Software Nerd

Sunday, April 25, 2010

GM repays government loan with great fan-fare

A few days ago, GM announced that they were repaying, in full, the loans from the U.S. and Canadian governments amounting to $8.1 billion. This was being repaid years before schedule.

Yet, the curious thing is that GM reported a loss of $4.1 billion for the period since the company was reorganized (July 10th 2009) up to the Dec 31st 2009.

Of course, it is possible to have positive cash-flows while having losses. A company like GM has many huge non-cash expenses. So, when I saw those two figures, I assumed that GM must have done well on the operational front, gaining cash with which to repay the loan, but must have taken a loss by putting a more realistic estimate on the amount they will owe on their pension plan (a book entry which does not affect short-term cash, but shows as an expense).

Turns out that it is not so innocent. Actually, the government gave GM a loan of $52 billion. Then, during the re-org, GM wrote off its debts to all sorts of folk, and also converted $43 billion of the government's loan to equity. The net effect is that the government gave GM $43 billion and got an ownership interest, and the government also gave GM $7 billion and called it a loan. GM took the $52 million and paid back the $7 billion loan, even while they lost another $4 billion. It is easy to do, and they can do it a few more times, before the government's $43 billion is all gone. The structure -- paying you back with your own money, while making losses on the use of the money -- is the classic structure of a Ponzi scheme.

Now GM's CEO, Ed Whiteacre, has an ad with himself in it, touting the repayment. Watch the ad with the renewed knowledge that this guy is lying. (His college professor probably taught him there was no objective reality anyway.)

Here's a more detailed article on the subject.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Greece's early retirement evasion

One recent news item about Greece speaks about the early retirement ages in some professions. The law allows for early retirement if one works in a dangerous profession. Women in these professions can retire at 50, men at 55, and start to draw their pensions.

Stop here and think what professions may qualify. Coal miners are one such group. Another is bomb-disposal folk. Then there are odd ones: like "musicians playing wind instruments, who must contend with gastric reflux as they puff and blow." But, the plot thickens... over the years, various unions in Greece have fought to have their professions moved to this early-retirement category. So, they have the spectacle of hair-dressing being deemed worthy of an early retirement. I kid you not. And the craziest one I've heard: radio and television presenters (at risk from microbes on microphones!)

Greece has ended up with 14% of their workforce in this category, and consequently nearly the lowest average retirement age in all of Europe. A voting population in a democracy is obviously responsible when there is such blatant evasion of reality. Who do they think is going to pay their debts, if so many of them retire early? Once upon a time, they'd have printed more Drachmas, but they went and joined the Euro, which does not allow them to print willy-nilly. So, lacking the inflationist's ability to rob his creditors, they need to create or to get real wealth. And, for this, they turn to the Germans.

NPR did a story about this a few days ago, and they spoke a new hostility in Greece toward Germany. The country that screwed up, are being hostile to the country that can bail them out. Some of the more radical Greek radio shows are playing Hitler speeches and talking of a new form of Nazism that does not use tanks, but money. It is a despicable sight to see those who need charity spit in the face of those from whom they demand it as a right.

It is sad to see this happen in the land of Aristotle. I suppose it proves that greatness is not in one's genes.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Novelist: John Masters

I recently read four novels by John Masters and enjoyed them immensely. Masters tells a good story, and tells it well. His heroes are far from perfect; they are works-in-progress, who develop through the book, occasionally tempted in Dostoyevsky-like inner dialogs. Sometimes, they weaken and succumb to temptation.

The books are mostly adventures without deep themes. Indeed, the rare times Masters tries to step back and find a broader moral theme, he is unconvincing: the narrative does not support his commentary.

The books are all based in India, and the heroes are British. Each book is set at a different time, across the few hundred of years that the British traded with and ruled India. Two of the books are set during very significant events in British-India: the 1857 mutiny and 1947's independence. The historical interest made me curious, but I stayed for the story, and bought the other books.

