Archive for March, 2009

The Treasury View: Swimming pool version

March 6th, 2009 54 comments

A reader sent me, for comment, one of those letters that circulate through the Intertubes. This one is sent as “an explanation of the stimulus bill”. I wouldn’t call it that, but it is quite a good exposition of what’s known as the “Treasury View”[1]. If you believe that the economy is like a swimming pool, and that no matter how big a splash some shock (such as the collapse of the financial system) might make, the water in it will rapidly find its own level, then you will agree that there is no need for, or possible benefit from, the stimulus package. And conversely, if you think the economy is not like this, you are entitled to wonder about the kind of economist (regrettably not imaginary) who would employ such an argument.

fn1. The reference is to the British Treasury, circa 1931
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Weekend reflections

March 6th, 2009 31 comments

It’s time once again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language.Just Friends dvd Punisher: War Zone hd Three Wishes psp

Categories: Regular Features Tags:

High Court challenge to Victoria’s water rules

March 6th, 2009 15 comments

The South Australian government has announced a High Court challenge to Victorian rules that limit the extent to which trade in water rights can transfer water allocations from one catchment to another, and, in particular, from one state to another. Victoria’s rule limit the extent to which upstream irrigators can be bought out, with the water being allowed to flow downstream to South Australia for irrigation or urban use there, or as an environmental flow.

IANAL, but this would seem to fall under Section 92 of the Constitution which requires free trade between the states. In any case, I hope that the combination of political and legal pressure forces Victoria to drop this rule, which primarily benefits irrigation companies, while harming those Victorian farmers who would like to sell their rights and diversify into some other type of agriculture (those who simply want to get out of agriculture can sell their land and water rights as a package).

Categories: Environment Tags:

The end of the cash nexus?

March 5th, 2009 34 comments

Tyler Cowen has a short post which covers a number of themes I’ve been going on about for ages, though never with a fully satisfactory analysis. He starts by pointing to work by Michael Mandel suggesting that much of the measured productivity growth in the US has been bogus (see also Matt Yglesias on this). I agree, particularly as regards the financial sector.

More interestingly, Cowen goes on to note that

there was some productivity growth but much of it fell outside of the usual cash and revenue-generating nexus. Maybe you will live until 83 rather than 81.5 and your pain reliever will work better. In the meantime you will read blogs and gaze upon beautiful people using your Facebook account. Those are gains to consumer surplus, but they don’t prop up the revenue-generating sectors of the economy as one might have expected.

I agree and I think the implications are profound, if still hard to predict with any accuracy. There has been a huge shift in the location of innovation, with much of it either deriving from, or dependent on, public goods produced outside the market and government sectors, which may be referred to as social production.

Some suggestions, not fully argued, over the fold

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Standard & Poors strike back

March 4th, 2009 116 comments

Today’s Fin runs a letter from Standard & Poors responding to my column from last week, reprinted here. Unfortunately the letter is paywalled (if anyone would like to email me the text, I’ll make fair use of it), so you’ll just have to take my word that it contains some interesting semantics. For example, the writer takes umbrage at the suggestion that S&P “threatens” governments with the loss of AAA credit ratings, but does not deny that the agency explains to government that certain policies will lead to the preservation of the rating while others will not. (“Nice little state you’ve got here …”)

I’m most interested though, in a claim that, since 1978, the default rate on AAA-rated structured finance offerings has been only 0.5 per cent. Obviously, a statistic like this can mean just about anything, but the claim is surprising to me. AFAIK, the biggest single category of structured finance offerings rated AAA by the agencies were collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and the vast bulk of these were issued in the last few years. According to Alan Kohler in today’s Business Spectator (I think the ultimate source for this is Gillian Tett in the FT).

Between 2005 and 2007, about $US450 billion of CDOs of asset backed securities were issued. Of those, $US305 billion are in a formal state of default, with those underwritten by Merrill Lynch accounting for the largest proportion, followed by UBS and Citigroup.

The real problem is what has happened after the default. JPMorgan estimates that $US102 billion of the CDOs have been liquidated; the average recovery rate for the super senior tranches – rated AAA – has been 32 per cent. For the ‘mezzanine’ tranches – created from mortgage-backed bonds – the recovery rate is just 5 per cent.

Up to a 95 per cent real loss rate on AAA debt CDOs …

(Note that, although the text is ambiguous, the top mezzanine tranches were typically AAA-rated – the super-senior stuff was supposed to be better than plain old AAA).

The default rate here is over 60 per cent, which is a bit higher than 0.5 per cent, and it’s safe to bet there are more defaults to come. Even assuming that older issues pull the average down, can there really have been anywhere near $60 trillion ($300 billion/0.005) of them issued, as you would need to get the S&P average default rate? Or is this the kind of average that conceals more than it reveals?

Update A kind reader has supplied me with the text, and I’ve selected the relevant bits for reference (OTF). If anyone is still interested, and keen to do an Intertubes meme mashup, we could do a crowdsourced fisking.
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Categories: Economics - General Tags:

Cherry-picking OK at Washington Post

March 3rd, 2009 59 comments

The blogospheric response to George Will’s recycling of long-refuted talking points on climate change (a good summary here) has produced lots of insights into the way the mainstream media (particularly the Washington Post) works, and some reasons to be less regretful about its seemingly inevitable demise.

I was particularly struck by the opening statement in the latest contribution of WP Ombudsman Andy Alexander who states:

Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments.

Really? Where I come from, citing supporting evidence and ignoring the existence of directly contrary evidence is called “cherry-picking” (when we are being polite).

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Categories: Environment, Media Tags:

Monday Message Board

March 2nd, 2009 52 comments

Its time once again for Monday Message Board. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Categories: Economics - General Tags: