left hanging in the air in order to force the unions to cooperate as long as Republicans are in charge.

**Museums are unlikely to be looted and police stations probably won't be burned down.

AOL risks angering their cash cow in attempt to reinvent itself

Recently, PC magazine had an article highlighting how important old people are to AOL's returns. In the article, "Is AOL Scamming Old People?", they highlighted a quote from the New Yorker article about AOL's CEO Tim Armstrong.

'[M]any of [AOL's subscribers] are older people who have cable or DSL service but don't realize that they need not pay an additional twenty-five dollars a month to get online and check their e-mail. "The dirty little secret," a former AOL executive says, "is that seventy-five per cent of the people who subscribe to AOL's dial-up service don't need it"'

So AOL is making a lot of money from old people who can easily unsubscribe while keeping their email adress. PC magazine said the money AOL was making from these old people was $244 million in Q3 of last year.  With this information in mind, it seems strange that AOL would do something that could get a lot of those old people very angry. With the decision to buy the Huffington Post, they also decided to become the face of liberal media online. While the stock market's reaction implies that the $315 million dollar purchase was a bad idea on its own merits, they are probably missing the consequences of AOL putting a bit "Liberal Media" target on its back.

Most old people lean right.  A 2009 Gallup survey found that 48% of people over the age of 65 identify as conservative while only 16% identify themselves as liberal.  It might not be long until right leaning media personalities decide that they can fight back against liberal media and save their fans money by encouraging them to unsubscribe from their useless AOL accounts. Right now AOL is losing subscribers at a rate of 30% a year. This move may have hastened the decline.  It will be interesting to see if AOL will be able to reinvent themselves and find a new niche to replace the old one they are losing.

China's Innovative Policies

I recently came across a Jul 28, 2010 report by the US Chamber of Commerce, China’s Drive for 'Indigenous Innovation' - A Web of Industrial Policies.  While conceptually it might be easy to understand the idea that unconnected foreign businesses are at a disadvantage in China, this report spells out many of the more specific ways that outside companies are put at a disadvantage when doing business in China and how this ties into China's drive for indigenous innovation.  

In the report, it is pointed out that it is clear to everyone that China's see a large part of its growth path through acquiring foreign technology. They show that China's  “The National Medium- and Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology (2006-2020) defines indigenous innovation as “enhancing original innovation through co-innovation and re-innovation based on the assimilation of imported technologies.”

A lot of these regulations target multinationals who are trying to compete with domestic brands.  The Chinese Compulsory Certification system often delays foreign companies from getting to market before domestic Chinese competitors have had a chance.  Companies that make products with encryption are reluctant to get the certification at all, as the process requires that they trust the Chinese government with proprietary trade secrets.  China also enacted an "Anti-Monopoly Law" in 2008 which some officials are trying to use to justify compulsory technology transfers from foreign companies dominating specific markets to domestic Chinese companies.  The general implementation of IP law is also said to be rather biased towards local companies, either because those enforcing the law have ties to local companies or because the punishment for stolen IP is still rather low unless it happens to be a ruling in favor of a domestic company against a foreign company.

One of the main ways they get this technology is through foreign companies looking for access to the Chinese market.  In return for partnering with a local Chinese company, the foreign company is given access to the large Chinese market with less regulatory hassle and lower tax rates.  

"The indigenous innovation drive is forcing foreign technology companies to anguish over balancing today’s profits with tomorrow’s survival. With its extraordinary infrastructure plans and a continental-sized consumer market that has just begun to really develop, China is a market no multinational can ignore. But the price of admission is getting more expensive by the day as China opens its policy toolbox to ensure that foreign technology allowed into China is accessible for “co-innovation” and “re-innovation” by Chinese companies."
- China's Drive for 'Indigenous Innovation, Page 31

The report then goes on to detail many different industries, from trains to green energy to airplanes where the foreign multinational enters joint partnerships to gain access to China's market and eventually gets supplanted by their former Chinese domestic partners.

The anecdotal evidence in favor of China's rise to technological prominence is just that - anecdotal.  Many of these anecdotes arise from specific mega projects targeted and funded by the Chinese government, so impressive progress is likely to be contained to major areas of interest. Still, there is no denying that domestic Chinese companies are able to copy ideas efficiently from their western competitors/partners.  When companies decide to do business in China, they better be thinking past the next quarterly earnings time period even if the stock market isn't. For some technology companies, it can make sense to move production to China if the other option is going out of business, but companies that have a sustainable business plan should think twice about who they will be competing with in 5 years time.

How this competition impacts the future is open to interpretation. If the low hanging fruit of innovation* has been picked, then it makes sense for the west to become much more protective of giving away any existing technological superiority. If China became as rich as the west in a world without significant innovation occurring, then while China's citizens would be much better off there would also be a major rise in the cost of resources that would lower the standard of living for most people in the west. However, if innovation is occurring on a normal historical course in these and other areas then while companies should protect their trade secrets China's attempts to catch up should not be a problem for anyone but their direct competitors.

Hat Tip: Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis

*Much more on this later!

Unintentional Irony in the State of the Union

While pointing out what a great country America is and implicitly comparing us to our competitors such as China, Obama made the following remark in his most recent State of the Union Address:

China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a "D."
We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the Interstate Highway System.

The irony comes in using the transcontinental railroad as way to highlight how capable Americans are.  The toughest part of building the transcontinental railroad was laying track across the Sierra Nevada's.  The American workers were unreliable, so Chinese workers were brought in to do the job.