Two of the books have been made into movies: Bhowani Junction and The Deceivers. The movies are nice enough, but miss much that is in the books. As a first book, I would recommend "The Deceivers": it is a story about the criminal tribe of "thugs" in India, and how a British officer tries to take them on. (On Amazon-UK, and Abe Books)

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Playboy vs. National Review

It is traditional to think of magazines like Playboy as being corrupting of morals. Yet, Ayn Rand once gave an interview to Playboy magazine. On the other hand, from a letter she wrote, she seems to have despised the National Review. (And, their ex-commie editor, the traitor Wittaker Chambers, seems to have returned the derision.)

In her comments (see Letters) Rand says that she would not object to an honestly religious magazine. However, she The National Review has a heavily religious motivation, while pretending to be secular. That is dishonest. Contrary to the traditional view, the National Review is a more corrupt publication than Playboy.

Clearly, the wrong moral and political ideas can cause far more harm than viewing pictures of nudes.

Postscript: Even Venezuela's dictator Chavez realizes that the "wrong ideas" about life and philosophy can be more "corrupting" than a little nudity. A while back The Simpsons were ordered off the air, to be replaced by Baywatch!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Jobs summit

The President held a "jobs summit" on Thursday, supposedly to get ideas on how to increase the number of jobs in the country.

The answer is: get out of the way. Some ideas:
  • Slash the minimum wage: This will put a few people back to work.
  • Stop extending the duration for which people can receive unemployment relief. One senator wants to extend this in 2011. Some states have started borrowing money from the Feds to pay even the non-extended portion of relief.
  • Remove all mandates on health-care plans. Allow plans to cover whatever they agree to with their client. Also, remove the mandate for hospital emergency rooms to treat all comers with non life-threatening conditions)
Instead, the government will probably come up with some type of tax-credit that will necessarily misdirect resources. Even a simple credit for hiring would be disruptive. Worse, the government is likely to give special incentives to certain types of hiring: e.g. anything they consider a "green job".

The government is responsible for prolonging this recovery. When the government acts to backstop failing businesses, falling home-prices, rising interest rates, and so on, they act to lessen the depth of the downturn. Any such attempt to lessen the depth of the downturn does two things: it lengthens the duration, and it sets things up for a future downturn.

If the government had not acted to "save" us all, unemployment would likely have fallen further and deeper, but we would likely have bounced back and would have been better off today. Instead, the government has bought a less deep downturn at the cost of prolonged misery for some citizens... ... and, the cost of this is in the trillions of dollars!

The main person responsible here is any American voter who thinks the government should "do something" about jobs.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Wages: Sticky on the downside

Economists speak of wages being "sticky" on the downside. What they mean is this: companies are usually slow to cut wages. New hiring freezes up very fast at signs of an economic downturn. Layoffs take place pretty soon too -- at least in the U.S. (not so in Europe, with its laws). For current-workers, wage freezes are common. However, wage cuts seem to be a last resort.

For most companies, this is poor economics. For most companies that are slow to cut wages, the main factor is a misguided ethics. Contrary to left-wing myth, managers usually feel good about paying their employees what they consider to be a fair wage, and managers often think of employees as being part of their team. Managers often feel it is their responsibility to try to keep their employees' wages steady. In addition to this, employees think the same way too. Therefore, they would often see a cut in wages as unfair to them.

This downward "stickiness" means that markets take longer to readjust, and to rebound.

Sometimes, companies will try "job sharing". This allows workers to work part time for less pay. It has the effect of keeping more employees on the payroll. However, if it does not reduce the actual wages-per-hour, it does not address the real issue: cutting costs. (It can be a good managerial strategy in some more limited slow-downs.) During the depression, Ford company had many workers working 3 days a week. Instead, if they'd been working all five days for what was previously 5-days pay, the company would have been able to make more goods for less. This would allow them to cut prices to customers. If there is insufficient demand even at those lower prices, then it is better for the extra workers to work in some other industry. This process of falling prices for labor and for goods would quickly work its way though the system and the end result would be a more efficient placement of capital and employees across industries.

Instead, politicians always try to slow the re-adjustment. This was Hoover's huge mistake post 1929. He called in businessmen and got their geniune committment to slow the process of readjustment; though he criticized the Smoot-Hawley law, he did not veto it increasing protectionism that slowed the process of re-adjustment; finally, instead of allowing commodity prices to adjust downward, he supported them (farmers wanted their prices to stay high). On top of all this, there were public works and cheap credit: two other ways governments stifle re-adjustment.

