Monday, May 26, 2008

Follow-up #3: You've heard of the Illuminati, right?

For one of my first blog entries I chose to assert that the mythological illuminati were real. I argued that it was not a group of overstuffed old European men swilling cognac as Hollywood would have it. Rather, it was a global group of investment houses which owned a surprising share of world assets. These were the New Illuminati who had replaced the original European aristocracy variety. It appears it's time to update that blog. We have a third generation on our hands.

At the time, I took the long-term view that the European variety was a relic, clawing for relevance in a more transparent modern world. From the days of monarchs and peasants controlling the known world, we've undertaken a 5-century march toward power decentralization. This has swept in a 4-century economic miracle of wealth democratization, compounded in a virtuous cycle by technological progress. I still hold that long-term view; tides that big don't just flip a U, but they also don't flow smoothly. They progress just like a wave on the beach: crashing forward and then receding back ... only to crash forward a teeny bit further the next time around. By analyzing the fluid dynamics of countless micro-forces partially reinforcing and partially countermanding each other, we can try to predict where the water will be at any future moment. Even with a supercomputer, our predictions are seldom accurate ... but even a whelk knows the water's rising.

I would suggest that we are entering a period of several such forces which will, on net, create a pause in the long march.

#1 - Sovereign Wealth Funds. The populists fear-monger with xenophobia, since many of these funds are not trusted allies of The West. To that, I say: grow up. The world is, indeed, too flat for that. Truly open markets are color-blind, and as such I'm all for letting SWFs join the party without a bunch of government intervention. The liquidity they provide will be a net benefit on the world economy.

At the same time, however, we must keep our eyes open to the unique risks SWFs present. These funds are notable first for their relative enormity. Sometime when you're bored, draw up a bar-chart of the assets under management for the largest mutual funds, hedge funds and retirement funds. Then add SWFs to the chart. I hope you're not afraid of heights because they will tower over the rest, and they're growing fast. These funds are notable second for the fact that as government entities, their motivation is at risk of being hijacked for political power, especially in less-than-democracies. SWFs might engage in economic warfare even if that means the fund loses some money. The same would never be done by a privately-owned, profit-motivated fund.

Put differently, SWFs amount to an concentration of economic power in the hands of a tiny group of governmental aristocrats. To wield influence in this context, one need not appeal to the masses democratically; just get a half dozen of new illuminati to collude and you can have a transfer of power the size of the 1970's oil shocks. True, market forces will eventually countermand these disruptions, but an adept strategist could ride the crest of the wave and then permanently lock in their gains at the high-water mark.

#2 - The Sage of Omaha. For a short stint in history, certain Americans have risen to a level of wealth that bought them influence similar to that of the illuminati. Unfortunately, all Yanks are ADD-afflicted cowboys. Generation after generation of Americans produce self-made men with no respect for precedent, lineage, continuity, or legacy. Canegie, Rockefeller, Getty, Hughes, Wilson, Gates, and many others have sat at the table, but few have stayed long. None of these men has been invited to participate in the control structures the illuminati use to protect and control European enterprise.

That's why it will be highly interesting to see if it will be any different this week as the Warren Buffett pays house calls on as many illuminati as he can find. Berkshire Hathaway's pitch is logical; they have one of the longest track records of investment success around. More importantly, he believes in the rare long-term value investing strategy (as do the SWFs BTW). This allows those thousand-year-old Euro dynasties to sleep at night knowing they won't wake up next to a wrinkly, hideous old cur like Icann, Ickes, or "Chainsaw" Al Dunlop ready to test out Schumpeter's creative destruction on their family empire.

Buffet has to convince the families of the hopeless future ahead for the stagnating Euro economy. He then has to sell the notion that the only way for their dynasties to survive the next 100 years is to introduce a teensy bit of his American youth and exuberance. They will fear that one cannot dip only the toe in the pool. They may be right. Buffet's number one goal, after all, is not to preserve European gentry. It is to continue market-beating returns on investment year after year after year. Loading up the Berkshire portfolio with a couple billion dollars of stagnant Euro businesses will not help in that regard unless change is on the horizon. The key question is How. Does Warren think he can break into this world of old money and introduce American business and finance models? Perhaps even unwind some of those share cross-holdings? Does he think he has enough political weight (and buddies with the same) to lean on national and EU governments to loosen the legislative straightjackets? Either would unlock tremendous value, but neither seems to me likely in the short-to-medium term.

