Wednesday, November 03, 2010

FOMC statement Nov 3, 2010

From the Federal Reserve's Federal Open Market Committee:
Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in September confirms that the pace of recovery in output and employment continues to be slow. Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit. Business spending on equipment and software is rising, though less rapidly than earlier in the year, while investment in nonresidential structures continues to be weak. Employers remain reluctant to add to payrolls. Housing starts continue to be depressed. Longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable, but measures of underlying inflation have trended lower in recent quarters.

Consistent with its statutory mandate, the Committee seeks to foster maximum employment and price stability. Currently, the unemployment rate is elevated, and measures of underlying inflation are somewhat low, relative to levels that the Committee judges to be consistent, over the longer run, with its dual mandate. Although the Committee anticipates a gradual return to higher levels of resource utilization in a context of price stability, progress toward its objectives has been disappointingly slow.

To promote a stronger pace of economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate, the Committee decided today to expand its holdings of securities. The Committee will maintain its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings. In addition, the Committee intends to purchase a further $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of the second quarter of 2011, a pace of about $75 billion per month. The Committee will regularly review the pace of its securities purchases and the overall size of the asset-purchase program in light of incoming information and will adjust the program as needed to best foster maximum employment and price stability.

The Committee will maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and continues to anticipate that economic conditions, including low rates of resource utilization, subdued inflation trends, and stable inflation expectations, are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate for an extended period.

The Committee will continue to monitor the economic outlook and financial developments and will employ its policy tools as necessary to support the economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with its mandate.

Voting for the FOMC monetary policy action were: Ben S. Bernanke, Chairman; William C. Dudley, Vice Chairman; James Bullard; Elizabeth A. Duke; Sandra Pianalto; Sarah Bloom Raskin; Eric S. Rosengren; Daniel K. Tarullo; Kevin M. Warsh; and Janet L. Yellen.

Voting against the policy was Thomas M. Hoenig. Mr. Hoenig believed the risks of additional securities purchases outweighed the benefits. Mr. Hoenig also was concerned that this continued high level of monetary accommodation increased the risks of future financial imbalances and, over time, would cause an increase in long-term inflation expectations that could destabilize the economy.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Big Picture for Investment

A stalled developed world and a fast growing developing world.

1. Developed world is deleveraging.

2. Industrialization of Asia and other developing countries means higher demand for farm product and industrial mineral. Developing world are getting the technology to be more productive. As they become more productive they consume more.

What is investment?

It is paying a lump sum to own the claim of future cash flow.

If the cash flow is guaranteed, such as a treasury bond, the only question you need to ask yourself is whether the discount rate is reasonable. A higher discount rate will give you a lower lump sum value. If you have paid a larger lump sum for the cash flow you now owned, then you lost your capital.

Other than the treasury the future cash flow is not guaranteed. If you lent your money to someone and he can no longer afford to pay his promise, then you lost your capital. To avoid lost of capital you need to make sure that someone you lent to have enough income to pay his promise. Or you have enough collateral to recoup your lose.

When you buy a company or own stocks you are paying a lump sum to own the company’s future cash flow. But that future cash flow is even more uncertain than assessing a borrower’s ability to pay his promise. Although the company has stable business today, how do we know it will have stable business years and decades down the road? Technology changes and so do demand: people in the past used telegraph and telex to communicate. Back then those were new technology that greatly improved the speed of communication and were in high demand. They are no longer used today. Another example is the passenger train in the 19th century – a big progress on people transportation from the era of horse and carriage. But later automobile and airplane came.

Whatever you invest in, the fundamental question is simple. Ask yourself: Is this lump sum I paid today a reasonable price for that future cash flow? Answering this question isn’t easy. It involves assessing two things: First, is the discount rate correct? Second, is the future cash flow reliable?

Saturday, October 09, 2010


The Federal Reserve Bank's QE2 is going to debase dollar. Market already react to that expectation and dollar has lost 7% of its value against a basket of currencies since June. Gold rallied along with Yen, Canadian dollar, Australian dollar, and Brazilian real.

Dollar, the FRB note, is a claim on the US economy as a whole. More dollar with the same amount of GDP means every dollar has to claim a smaller share.

This is unprecedented move by the FRB to counter liquidity trap - when banks won't lend, business won't invest, and consumer try to save. People are hoarding cash out of fear for the uncertain future. But the likely result is that the more people save the less the value of their savings.