History surely rhymes.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The 2010 Green Stimulus?

After a sharp upward turn off its bottom, the stock market has paused. Talk of a second-stimulus is circulating. Today, the president met a few businessmen and one of the main ideas being pushed was the "retrofitting" of American homes, to make them more energy efficient.

That seems like something most politicians could get behind:
  • it spends money on jobs that voters will attribute to government ("the seen");
  • it bows to environmentalism, while not hassling big business directly as Cap-Trade might;
  • many (voting) home-owners getting the subsidy will think it is cool to get something for nothing, and then have lower energy bills on top of that; and,
  • most important -- the negatives are dispersed, and the inflationary component will probably not hit before the mid-term elections ("the unseen").
  • even the xenophobic Republicans could buy into a plan that "reduces our dependence of foreign oil"
If Obama gets some type of healthcare bill done, this is where he might turn his attention. So, I expect a "Green Stimulus" which is sold as something that will set America up for the 21's century and create lots of jobs.

Therefore, I expect to be on a roller-coaster for a few years.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Early Christianity till the 6th century

I just listened (thanks to Librivox) to about half of an old book, titled History Of The Christian Church During The First Six Centuries.

The book documents Christianities leaders, branches and debates up to around 600 AD. The book documents the growth of the church. It also explains how they changed some practices -- e.g. did not insist on circumcision -- in order to make conversion more palatable to gentiles.

However, the author did not explain why those gentiles (or other Jews) would switch to the Christian sect of Judaism. After Constantine moved the Roman empire to Christianity around 300AD, the rise of the religion can be explained by political sponsorship. However, I did not find what I was looking for: i.e., an explanation of the motivation (intellectual or other) of people who adopted Christianity in the first three centuries.

Three of the four largest religions -- Christianity, Buddhism and Islam -- spread very widely. I'm curious about how religions spread without political sponsorship. Why did Christianity grow in the first century or so? Why did Buddhism spread in China? (Political sponsorship was the key to its spread in India, and it faded when that sponsorship ended.) Perhaps a lot of Islam's success may be explained by early political sponsorship; but, here too, its spread to Indonesia and to the south-west coast of India seems to have been via evangelism.

Older faiths just "were". Conquerors would convert new kingdoms to their faith, but there seems to have been little evangelism in older religions like Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism or the old Greek or Roman practices. Could a large part of the success be explained by the evangelical impulse itself? Could it be as simple as that? I.e. that only a few religions made an organized effort to spread their faith, and that the three major ones are among the few that did?

Apart from the desire to evangelize, perhaps these religions owe much of their spread to the fact that they developed some types of methods, institutions and networks that were geared toward evangelism.

Looking at the original theology of these three religions, I cannot find anything radically unique to set them apart from other sects of their time. So, though I don't know enough to rule out that they really did fill some intellectual need that was not filled by their successors, I suspect that theology is only a minor factor.

One tidbit that I found interesting was that the author identifies two hold-outs against Christianity after the Roman emperors had adopted it officially. The first was rural areas, particularly if they were isolated. No surprise there. The other holdout was the scholars in universities, who continued to dismiss Christian mysticism for a while after others had converted.

One negative with this book is that the author hints at mystical explanations for some historical events; but, it is not enough to distract.

All in all, it was a mildly interesting book. It helped make the period more real to me, but I'm still left with the questions I began with.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

1930 WSJ Blog

Somebody has decided to read the Wall Street Journal from 1930 (library microfilm) and post a daily summary on a blog. The idea is to get a feel of that year, when the depression had just set it, to see if we can learn anything about our current situation.

A daily update is more detailed than I'd have liked. If he would do a summary paragraph or two each week, that would work well for me.

The blog is called "News from 1930"

Friday, June 05, 2009

Conceptualizing "recession"

Officially, recessions are measured by how the economy is changing. I think this is wrong. While it is useful to know if an economy is getting better or if it is getting worse, the primary measure of health ought to measure it against what it could be, not against what it was in the last quarter.

Example: Imagine that the economy goes into a tailspin, that unemployment shoots up from 5% to 10%, and that GDP plummets from $ 14 trillion to $13 trillion. Now, imagine that things start to improve after about 1 year. However, imagine two different scenarios...