I can only speculate that his objective is threefold:

  • Ensuring that, in the very long-term, he is well-positioned to take care of the European liberalization

  • Buying his way into the enormous and under-utilized pools of capital held by those families

  • Picking up some large shareholders in BH who share his stable, long-term view. He might even give them a few board seats to protect himself from the chance of an Icann or Ickes invasion.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Fiddling Whilst America Burns

It is totally natural that, as countries/people get more affluent and comfortable, they prefer stability. This is learned behavior now deeply imprinted in our genome.

They become change-resistant. In the political world, this means they develop a low-grade affinity for centrism ... on those rare occasions when they bother to think of politics at all. This is most mature in western Europe where 2 in 3 Frenchmen exercised their constitutional right not to bother to vote in the national elections between 1990 and 2005. The system of coalition governments give the fringe nuts a platform, but no power and at the end of the day, the (non)voting public is convinced no matter who's in office, nothing will change. It's like some form of modern portfolio theory applied to democracy. "Hmm ... I'll take ..." (or should I say Je choisis and Ich wähle) ".. 40% center-left ... 45% center-right ... and 5% crazy nationalist as a kicker" just like people throw a few thou of their 401k into emerging market equities.

The pattern is clearest where it is still young - countries where the citizens can still remember a time when life was not so good. It's been amazing to watch how quickly eastern Europe and southeast Asia have gone from having no voice to wanting none (via a brief adolescent, energetic period of political engagement). Apparently, once people feel their lillypad is stable, they want the feet off the pedals so the country can coast and drift nowhere fast.

The same pattern is maturing quickly here in the "50/50 nation" where we had a Democrat cut taxes, sign trade agreements, and reform welfare ... followed by a Republican who rarely missed an opportunity to expand the reach and cost of government.

Is this, perhaps, why we all allow the mainstream US political parties to concentrate all their time and energy obsessing over trifles? Is this a gentleman's agreement between voters and politicians that we will not muck in their affairs as long as they can look busy while not impacting our daily consumerist ways?

I'm all for government non-intervention, free markets, wealth-creation (as readers may have noticed) but I'm NOT for inaction, especially when there's a big downside risk. I'm disgusted that the scant few hours Congress actually spends legislating are blown on divisive fringe issues. It is unconscionable to waste even a moment on something like prayer in school when we're racking up an additional $1.5 billion in national debt per day. Instead of taking on the hard problems of balancing the Federal budget, the boys on the hill scramble for a spot on CNN so they can advocate mass retail therapy as a distraction from a real economic issue.

The same pattern exists in other critical spheres. The true issues with healthcare get papered over with fringe issues such as the morality of stem cells and the merits of throwing people in jail for not having insurance.

Likewise with foreign policy. Whether or not some Israeli farmer has to move from one wind-swept scrap of desert in Golan to another in Hebron is childsplay compared with the concern that we're not doing enough to protect the world's nuclear arsenal. As a result, some nut drives out of Pakistan with a nuke in his trunk, headed for Bombay. Newsmen politicians and diplomats alike waste bandwidth debating whether the Japanese PM has should or should not have lain a wreath on some grave somewhere, but they do nothing to dislodge truly evil military dictators. As a result, 150,000 people die unnecessarily in the aftermath of a hurricane.

Our current obsession with the variously-named credit/mortgage/debt/housing crisis has evolved into more of the same. The people in charge of the country (government and otherwise) are all hedonistic flower children of the Sixties. No talking head dares take a fatherly tone with them about living beyond their means vs. saving for a rainy day. Instead, politicians enable the national dysfunction by launching lawsuits against lenders. Over a hundred cities, counties, and states are suing banks on the behalf of their irresponsible citizens at the expense of the responsible ones. After all, I, with my capital gains, property, and income taxes, am paying for those damn lawyers, but I have a snowball's chance in hell of seeing any benefit from the circus.

Monday, May 19, 2008

If we REALLY wanted to fix healthcare, we'd put the patients in charge, not the government!

Healthcare costs continue to outpace inflation as they have for as many decades as I can remember. Pity that the rate of technological progress has not kept up. If I were paying more for commensurately better care, I'd be more apt to shut up and pay. As it is, paying is a foregone in any case, but I do it with a moan. Insurance companies are moaning too, as are doctors and nurses. Drug companies moan, and hospitals threaten to cut back or shut down. Employers moan and cut back on coverage. The media moans via exposes on special case after special case. Politicians ... well, we all know what they do. Nobody works toward even identifying and communicating the problems, much less agreeing on and implementing solutions. We all moan in our special way and continue to pay.