How do you protect the purchasing power of your dollar?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Tax cut for the multimillionaire will be a stimulus to China

Even Peter Orszag is advocating extending Bush tax cuts for two years:

The reason is that the economy needs stimulus, and only the tax cut extention will receive bi-partisan support.

The economy is producing only 93.5% of its capacity according to WSJ. But 20% of the tax cuts go to people making more than a million - about 300,000 individuals. They are unlikely to consume more. And with idle capacity abundant they aren't likely to invest in the U.S. , either. I think they are most likely to invest their tax savings in China, where labor is cheap and capital return is more certain.

So in a globalized world a U.S. tax cuts will stimulate Chinese economy.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A stagnate future for the US economy

This is the source of Japanese style stagnation. US Economic growth is likely to remain low perhaps less than 2% a year over a decade. Unemployment will stay high for the forseeable future. People will gradually adjust to the new reality.

If housing price can not adjust downward, the only way to full employment is to raise the price of other goods and service - inflation. Holding down the mortgage rate alone will take a very long time to clear the market.

This is a political struggle between homeowners and bond holders.

Friday, May 07, 2010

What is conservative American thinking?

To me conservative American thinking is saying "I don't want a dime of the money I earned to be taxed to support the poor and needy. If they are sick, injured, or stuggling with inherited disease, it's their problem, not mine."

My value has always been that people who are fortunately endowed with health, intelligence, good family upbringing, and good luck in business dealing should help out the unfortunate and deprived. It's a fact that there are people born poor and sick. Human society should lend a hand to where God has failed.

Compare to Scandinavia countries America is too big to form a sense of society. Immigration, ever changing technology, and traditional individualism all contributed to what America is today. "If I help others, will they help me when I need it?" "The weak need to be culled from the herd" These are all commonly seen on internet posts. Social fabric does not exist. It's every man for himself.

Work Against Yourself

The market is a big propaganda and marketing machine. When you fell good and want to deploy your cash it's the most dangerous time. Sell immediately! On the other hand, when market depress you and you don't want to hear or read anything about market it is time to buy. This is why investment is hard. You need to work against yourself.

Know yourself: your analytical brain can be easily overcome by your emotional brain.

Saturday, May 01, 2010


May 1 - Crab grass is shooting up in our vegie garden. Saturday monging I went out to pull the weeds by hand but they are too many. I went back to our deck to get the spade and I started to kill the weed by the 10s.

Since stone age human discover that, with the right tools, you can be so much more effective and productive.

Economic progress relies on better tools. If we continue to build better tools we will continue to improve our productivity, which is essential to standard of living.

Since humanity acquired tools we are not afraid of lions, tigers, and even the great white sharks. In fact with the right tools we are the predators to these once alpha animals. I feel so fortunate that I live in an era full of tools to address all types of problems.

Friday, April 16, 2010

On Tax

Saw a post here:

The complaint is about that over half of the population pays no income tax. Ten percent of the population pay 70% of all income tax.

For those who complained about "unfair share" of tax on the rich, let me also provide this statistics from government study of wealth distribution:
- top 1% of the poupulation owns 34% of total assets in this nation
- top 20% of the poupulation owns 85% of total assets
- the bottom 80% claims only 15% of the assets

As you know assets generate capital gain, interest, and rent. These income are almost effortless. (say compare to coal miners.) Those who wrote articles like in the above link never cite these statistics side by side with tax burden. I think we need to consider the whole picture. Tax is an unpleasant fact of life. But US tax burden on the rich is less than most, if not all, OECD countries. It is a necessary evil. And I think the rich should be a bit more compassionate toward society.

A recent report from WSJ: Wall Street Banks are lobbying against centralized clearing house for derivatives trading because $20 billion of revenue is at risk.

But without centralized clearing house, it means future government bailout is inevitable because society can not afford the melt down of the entire financial system.

From this example you can see anyone's wealth has to do with how the law is written. That centralized wealth I quoted above has a lot to do with US law and lobbying.

I think when considering tax policy we need to factor in these facts. The bottom 80% who owns only 15% of all assets obviously don't have the resources to do much lobbying.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Can you really measure and model risk?

