Category Archives: Rogues and Rascals

Extreme Crazy

I was going to say Peak Crazy, but we all know things can always get crazier. Some things that spring to mind.

Political craziness: Mob violence on left and right, blatant defiance of federal law by city politicians, attempts to rewrite or at least deny history, demonization of Trump, Putin and anybody associated with them, and so on. Immigration in Europe – it’s that 4.7 kids per woman in Africa that nobody dares to talk about. Not to mention the crazy fat kid.

Fiscal craziness: Federal funding of runaway price increases, notably in university tuition, prescription drugs but also many other subsidized goods and services. Gross under-funding of state and local pension schemes even under ludicrous assumptions about future returns.

Monetary craziness: Central banks threatening to tighten but pumping away, consumer credit at record highs in US and elsewhere (Canada, that’s you I’m talking about with highest household debt in the world), government deficits keep growing. Subprime crdiet still gowing while defaults rise. Most of all, ICOs. People pouring money into blockchain-based tokens. Really?

Market craziness: Housing bubbles in China, Canada, Australia, UK and some US cities. Massive (record) risky speculation in many markets – short vol, long crude for example. Setups (risk parity) similar to portfolio insurance (remember 1987?).

I could go on. But I won’t. I’m just grumbling while I wait.

Crypteia

Just a quick rant about “cryptocurrencies.”

The blockchain architecture is a distributed database. As such, it is slow, because the process of committing a transaction to the database is subject to network delays. The “Bitcoin” system is about to undergo a code fork as a result of disagreements between developers on the proper way to improve performance, which is currently about 6 TPS. Compare to, say, VISA – trundling along at 30K TPS.

Performance improvements are certainly possible, but IMO there is no chance it will ever support the open-ended scalability that conventional high-performance transaction systems provide. Blockchain systems are an interesting innovation for high-value, low rate applications.

As a currency? Not happening.

However, the concept is certainly useful to separate a lot of naive people from their real cash in exchange for ?.

Now as to VISA – it is trying all by itself to eliminate cash by paying merchants to refuse cash. At least it has the infrastructure.

Virtual Folly

The mania goes on. Perhaps the most bizarre and disturbing symptom is the proliferation of so-called digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum.

At best, these are virtual commodities, not currencies. Bitcoin, perhaps the most visible, clearly attempts to emulate gold. New bitcoins are generated by executing a complex computation which requires considerable computer time. This is intended to limit the supply, just as the increase in the supply of gold is limited by mine output. There is also a hard limit on the number of bitcoins that can exist, just as there is with gold (once it has all been dug up, there is no more until we start mining off Earth). Ethereum has something similar, but the limits are weaker.

There is, however, a genuine and valuable innovation here and that is the blockchain. The blockchain is, notionally, the global transaction log of a distributed database that allows multiple un-trusting writers. Unfortunately, AFAIK, all the implementations of this comcept so far are slow and unreliable, as is seen by the various reported (and doubtless un-reported) thefts, frauds, crashes and service outages.

Last I saw, there were some 80 or so competing “digital currencies”. We now see new ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) on almost a daily basis. Each of these offers some variations on the basic concepts. For example, take Tezos which has raised $200 million in four days. Tezos is run by an ex-Goldman HFT trader. Draw your own conclusions.

So far, the primary applications for these systems are speculation on the money value of the digital commodities and, as a payment system, supporting money transfers by avoiding capital controls and facilitating anonymous commerce, such as in illegal drugs.

I am reminded of the old adage about gold mining; A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar on top.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” Inferno, Dante Alighieri

Illinois And The Tsunami

Apparently the standoff between Governor Rauner and Speaker Madigan continues. As it should. Madigan’s willingness to dispense unfunded largesse to his supporters is largely responsible for the state’s financial woes. Today also the state was ordered by a Federal court to pay its backlog of Medicaid bills, which will be interesting as the state is already cash flow negative.

However the biggest issue is the unfunded state employee pension obligations. This article from Bloomberg contains a nice graphic ostensibly showing the funding levels of most states (no data for California? Really? just check this blog)

These reported funding levels are a cruel joke. These funds continue to assume 7-8% returns, despite the fact that they have not achieved them for years. Just look at the column showing the decline in funding ratio from 2014 to 2015. Not only are the assumptions high, but they are for long-term averages, so that they adjust future return estimates higher to compensate for below-average realized returns. John Hussman’s work shows more or less zero returns for the next 12 years, with the high likelihood that there will be a major drawdown in that period. Drawdowns are lethal to pension funds because the payment of benefits continues, sapping the capital base and making recovery to previous levels nearly impossible.