Issue #1: Risk aversion. Research and technological change are artificially limited by our prevailing attitude that change is risky ... and there's no room for risk in medicine. Other countries take the lead in key areas while we frequently take a decade to approve new treatments. This is government-enforced, but it is not out of sync with popular opinion. The FDA is efficiently converting public opinion into public policy. The other, more powerful mechanism we, the people, use for the same purpose is issue #2...

Issue #2: Litigation. Coulda Woulda Shoulda - Folks on the front line earn their living by making life-or-death decisions in a matter of seconds. We all pretend it's scientific (see Issue #3) but there's plenty of arts and crafts involved. Legal precedent makes it clear that one false move and the professional is sued out of existence, along with his hospital, his staff, his dog, and the guy who fixes his boat. Lawyers may be willing to play dirty to win, but they can't do so without a client. True, they market themselves aggressively ("Have you been INJURED??? Call Now!!!") but if we really didn't want them, they'd have gone the way of the Dodo and the Flowbee. No, we need them to debate the dollar value of unquantifiable notions like mental anguish or pain and suffering. When looked at in the first person, I agree. I want that doctor to think twice and three times about pumping some new drug into me. If he fucks me up permanently, I want compensation. However, the tremendous cost of the suit, the pay-out, and the newly-minted preventative measures must come from somewhere. No doctor or hospital dares operate without mega-million dollar liability insurance policies. No insurer will issue such a policy cheaply. In the end, every penny spent on suits is distributed back to you and me via increased insurance rates to doctors and hospitals, who in turn charge us more. What, then, is the proper balance between justly compensating an innocent person for negligence and collectively degrading the cost/benefit for the entire population? It's the type of choice humans are poor at making. We want to save ourselves and our loved ones at all costs. So the healthcare industry obliges.

Issue #3: Stone age science. In the last 500 years, physics has gone from a philosophy to a science so robust that we can successfully alight a nuclear-powered, computer-controlled satellite into orbit around a distant planet and beam back data. It has matured to a level of self-propagation based on sound underpinnings. Over the same period, medicine has failed to find a cure for the common cold, a way to prevent our most frequent killer (heart disease), or even a way to fix back problems so people can return to productive life. True, via trial-and-error we've stumbled onto some pretty cool stuff such as penicillin and the gamma knife, but a collegiate astrophysicist can tell you EXACTLY where Hale-Bopp will be in 2112. Contrarily, doctors who have a half century of education and experience under their belts are as surprised as you and I when a baby pops out with autism or routine surgery goes horribly wrong. There is a wide tolerance for mis- or no-diagnosis. The effect of treatments is often left to "wait and see." Granted we have made impressive gains in the last 100 years. Granted biology and medicine are bafflingly complicated. Behavior appears to be unpredictable, so we can't draw nice neat cause-and-effect conclusions and thus are robbed of the type of universal laws which underpin the successes of other sciences. I use the term "appears" because I would argue we just haven't yet gotten to the root cause. Current state of the art in medical treatment deals largely reactively, and largely anecdotally. As a consequence, doctors are turned into artists, treatments into crafts, hypotheses into hopes. If we can ever move beyond that, medicine will experience the type of quantum leap that computing saw in the 20th century.

Issue #4: Stone age technology. Okay, so we haven't decoded the human genome yet and thus can't nip issues like cancer or multiple sclerosis in the true bud. Does that somehow justify the fact that a doctor still has to write his prescription on a piece of paper which you have to tote to a pharmacy, who must in turn have a human count out pills one-by-one with a butter knife? Usually to get from from feeling cruddy to swallowing a pill takes multiple days. Shit, I can get an exact book sent to an exact address by an exact day at an exact price all by myself. In cities, I can get that book same-day. Where's Amazon for pills?? Why, when I move across the country, do I have to start over with essentially a blank page. Why, when my neighbor passes out in his backyard do the ambulance EMTs show up completely uninformed about his health conditions? Far worse, when he arrives at the hospital 45 minutes later, the doctors and nurses are no more informed. Why does it take hours or days to arrange a test, five minutes to perform it, and then more hours or days to get the results? Why can't I see and quality check my own damn medical records? Every piece of junk email I ever sent or received from my Gmail box and every website I ever visited scoured by artificial intelligence agents for any useful piece of marketing data and likely saved for all eternity somewhere. Would that my doctor could implant a little agent in me to monitor my every bite, beat, and breath so he could really figure out what's wrong with me.

