The Great Debate UK

from The Great Debate:

How the Nobel economists changed investing forever

The 2013 Nobel Prize for economics celebrates that financial markets work, but cautions how little we know. One theme unifies the work of all three winners: Eugene Fama, Robert Shiller and Lars Hansen -- risk. (A disclosure: until August I worked at Dimensional Fund Advisors, where Fama is a director and consultant.) Risk is unpredictable, but can be very profitable. That sounds simple enough, but it has profound implications -- not only for the lords of high finance, but households, too. Risk teaches humility, to overconfident investors and also policymakers. That humility was notably absent at the IMF/World Bank meetings last week. Policymakers should take special note of the prize this year; it reveals how little we really understand about financial markets.

Fama’s work showed that prices incorporate all available information; this is known as the efficient market hypothesis. The implication is that you cannot systematically outperform the market, unless you have information other people don’t or can access part of the market others can’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make money. Over time you can expect, but are not guaranteed, that riskier assets generate higher returns. Stocks, on average, return more than bonds because they are riskier. The stock of smaller companies is riskier than larger ones, so they typically generate more returns. It’s a straightforward concept, but often poorly understood. Even many sophisticated investors get it wrong.

The implications of this theory changed markets, even for the average investor. The concept of efficient markets helped create demand for index funds. Index funds are a type of mutual fund, which is a collection of many different stocks. Active funds profess to know which stocks will outperform the market. Index funds don’t make that promise; stocks are weighted by their size relative to the rest of the market or use a weighting based on identifiable price or size characteristics. Because there’s no magic formula or talent presumed in constructing these funds, they are cheap; if no one can beat the market, why pay 1 or 2 percent of your assets to someone who claims they can? If you believe in efficient markets you’d only hold index funds. This has been revolutionary for the average investor. Through the 1960s few Americans owned stock at all, and if they did they only held a handful of individual stocks, which was very risky. Now about 50 percent of the population owns stock, mostly through mutual funds and increasingly with allocations based on indexing. The average household can invest as well as many hedge funds, for a fraction of the price. The existence of index funds shows that the best innovations (in finance or any industry) are often the simplest.

Fama’s later work, and the work of the other new Nobelists, further refined our understanding of risk. Fama’s more recent work helped us understand what kinds of risk investors are compensated for and how the return from risk varies over time and with economic conditions. Shiller’s work showed that asset prices are more volatile than models would predict, but there may be some predictability to returns over long horizons. Shiller may be skeptical that asset prices accurately reflect all information, but he still believes markets work. He advocates more financial innovation, based on his ideas, including products that hedge housing price risk and swings in economic activity.

from MacroScope:

The Law of Diminishing Greeks

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The Law of Diminishing Returns  states that a continuing push towards a given goal tends to  decline in effectiveness after a certain amount of effort has been expended. If this weren't the case, Usain Bolt would be able to run the mile in  less than 2-1/2 minutes.

From an economic standpoint, this law now seems to be fully in force in Greece. The latest jobs figures from the twice-bailed out euro zone country paint a bleak numerical picture of the impact of unrelenting austerity in ordinary Greeks, regardless of whether it was self-inflicted or not. To wit:

from The Great Debate:

The limits of the scientific method in economics and the world

By Roger Martin
The opinions expressed are his own.

This is part one of this essay. Read part two here.

As the economy teeters and the capital markets gyrate, I can’t get out of my mind the evening of May 19, 2009.  We were near the stock market nadir and fears were cresting that we were heading straight into the next Great Depression. I was invited to a dinner along with half a dozen tables of guests to hear a very prominent macroeconomist opine on the state of the economy and the path to recovery.

The economist held forth with a detailed, analytical account of what had caused the economic meltdown in the second half of 2008 and the path that he predicted recovery would take. I was struck by how scientific he was, spewing myriad statistics, employing technical terms by the boatload, and praising his econometric model. It was ‘very sophisticated’.  Given the nods and encouraged looks in the room, it seemed as though he had provided great comfort to the guests; they could go to bed confident that thanks to his science, they could trust that this man knew where we were headed.

from Ian Bremmer:

The secret to China’s boom: state capitalism

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the world since the 2008 financial crisis can be summed up in one sentence: Security is no longer the primary driver of geopolitical developments; economics is. Think about this in terms of the United States and its shifting place as the superpower of the world. Since World War II, the U.S.’s highly developed Department of Defense has ensured the security of the country and indeed, much of the free world. The private sector was, well, the private sector. In a free market economy, companies manage their own affairs, perhaps with government regulation, but not with government direction. More than sixty years on, perhaps that’s why our military is the most technologically advanced in the world while our domestic economy fails to create enough jobs and opportunities for the U.S. population.

