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Posts Tagged ‘economics

“Fortune’s bubbles rise and fall”*…


Gordon Gekko talks tulips. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps / scottab140

Right now, it’s Bitcoin. But in the past we’ve had dotcom stocks, the 1929 crash, 19th-century railways and the South Sea Bubble of 1720. All these were compared by contemporaries to “tulip mania,” the Dutch financial craze for tulip bulbs in the 1630s. Bitcoin, according some sceptics, is “tulip mania 2.0”.

Why this lasting fixation on tulip mania? It certainly makes an exciting story, one that has become a byword for insanity in the markets. The same aspects of it are constantly repeated, whether by casual tweeters or in widely read economics textbooks by luminaries such as John Kenneth Galbraith.

Tulip mania was irrational, the story goes. Tulip mania was a frenzy. Everyone in the Netherlands was involved, from chimney-sweeps to aristocrats. The same tulip bulb, or rather tulip future, was traded sometimes 10 times a day. No one wanted the bulbs, only the profits – it was a phenomenon of pure greed. Tulips were sold for crazy prices – the price of houses – and fortunes were won and lost. It was the foolishness of newcomers to the market that set off the crash in February 1637. Desperate bankrupts threw themselves in canals. The government finally stepped in and ceased the trade, but not before the economy of Holland was ruined.

Yes, it makes an exciting story. The trouble is, most of it is untrue…

Drawing on ten years of research for her new book, Tulip mania: Money, Honor and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden AgeAnne Goldgar tells a different story, one that’s just as illuminating, but very different: “Tulip mania: the classic story of a Dutch financial bubble is mostly wrong.”

Like most trends, at the beginning it’s driven by fundamentals, at some point speculation takes over. What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.”  The world went mad. What we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.   — Warren Buffett, 2006 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting

* John Greenleaf Whittier


As we curb our enthusiasm, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that banks began to re-open after the “Bank Holiday” declared by the Roosevelt Administration to calm the market after bank runs had threatened the nation’s financial system during the Depression.



Written by LW

March 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It’s always a lot of fun when you win”*…


Fans of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 have excitedly proclaimed that it will release the “Animal Spirits” of the American economy, hailing it as a spur to investment and a boon to workers.  But as CNN points out:

The White House has celebrated the tax cut bonuses unveiled by the likes of Walmart, Bank of America, and Disney.

Yet shareholders, not workers, are far bigger direct winners from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

American companies have lavished Wall Street with $171 billion of stock buyback announcements so far this year, according to research firm Birinyi Associates. That’s a record-high for this point of the year and more than double the $76 billion that Corporate America disclosed at the same point of 2017…

The amount of money allocated so far on bonuses and wage hikes pales in comparison with Wall Street’s buyback bonanza.

S&P 500 companies have devoted about $5.6 billion to bonuses and wage hikes because of the tax law, according to research from academics Rick Wartzman and William Lazonick as well as the Academic-Industry Research Network. The group added up commitments from the 50 companies in the S&P 500 that had announced plans to reward workers through February 15.

Indeed, as Marketwatch reports,

A report by benefits consulting firm Aon Hewitt [finds] that 83% of large companies don’t expect the tax cut to boost salaries at all — just help pay for small bonuses companies like WalMart  and AT&T gave workers, which reporters soon discovered were, themselves, skewed toward higher-paid, longer-tenured employees in many cases…

And perhaps more fundamentally alarming, the proposed boost that the tax act was supposed to provide to corporate investment– to America’s long-term competitiveness and to the creation of new jobs– seems stuck in the gate; as Marketwatch continues:

Goldman finds companies have raised guidance on re-investment in their businesses — the putative reason for cutting corporate taxes at all — only 3%…

…which, given Census Bureau tabulations of past capital expense, would be about $30 Billion– well under 20% of the buy-back activity planned (so far).