These workers quickly earned a reputation as tireless and extraordinarily reliable workers--"quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious, and economical." Within two years, 12,000 of the Central Pacific railroad's 13,500 employees were Chinese immigrants.

Almost 150 years ago Chinese workers were brought in to do a job that Americans weren't willing or able to do*. Obama's speech writers were trying to make a more general point about the value of infrastructure in general while touching on the feel good notion that Americans can accomplish anything. It is amusing to contrast this message with the idea that 145 years ago the Chinese work ethic, technological expertise and cheap labor were what drove this particular American success.

*This isn't the only way history seems to be rhyming if not repeating. In response to the Chinese competition there was rampant protectionism of white labor with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act to prevent Chinese immigration along with many local laws attempting to prevent Chinese labor competition from impacting white Americans.  These discriminatory laws ultimately led to a Chinese boycott of American goods in 1905-1906.
Edit: There is more. Chinese laborers in the US were also known as better savers back then, as many of them were able to refrain from spending a large portion of their paycheck on alcohol.

Trying to set a dangerous precedent

Lawyers and NGOs smell blood. They are trying to use the court system to get damages for climate related disasters from companies responsible for emitting carbon dioxide.  So far, no damages have been paid out by the courts.  That's a good thing, because it seems like lawyers and NGOs want to be able to sue any company emitting greenhouse gasses for any negative weather event.  There would a giant swooshing sound as more resources in the economy flowed out of productive enterprises into the hands of lawyers.

Fixing Broken Government - A Reaction

I just saw a speech given by Philip J. Howard on the topic of Fixing Broken Government.  The LongNow introduces Philip J. Howard as "a conservative who inspires standing ovations from liberal audiences."  They fail to mention that he does this primarily by making fun of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

In a very convincing speech, he highlighted how there are many problems that originate from overly complicated rules that are more effective at creating paperwork than in getting the job done. A lot of more of these rules exist today because old laws stay on the books while new ones are added on by a congress who doesn't feel like its job is to fix older laws and regulations.

While he has been involved in attempts to fix regulation on a micro level, Philip has three main reforms that he believes would help solve many of these issues on a systematic level.

1. Laws need to sunset automatically.  This would stop laws from piling up and make the special interests actively fight to protect their favored laws rather than let them target any lawmaker who decides to do anything about their laws.

2. Government officials need to be able to use more discretion in the performance of their jobs.  This would allow for simpler laws and prevent bureaucratic disasters. It will also allow the government to hire more competent employees, the kind who can get the job done without being bogged down by paperwork or always having to follow a poorly planned checklist of procedures.  There also needs to be someone who can green-light a project once a reasonable amount of background research has been done. The interstate highway system was built in 15 years, but today it takes 10 years of feasibility studies and environment assessment before they are even thinking of building windmill off the coast of Massachusetts. 

3. Government officials need to be more accountable for their performance.  This basically means that they need to be able to be fired.  This makes it so the government officials who aren't handling the responsibility they are given can be gotten rid of.

Unfortunately, I became even more pessimistic about fixing broken government after hearing this part of the speech.  The problems that were outlined were much more salient than the solutions that were offered.  When more and more laws sunset automatically, special interests will become more adept at getting them renewed. If a reform that automatically sunsets old laws is ever passed it will hopefully be in conjunction with a congress who is willing to do something about the problem of old laws cluttering the books at the same time. However, once congress grows complacent about this issue and the special interests remain vigilant, it is hard to see how even a large procedural change will do much good in the long term. 

The next two steps go hand in hand. Workers who cannot be fired cannot be given very much leeway in their jobs. In China, local bureaucrats who have discretion with their jobs but are not accountable to anyone but party elders have made millions of dollars selling the land of villagers to large corporations. 

But even if government workers can be fired (by their superiors for lower ranked workers or the higher ranked ones by voters), there are many other problems with giving government workers too much discretion.  In many cases, the government is deciding on whether to award permits that could be worth millions of dollars to businesses who can easily afford to buy the decision maker.  The corruption can happen either directly or indirectly. In Japan, the indirect corruption is subtle: regulators get appointed to the boards of private corporations after they retire. Giving government workers more leeway and accountability might still be better than the status quo, but it will open up a whole new can of worms.

While expanding the three solutions to all of government might take some work, the school system is one area where these types of changes could create an immediate positive impact. One scary statistic is that it cost the Los Angeles School Distract $3.5 million dollars when it tried to fire 7 teachers over the last 10 years. This means that teachers are not by any means accountable once they get their tenure. Another statistic comes from a study which finds that the US would be on top of international math and science educational rankings if we replaced the bottom 5 to 8% of teachers with average teachers.  If the reforms that Philip is pushing were applied only in schools then there could be real progress.

While the chance of a larger fix to the problem of bad governance happening anytime soon doesn't look too likely, it is good to know that there are people identifying and coming up with potential solutions to these types of problems.

Krugman to his commenters

Krugman is a little upset with some of his commenter's insults.

Get your insults right. There is, I believe, a fair bit of evidence against the hypothesis that I’m stupid. What you mean to say is that I’m evil.

I think what his commenters are trying to say is that he often makes stupid arguments because he is evil (which in internet discourse means they have different ideologies) or because he is too obsessed with his clever models that he underestimates the real world consequences of some of his arguments.

The basic point is that the recession of 2001 wasn't a typical postwar slump, brought on when an inflation-fighting Fed raises interest rates and easily ended by a snapback in housing and consumer spending when the Fed brings rates back down again. This was a prewar-style recession, a morning after brought on by irrational exuberance. To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.