Come-back scenario: A year after turning downward, the economy starts to pick up again. In another year, it is back where it began, with unemployment at 5% and GDP back to $14 trillion. The dip and return took two years; but, as currently conceptualized, the recession would be measured as being 1 year long, because that is when the economy started to rebound. (i.e. the recession is measured from "peak" to "trough").

"New normal" scenario: Under an alternative scenario, a year after turning downward, the economy flattens, and then climbs almost imperceptibly. Then, another year out, it starts to climb a little faster, but is still quite laggard. Finally, 5 years later unemployment is back down at 5%, and GDP is back to $14 trillion. Even though the dip and return took so many years, the recession would be measured as being 1 year long, because that is when the economy stopped going any lower.

This way of conceptualizing a recession is faulty. We need a measure of economic health that meaningfully describes how an economy is doing, compared to its potential, not a measure that accepts the previous quarter as a "new normal" and rejoices in small upturns.

Reverse Immigration

This is a software-related post. Ignore it if that does not interest you.

Over the 8 years, U.S. salaries in software-development jobs have not risen much. Meanwhile, salaries for similar jobs in India have continued to rise. (The same relative change is probably true across other industries as well.)

Salaries in India can still be 25% of U.S. salaries. However, there are additional costs when the customer is in the U.S. Today, large U.S. companies budget India-based work at about 50% of U.S. based work. An experienced U.S.-based programmer may cost $120k to $140K, when one adds salary, health-insurance, company-paid social-security, and U.S. based infrastructure. An equivalent India-based employee would cost about $60k-$70k, when all costs are considered.

That is still a large difference, but much narrower than it used to be a decade ago. It has been interesting to see how such changes take place. The process is slow, giving companies and employees a fair amount of time to adjust. And, it is slow for "natural" reasons, not because of some government protectionism. A decade ago, many companies were still wary of off-shore development. They began to dabble and test the waters. Then, in the 2000's -- especially with the cost-cutting required after the stock-market bust -- some companies actually set themselves targets: e.g. "in 5 years, 20% of our development must be done off-shore".

The process would have been even slower if the free-market had prevailed. In a free-market, one would have had more immigration from India to the U.S. This would have reduced the wage-differential by lowering U.S.-based costs, while one would have seen India-based cost rise slightly more than they otherwise did. In the end, one would have had significantly more U.S.-based wealth-creation.

Now, with the downturn, companies are again under cost-cutting pressure, and looking to off-shore development as one means.

In February, IBM did something I've never heard of before. While laying of software-developers, they offered to transfer them abroad, to India, China or Brazil (1). IBM would help them move and also help them get set-up. However, once there, the U.S. workers would have to accept local levels of salaries and benefits. I doubt many people took up this offer, but it is good to see IBM being creative about this, and offering their employees a solution that is far better than being jobless.

Reverse immigration would be a true sign of the decline of the U.S. As an immigrant myself, I understand there are costs (in terms of friendships, proximity to family, familiarity with one's environment, and optional cultural values like food) in moving far from home. So, when people vote with their feet, it is a serious indicator. I don't expect this, but nor would I rule it out ... some two decades hence.

Notes:
(1) Computerworld, Feb 6, 2009 "Workers Losing Jobs at IBM Get Overseas Option"

Monday, June 01, 2009

Time for another default?

Should the U.S. declare a default on its governmental debt?

I never imagined I would suggest that the U.S.A. renege on its borrowings, but I'm starting to entertain the idea as a "lesser evil". Federal debt was about 55% to 65 % of GDP at the start of 2007; now, with all then new government spending and "rescuing", it is slated to rise to 90% of GDP by 2011.

This 90% number understates the magnitude, because the government has also taken on large, new "off balance-sheet" obligations. For instance, in 2007, the government's official position was that it was not responsible for money borrowed by Fannie and Freddie. A CBO report, from 2001, said this:
A typical disclosure from a Fannie Mae prospectus states, "The Certificates, together with interest thereon, are not guaranteed by the United States. The obligations of Fannie Mae are obligations solely of the corporation and do not constitute an obligation of the United States or any agency or any instrumentality thereof other than the corporation."
However, when push came to shove and the U.S. government (ex Treasury Secretary Paulson) did not dare insist on the explicit provision in the prospectus. Instead, late in 2008, the government decided to make the guarantee of Fannie/Freddie debt explicit. Later, the government also guaranteed debt of certain banks.