Stock buy-backs have played a powerful role in the performance of the stock markets– which President Trump often conflates with the performance of the economy as a whole– over the last several years; the Financial Times observes:

Corporate share repurchases have been a powerful driver of the US equity market’s post-crisis recovery and subsequent climb to record highs last month. US companies have bought back about $3.5tn since 2010. Throw in nearly $2tn of dividends and the overall handout to shareholders has been much greater than the Fed’s entire quantitative easing programme. Buybacks started to slow down last year, but there are signs that investors can still count on Corporate America. In fact, companies’ purchases of their own shares appear to have played a role in reversing the recent stock market swoon…

As the FT points out, while this is a boon to equity investors, it “may be bad news for hopes of an investment-fueled economic boom.”

Indeed. (See also: “Confidence Tricks“)

* President Donald J. Trump, on the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017


As we wonder about the equity in equities, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Paul Robin Krugman; he was born on this date in 1953.  A Nobel laureate in economics (for his work in the dynamics of international trade), he is Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  But he is much more widely known as a columnist for the New York Times, where he wrote (on November 27, 2017) a piece on the then-pending tax bill: “The Biggest Tax Scam in History.”



Written by LW

February 28, 2018 at 1:01 am

“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest”*…


Last year saw the biggest increase in billionaires in history, one more every two days. This huge increase could have ended global extreme poverty seven times over. 82% of all wealth created in the last year went to the top 1%, and nothing went to the bottom 50%.

Dangerous, poorly paid work for the many is supporting extreme wealth for the few. Women are in the worst work, and almost all the super-rich are men. Governments must create a more equal society by prioritizing ordinary workers and small-scale food producers instead of the rich and powerful…

Late last month, Oxfam released its annual Inequality Report.  As Felix Salmon observes, it’s powerful stuff:

At the end of this crazy bull market, it’s always worth remembering just how enormous the big winners’ gains have been.

Specifically, the world’s billionaires – the richest 2,000 people on the planet – saw their wealth increase by a staggering $762 billion in just one year. That’s an average of $381 million apiece. If those billionaires had simply been content with staying at their 2016 wealth, and had given their one-year gains to the world’s poorest people instead, then extreme poverty would have been eradicated. Hell, they could have eradicated extreme poverty, at least in theory, by giving up just one seventh of their annual gains.

Oxfam is absolutely right, then, to shine a light on the extreme inequality of the world in 2017. Wealth creation is all well and good, but giving new wealth primarily to the world’s billionaires is literally the worst possible way to distribute it. Oxfam’s longstanding proposal for a wealth tax on billionaires makes perfect sense. They don’t need the money; the world’s poorest do. What’s more, as the Oxfam report details, the top 1% too often make their money by exploiting the very poor. Nothing about this is just, especially when a good 35% of billionaire wealth was simply inherited…

You can download the report (pdf) here; it is well worth the read.

* Nelson Mandela


As we rethink “fair’s fair,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1826 that University College London was founded.  Originally known as London University, it was inspired by the (then) radical ideas of Jeremy Bentham (one of the founders) and created as an alternative to the Anglican universities of Oxford and Cambridge.  UCL was the first secular university in the UK (admitting students regardless of their religion) and the first to admit women.  It is currently the third largest university in the United Kingdom by total enrollment (and largest by postgraduate enrollment), and is consistently ranked among the top universities in the world.



Written by LW

February 11, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength”*…


A new report from global management consulting firm McKinsey examined 1,000 companies in 12 countries, analyzing both financial data and the gender and ethnic makeup of their workforces. Researchers found that firms with diverse executive teams posted bigger profit margins in their respective sectors than companies lacking diversity.

Ethnic diversity was more important than gender diversity, according to the study. Companies that ranked in the top 25 percent in terms of the ethnic mix of their executive boards were 33 percent more likely to be profitable than firms in the bottom 25 percent for diversity.

Women-led companies still had an advantage, however…

See why defeating discrimination to achieve diversity isn’t just an ethical issue, but also an important economic concern: “Companies with Diverse Executive Teams Are More Profitable: McKinsey.”  Read the McKinsey report here.

[See also: this.]

* Maya Angelou


As we celebrate variety, we might send powerfully-painted birthday greetings to Alice Neel; she was born on this date in 1900.  A painter of people, landscape, and still life– and a pioneer among women artists– she is probably best remembered for her expressionistic portraits.  Indeed, Barry Walker, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, called her “one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century.”