Contrast the U.S. and its free market economy with China’s system.  For years now, that country has experienced double digit growth. Many observers would say that China’s embrace of capitalism since 1978, and especially since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, has been responsible for its boom. They would be mostly wrong. In fact, a new study prepared for the U.S. government says it’s not capitalism that’s powering China, but state capitalism -- China’s massive, centrally directed industrial policy, where the government positions huge amounts of capital and labor in economic sectors it intends to nurture. The study, prepared by consultants Capital Trade for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, reads in part:

from MacroScope:

Give me liberty and give me cash!

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Come back Mr Fukuyama, all is forgiven.

In his 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man", American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously argued that all states were moving inexorably towards liberal democracy. His thesis that democracy is the pinnacle of political evolution has since been challenged by the violent eruption of radical Islam as well as the economic success of authoritarian countries such as China and Russia.

Now a study by Russian investment bank Renaissance Capital into the link between economic wealth and democracy seems to back Fukuyama.

from MacroScope:

The iPod – the iCon of Chinese capitalism

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Walking past Apple's sleek shop along London's Regent Street on Sunday, my wife asked me what I wanted for Father's Day.

"An iPad?" I ventured, half-jokingly.

"Are you sure you want one? Don't you care how they're made?" came her disapproving reply.

Superstar economics: It’s all showbiz now

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

It seems barely a week goes by without another shock report about the ever-widening gap between those at the top of the earnings distribution and the rest of us. The facts are by now well-established. Throughout the Western world, but most noticeably in Britain and America, the earnings of the top one or two percent are accelerating into the stratosphere, leaving the middle class a long way behind, and the working class completely out of sight. How can one explain this global phenomenon?

Academic economics seems to be taking a surprisingly long time to reach a definitive answer, but I suspect there will turn out to be two long term trends at work here.

from Felix Salmon:

Greenspan squanders his final reserve of credibility

Thank you, internet: Henry Farrell and his commenters have all the snark so desperately required in response to Alan Greenspan's ludicrous op-ed in the FT. And they're not alone: as Alex Eichler notes, "everyone is laughing at Alan Greenspan today". Greenspan could hardly have made himself look like more of an idiot if he'd tried, not only because the "notably rare exceptions" construction is so inherently snarkworthy, but also because it's so boneheadedly stupid. Anything which normally makes money is a good idea if you ignore the times that it doesn't work.

That said, it's worth looking in a bit more detail at Greenspan's nutty ramblings, because scarily they're actually representative of what much of the financial sector believes these days. (And Clive Crook, too.) The context is the GOP-controlled Congress, which has the ability to hobble or even abolish key parts of Dodd-Frank. And Greenspan is urging them on, saying that the early consequences of Dodd-Frank "do not bode well". In order to do this, he first sets up a straw man, saying that Dodd-Frank was designed to "readily address" the causes of the financial crisis. It wasn't, of course, but Greenspan pretends it does, and proceeds to give five examples of how it fails to do so, helpfully delineated with bullet points.

from MacroScope:

The IMF to turn on the rich

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The latest International Monetary Fund meeting ended with emerging market powers getting a pledge from the organisation for stronger and "more even-handed" scrutiny of what is going on in large advanced economies.

As Reuters correspondents Lesley Wroughton and Emily Kaiser report here, the decision is a response to long-running frustrations among emerging economies, which reckon the Fund has  not been tough enough on its biggest shareholders, led by the United States.

from MacroScope:

Will China make the world green?

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Workers remove mine slag at an aluminium plant in Zibo, Shandong province December 6, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

Joschka Fischer was never one to mince words when he was Germany's foreign minister in the late '90s and early noughts. So it is not overly surprising that he has painted a picture in a new post of a world with only two powers -- the United States and China -- and an ineffective and divided Europe on the sidelines.

More controversial, however, is his view that China will not only grow into the world's most important market over the coming years, but will determine what the world produces and consumes -- and that that will be green.

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