I am not saying statistical inference is useless. As I said in my first post, for life insurance and the risk of a claim due to death is predictable. In fact if you have a large enough risk pool, the projection can be accurate to an impressive degree. On the other hand, the risk of mortgage default is a very different animal. With the benefit of hindsight I understand today that it has to do with trillions of easy credit flowing into this country, with China and Japan together lending us more than 1.6 trillion. The potent power of low interest rate created the asset bubble and the bust that follows. As you can see this is an external variable that keeps accumulating (by just look at the trade deficit). But AIG keeps selling Credit Default Swap (CDS) as if it is a life insurance to insure mortgage default, to the degree that without 80 billion of government bailout, it means chain bankruptcy of financial institutions all over the world and the Great Depression 2.0. I don't want to elaborate on the relationship between Great Depression 1.0 and World War 2 as I am not an expert, but you understand the scare. So let me conclude by answering to the question "Can you really measure and model risk?". My thought is that it depends on what kind of risk you are talking about. You need to use a common sense judgement before you apply the state-of-the-art software. And you need to have a sufficient understanding of the boom and bust nature of economic history. And when someone pretend to be able to model things that can't be on a sound scientific footing, you should be able to call their bluff and air your skepticism. It is healthy for quants to air their skepticism. You are helping the society by demystifying the quants.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Quantitative Modeling

Wrong forecast gives a false sense of security. You can safely argue that none of the Lehman, AIG, and Bear Stern modelers forecasted the coming tsunami in 2007. Not even the Fed foresees the damage a nationally depreciating housing price can do to the world economy. The fact that world governments resort to fire fighting by printing money - 1.4 trillion in the US alone - speaks volumes to the failure of forecasting. That is why Mr King is advocating improving robustness of the infrastructure, and funding the fire fighting capacity. The true lesson from this financial crisis is that financial modelers are very ignorant about economic history, and determined to stay that way, while layman put too much trust in these "quants". Don't be fooled by people claiming to have an equation that can forecast a society's behavior. Issac Newton said he can not, and so you should be skeptical. Your skepticism will make the financial market healthier - you become part of the robust system.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Can risk be modeled?

If you are talking about Life Insurance and the risk of death, more than one hundred years of experience has proven that, short of a war or pandemic, mortality is predictable. Law of large number will reduce the variability and you can model to a degree of confidence. If you are talking about probability of default on debt, then you are talking about modeling people's behavior that will be driven by incentives and the performance of the entire economy, which as many under currents. Everyone probably still have the credit crisis and financial panic of 2008 in mind. One of the source of the panic is that financial engineers assume mortgage default rate will behave about the same as the past 10 years, and priced the CDO/ CDS accordingly. When law of large number does not stabilize the default rate and it becomes clear that trillions of derivative assets are priced on wrong assumptions, the run starts. The disaster was a magnificent view. You put your trust on the model you don't fully understand at your own peril. And some short sellers are wise enough to profit handsomely on it. The lesson I learned is that I should examine the assumptions modelers use carefully, before embracing "financial weapon of mass destruction" (Buffett) as a panacea to reduce funding cost.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The religious right and the small government don't come together

I come to the US at the age of 27 and have worked and lived here for 15 years. I still found the US a country hard to understand. The conservatives want three things: small government, strong defense, and Christian value. But I consider these goals are mutually exclusive of each other. A small government and strong defense mean very little social support. Health Care debate in America is the best example for little social support. The bottom 15% of the US citizen don't have health insurance. This is the highest in all of the OECD countries. These same people also have a 31% unemployment, compare with a 3% unemployment for people on the top 10% of income scale over the years. The US has the highest infant mortality rate among OECD countries. At a rate of 0.006 it is double that rate of Italy at 0.003. But if you look at GDP per capita alone, US is 50% higher than Italy, at more than $46,000 versus Italy's about $30,000. All these economic indicators point to a policy of social Darwinism, in the sense that freedom is valued above equality, and under free competition the weak and the poor is often on their own, struggling to survive. This is understandable to me since America is proud of its capitalist traditions. What is hard to understand for me is that this same group of people who advocate small government and personal liberty and free market capitalism also call themselves Christian and hold religion dear to their heart. A good example is when Sarah Palin hailed her supporters for holding on to their gun and religion, and the crowd cheered. To me this is puzzling - is Christianity somehow consistent with Darwinism? What is the content of this religious right? A moral value that believe in free competition and winner take all? To me edging out the poor and the weak has nothing to do with Christianity, which it is about compassion and love. So why would these people call themselves religious? And religious on what kind of faith? A mysterious, interventionist God? A God that punishes the evil and has no compassion toward the weak and poor? A religion that serves the ideological ground to use gun to fend off anything they don't like? It puzzles me.

I am still seeking to understand, but I wonder if I ever will.