Sunday, April 26, 2020

Insuring against catastrophe: The coronavirus predicament

People insure themselves against many types of potential catastrophes: a house fire, a car accident, the untimely death of a spouse, a serious health problem. For other unexpected expenses, prudent people, as we say, save money "for a rainy day." For some reason people and governments have chosen not to insure themselves (individually or collectively) against two catastrophes that have been much in the news lately: pandemics and large investment losses.

There is a connection, of course, for the two are tightly coupled. Here are some of the similarities between the two:

  1. Both occur at irregular and sometimes very long intervals.
  2. Both require careful thought and regular financial outlays to hedge against.
  3. Despite persistent warnings from experts, most people (and governments) did not act on such warnings.
  4. Now that the worst has occurred, many investment advisors and governments say, "No one could have seen it coming"—even when such a statement can be proven immediately false with easily obtained video evidence!

Will we learn from our current experience?

The answer in some cases will certainly be no because the incentives in our system encourage those in high places to act imprudently. Executives of publicly traded companies have spent trillions of dollars buying back shares of their own companies in order to goose stock prices and make their stock options more valuable—without regard for the need for cash reserves to make it through a recession.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The coronavirus scoreboard: The illusion of understanding and control

Cable television news now frames its news anchors with constantly updated coronavirus statistics, usually the number of cases and the number of dead. There is a sense of urgency in those numbers as viewers watch them tick higher. But, by definition those numbers cannot move otherwise since they are totals of past events.

A more useful indicator would be current active cases. But, that would be hard to count since so many cases are mild or at least uncounted among those now ordered to stay home. And, there are not currently enough testing materials to do complete testing of the world's population. As it turns out, the number of people who have had the virus may be 50 to 80 times higher than what is currently being recorded. The best we can do for now is to track the number of new cases identified by tests not yet widely available in many areas and see if they decline.

More than anything public officials want to convey the impression of understanding what we face and having solutions to control the outbreak. What they have done successfully in some places through severe social distancing and stay-at-home orders is to reduce the velocity of the spread of the virus without any ability to reduce the number of people who will ultimately contract it. It is really only a matter of time before all those who remain susceptible will get infected unless they hide in total isolation away from humans for good or until an effective vaccine is available—which may be a long time and possibly never. See here and here.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Saudi-Russian oil price war tag team: Are things what they seem?

To the casual observer Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the top three producers of oil in the world, have been having a spat about what to do about low oil prices. (See here and here.) Each has accused the other of bad faith and counterproductive behavior. But is that merely what the two oil powers want you to believe?

We've been here before. Throughout most of 2016 Saudi Arabia and Russia put on a two-person show for the entire world, pretending time after time to move close to an agreement to lower production in order to prop up oil prices, only to back away or delay at the last minute. The two kept this up for most of 2016. They incited periodic spikes in the oil price without ever having to cut one barrel of production, spikes that kept prices higher for weeks until they drifted back down to levels that reflected reality.

But I believe the most important thing they were trying to achieve then was to create an atmosphere of continuing uncertainty. That uncertainty was supposed to scare investors and lenders away from U.S. shale oil producers who were still hurting from an oil price collapse that began at the end of 2014. Saudi Arabia and Russia wanted to prevent those producers from resurrecting U.S. production and undermining oil prices again. Simply stated, Saudi Arabia and Russia wanted the shale oil industry to go bust in a way that would prevent a recovery for many years.

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.