Sunday, April 05, 2020

Ben Bernanke: Contrary Indicator

On May 17, 2007 Ben Bernanke, then chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, spoke at a conference sponsored by the bank's Chicago branch and told his audience the following:

[W]e believe the effect of the troubles in the subprime sector on the broader housing market will likely be limited, and we do not expect significant spillovers from the subprime market to the rest of the economy or to the financial system.

Just 18 months later the world economy was on its knees due to the implosion of the subprime housing market, an implosion that ended up spilling over into practically every other part of the world financial system.

Bernanke's confident speech preceded the highs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average by only a few months and a few hundred points before the index plunged by more than 50 percent. Investment types would style Bernanke's speech as a contrary indicator—an event, utterance or market statistic that suggests excessive optimism or pessimism in a manner that indicates an imminent and major reversal in the prevailing market trend.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Overreacting to coronavirus? The perverse logic of panic during a potential pandemic

The best time to panic, that is, overreact to a potential pandemic is shortly after a novel pathogen has been detected. So say famed student of risk, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, and his colleagues. Of course, at that point, by definition few people have the virus and therefore it does not seem like a threat to the whole community.

In hindsight it is perfectly obvious that the extraordinary efforts now being made by individuals and communities across the world to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should have been made in those areas where the virus was first discovered when it appeared. However, it is natural that authorities do not wish to be criticized for "crying wolf" and, if they are elected officials, beaten at the next election for unnecessarily interfering with the life of the community.

But it is precisely what would be called an "overreaction" that might have stopped COVID-19 in its tracks at the beginning. I've written previously about those whose jobs are to make sure that small problems never become large and that some problems never even appear. The piece was called "Asymmetrical accolades: Why preventing a crisis almost never makes you a hero."

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Taking a short break - no post this week

So many half-formed thoughts about our current predicament are running around in my head that I'm taking a short break this week to sort them out. I expect to post again on Sunday, March 29.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Spectacularly wrong: Why Wall Street doesn't understand the corona virus

Investment professionals on Wall Street spend their days reading financial reports and looking at numbers flash on screens. These numbers record the moment-to-moment changes in the collective wisdom of markets about the value of stocks, bonds, commodities and a distressing array of derivative financial products.

From the comfort of the sealed caverns of Wall Street the actual physical and social world is just an abstraction to be quantified and analyzed. One of Wall Street's most prominent investment research and management firms released an analysis that says the corona virus won't be all that bad for the economy.

Analysts from Morningstar Inc.—which is actually headquartered in Chicago's cavernous downtown—say that this pandemic will be a "mild pandemic." I'm not sure how pandemics can be mild, but the analysts outline cases for "moderate" and "severe pandemics."

One of the things that gives these analysts such a sanguine view, particularly in the United States, is the country's advanced health care system which is "likely much more prepared for the taxing of our hospital system, as we appear to have a massive lead over other developed nations in the number of intensive care unit beds per citizen."

And yet, a first-hand report from a physician in those hospitals suggests that there will be very little room for severe corona virus cases in any hospital ICU. Those beds are already being used by patients and not just waiting empty. In all likelihood, hospitals will be quickly overwhelmed and forced to decide who gets critical live-saving treatment and who does not. The "who does not" number could be very large if the Italian experience is anything to go by.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Coronavirus reminds us we are organisms in an environment

A close friend of mine, a professor of English literature, has been researching American philosopher John Dewey, whose book Quest for Certainty captivated me so much many years ago that I read it again right after I had finished it the first time. My friend has been reminding me why I found Dewey so profound while shedding new light on the philosopher's thinking.

Dewey, it turns out, is one of the few thinkers in American life who absorbed the true import of the work of Charles Darwin. Dewey reminds us that, quite simply, Darwin posited that we humans are organisms in an environment just like every other organism. Dewey's star faded after World War II.  American and world society have since lapsed into a narrative that puts humans above and outside nature, protected by technological advancements that supposedly shield us from nature's demands and vicissitudes. The general narrative is that we are heading into a push-button, voice-activated technocratic paradise. (I think of the various Star Trek television series as popular cultural reflections of this view.)

But, the first pandemic in a century is forcefully and sadly reminding all of us that Darwin was right about our place in the natural world, more specifically, that we will never be outside of it.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Coronavirus financial collapse: "Central banks can’t come up with vaccines"

In a global society optimized for finance, it is easy to believe that finance holds the answer to all problems. In 2008 as shipping slowed to a crawl in the wake of the financial crash, sellers of the merchandise on board those ships became increasingly reticent about accepting letters of credit from wobbly banks as payment guarantees from buyers.

And, banks were increasingly hesitant to provide other forms of trade credit to buyers. The solution—as for so many other problems that year—was government financial guarantees for banks, depositors and various other financial institutions. That's because when the essence of the problem was financial, a financial response could work.

Today, it is the coronavirus which menaces the world economy—and the people who contract the virus, of course. Much of the Chinese economy—China has been the epicenter of the epidemic—has now been shut down in an effort to halt the spread of the infection which is believed to kill around 2 percent of those who get it. But as anyone reading headlines knows, coronavirus has now landed on every continent.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, March 1.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The return of resource nationalism

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The fall of the Berlin Wall was to bring about one, integrated world market where goods and services freely traversed borders without the interference of meddling ideologues—where the agricultural, mineral and man-made treasures of one country would be available to anyone, anywhere who was willing to pay for them: oil, gold, diamonds, soybeans, palm oil, wheat, computers, software and myriad other products of the earth and of human endeavor.

