God is a Capitalist

Monday, February 13, 2017

Couch potato investing: better that betting on a horse race

In Financial Bull Riding I wrote that annual percentage returns is the wrong measure of investment performance. The better metric is absolute dollar return. Naive investors, and most financial journalists, assume the two will produce the same results, but they don't. 

Josh Peters, Director of Equity Income Strategy for Morningstar and the author of The Ultimate Dividend Playbook, calls chasing percentage returns a horse race
Almost all of Wall Street is geared around this idea of a horserace. That it’s all about trying to beat your benchmark, beat the S&P 500 — to do it every quarter regardless of whether that quarter is up or down. That’s not what most people are looking to do. That’s only how money managers evaluate each other, maybe. But that’s not necessarily what’s going to serve the actual financial requirements or financial needs of people who are out there. The biggest demand out there is for income and it’s not just because interest rates are low, it’s because baby-boomers are retiring and most of them don’t have those defined benefit pension plans to count on.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Interest rates have fallen and can’t get up!

Some of us suffer from Fed head: we have allowed anger at the Fed to infect our brains to the point that we blame it for everything from flat tires to broken bed springs. George Selgin, an Austrian friendly economist at the Cato Institute, says take two aspirin and read his blog in the morning:
The view that the Fed might have raised interest rates long ago, had it only wanted to, became notorious during the presidential campaign, when Donald Trump publicly accused Janet Yellen’s Fed of keeping rates low for political reasons. But Trump was merely embroidering a belief common among many (mostly conservative) Fed critics...
The unvarnished truth, I hope to persuade you, is that interest rates have been low since the last months of 2008, not because the Fed has deliberately kept them so, but in large part owing to its misguided attempt, back in 2008, to keep them from falling in the first place.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Why the Fed can't drive

One of Milton Friedman’s favorite analogies about monetary policy was driving a car. He compared money creation by the Fed to pushing on the gas pedal. On flat ground giving the engine more gas makes the car speed up, so giving the economy more gas should cause it to accelerate as well. But giving the engine more gas by pushing on the pedal may allow the car to slow down when climbing a hill if the engine doesn’t get enough gas to overcome the gravity involved in climbing the hill.

Friedman’s point: interest rates tell us nothing about whether Fed policy is too tight or too loose. Only the speed of economic growth can tell us that. Low interest rates may be too high if the economy is climbing a steep hill, like a recession. On the other hand, high rates may be too low if the economy is speeding up, as it does near the end of an expansion. The grandchildren of Friedman use that analogy to argue for nominal GDP targeting by the Fed instead of price targets. The problem with the Fed’s driving strategy is that it never knows if it is climbing or descending a hill or how fast the economy is growing at the time it makes its policy decisions because of long lag times from policy decision to its impact.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Bank of England: mainstream econ is broken

It seems that the Bank of England has been feeling the heat from its forecast that Brexit would plunge the UK into a depression. Added to the failure of mainstream economists to predict the Great Recession, the public is losing confidence in its gurus, according to a story in the Guardian,
Haldane described the collapse of Lehman Brothers as the economics profession’s “Michael Fish moment” (a reference to when the BBC weather forecaster predicted in 1987 that the UK would avoid a hurricane that went on to devastate large parts of southern England). Speaking at the Institute for Government in central London, Haldane [Bank of England Chief Economist] said meteorological forecasting had improved markedly following that embarrassing mistake and that the economics profession could follow in its footsteps.
The bank has come under intense criticism for predicting a dramatic slowdown in the UK’s fortunes in the event of a vote for Brexit only for the economy to bounce back strongly and remain one of the best performing in the developed world.
Before the referendum on divorcing the EU, Bank of England governor Mark Carney had warned that that the split would cause a recession in the second half of 2016. Instead, the UK economy grew at an annual rate of 2.4% in the third quarter with no signs of a slowdown in the fourth.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The case for a raging market in 2017

Trumpeting a new boss in the White House wasn’t the only cause of the recent spectacular rise in the stock market. Several economic indicators improved in the fourth quarter. Nicholas Vardy wrote,
Consumer confidence stands at its highest level since August 2001. The unemployment rate is at nine-year low. The U.S. economy is close to full employment. S&P 500 earnings are coming out of an earnings recession, and are expected to grow by double-digit percentages in 2017. 
And the money supply jumped:
The supply of US dollars accelerated during late 2016 with October's year-over-year percentage increase in the money supply hitting a 46-month high of 11.2 percent. The YOY growth rate fell slightly to 10.3 percent in November.
This comes after a long period of relatively sedate growth in the money supply through most of 2013, 2014 and 2015.
The recent surge in money supply growth suggests that the likelihood of an economic contraction in the near future has been reduced, with the next downturn being pushed out further into the future. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Trump's strength is his weakness - businessman economics

President Trump is clearly a good businessman. His wealth proves it. And it was partly his success in business that encouraged many adults to vote for him. The logic seemed sound: if the problem with the US is the economy then surely a successful businessman can fix it. But the fact that he is a successful businessman is Mr. Trump’s weakness as well.

Mises used to say that businessmen are better at predicting the short run than are economists so economists should not try to compete with them in their area of comparative advantage. The job of the good economist is to force business people to look up once in a while and acknowledge the long run. They can spurn the long run and court the short run, but the long run always shows up and the longer she has been ignored the uglier she is. The field of economics was born out of that insight, Mises wrote:
In order to discover the immediate-the short-run-effects brought about by a change in a datum, there is as a rule no need to resort to a thorough investigation. The short-run effects are for the most part obvious and seldom escape the notice of a naive observer unfamiliar with searching investigations. What started economic studies was precisely the fact that some men of genius began to suspect that the remoter consequences of an event may differ from the immediate effects visible even to the most simple-minded layman. The main achievement of economics was the disclosure of such long-run effects hitherto unnoticed by the unaffected observer and neglected by the statesman. (Mises, Human Action, 649)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Zombies threaten growth in 2017

Most economists expect the economy to grow at its most rapid rate next year. One of my favorite economists wrote this:

“If the new Trump administration cuts taxes and deregulates the economy, expect higher economic growth and another good year on Wall Street. However, I also expect higher interest rates and more inflation. 'King Dollar' should continue its rise, which will make it difficult for gold and other commodities. Avoid bonds and gold -- stay invested in the stock market.”

Let’s get the obvious problems with that forecast out of the way: higher interest rates and inflation are bad for the stock market and inflation is good for gold prices. And inflation means a lower dollar, not higher.