Monday Message Board

It’s time once again for the Monday Message Board. I’m still interested to learn if readers are finding the site more responsive following the migration to an accelerated server (of course, feel free to post on any topic, but a brief comment on this point much appreciated). As usual civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Print, pixels and prescriptivism

This post on a question-begging argument in favour of carbon taxes and against an emissions trading scheme, naturally raised (!) the question of whether the correct interpretation of a phrase like “begging the question” is determined by the predominant usage or by its original derivation as a technical term in logic or maybe by some other criterion such as the efficiency of communication.

That set me thinking and I turned to the usual research tools Wikipedia and Google to look at how this phrase and a couple of other standard items for debate (“aggravate” and “methodology”) are actually used.

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And now we return you to coverage of the financial crisis

The failure of Citigroup, which looks increasingly likely to happen in the near future, would mark the end of the beginning of the financial crisis. Until now, the prevailing view has been that the crisis and recession will pass in a year or so, after which things will go back, more or less, to the way they were, with a few less financial institutions, and a bit more regulation. A Citigroup failure would put paid to that idea.

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Begging the question

Longtime reader Jack Strocchi sent me this piece from the Times, reprinted in the Oz, with the headline “Carbon crash hits Europe’s emission trading scheme”. The main point is that, with the economic downturn, the price of carbon permits has fallen. The author concludes that this proves the need for a carbon tax rather than an emissions trading scheme.

This is a fine example of the fallacy of “petitio principii” or, in English, begging the question. This does not (yet) mean what TV commentators seem to think, namely “begging me to raise the question”.* Rather it refers to an argument in support of a proposition which assumes the truth of the proposition in advance. Clearly, if price instability is, in itself, evidence that a program has failed, then you need a program with fixed prices, that is a tax.

The main argument for a carbon tax rather than a trading scheme is that, if there is a lot of uncertainty about the cost of reducing emissions, and not much uncertainty about the damage caused by climate change, a fixed price for emissions (that is, a tax) will get closer to the optimal outcome than a fixed quantity.

But what’s happening here is completely different. The demand for emissions has fallen due to the economic slowdown. The reduction in price offsets the adverse impact of the trading scheme on firms that are already facing hard times. Equally, if the economy booms, the price of permits will rise. This is a clear case when a fixed quantity trading scheme performs better than a tax.

* Of course, meaning is defined by usage, so if a word or phrase is used in a particular way long enough, that becomes the meaning. But “begging the question” in its traditional sense is a useful phrase for which we have no good substitute. For the TV usage, “raising the question” is perfectly adequate.

An interesting investment

BrisConnect is a multibillion enterprise set up to build a series of PPP road and buslink projects in Brisbane. The backers are the usual big names like Macquarie Bank and Deutsche Bank.
Yet a Melbourne woman, named Hang Fe, just bought a 10 per cent stake in BrisConnect and you can do likewise if you have a spare $32 000 sitting around (immediate word of advice:DON’T). Shares in BrisConnect are currently trading at 0.1 cents, so Hang Fe’s investment brought her no less than 32 million of them.

The catch (there’s always a catch, isn’t there) is that these are partly paid “stapled securities” carrying with them an obligation to pay an additional $1 a share next April, and a further $1 in early 2010. For 32 million shares, that comes out at $64 million dollars. But most analysts say the value of fully paid shares will be well below $2, so anyone who pays up will lose a lot of money.

It seems safe to say that, at this point, holding BrisConnect shares makes sense only if you have no other assets the company can seize to enforce the $1 payment. For someone in this position, the shares appear to represent a one-way bet, admittedly at long odds. And, presumably, anyone who is in position to pay will be sure to sell out before the payment is due in April: a problem with partly paid shares of which I was unaware until now.

Since the remaining payments almost certainly won’t be made, the obligation will therefore fall on the underwriters. That in turn raises the question of whether the underwriters will still be around, and in a position to pay up, when the money falls due. That seems fairly likely as regards the payment due in 2009, but much less certain as regards Macquarie in 2010. At that point, the whole thing will presumably fall back into the lap of the Queensland government.

Note: I am Not a Financial Advisor, and I don’t claim an exact understanding of either Brisconnect or the implications of buying partly paid shares when you are already insolvent. So, please seek proper advice before going anywhere near this.

Hat-tip: Rabee Tourky alerted me to this