Written by LW

January 28, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist”*…


The tenth anniversary of the start of the Great Recession was the occasion for an elegant essay by the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman, who noted how little the debate about the causes and consequences of the crisis have changed over the last decade. Whereas the Great Depression of the 1930s produced Keynesian economics, and the stagflation of the 1970s produced Milton Friedman’s monetarism, the Great Recession has produced no similar intellectual shift…

Robert Skidelsky explains why at: “How Economics Survived the Economic Crisis.”

* John Maynard Keynes


As we delve into the dismal, we might spare a thought for Robert Burton; he died on this date in 1640.  An Oxford scholar, he is best known for his classic The Anatomy of Melancholy, an odd mix of wide-ranging scholarship, humor, linguistic skill, and creative (if highly approximate) insights– a favorite of scholars and authors from Samuel Johnson to Anthony Burgess.



Written by LW

January 25, 2018 at 1:01 am

“A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul”*…


Since 1979, inflation-adjusted hourly pay is up just 3.41 percent for the middle 20 percent of Americans while labor’s overall share of national income has declined sharply since the early 2000s. There are lots of possible explanations for why this is, from long-term factors like the rise of automation and decline of organized labor, to short-term ones, such as the lingering weakness in the job market left over from the great recession. But a recent study by a group of labor economists introduces an interesting theory into the mix: Workers’ pay may be lagging because the U.S. is suffering from a shortage of employers… its authors argue that the labor market may be plagued by what economists call a monopsony problem, where a lack of competition among employers gives businesses outsize power over workers, including the ability to tamp down on pay. If the researchers are right, it could have important implications for how we think about antitrust, unions, and the minimum wage…

… not to mention anti-trust laws.  The full story at: “Why Is It So Hard for Americans to Get a Decent Raise?

* George Bernard Shaw


As we concentrate on concentration, we might spare a thought for Charles Erskine Scott (C. E. S.) Wood; he died on this date in 1944.  An author, civil liberties advocate, artist, soldier, attorney, and Georgist, he is best known as the author of the 1927 satirical bestseller, Heavenly Discourse.

Wood settled in Oregon, where he defended Native American causes, represented dissidents such as Emma Goldman and wrote articles for radical journals such as LibertyThe Masses, and Mother Earth.  His friends included Chief Joseph, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Ansel Adams, Robinson Jeffers, Clarence Darrow, Childe Hassam, Margaret Sanger and John Steinbeck.  His daughter, Nan Wood Honeyman, was Oregon’s first U. S. congresswoman.



Written by LW

January 22, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Without the potato, the balance of European power might never have tilted north”*…


In his economic masterwork The Wealth of Nations, the great Scottish economist Adam Smith reveals himself to be a deep admirer of Irish poor folk. Or, more specifically, their preferred food, potatoes.

“The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root,” Smith wrote. “No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.”

Smith had struck on a connection little recognized even today: that improved labor productivity, surging population, and outmigration were thanks to the potato.

This phenomenon wasn’t confined to Ireland. As The Wealth of Nations went to press, across Europe, the potato was upending the continent’s deep demographic and societal decline. Over the next couple centuries, that reversal turned into a revival. As the late historian William H. McNeill argues, the surge in European population made possible by the potato “permitted a handful of European nations to assert domination over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.”…

More on “the secret to Europe’s success” at “The Global Dominance of White People is Thanks to the Potato.”

* Michael Pollan


As we speculate on spuds, we might send fertile birthday greetings to Henry Allan Gleason; he was born on this date in 1882.  An ecologist, botanist, and taxonomist who spent most of his career at (and in the field, doing research for) the New York Botanical Garden, he is best remembered for his endorsement of the individualistic or open community concept of ecological succession, and his opposition to Frederic Clements‘ concept of the climax state of an ecosystem.  While his ideas were largely dismissed during his working life (which led him to move into plant taxonomy), his concepts have found favor since late in the twentieth century.



Written by LW

January 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

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