Opinion

Edward Hadas

Economists overvalue stock markets

Edward Hadas
Oct 31, 2013 13:07 UTC

Is it possible to construct portfolios which perform better than the overall stock market? Two of the three recipients of the latest Nobel prize in economics have tried to answer that question. Roughly speaking, Eugene Fama said that all efforts are in vain, while Robert Shiller said that they are not.

These nearly contradictory views are typical of an intense but inconclusive argument stretching back four decades. Market researchers have produced a mountain of studies, but they rarely consider the macroeconomic, ethical and social meaning of equity investing. That’s a shame. If more attention were paid to these issues, everyone could calm down.

Start with the economics. For the economy as a whole, changes in individual stock prices are basically irrelevant. The companies receive no cash when existing shares trade hands, whatever the price. The trading shareholders may have gains and losses, but they cancel each other out. The net economic effect of frenetic stock markets is zero.

The share price does matter when new shares are issued, but that happens rarely. While promising young companies can use cash to expand, and troubled older ones need cash to survive, in normal times companies generate all the cash they can invest profitably from operations, so they don’t need or want to raise new capital. It’s perfectly reasonable that over the last seven years, the value of newly issued shares was only about 10 percent higher for listed U.S. companies than the value of repurchased old shares, according to data from Thomson Reuters Datastream and Factset.

The main economic influence of share price moves is indirect, and basically negative. Top managers spend too much time watching the stock market. They hope for bonuses which are often based on share prices and they fret about being taken over. Both concerns lead them to follow the advice of stock market investors, outsiders who rarely have much insight into long-term strategic issues. Although activist investors can occasionally clarify their thinking, managers would usually be well advised to ignore the market price and rely instead on their superior knowledge as insiders.

America says it has got poorer. That’s rich

Edward Hadas
Sep 25, 2013 14:45 UTC

The U.S. Census Bureau says the median American household’s income was 1.3 percent lower in 2012 than in 1989 after adjusting for inflation. That suggests stagnant American consumption for the last 24 years. That assertion is not as ridiculous as North Korean propaganda about the United States – “their houses blow down very easily and they have to live in tents” – but it’s still misleading.

To start, the country is currently enjoying the fruits of major technological advances in electronics. In 1989, there were almost no mobile phones. Today, more than 90 percent of American adults have one, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project – and more than half of those phones count as “smart”. The same project estimates that about 70 percent of U.S. adults are daily internet users, compared to zero in 1989.

Considering the increased consumption of electronic goods, a typical American household could only be poorer now than then if there were matching declines in the consumption of other goods and services. But none of the statistics I could find shows this. On the contrary.

A dangerous lie about debt

Edward Hadas
Aug 21, 2013 09:41 UTC

I have spent much of the last five years searching for financial villains. The 2008 crisis and the extremely slow subsequent economic recovery have exposed a deeply flawed system, and some people, groups or ideas must be responsible.

There are many obvious culprits: greedy bankers, undercapitalised banks, lax monetary policymakers, reckless governments, weak international institutions and imprudent lenders and borrowers. They’re all guilty, but some of the worst offenders are intellectual – the dangerous ideas that encouraged overconfidence during the credit bubble and ineffective policy in the aftermath. Financial theory is a big problem. In particular, I accuse the risk-free rate of return of being the devil’s work.

Some aspects of the theory have already received a great deal of criticism, but the complaints are mostly quite technical. Beta, or market return, is too often dressed up as alpha, the extra return attributed to an investor’s skill (or luck) picking particular investments. And the distribution of daily returns is actually not mathematically normal, as much of the theory assumes. But I think the problem starts right at the beginning, with the assumption that there is a readily available, perfectly safe investment. The theory basically compares the range of likely returns on every other investment to the certain gain from the risk-free alternative. Additional returns are expected to compensate for additional risk.

UK’s economic woes are basically social

Edward Hadas
Aug 14, 2013 09:23 UTC

Four decades ago, everyone knew that the UK had a social problem. Class divisions stunted the development of a substantial, well-educated middle class, leaving the economy in a strangely Victorian state – divided between a gruff working class, which was prone to strikes and obstruction; and the incompetent elite, which seemed unable to adjust to the end of Empire.

Times have certainly changed. Britain is now prosperous and predominantly middle class. Union strangleholds have given way to flexible labour markets. The country is a magnet for global talent, drawn by a cosmopolitan culture, not to mention the use of the leading global language. High value-added international services are its speciality.

But something is still wrong. A country with so many advantages should be doing better. Think Switzerland – another country of social peace, high skills and a post-industrial economy. The Swiss run a hefty trade surplus. The country has a very low unemployment rate, low inflation and a fiscal surplus. The nation’s biggest monetary challenge is to keep the currency from rising.

Detroit, decay and solidarity

Edward Hadas
Jul 31, 2013 14:29 UTC

The bankruptcy of the city of Detroit has many causes, including poor management, industrial history and dysfunctional American sociology. I think there is also an ethical problem: too little cross-border solidarity.

I don’t want to downplay the other failures. A more competent city government would have addressed, rather than added to, the problems. The U.S. car industry proved a disastrously weak economic anchor. And without widespread racism, there would have been fewer ghettoised African-Americans.