The US is in the exact position in which many poor borrowers find themselves: they don't know how they'll repay their debt tomorrow, but they really, really need the money just now. It is always easier to push the problem to the future, and borrow now. This does not work unless lenders evade too. Politicians are usually happy to evade this way, and to push any problem beyond the next election. In this case, the major lenders are politicians too, with foreign central banks holding large amounts of US government debt.

As a U.S. taxpayer, I will end up paying for this evasion. Continued evasion simply means that the U.S. will be encouraged to borrow more, and to inflate more, and waste more. The solution is simple: recognize the problem now, and begin to deal with it. A default would be a rude wake-up call: something that nobody could evade. It would make the poor creditworthiness of the U.S. government explicit. If we need a default to scare everyone into action before things get still worse, a default would be a lesser evil.

Fannie/Freddie debt was different from direct U.S. government debt, because it did not have an explicit government gurantee. This is debt the government did not have to take on. This debt would have been the ideal candidate for a default, because it could be done while upholding true government debt. Even a small gesture -- for instance, if the government had said they would guarantee a part (say 80%) of the Fannie/Freddie debt -- would have put lenders on notice.

Major lenders to the U.S. governments are not idiots! Until recently, with debt around 60% of GDP, they could have held up hope that future U.S. taxpayers would foot most of the bill. Some evasion was involved, and the big lender of the recent few years --the Chinese government -- had its own political reasons to evade. However, the recent U.S. government spending has worried them, and the Chinese have been scolding the U.S., saying the government needs to be more careful with spending.

This week, we saw a small example of the pressure that lenders can bring to bear. Secretary Geitner has just gone to China and is reassuring them that the U.S. will try not to exceed an annual deficit of 3% of GDP. These are promises, promises... If the U.S. had insisted that the lenders to Fannie/Freddie at least take a "haircut", that would have been something concrete, a real loss rather than a probable one.

What would have happened if the government had not backed Fannie/Freddie 100%? It is possible that the recession would have got deeper faster. Instead of being able to keep interest rates low, anything like a default would have sent interest rates up. Home prices might have dropped even lower than they did, unemployment might have risen higher, the stock market may have gone lower. However, the economy would have readjusted to the new realities rapidly. That is what happens when the amount of evasion is lessened: people not only adjust to the new reality, but -- in terms of real wealth -- build up from that base more rapidly than from an economy propped up by inflation.

It is less than a century since the U.S. defaulted on its debt, when F.D.R. brazenly rescinded its promise to pay its debts in gold. A dollar used to be a promise to pay about 1/21th of an ounce in gold. In about a year, it was changed to a promise to pay 1/35th of an ounce. The SCOTUS upheld this as being constitutional. Creditors would only get 57% of their loans back! It was a dishonorable act.

I think the U.S. should pay back its creditors. This is a rich country, that produces a great deal of wealth every year. If the government did not fritter away such a large portion, we could easily do the honorable thing. I fear though, that we have to choose between a small dishonor today that serves as a wake up call, or a much worse fate in the future.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Aftermath of Financial Crises

In their paper, "The Aftermath of Financial Crises", economists Reinhart and Rogoff look at data from other financial crises (from across the world). They ask: to what extent did key indicators like unemployment and GDP deteriorate, and for how long?

They document a lot of variation among the various crises. Here are the averages they found, across the various crises. (The figures in parentheses are the current US figures for this crisis.)
  • Unemployment: Up 7%, across 4.8 years (US current: up 4%)
  • House prices: Down 35%, across 6 years from the top (US current: down 28%)
  • Equity prices: Down 56%, across 3.4 years (US current: down 42%)
  • Per capita real GDP: Down 9% across 2 years (US current: down 1%)
There is a lot of variation among the different episodes included in this sample. Still, they were all chosen because they were largely bank/financial/credit crises. (So, for instance, the dot.com bust-up is not included.)