Issue #5: Ambiguous economics. Does the aforementioned genetic puzzle somehow justify the fact that over half of Americans pick a doctor based on convenience (proximity and availability) because they have no way to measure skill or success? I know exactly which camera is better than the others, and which wine tastes a certain way, and even which hairstylist is tops. How? Price. Due to the astounding costs of unlikely events such as cancer, we all have or desperately want to lock in the price of our medical care. Most of us do that via health insurance (which re-distributes the cost of the insured evenly among the insured ... and often their employer). Others by showing up at hospitals sick and broke. Others by not seeking treatment at all. Others (abroad) by socializing medicine so that the aggregate cost of caring for the citizens is distributed to every taxpayer. The consequence of this is that there is no efficient market for the product. There is no measure of supply and demand driving the rates of top doctors up, and warning me against going to cheap-o ones. Insurance companies (and Medicare) engage in collective bargaining to drive rates down for some, but it's like squeezing a balloon - the air just moves around inside - there's no net savings. Horrifying though it may be for you to think of being sick and having to bid on some Medical eBay for a spot at the best hospital, this would drive overall costs DOWN by rooting out inefficiency, inappropriate risk, statistically unsuccessful procedures, and bad eggs. It would provide a whole new incentive system which would align the interests and thus the efforts of patients, hospitals, insurers, scientists, technologists, businesspeople, investors and doctors alike.

Issue #6: Reactiveness. Some studies prove one thing, others prove the opposite, but I'm willing to bet my bottom dollar that the old adage is true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This doesn't stop insurers from declining to pay for the vast majority of what marketers have labelled "well care" or preventative medicine. Pregnant mothers get a whole host of pro-active care. I guess that's based on the inevitability of the event. Strange, then, that we don't have the same reaction with something as nearly certain as obesity leading to diabetes and heard disease and joint breakdown. They'll pay for a heart replacement but not a gym membership and a dietitian. They'll let you see your doctor for a cough, but not for a regular (I'm talking weekly) program of health counselling sessions. They'll pay for the Ambulance ride and the ER visit if you have a crashing headache, but won't pay for a nurse to visit your home and hand you a prescription migraine pill. They'll pay for a wheelchair but not rehab.

Issue #7: Mutated Morality. The success of the sci-fi genre of literature probably owes itself to the same basic human tendency as issue #7. The truly original sci-fi novels, comics, and flicks invariably reprised just a couple of themes: scientific discovery gone awry, especially when it comes to changing humans or animals ... always with evil consequences. Think Frankenstein. Think Neuromancer. If it wasn't human mutation, it was the invention of robots who went nasty and tried to take over the human race. This time think Terminator or War Games. The last theme is of science, itself run amok. More precisely, it is of people who are not mature enough for the technology they've developed. Think Star Wars. Think 1984. Those same 3 fears, plus an overly literal interpretation of religious texts causes us to hold ourselves back from some of the most logical and promising developments in medical science such as stem cell research, genetic testing/profiling, and organ harvesting.

In closing, before I get accused of trying to sell everyone's health and well-being to "the man" on the cheap, let me be clear: I'm talking about implementing some basic economics (and common sense) here. I'm talking about re-using strategies that have succeeded in other industries. I am NOT talking about putting a corporation in charge of deciding which treatments are most cost-effective or profitable. Rather, I'm refraining one of my favorite topics: individuals need to be responsible for their own lives and choices. My gripe with the healthcare industry is that it's structure doesn't allow us the information or flexibility to do that.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Big Words

What kind of pompous and self-edifying hack would refer to themselves as "us cognoscenti" ?

Apparently, Flavia Colgan (on Larry King tonight).

She clearly feels the need to remind us she's a Harvard gal (more a sign of your family's connectedness than your IQ I always argue). Sweetie, when your politically-charged stepdaddy says you are the smartest, most beautiful girl on the planet, he is exhibiting another big word you might know: hyperbole. I'm sure you're bright ... and clearly you're exceptionally opportunistic, but we'd all be a lot better off if you'd think just a little less of yourself.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Grin and Bear It

I get the feeling there's gonna be a lot of that going on in the next 4 years for me whoever gets into the White House. McCain says all the free market, low tax things ... but then he forgets to talk about reducing the size of government ... I fear a turn toward populism.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Regulator Cage Fight Round 1

I didn't want to sidetrack the earlier "Bailing Wire" post by getting into the passive-aggressive Fed-SEC situation, but in case you're interested, there's a pretty simple example of what drives them nuts. By now we all know and love mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and credit derivatives. Contrary to pop media, these are:

  • NOT the root of all evils
  • NOT black boxes of snake oil where banks hide their woes
  • NOT miracles of math only understandable to Nobel laureates

They're simply contracts between two willing partners. At the risk of grossly over-simplifying:

  • An MBS is where a bank says "Wanna go in together on some loans to people for their mortgages?"
  • A credit derivative is insurance a bank buys in case one of their (corporate) customers can't pay back a loan.