Still, the economic and sociological poison has not been spread equally. On the contrary, it is concentrated inside the legal borders of the city of Detroit. The Detroit of common speech and common sense – the big blob on a national map, the urban area served by a single international airport – has suffered much less.

Get used to zombie economics

Edward Hadas
Jul 10, 2013 12:15 UTC

Zombies are neither really alive nor fully dead. Moviegoers know that, but the idea is also useful in demographics and economics. Although economic zombification receives little attention, its effects could be as important as monetary policy, fiscal deficits and structural reforms.

The demographic trends are well known. For the past three or four decades in most developed economies, the number of children born has been too low, often by a wide margin, to keep the population constant. Japan is the leader in this decline. Indeed, the zombification of the Japanese population could well be the most dramatic such shift in history, at least during a period of peace, prosperity and good health.

Of course, Tokyo and Osaka are not actually filled with walking, flesh-eating corpses. But as in a horror film, the nation’s life-force is waning. Over the last decade, the number of Japanese people aged between 20 and 25 years old has declined by 22 percent. Since there is almost no immigration, the demographic future is easy to predict: another 22 percent drop over the next 20 years.

China’s wisdom on GDP growth

Edward Hadas
Jul 3, 2013 12:10 UTC

“We should no longer evaluate the performance of leaders simply by GDP growth. Instead, we should look at welfare improvement, social development and environmental indicators.” That is a fine piece of wisdom from Xi Jinping, China’s president. Leaders of developed economies can learn from it.

Xi was speaking to a domestic audience about the choice of leaders within the ruling Communist Party. The desire for people who are “devoted fighters for the socialism with Chinese characteristics” is distinctly local, but Xi identified a fact which transcends all Chinese characteristics: GDP is a poor measure of economic progress.

Actually, for China, GDP is modestly helpful. In a country still so poor, increases in output correlate well with genuine economic improvements: factories and farms producing more and better goods, enterprises offering more and better services, and so on. Still, Xi is right that China is ready to outgrow this crude indicator. The idea is all the more relevant in richer economies, where GDP growth is a terrible measure of economic progress.

Bond markets and failed theory

Edward Hadas
Jun 5, 2013 14:00 UTC

In theory, interest rates are one of the jewels of capitalist economies. The theory has been well tested over the past half-century, and it has failed. Interest rates have become a mark of shame. The recent increase in yields on government bonds in much of the world – by a quarter, from 1.65 percent to 2.1 percent since the beginning of May for 10-year U.S. government bonds – is only the latest chapter in a long and depressing story.

The theory starts well, with a plausible behavioural generalisation. A lower interest rate encourages less saving and more consumption today, while a higher rate encourages saving now and boosts consumption in the future. But the theoreticians are not content with that; they want mathematical precision. They get it by adding some extraordinarily unlikely assumptions about knowledge, uncertainty, defaults, growth, and inflation.

The result is almost magical: a single “natural” interest rate which serves as a sort of economic fulcrum. At this ideal rate, saving and consumption are supposed to be balanced correctly, and the financial system is perfectly aligned with the real economy of making and selling.

The dangerous aristocrats of finance

Edward Hadas
May 29, 2013 14:21 UTC

In many ways, the financial world has changed remarkably little in the five years since the 2008 financial crisis. Yes, banks, brokers and other intermediaries are neither as profitable nor as popular as in the pre-crisis years. However, the industry is still arrogant, isolated and ridiculously lucrative. Leading financiers look more like pre-revolutionary aristocrats than normal businessmen.

Pay is the most obvious sign of this privileged social position. Consider JPMorgan, a fairly typical financial firm in terms of remuneration. Last year, the annual compensation per employee was $192,000.

That already seems high, but the measure includes the majority of employees whose pay is bunched around the $45,000 average for non-supervisory U.S. workers in finance. Assume that two-thirds of Morgan’s employees were in that group. For the rest, the people at the top and upper middle of the company, that leaves an average pretax reward of $485,000 – more than 10 times the norm of the lower orders.

Keynes, fertility, and growth

Edward Hadas
May 15, 2013 13:43 UTC

“Keynes was a homosexual and had no intention of having children. We are NOT dead in the long run … our children are our progeny.” This tirade came from Niall Ferguson, the financial historian, Harvard professor and pundit, speaking in the third capacity at an investor conference two weeks ago. Though largely misguided, part of that comment is interesting. The idea that fertility has something to do with economics is due for a revival.

The sexual slur, for which Ferguson apologised, is tedious, as is the wilful misunderstanding of John Maynard Keynes’s quip: “in the long run we are all dead”. That was a complaint about the glib willingness of rival economists to endorse temporary suffering, which Keynes thought was largely unnecessary, for the sake of some distant good, which he thought was far from certain to arrive.

But Ferguson’s comment assumes, correctly, that our economic activity cannot be separated from an almost biological desire to create a good society which will endure into the future. In other words, there is a valid analogy between our biological drives to survive and reproduce and the economic desires to satisfy our needs and to thrive, now and in the future. Economists have captured the close ties of biology and society with two different images: growth and fertility.

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