I found graphs of U.S. data for three of the above measures (from the late 1980's to today). Then, I marked the averages from the study on the graph, to answer the question: if this US crisis turns out to be about averages, how far are we from the turning point. [I did not graph the real per capita GDP. Instead, the real GDP is shown -- i.e. not per-capita].

In summary, if the current US recession is typical, we can expect another year of flat or falling real GDP (falling per capita); unemployment would go to 11% over the next three years or more; house prices would come down a bit more and not recover for another 5 years.

An average does not tell us what will really happen; but it does provide a feel for the order of magnitude that is typical, to allow us to use that as a benchmark.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The popular vote

Does the media hype around Obama tell us that he is one of our most popualr modern presidents? I don't think so. The media does love him; i doubt the general public does. Inauguration-coverage of the public is also a biased sample. If one interviews people as they come to a concert by a particular rock-band, a vast majority of them will be fans. This cannot be extrapolated to the general public.

Of course, it is true that the vast majority of Americans do not think that Obama's brand of socialism is some major evil. I guess the general viewpoint could be something like: "a decent enough guy, who seems thoughtful, who seems willing to tackle the country's problems, and who should be given an opportunity to do so". This does not mean that the GOP-voters among them want to change their votes. Most of them would still prefer McCain (or Huckabee, etc.), but do not think ill of Obama, and are approach him with the spirit of: "let's work together".Obama is in a honeymoon period.

Today, I think the best objective measure of his more enduring (non-honeymoon) popularity is to look at people who actually voted for him. He got 53% of the popular vote. This is a good number, but nowhere near a "vast" majority. For some historical perspective, here is the percent of popular vote to winners of the last few elections:

  • 2008: Obama - 53%
  • 2004: G.W.Bush - 2nd term - 51% [Remember Bush stupidly talking about how he was going to use this great "political capital"]
  • 2000: G.W.Bush - 1st term - 48%
  • 1996: Clinton - 2nd term 48%
  • 1992: Clinton - 1st term 43% [Not commensurate, because Perot took about 19%]
  • 1988: Bush Sr. - 53% .... .... Look at that! Who would have thought that boring old Bush Sr. got the same as what Obama got
  • 1984: Reagan - 2nd term 59% ... Now we're talking about a real sweep!
  • 1980: Reagan - 1st term 51%
  • 1976: Carter - 50% ... Not too bad for him; that's better than Clinton's second term
  • 1972: Nixon - 2nd term 61% ... who would have thunk it! He even beat the gipper! Ended up impeached.
  • 1968: Nixon - 1st term 43% [Not commensurate, because a third party took 13%
  • 1964: Lyndon Johnson 61% [Barry Goldwater got just 38%... shame on America! But, it shows that we are not at some extreme point in our history]
  • 1960: JFK 50% [For all the talk of Camelot, and all the excitement about Jackie's wardrobe, the split on votes was 49.7% to JFK and 49.5% to Nixon]

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Protestant Reformation

"The Reformation" spread across Germany and Scandinavia around 1530. In the 1530's, Henry VIII had famously broken with the Catholic Church. Though he do so partly because he wanted a divorce, he probably could not have done so without the numerous English noblemen and clergy who agreed with the ideas of the Reformation, and wanted change for their own reasons. About 30 years later, Mary Queen of Scots abdicated her throne in the face of the Scottish Reformation.

Super-fast revolution: What amazes me is this: Martin Luther nailed his "95 Treatises" to a church door in 1517. Just 20 years, saw change across many countries. How did it spread so fast? Were people so angry about the existing corruption and the status-quo? Many noblemen saw the reformation as a way to increase their local political power: was role did this play compared to the intellectual argument? I need to get a good book about the history of the Reformation.

Marx and Russia: Karl Marx published the "Communist Manifesto" in 1848. The Russian revolution took place 70 years later, in 1917. Since Communism wanted to overthrow the church, the rulers, and the middle class, it is not surprising that it took longer than the Reformation, even though it occurred in a time when ideas travelled more quickly.

A picture: Here are time lines for Luther and Marx, with Rand thrown in as a bonus.

Notice how rapidly Luther's ideas took hold.

Also, when a young Objectivist is pessimistic, tell him that we've got till 2026 if we go at the pace of the Communist revolution!