Pension funds used to invest in bonds. The trustees would meet once a quarter, review the actuarial forecast of liabilities and approve adjustment of the laddered bond portfolio’s maturities to exactly meet the liability schedule. Then there would be lunch and golf. The future returns would be locked in and the contributions needed to fund the bond portfolio would be obtained from the sponsor. Everyone got to sleep at night.

Then Wall Street decided that pension funds had a lot of money, and not enough was being siphoned off into Wall Street pockets. So the sales force went out, armed with charts showing that stocks had historically offered higher returns than bonds. Higher returns mean that less contributions would be needed, so fund sponsors bought the pitch. Yes, stocks have offered higher returns but for a reason – much higher risk. Well, we’ll just assume a long-term average return and surely it will average out. GLWT.

$15 Reality In Seattle

From a paper by UW professors on the effects of raising the minimum wage:

Our preferred estimates suggest that the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance caused hours worked by low-skilled workers (i.e., those earning under $19 per hour) to fall by 9.4% during the three quarters when the minimum wage was $13 per hour, resulting in a loss of 3.5 million hours worked per calendar quarter. Alternative estimates show the number of low-wage jobs declined by 6.8%, which represents a loss of more than 5,000 jobs. These estimates are robust to cutoffs other than $19.45 A 3.1% increase in wages in jobs that paid less than $19 coupled with a 9.4% loss in hours yields a labor demand elasticity of roughly -3.0, and this large elasticity estimate is robust to other cutoffs.

Importantly, the lost income associated with the hours reductions exceeds the gain associated with the net wage increase of 3.1%. Using data in Table 3, we compute that the average low-wage employee was paid $1,897 per month. The reduction in hours would cost the average employee $179 per month, while the wage increase would recoup only $54 of this loss, leaving a net loss of $125 per month (6.6%), which is sizable for a low-wage worker.

Money Isn’t Everything (Any More)

Last night’s special election in Georgia was interesting in that the Democratic Party attempted to buy the election. Their candidate spent $22 million, largely raised in California, against the Republican candidate’s $3.1 million. The most expensive Congressional election in history, and a spending ratio of 7 to 1.

But it didn’t work. Wow. I draw no conclusion other than that there’s something interesting going on here. And that’s a good thing.

Hypocrisy

Apparently Warren Buffett, who publicly disclaims market timing, is sitting on $100 billion in cash, about 40% of the portfolio.

History says he has done this before, even going so far as almost all cash. Do what I say, not what I do.

ISIS?

No. CNN – the Clinton News Network displays a beheaded President Trump in effigy. The left will stop at nothing. Terrorism and intimidation – Antifa – fake news, fear-mongering, anything to brainwash the masses into tolerating the left’s rule. Disgusting.

I mostly try to keep this blog non-political. But there comes a time when I have to express my loathing for violence, terrorism, intimidation and corruption. I was going to post the picture, but I should no more do that than I would repost an ISIS video.

Edit: Apparently CNN has dropped Ms. Griffin, who created the piece. But CNN aired it, and should be sanctioned appropriately. 30 days off the air would work. Dropping Ms. Griffin does nothing to absolve CNN of responsibility.

Why I Like The Dutch

Mario Draghi visited the Dutch parliament today and received an “unenviable grilling” from Dutch MPs for nearly two hours which, as the FT said, left the usually implacable Italian confrontational and riled up as tempers flared.

At the end of the meeting, the Dutch gave Draghi a gift – a tulip.

At least someone still has a sense of humor.

The Swamp

President Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. In doing so, he took on not only the Democratic party but also the McCain-led Republican party establishment, both part of the same swamp, to say nothing of the “deep state” of politicized judges, bureaucrats and contractors.

While it clearly needs doing, the swamp is fighting back, obstructing him at every turn. So far his strategy has been appeasement and it has not worked. Does Comey’s firing mark a return to open hostilities?

We’ll see. But the conflict does mean that government is essentially at a standstill and will remain so indefinitely. It puts basis of the Trump rally in grave doubt. Taken together with an economic slowdown and the mess resulting from Obama’s disastrous international relations policies, the whole situation is an accident waiting for a place to happen.

Don’t believe the VIX as a measure of risk. These days, it is simply a trader’s tool for running short squeezes. Risk is as high as it gets.