The Fed always tries to see the above as basically mutated loans with some collateral. Not surprising since all their examination methods and risk math and prudence have root in loans and collateral. They recognize that banks do "the trading thing" but honestly I don't think I've ever seen a Fed regulator on a trading floor. Good thing I suppose - kinda like taking your grandma to a rave. When grandma & co show up at the bank, they want to know that the loan was given a credit rating, that the collateral is sitting in the vault, that the bank didn't discriminate on the basis of race in extending the loan, that the customer got checked against the OFAC list of druglords and terrorists.

The SEC guys, on the other hand, are clearly all ex-DJs who are most at home dancing sweatily at a club at 3am with plenty of foreign substances in their bloodstream. They come from a trading background and insist that everything they see is a security like a stock or bond. So, when they look at an MBS or a credit derivative, they see a bond. Their focus making sure that the bond got marked to market this week, that it was not subject to insider trading, that the salesdude's Series 7 license is current and that he has pissed in a cup recently, and that the required quarterly reports got filed (into the ether).

Notice that neither really "gets it." Neither is wrong, by the way, but they both have blind spots. Both, of course, are too smart not to pay lip service to the others' focus. "Yeah, we do that too" they'll assure. SEC guys are particularly good at beating their A-type chests in lieu of giving facts when their methods are questioned. When that doesn't work, they duck into their fortress of Ivy League lawyers. Fed guys prefer to hide behind politicians, but otherwise the behavior is just as bad.

Too bad they can't come together to look at the same instrument holistically and apply a comprehensive set of tests. Coming from a corporate banking background which became an i-bank via merger, I've had more than my share of banker-vs-trader fights where grown adults play a game of "Son, this is how the family has ALways done it!" vs. "Aww, Dad, that's so yesterday. This is how all the cool kids are doing it!" Having been on the side of the "dads" I always fought hard but secretly felt that the kids prolly were on to something. They, at least in their lip service, talk about multiple forms of risk:

  • Counterparty Risk
  • Liquidity Risk
  • Interest Rate Risk
  • Market Risk
  • Country Risk
  • Settlement Risk
  • Credit Risk

They unfortunately neglect that last one most of the time. It's not sexy and they figure that nobody would ever actually hold a security long enough for it to actually spoil. Plus, if, perchance, they ever lose the perpetual game of asset hot potato, they just whip out their lawyers.

On the bank side, Europeans, unusually, are ahead of the curve in that they've long supported the Basel accord on capital adequacy. Basel II recognizes 3 types of risk:

  • Market Risk - meant to take all of the above into account, but which they shortsightedly break into:
    • Equity Risk
    • Interest Rate Risk
    • Currency Risk
    • Commodity Risk
  • Credit Risk
  • Operational Risk

It challenges banks to be able to quantify and constantly measure their risk along the three axes. It's a start. Most US banks don't really "get it" either, but their banking execs round out the list above by talking about Reputational Risk and Regulatory Risk, both of which can arguably fall into the last category above.

I know "these things take time" and all that jazz. I'm chronically impatient. I don't understand why people spend man-years of time and energy fighting and blustering and sabotaging change when the answers are right in front of them. Seems straightforward to me that you can measure the risk quantitatively of an MBS along the various axes above and cover both the SEC and Fed viewpoints. It's just a question of weights and probabilities:

MBS RISK = [total $ value of MBS you hold] *
(chance you can't sell your MBS for what you want, when you want * weight of MBS market risk)
+ (chance the underlying mortgage goes belly-up and you can't sell the property for what you want, when you want * weight of mortgage market risk)
+ (chance the underlying mortgage goes belly-up * weight of mortgage credit risk)
+ (chance playing around with MBSes gets your name smeared in the news or gets you fined 'cause of something you did * weight of internal operational risk)
+ (chance playing around with MBSes gets your name smeared in the news or gets you fined 'cause of something that impacts the whole market * weight of external operational risk)