It's not working out that way. Not every country completely bought into this idea of an almost frictionless international capitalist order overseen benignly by global organizations created by treaties adhered to by all the world's nations.

Among the most obvious is China. China has started to treat rare earth elements—which are critical to practically everything electronic these days—the way the Atreides family, a ruling family in the Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune, treats "melange," a substance that extends life and increases mental ability and only comes from one planet, one that the Atreides happen to control.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Note to EIA: Major shale operator sending cash elsewhere

John Hess, CEO of Hess Corporation, a large U.S.-based independent oil producer, recently told a Houston audience where he's putting the company's money these days: Offshore drilling.

That should strike those who know of Hess Corporation's heavy involvement in the Bakken shale play (in North Dakota) as a bit strange. Hess says the company will "use cash flow from the Bakken to invest in longer-term offshore investments."

Hess told his audience that "key U.S. shale fields are starting to plateau, calling shale 'important but not the next Saudi Arabia.'" Setting aside whether Hess is actually getting investable cash from the Bakken, the constant refrain from the U.S. oil industry has been precisely that shale plays ARE the next Saudi Arabia.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Code blue: Pandemics and hospital surge capacity in a just-in-time world

We may be about to see the sad fruits of so-called just-in-time (JIT) inventory systems applied to hospitals in the United States and elsewhere. Fourteen years ago I first wrote about the vulnerabilities of such systems across society including health care systems. (Other observers have more recently noted this problem in health care.) If the corona virus spreads rapidly around the world, those hospitals which have adopted such systems will be least able to cope.

Here's why:  JIT systems are designed to minimize inventories in order to free up cash for other useful and profitable purposes. If you no longer have to store large inventories, you don't need to build and maintain substantial rooms and storage areas for that purpose. And, the money actually invested in those inventories, whether for auto parts or for medical supplies, can be deployed elsewhere to make a profit. With JIT, supplies arrive at your door as you need them. The "storage room," if it can be called that, is a delivery truck on its way to your loading dock.

The trouble is, a wave of corona virus victims showing up at hospitals could quickly exhaust lean inventories of medical supplies. And, the supplier providing those supplies may quickly run out as demand surges. After all, a smart supplier will be practicing JIT as well.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Owning your own information: How about a Constitutional Amendment?

Celebrities can sue you if you use their likeness or name for promotional purposes without permission, and normally, you must pay a fee to do so. And, you don't get to use that likeness or name again unless you pay again.

So, why shouldn't the law require companies and governments to get your permission to use your likeness—now called "facial recognition"—when they wish to exploit your identity for profit and/or surveillance purposes? In fact, why not require the government to demonstrate probable cause in front of a judge as to why it needs to gather biometric and other data on you and store it?

One hundred fifty-five years ago the United States abolished the right of one human to own another. The principle is that we own ourselves and no one should be able to take that ownership away. So, I'm asking this: If we own ourselves, does that not imply owning the information we need to maintain that ownership, in other words, to be a free person?

This is no idle question in the age of surveillance capitalism. Everywhere the key to controlling others has become controlling information related to them, and that information now includes your movements, your purchases, your habits (at work and at home), your current whereabouts, and anything and everything you put on the internet about yourself. In addition, anything you choose to monitor using "smart" technology will have the providers of such technology looking over your shoulder as you do.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, January 26.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

'Soylent yellow': Is artificial protein really a solution to food production?

The 1973 dystopian science fiction film "Soylent Green" is set in the year 2022, just one year after a nonfictional Finnish company hopes to begin selling an artificially produced yellow protein-laden flour created by bacteria that the company says will revolutionize food production.

The flour is derived from vats of yellow bacteria whose fermentation process create a yellow protein that when dried looks like flour. That yellow flour contains 50 percent protein, 20 to 25 percent carbohydrates and 5 to 10 percent fat. This basic foodstuff can then presumably be turned into products such as meat substitutes, bread products and filler in myriad foods needing a protein boost.

The entire process takes place indoors and the company claims that it dramatically reduces the amount of water, land and other resources needed to grow or raise the equivalent amount of protein using modern farming techniques.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Iran, energy and war

The American obsession with Iran is about oil and natural gas. If these two resources had been absent, it is hard to imagine such an intense American focus on the country from the time of a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-backed coup of Iran's elected government in 1953 to today. The Foreign Policy magazine piece linked above is based on declassified CIA documents and summarizes the coup this way: "Known as Operation Ajax, the CIA plot was ultimately about oil."

This should come as no surprise. Iran was an oil power back in 1953 and it remains one today. Iran is presumed to have the third largest oil reserves in the world and the second largest natural gas reserves. Even if the numbers cited are somewhat inflated, Iran's reserves are not small, and the country is likely to play a large role in world energy markets for many years to come.

The recent escalation of tensions between the United States and Iran because of the U.S. assassination of a prominent, popular and by all accounts highly effective Iranian general will allow the advocates of war to trot out all manner of excuses for such a war: terrorism, regime change, the credibility of the United States, Iran's nonexistent nuclear weapons, and the United States' geostrategic posture vis-à-vis big power rivals such as Russia and China. (Does anyone really know what the last one means?)